HomeLearning CenterOver the Glass Cliff:  Female CEOS Are Often Set Up to Fail

Over the Glass Cliff:  Female CEOS Are Often Set Up to Fail

Originally published by James Tapper for the Guardian

Women experience a “gender tenure gap”, lasting in CEO roles at publicly listed companies for shorter periods than men, according to new research which may support the idea that female leaders are subject to a “glass cliff” where they are set up to fail.

Analysis of companies listed on 12 stock exchanges around the world, including the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250, shows that since 2018 women have lasted an average of 5.2 years as chief executives compared to 8.1 years for men.

Laura Sanderson, the UK head of Russell Reynolds, the executive search firm which conducted the research, said the tenure gap was explained partly because some men had been chief executives for decades, including one who had been in post for 39 years.

“While the sample size is too small to be significant, we also need to consider whether the data may support the glass cliff theory,” she said.

The concept of the glass cliff is that women are more likely to be appointed as leaders when an organisation is in a time of crisis, so that their position is seen as more precarious than male counterparts.

Researchers at the University of Exeter, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, found in 2005 that women were more likely to be appointed as board members after a company’s share price had performed badly.

Professor Ryan, who is now director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University in Canberra, told the Observer that the Russell Reynolds analysis was “robust and added to the body of work in this area”.

“If women are more likely to take on leadership roles in times of crisis, then it follows that their time is office is likely to be stressful, more heavily scrutinised and shorter in tenure,” she said.

“This reduced tenure could be for a number of reasons – because there is often higher turnover in times of crisis, because they are judged as not performing well, even though poor performance was in train before their appointment, or because when things start to turn around, men come back into leadership roles.”

Glass cliffs are not universal, she added, but further research has found evidence in other areas. For example, in 2010 researchers established that women standing for the Conservatives were more likely to contest seats held by other parties by a greater margin.

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