Many have heard of the "glass ceiling” – the invisible barrier to professional advancement, especially affecting women and people of color. But I had not heard of the "glass cliff.”

Amy Kristof-Brown, dean of the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, brought it up during remarks at Wednesday’s CEO forum at the Women Lead Change Central Iowa conference. More women are being added to C-suite and upper management positions, according to the Women in the Workplace 2021 report from McKinsey & Co. Despite progress over the years being slow in business leadership representation, Kristof-Brown was not surprised by this – particularly because of the glass cliff.

The glass cliff is “the research-backed phenomenon where a woman or person of color is promoted to a senior leadership position during a difficult time for a company, when the risk of failure is high,” Business Insider reported last year. Can anyone think of any difficult circumstances for business recently? (Sarcasm.)

The problem with a cliff, though, is that it can set you up to fail when the stakes are that high and you don’t have enough support. And then if you fail, it can be used to rationalize why there isn’t more representation in leadership. It can also lead to much greater feelings of burnout, which the McKinsey & Co. report found are much higher among women.

“The path forward is clear,” the authors wrote in the report. “Companies need to take bold steps to address burnout. They need to recognize and reward the women leaders who are driving progress. And they need to do the deep cultural work required to create a workplace where all women feel valued.”

Pieces to check out:
  • The psychologist who coined the term 'glass cliff' explains what it is, and why companies need to be more wary of it now (Business Insider)
  • The 'glass cliff': How women and people of color are set up to fail in the workplace (Today)