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How the ‘glass cliff’ and expectations of perfection are obstructing progress in female leadership

Women in Leadership Concept
By Honor Morel
22 August 2023
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
women in the workplace
women in leadership
gender equity

By now, we are all familiar with the metaphor of the ‘glass ceiling’ – the invisible, systemic barrier that prevents women from rising to senior leadership positions. Well, the ceiling may be showing some cracks. With over 10% of Fortune 500 companies now led by women, an 18% rise from last year, the groundwork (albeit fragile) is being laid for more women to enter the C-suite. But as we proceed, we must watch our step: many women successfully break through the glass ceiling only to fall off the ‘glass cliff’.

A term coined by professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, the ‘glass cliff’ describes the tendency to appoint women to precarious leadership positions when the business is performing poorly or during a crisis. Ascending to senior roles under such circumstances effectively sets them up for failure and limits their ability to become successful leaders. They fall because the foundations were already unstable but are nevertheless blamed for the outcome.

From Marissa Mayer's tenure at Yahoo to Jill Soltau’s at J.C. Penney, women are continuously offered the ‘positioned chalice’ of a leadership position which is doomed to fail. At a political level, Theresa May fits perfectly into this paradigm. May’s appointment to Prime Minister to ‘Get Brexit Done’ coincided with a flurry of male politicians distancing themselves from the role. Despite walking into unprecedented territory of Brexit negotiations, May was expected to perfectly execute the public decision to leave the EU and was labelled ‘weak’ and ‘shameful’ when this was not met.

According to author and CEO, Martin Lanik, in times of crisis, certain companies sacrifice employees who they perceive as less valued and more dispensable - women and racial minorities. Research by the Harvard Business Review appears to agree, revealing that whilst 62% would choose a male to lead through success, 69% opt for a woman when the company is in crisis. The results suggest a status quo bias - women are not to lead when times are good but are more suited to clean up the mess.

All signs point to gendered stereotypes. While men are associated with ‘agentic’ traits of competency, competitiveness and confidence, women are described as ‘communal’, sensitive, nurturing and gentle. And this is not a compliment.  Women may exhibit traits associated with successful crisis management, but these assumptions reinforce outdated gender roles and expectations of perfection, making it hard for women to advance in their careers. 

It is a scenario so significant it made its way into the recent Barbie movie and has fuelled vociferous debate. While some were keen to dismiss the recent blockbuster sensation as Feminism 101, behind the satirical guise of the pink and ‘perfect’ Barbieland, Barbie offers powerful insights into the pressures of perfectionism and diverse struggles of the very real female experience.

In her captivating monologue, Gloria (America Ferrera), the only female worker at Mattel, reflects on the impossible standards women are held to under the patriarchy. She describes how women are expected to elegantly tread the line between confidence and strength whilst demonstrating traits associated with femininity. They must be strong, but not mean; career driven, but always nurturing; stand out, but not be arrogant. They are constantly judged, not only on their job performance, but on what they wear, who they speak to, how they speak and apparent pushiness.

The result is that women are judged on something that is beyond their capabilities to deliver. And when they do not meet these standards, they only confirm backwards stereotypes that women simply cannot cut it at the top. This is something which is exacerbated by the ‘motherhood penalty’, which penalises mothers in the workplace for their perceived lack of career commitment. Today, the implications of gendered expectations continue to hold women back. The World Economic Forum found that while women in the US make up 50% of the entry-level workforce, just 21% fill C-suite roles, and for women in STEM it is as low as 12%.

But there is also an extent to which women restrict themselves. Some women become so concerned with doing something perfectly that they sell themselves short. To quote Gloria, the constant pressure to “never be selfish, never fall down, never fail”, has created destructive unconscious thoughts that stop women from taking risks and seeking senior positions. Women rate their performance a third lower than their equally performing male colleagues. Meanwhile men apply for promotion when they meet just 50% of the qualifications, whilst women hold back until they tick every box.

But in reality, no one is perfect, not even Barbie, and we should stop expecting it of our leaders. Tamara Box, the latest guest on the Show Me The Way podcast hosted by SEC Newgate’s Director of Communications, Naomi Kerbel dives into this subject, exploring how women are criticised in ways that men rarely are. Taking notes from Barbie, Tamara reflects on the exhausting reality that “we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.”

Women are not accorded the assumptions of competence, nor promoted on their potential the way men typically are. A 2022 research paper, “Potential” and the Gender Promotion Gap’, found that even when women received higher performance ratings, they scored 8.3% lower on their ‘potential’, making them 14% less likely to be promoted than their equally performing male counterpart.

Tamara Box calls for a ‘culture of failure’, where the possibility of making a misstep is both expected and accepted. We cannot expect women to want to go into these roles with the fear of ‘one strike and you’re out’ looming over them. But most importantly, it comes down to a change in outdated assumptions that women do not own the right to rule at the top.

From podcasts to blockbuster movies, we must continue to open a dialogue about workplace biases and the demand for a more equitable future. Ultimately, we need to create an environment where women not only get to the top but can and want to stay there.