Posted: 28 Sep. 2016 10 min. read

Leading at the top

above the glass ceiling

Women leaders’ positive contributions to firms are increasingly clear, yet women remain significantly underrepresented in leadership positions. While the spotlight on challenges they face at work is growing, less understood are the issues shaping the success of those who do make it above the glass ceiling.

Equality in leadership, we’ve nailed it. Haven’t we?

Not according to a recent US study of women CEOs and an examination of the ‘Glass Cliff’ theory. This theory argues that women are more likely than men to be promoted in companies that are in crisis mode, performing poorly or undergoing a transformation.

The study, conducted by the Utah State University researchers Christy Glass and Alison Cook, extended the ‘Glass Cliff’ perspective to consider subjective experiences of female executives being promoted to, or in roles perceived as high risk. In particular, Glass and Cook explored the promotion conditions, and the opportunities and challenges faced by the women post promotion.

Evidence was gathered from two main data sources:

  • a comparison of the career trajectories of all women who have served as CEO in Fortune 500 companies with a matched sample of male CEOs, and
  • a set of in-depth interviews with women executives across various sectors in the U.S.

The study revealed that women were more likely to be promoted to high risk CEO positions and often lacked the support or authority to accomplish strategic goals. As a result, women leaders often experienced shorter tenures compared to their male peers.


The aim of the study was to:

  • Inform businesses on the perspectives and strategies of women who experience high-risk promotions.
  • Enable more precise identification of the pathways that enable women to successfully ascend to top leadership.
  • Identify and understand the challenges women face post-promotion to inform policy and practise in ways that limit bias and supports women’s mobility and success.


Three main questions formed the basis of research:

1. Do female leaders experience a ‘Glass Cliff’ in job assignments and/or promotion opportunities?

2. After promotion, do female leaders experience a lack of support and/or challenges to their leadership?

3. Do female leaders experience heightened scrutiny and/or performance pressures that limit their leadership tenure?

The researchers Glass and Cook relied on two data sources to find answers for these issues:

First, they developed a career trajectory data set from biographical and career information of 52 women who served as CEOs in Fortune 500 companies from 1972-2015; the firm’s health at the time of the leader’s appointment to CEO; the power and influence of the appointed CEO as indicated by CEO/Chair of the Board role duality; and CEO’s tenure. A matched sample of male CEO’s was included for comparison, based on firm size and industry of operation.

Second, in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 20 female and/or minority leaders across various U.S. sectors (incl. automotive and Government from organisations averaging 90,000 employees). Non-leading questions were developed in 4 areas: career trajectory; promotion history (including key factors shaping mobility or institutional factors experienced); promotion offers of firms in crisis or that presented significant risk; and on the role of boards, or any leadership or diversity programs that impacted their career.


Results revealed that women were more likely than men to be promoted to high risk ‘(Glass Cliff)’ leadership positions (1); Often lacked support or authority to accomplish their strategic goals (2). As a result, women leaders tended to experience shorter tenures in their roles in comparison to male peers (3).

1. Glass cliff’ promotions

Firstly, when analysing women who had served as Fortune 500 CEOs and the matched sample of male Fortune 500 CEOs, results indicated that women were more likely than men to be appointed CEO in a firm that was struggling—the basis of the ‘Glass Cliff’ effect.

Within 52 women leaders, 42% of the women were appointed CEO when the firm was struggling or in crisis, compared to 22% of men. Ten per cent of appointed women started as CEO during a major transition for the firm. None of the males analysed fitted this criterion. In contrast, 44% of the women were appointed CEO during the solid firm performance, compared to 70% of the men. In the majority of cases, decision makers appointed a female CEO – still a rare occurrence in Fortune 500 firms – knowing the firm was experiencing performance declines.

Secondly, semi-structured interviews confirmed that women received promotions during crisis, restructuring or performance declines. All interviewees also indicated that they had, at some point in their career, received a high-risk promotion and/or taken on risky assignments. A few interviewees expressed they were offered opportunities by key company leaders and perceived that greater risks would be involved by turning such promotions down.

