By: Tracy Wik, Innovative Organizational Effectiveness Leader and Business Coach


“When the situation is really, really bad, you call in the women.” – Christine Lagarde, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund

According to Women in the Workplace 2020, McKinsey & Co., Lagarde’s observation about women in business is spot on. The percentage of women in C-Suite grew from 17 to 21 percent from 2015 to 2020; Still a small percentage, to be sure, but the numbers were getting better. Then COVID 19 hit. Now, two million women are considering the unthinkable — leaving or lessening their involvement in the workforce.

Let’s face it. Celebrations are short-lived when women who shattered the glass ceiling find themselves being pushed around on the slippery glass cliff.


What Is The Glass Cliff?

The phrase was originally coined in 2005 by Ryan and Haslam in the British Journal of Management. Researchers asked and answered, “When, how, and why do corporations hire women as senior executives? What happens when women ascend to executive leadership roles?” The answers aren’t pretty.

Consider the case of Carly Fiorina. She crashed through the glass ceiling in 1999 to become the first woman ever to lead a Fortune 50 company as CEO of Hewlett Packard. After a contentious merger and a mass layoff, the board fired her in 2005. Unable to navigate off the glass cliff, she ended up competing (and losing) in the political arena.

Contrast Fiorina’s journey to the fall and rise of Andy Hornby, CEO of banking and insurance conglomerate HBOS at the time of its near-collapse in 2008. The banking crisis ruined Hornby’s reputation as a British business leader, but not his earning potential. Shortly after the disaster at HBOS, he became the CEO of Alliance boots. From there, he kept moving up. Recently, Hornby was appointed CEO of the Restaurant Group, with a £630,000 annual salary, a £945,000 annual bonus, a salary supplement of up to 20% in lieu of a pension, and £945,000 in shares (subject to targets being met).


Risky From The Start

Even though women are now achieving more high-profile positions, they are also more likely than men to find themselves on a “glass cliff”. Their new positions are risky from the start, making sustainable success nearly impossible. Brexit was a nonstarter for any leader’s success story. Although her performance was far from perfect, Teresa May is one more example of a woman forced onto (and shoved off of) a glass cliff.

According to Catalyst, despite a record-high number of Fortune 500 women CEOs in 2020, there are still nearly 13 companies run by a man for every company run by a woman.


The Hard Facts About Gender Parity

Look at the facts.

In 2019, we reached a milestone in U.S. gender parity; For the first time, college-educated women outnumbered college-educated men in the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.

Yet, women are still falling behind. A 2020 analysis by Mercer of over 1,100 organizations across the world found a leaky pipeline for women in leadership. To understand the numbers, imagine a mountain path, crowded at the bottom, where women make up nearly half of support staff positions. As the crowd moves upward toward the management level, women fall behind. By the time we get to the C-Suite, only 23% of the people on the summit are women, and many of them have ascended only to find themselves at the helm of a sinking ship.

In addition, businesses led by female CEOs are more likely to be targeted by Activist Investors (investors who buy shares of a company with the intent to direct management decisions).

In other words, women often advance to the corner office only when the circumstances are a bit of a mess.

“When the situation is really, really bad, you call in the women.”

Too often, women are promoted to leadership when most investors and colleagues believe leadership has little chance of succeeding. (No one tells her that the leadership role comes with impossible janitorial clean-up responsibilities.)

When I share my own stories about the glass cliff with colleagues and friends, nearly every one of them relates to this experience. Each tells their own story of how they were given a chance to assume a juicy, high-profile role only to discover the precarious nature of their position after assuming power.


Glass Cliffs Are Not Personal

Women and people of color already know how hard we have to work to get ahead. To shatter the glass ceiling and arrive on a glass cliff is devastating. So how do we remedy this?

Unfortunately, the answer is complicated. Recognizing glass cliffs as a reality is the first step toward system-wide change. When a woman sees systemic failures rather than some character flaw within that has caused “her” failure, she is empowered to act more effectively.


Perhaps now, more than ever, we deserve to have jobs we love that love us back. To love Sunday nights, we must recognize and resist the lure of the glass cliff.



This article was written by Tracey Wik, Innovative Organizational Effectiveness Leader and Business Coach

Tracey Wik is an innovative organizational effectiveness leader. For more than 20 years, she has been helping leadership improve performance and ROI by using assessments and data to identify, empower, and recruit talent. Wik’s areas of expertise include talent management, leadership performance, learning and development, employee engagement, digital transformation, diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a human capital industry speaker and blogger/writer, Wik specializes in business strategy, corporate culture, women’s entrepreneurship, disruptive talent management practices, and more. As an active participant in gender equality efforts, Wik has developed “Love Sunday Night”, an executive coaching program to help women advance to senior ranks and achieve parity. Her most recent article was featured in Thrive Global. Wik holds a master’s degree in Organization Development from Northwestern University.