Setting Up Women to Fail: The Glass Ceiling, Glass Cliff, and Golden Skirt
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
It’s July 13th, 2016 and the United Kingdom is in a period of turmoil and uncertainty. The British Pound is at a 30 year low and there are fears of a looming recession in the UK. It’s less than three weeks after the heated Brexit vote and Theresa May is appointed as the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
In 2016, May became the second female Prime Minister to lead the United Kingdom. (Margaret Thatcher was the first, serving from 1979-90.) May’s ascension into leadership represents what’s known as the glass cliff: the phenomenon of women breaking the glass ceiling and reaching leadership positions at a time of uncertainty, when the stakes are high and the probability of success is low.
In other words, instead of reaching new heights and truly breaking the glass ceiling, women are sent tumbling down a glass cliff. Their defeat reinforces the notion that women make ineffective leaders, and it strengthens the barriers to gender parity in leadership.
Achieving gender parity in leadership means we must first address these barriers — namely the glass ceiling, glass cliff, and golden skirt — that set women up to fail.
The Glass Ceiling
In 2015 there were more men named John and David running S&P 1500 companies than women of any name. That’s a result of what’s known as the glass ceiling.
It’s perhaps the best known of the three obstacles to reaching gender parity in leadership. It refers to the invisible yet very real barrier to women moving up talent pipelines on par with their entry-level percentages.
We see the glass ceiling in every single industry, even those where women are the majority of entry-level employees. This includes industries such as healthcare, consumer packaged goods, pharmaceuticals, retail, insurance, and logistics.
So why do we have a glass ceiling? We have to look back at the historical composition of the workforce to answer this. Historically, the perception that men work and women stay home is connected to the belief that women’s primary responsibility was to the home, and as a consequence, they weren’t as committed to their work after having children.
The data does not support this perception. Of the women who leave the workforce when they have children, 90% leave for reasons other than having a child. For the majority of mothers that stay in the workforce, they are the most productive workers over the course of their careers.
Moreover, in 40% of US households with children under the age of 18, working moms are the breadwinners. In homes where working moms are not the breadwinners, they contribute to, on average, 40% of the family’s total earnings.
It’s the historical perception that has created our glass ceiling, holding back women from reaching leadership positions because society considers them less productive at work; their duties are to the home.
The glass ceiling comes at a cost to the top line for businesses worldwide. We have data to conclude that reaching gender equity results in overall economic growth and the potential to give companies a leg up on their competition.
The Glass Cliff
An organization will often seek to change the gender of a leader during times of crisis. Think Brexit with Theresa May, HP with Carly Fiorina, and Yahoo with Marissa Mayer. (To name only a few.)
At its simplest level, the glass cliff refers to this interplay of crisis and changing gender in leadership. This glass cliff is similarly known as the status quo bias.
We see the glass cliff at play when women break the glass ceiling and take over failing organizations. The probability of their success is low. If they fail, they reinforce the belief that women do not make good leaders, and their failure pushes them further back in the talent pipeline from such roles.
When viewed strictly from a financial standpoint, discouraging women from obtaining leadership roles hurts businesses as much as it hurts society.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics found that increasing the numbers of women in the C-Suite from zero to 30% results in a 1% increase in net margin, or a 15% increase in profitability overall for the average company surveyed.
The Golden Skirt
The golden skirt describes women holding corporate directorships in bulk. (Although we must note that golden skirts are no more prevalent than golden pants.) The term arose from the 2003 mandate in Norway stating that corporate boards must be comprised of 40% women. Public companies had five years to comply and state-owned companies had three years.
The idea behind the mandate is important — to shatter the glass ceiling. If women served on more corporate boards then they would gain valuable experience that would logically tip the gendered scales of leadership.
Unfortunately that has yet to be proven. Ten years in and women are only 7% of the chief executives in Norway’s biggest companies. Further down the pipeline we see a somewhat brighter reality, with a shift from Norwegian women making up 30% of managers in 2003 to 37% in 2015.
Still, there is work to be done.
The Glass Ceiling, Glass Cliff, and Golden Skirt: Where This Leaves Us
Close your eyes for a minute and picture a CEO. What do they look like? If you pictured a man, you are not alone. I pictured the same thing.
When we pattern match men to leadership and not women, we are creating barriers to maximizing the talent of 51% of our population and 46% of our labor base.
While the impact of the glass ceiling, glass cliff, and golden skirt may be different, they all center on this common thread: pattern matching leaders to a male archetype. We’ve unconsciously biased the system against women being successful leaders.
We know from research that closing the gender equity gap increases the economic pie for all, so it is in our mutual interest to shatter the glass ceiling, eliminate the glass cliff, and get smarter about golden skirts. How do we do that?
It starts with fixing the leaky pipeline of women in leadership. It starts with acknowledging that gender inequity in leadership is an economic issue. It starts with bringing everyone into the narrative around gender equity.
Women are half of the conversation about gender equity. Men are the other half and they want to be included. Gender inequity in leadership impacts the children who live in households with breadwinner moms. It impacts the 48% of fathers who want to stay at home with their children. Ultimately, it impacts our economy as a whole.
The good news is that by bringing awareness to the glass ceiling, glass cliff, and golden skirt, we know how to move forward collectively and remove the barriers, for the benefit of everyone.
When unconscious bias meets conscious action, we know we’re on the right path. Join the conversation today and let’s change the narrative on gender equity.