When Women Are Promoted to Fail: 3 Ways to Avoid a “Glass Cliff”​

Learn to identify opportunities that are pitfalls for your career

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In this article, we are going to:

  • Explain what “Glass Cliff” means in the professional context;
  • Elucidate what is behind this phenomenon;
  • Give you 3 tips to protect yourself from a situation like this.

Before we approach this term, how about we go through another one that is part of the daily lives of women in the corporate environment? You may have never heard of it, but it is present in most work environments. This second term of important understanding for your professional journey is “Glass Ceiling”.

“What is this?”:

Glass Ceiling is the veiled limitation on the rise of women in institutions. These are difficulties created without much explanation or transparency that prevent many of us from receiving promotions and allow the reduced participation of female managers in executive positions.

Now, let’s go back to the term that generated this conversation, the “Glass Cliff”.

Some organizations, when going through contexts of financial or institutional crisis, end up hiring or promoting women to take on “bad challenges”, which are positions or open spaces with none or very little chance of good results. This scenario most often has a negative effect on these women’s careers, leading to dismissal, distrust of their abilities and skills in a short period of time.

In this article, we’ll talk more about the “Glass Cliff” and the perverse effect it has on our careers. In addition, we will teach you to recognize the situation and defend yourself against circumstances like this.

The “Glass Cliff” explained

The “Glass Cliff” describes the idea that when a company is in trouble, a female leader is charged with saving it. When women finally get a chance to prove their worth in a senior position, they get something that’s already broken and where the chances of failure are high.

This explanation is taken from the article “Research: Women Are Better Leaders During a Crisis” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in the Harvard Business Review (Dec/20).

In the universe of female leadership, it is common to observe the expression of the term we spoke about in the introduction, the “Glass ceiling”, which as we have stated is an invisible barrier that prevents women from reaching higher positions in the hierarchy of companies. This is an issue that is already being discussed by companies, the academy and the society, even though the progress made is extremely slow.

However, there’s an even more damaging facet of this phenomenon that has been damaging women’s reputations for years and we’ve talked little about it: the trap of promoting or hiring one of us for a job with almost no chance of working.

The first step in preventing something like this from happening to you is to know this concept so that you can identify when a promotion or hire is being made with the hidden intention of undermining your reputation.

But after all, what is behind a “Glass Cliff”?

A “Glass Cliff” may hide some negative aspects about leadership and diversity in companies.

False Advertising

Companies may feel pressured by society to have more women in management, C-level positions. A crisis in a particular sector or even in a company as a whole can be the ideal time to “do one’s part” in the fight for diversity and promote a woman for the role. In doing so, the organization could signal to the market that it is introducing a change in its leadership style.

In the event of failure, the company can say that it does not have a good track record with women taking on major professional challenges and justify its old way of thinking and working.

The scapegoat

Given a financial or reputational problem, an institution may demand a figure who can take on responsibility for the failure in question. Thus designing a woman to take the necessary consequences and resolutions before external stakeholders.

The focus of the problem shifts, at least at first glance. Blame leaves the organization and turns to the individual, in this case, the woman. It may seem macabre, but if you go deeper into the subject, you’ll notice that in black and white, it’s just like that. That’s why it’s so important to be attentive.

The first one that comes up

In more favorable scenarios, men are considered to assume prominent positions because they are culturally more ambitious, risk-taking and competitive. On the other hand, women would have the worst vacancies, those that men would not accept. Because they are less experienced in executive roles, women may feel compelled to readily accept the challenge, without carefully considering pros and cons.

3 Tips to Protect Yourself from a “Glass Cliff”

To avoid falling into a trap or walking over a corporate “Glass Cliff”, it is necessary that the woman feel the owner of her career. Check out 3 tips that we have separated for you to defend yourself more consciously and safely.

1. Deeply understand the proposed challenge

If you don’t know the company, try to find out from people who work in the area about the real situation facing the department. During interviews, ask as many questions as possible about the team’s background, competitors, goals, and health. Or, look for news on the market about the company. It’s better to do as much research as possible beforehand and make a conscious decision than discover an unpleasant surprise later.

2. Pay attention to your ego

Sometimes the professional woman can have an urge to prove to everyone around her that she can solve any problem and be the “savior of world.” Assess your real intentions with a promotion whose scenario may not look so favorable at first glance. The fall may be big in the future and the consequences may take a while to be fully overcome.

3. Negotiate

Once you are determined to face the challenge, be wise to trade with your future managers. Put yourself in a leading role and consider yourself a valuable asset to the company, clearly defining your salary, bonuses and other safeguards. If you don’t think about safeguarding your career and reputation, no one will do it for you.

Have you ever seen a “glass cliff” break?

Tell us, in the comments, if you’ve ever gone through a similar situation or seen a professional get “burned” in the market in a circumstance such as this. What happened? How was the issue resolved?

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Co-authored with Sandra Milena Acosta

Sandra has worked for more than 12 years in the strategic planning and risk management of global financial institutions. Master in Economics from UFPR, graduated in Economics from UNICAMP and post-graduated in Digital Marketing from Kellogg Executive Education, she recently went through a career transition and is now a Writer of Chronicles, Children’s Literature and Poems. All of her work is available on her Instagram page (@sandramtca) and on Medium.



+About the Womanizing Project:
3.8% of CEOs of the world’s 500 largest companies, the so-called Fortune 500, are women. In the environment of small and medium-sized companies, this number is difficult to measure, but it seems to us even smaller. The most curious thing is that we are half of the world’s population. So why are we so few in charge?
Womaninzing is a startup project in creation that aims to understand and propose solutions to the problem of very few women in the top management of institutions. Our articles encourage discussions about problems faced by women in the professional environment and seek to teach what can be learned from previous mistakes and difficulties so that we can demand a greater balance between men and women in the world of work.
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