Women Leaders Face a Glass Cliff - IEDP
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Women Leaders Face a Glass Cliff

How women are put in precarious leadership roles


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While women are now achieving more high profile positions in the corporate world, recent research suggests they are more likely than men to find themselves on a ‘glass cliff’: being put in leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is high and their new position precarious.

Mary Barra, CEO and Chairman of General Motors is a classic example – highly respected now – when she took on the top job in the aftermath of a controversial bail-out, under intense media scrutiny, the odds on her succeeding were low. The same could be said of HP’s Carly Fiorina and of many others.

To avoid the glass cliff women moving into top leadership roles must make doubly certain they build the skills and develop the resilience to succeed despite this additional, largely invisible, hurdle in the workplace. In particular they need an open-eyed view of the tricky and complex business environment in which they will be operating. They need to be self-aware and understand how others perceive them, and also to have a clear view of their own personal leadership journey.

Addressing these challenges Smith College Executive Education, along with Tuck’s professor Vijay ‘VG’ Govindarajan, have developed the Smith-Tuck Global Leaders Program for Women. This high-level program is aimed at women executives currently leading, or poised to lead, global strategic initiatives or businesses at the senior or managing director level. Highlights of the Smith-Tuck program include:

Global Economic System: exploring the impact of the complex and rapidly changing global economic system

Strategy is Innovation: developing skills to create a culture of innovation in a volatile global market

Executive Coaching: exploring key behaviours that enhance leadership outcomes

Cross-cultural Competence: learning techniques for leading across boundaries of culture, time, and distance

Career GPS: revealing the themes and challenges of each participant’s leadership journey to chart their future and deliver their vision

It is already well established that women face greater challenges than men in their attempts to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. The conclusion of research studies from Exeter University and Utah State University is that the senior leadership positions that women occupy are likely to be less promising than those of their male counterparts and furthermore that women in these roles are likely to receive greater scrutiny and, without objective analysis of the difficulty of the roles they originally undertook, to secure less positive evaluations, even when performing exactly the same leadership roles.

So, in addition to confronting a glass ceiling and not having access to a glass elevator, women are also likely to be placed on a glass cliff.

With more women taking top jobs, and the success of role models like Mary Barra, this phenomenon may be diluted in future. But for now the best way for women to ensure their future success, despite the unfair odds, is through personal and professional development.

Smith-Tuck Global Leaders Program for Women brochure 

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