Gwendolyn Rutten & the Glass Cliff

Caroline Gennez (former chairperson of SP.A) and Marianne Thyssen (former chairperson of CD&V) both balanced and went over the Glass Cliff. Gwendolyn Rutten (candidate to become the next chairperson of  Open-Vld) might become the next victim of that Cliff.

The Glass Cliff is not the same as the Glass Ceiling. The latter is the underrepresentation of women at the highest echelons of organizations which still exists 40 years after we discovered the first obstacles that cause it. And yes, the ceiling is somewhat less thick by now, but still exists due to being a complex phenomenon situated in the individual psyche of human beings, cultures of organizations, and cultures of nations, and the interaction of these 3 levels. For that reason and a few others we should better call it a Leadership Labyrinth than a glass ceiling by now (see Eagly & Carli in Harvard Business Review in 2007).

The Glass Cliff refers to the fact that when women break through the glass ceiling they often do this in times of organizational crisis. This phenomenon has been described for the first time by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in 2005. Hereafter, it has been demonstrated further in many top academic articles. Stated differently, women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. And by consequence, the chances that they fail at the top are higher. This could feed the cynics: “you see, women and the top is not a good marriage”. I hope Gwendolyn Rutten will not be food for those cynics. The scientific odds are, however, against here if she would be elected as the next chairperson of Open-Vld.

Any comments?

Eagly, A.H. & Carli, L.L. (2007). Women and the labyrinth of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, September, 62-71.

Ryan, M. & Haslam, A. (2005). The Glass Cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16 (2), 81-90.


About Jesse Segers

Academic Director of The Future Leadership Initiative
This entry was posted in 7. Homogeneity & diversity, Comments & events, English and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gwendolyn Rutten & the Glass Cliff

  1. Sabine says:

    Jesse, is there any research done, what drive women to break through the glass ceiling and then pick positions that are already proven to be too riskful? In the three cases you mention, no men would have taken the risk. Are they afraid to fail? Thanks for the post!

    • Jesse Segers says:

      Dear Sabine,

      The researched and theoretical dynamics of the Glass Cliff are less about women picking positions that are too riskful, but more about being picked/asked by the dominant coalition. So maybe men in the three cases I mention would also accept the challenge, but they are not considered for that position in the first place (just like women are often not considered for the top positions in times of good company performance). According to the study of Ryan et al. (2011) “women may be favored in times of poor performance, not because they are expected to improve the situation, but because they are seen to be good people managers and can take the blame for organizational failure.” Bear in mind that explanations for this phenomenon are likely to differ according to gender. Ryan et al. (2007) study concludes that “while women were more likely to acknowledge the existence of the glass cliff and recognise its danger, unfairness, and prevalence for women, men were more likely to question the validity of research into the glass cliff, downplaying the dangers. These patterns were mirrored in the explanations that individuals generated. While women were most likely to explain the glass cliff in terms of pernicious processes such as a lack of alternative opportunities, sexism, or men’s ingroup favouritism, men were most likely to favour largely benign interpretations, such as women’s suitability for difficult leadership tasks, the need for strategic decision-making, or company factors unrelated to gender.”

      Ryan, M.K., Haslam, S.A., Hersby, M.D., & Bongiorno, R. (2011). Think Crisis-Think Female: The Glass Cliff and Contextual Variation in the Think Manager-Think Male Stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 470-484.

      Ryan, M. K, Haslam, S.A., & Postmes, T. (2007). Reactions to the glass cliff – Gender differences in the explanations for the precariousness of women’s leadership positions. Journal of organizational change management, 20(2), 182-197.

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