Despite finding that “glass cliff promotions” were often the result of encouragement or bias by key decision makers, the study extended the theory’s assumptions beyond the notion that female executives’ appointments to high-risk roles occur irrespective of overall firm health. Results actually revealed that Fortune 500 CEO’s exercised great control in seeking out high-risk assignments. The women leaders interviewed suggested they were highly visible as women but not as leaders, and therefore sought out high-risk assignments due to a perceived necessity to establish reputations as transformational experts or crisis managers and build credibility in the organisation: “You knew the risk was high but you knew the rewards were high too. You could go up in flames or you could get rewarded and do a great job”, one interviewee said.

2. Lack of support & challenges to authority

Given that women are more likely to be promoted during times of crisis, struggle or transformational change, we could expect their post-promotion experience to be challenging. Overall, results showed that female CEO’s experienced substantially less authority than male CEO’s due to the lack of a dual appointment as Chair of the Board.

The research on the trajectory of Fortune 500 leaders showed, that the lack of dual appointment could limit women’s ability to lead effectively and shortened their tenure. Furthermore, the top executives’ interviews revealed that female leaders experienced a relative lack of access to important social and professional networks, a lack of acknowledgement of their role and responsibilities, and subtle and explicit challenges to their authority (e.g. through language – being called ‘kiddo’).

3. Heightened scrutiny & performance pressures

Findings of Fortune 500 career trajectories suggested the reasons for stepping down and post-CEO careers can vary by gender. 32% of the women leaders stepped down, compared with 13% of the men. 23% of the women retired compared to 53% of the men. In relation to their post-CEO career, women were more likely to change to charity/not for profit sectors (18%).  Male leaders were more likely than women to remain in corporate positions. Only 27% of former female CEOs continue to serve on corporate boards, compared to 67% of former male CEOs.

Additionally, the female executives’ interviews showed they experienced significant levels of scrutiny and performance pressure. A few respondents suggested: “people look at everything I do and consider every word I say.” In a few cases, it was suggested that this hyper-attentiveness to impression management extended not only to their job performance but to physical appearance, dress, mannerisms and manner of speaking.


The findings carry implications for businesses. Organisations stand to profit from carefully analysing how structure and culture can best enable women to reach top leadership positions. Some factors from this research have been highlighted for consideration:

  • While results may be reflective of a higher performance standard for women, the study also suggested that female leaders, who reached past the glass ceiling with a strategy of taking on high-risk assignments, were exceptional in their skill development and leadership capabilities. The leaders demonstrated strong abilities in change and crisis management – both highly valuable tools for firms today. Still, results showed these strategies were not without risk, and the study did not include female leaders who have failed at navigating ‘glass cliff’ career patterns of high risk positions. Organisations have the opportunity to mitigate such factors and therefore avoid turnover as well as loss of valuable leadership capital at most senior levels and risks of short leadership/CEO tenures.
  • Additionally, the study suggested that promotion decisions for senior leadership/CEO positions tend to be non-routine, non-standardized and at times secretive, which may result in decisions that are susceptible to evaluation bias and stereotypes. The researchers proposed that applying the same standardisation to CEO/leadership selections as any lower ranks may decrease female leader’s susceptibility, and the risk to ‘glass cliff’ promotions during times of crisis/performance decline.
  • To the extent that the female leaders faced greater challenges to their authority and received less support than the male leaders, it is partly reflective of the lack of females’ integration in senior leadership roles. The study suggested that strong efforts to increase the number of women in senior leadership may greatly reduce the gender salience in higher ranks and reduce performance pressures that female leaders experience in terms of job performance and aspects like physical appearance. By making women less visible as women, gender integration in workgroups can reduce gender stereotypes and expand the range of acceptable leadership styles for organisations.
  • The study also showed that there tends to be greater respect and support for female leaders when Boards are diverse, firms establish diversity benchmarks for top management and/or when formal committees devoted to Diversity are in place. One interviewee mentioned: ‘When Diversity becomes important to the Board, it becomes important for the company’. Several interviewees also reported that a Board of Directors and/or a powerful sponsor can make a significant difference in the support female leaders receive to establish their leadership.

For more information, contact Filipa Pires.

To read the full article, see Glass, C., Cook, Alison (2016) “Leading at the top: Understanding women’s challenges above the glass ceiling’. The Leadership Quarterly, Vol 27, (2016), pp. 51-63.

This was originally authored by Filipa Pires.

Meet our author