Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire contributor Dr. Sarah Glova is a globally recognized speaker, successful entrepreneur, university instructor, and business consultant. A seasoned educator and entrepreneur, Sarah is CEO of the award-winning digital media firm, Reify Media, With a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and a Master of Science in Technical Communication, she is dedicated to cultivating forward-thinking work environments.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – I’m passionate (and, yes, loud) about supporting women in leadership.

So in what world would I be disappointed about NBC veteran Linda Yaccarino recently becoming the new CEO of Twitter?

In a world of glass cliffs, that’s where.

Sarah Glova

What is ‘The Glass Cliff’?

Nicole Case, a Triangle-based executive coach with 15+ years of corporate HR experience, calls the glass cliff the “set up to fail.”

“For me, the ‘glass cliff’ is this phenomenon that happens when companies find themselves in crisis mode, or they need to turn something around, or they just got kind of a giant mess on their hands,” Case told me. “And whether it’s the CEO or a department head, they decide to either elevate or bring in a woman or another person of a historically marginalized group, to quote-unquote, ‘turn things around.’”

Case says that in many of these situations, women or people from a historically marginalized group will receive the promotion—without the resources they need to be successful.

“A lot of the lack of resources that I see in these situations are lack of time—like they’re not giving them enough time to turn things around—or lack of actual resources—like the dollars, people—to fix whatever it is,” said Case.

Unlike the glass ceiling – the very real but often subtle barrier to promotion – the glass cliff is a barrier to success.

And, unfortunately, research is showing us that women are getting placed onto these glass cliffs.

A foundational 2003 study conducted by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter found that women were more likely to be appointed as CEOs in companies experiencing financial difficulties, compared to their male counterparts.

Their finding that women are actually more likely to be put into situations where organizations are already struggling has been verified by other studies and, unfortunately, is still prominent almost 20 years later.

A 2020 article in Psychological Bulletin found “women are more likely to be selected over men in times of crisis,” that this phenomenon is “larger in countries with higher gender inequality,” and that the glass cliff extends not just to women but also “to members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”

“And, for me, it kind of harkens back to like this stereotype around, like, moms can fix everything, right?” Case told me. “Like when you’re having a bad day, or things are going sideways, who do you call? You call your mom, right? Moms are the fixers. Women are the fixers. Historic people of historically marginalized groups are the people that come in and do that low-wage domestic work that often goes unthanked. And so when companies bring women and people of color into these roles, they’re set up to fail. They’re not given the resources or the support of the help they need to actually turn things around.”

Case also said that women or people of historically marginalized groups are often put into “impossible” situations.

“Sometimes, the companies have just let things go so long that it’s not salvageable,” said Case. “But yet, they brought somebody in or elevated somebody, and they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re tasked with this turnaround,’ and it’s like, there’s no one could have been successful in that situation anyway.”


The glass cliff phenomenon raises an important question: why do organizations tend to push women, or members of historically marginalized groups, into leadership roles during times of crisis or “impossible” challenges?

Case said it’s a win-win for companies that can “pat themselves on the back” for hiring a woman or a person of color. Meanwhile, the promoted person has very little chance for success and a lot of opportunity for blame.

“But more often than not, they’ve inherited a giant mess, and they are given a higher percentage of the blame on something that was likely, not even their fault to begin with,” said Case. “So it’s easier for the company to point the finger to say, ‘Hey, we tried to bring in a woman, and look, it didn’t work.’ There’s so many examples of that, particularly in the last 20 years that we can point to.”


While Case believes the glass ceiling is a real issue, she doesn’t believe it’s necessarily intentional—she called it, “a deeply rooted systemic issue that is full of unconscious bias.”

“This is not a bunch of white men sitting around a table saying, ‘You know, we’re doing really bad right now. We better bring in the woman as our scapegoat,’” said Case. “I mean, maybe that’s happening in some instances. But to me, what this is telling me is that this is a systemic societal bias against women and historically marginalized groups—that they’re better at fixing things.”

Case believes that these stereotypes and biases are part of why women and historically marginalized groups get put on “glass cliffs.”

“Women, it is often said that they are empathetic, and they’re great listeners, and they’re great communicators and all of these quote-unquote ‘soft skills,’ which are often really needed whenever things are in crisis mode,” said Case. “So you know, bringing in someone that’s quote-unquote, ‘less threatening,’ or ‘less intimidating,’ can sometimes ease shareholders or ease employees internally, or ease customers’ minds because they’ve got this quote-unquote, ‘warm, welcoming, nurturing’ sort of a personality.”

But according to Case, we don’t see the glass cliff happening in companies with a history of female leadership.

“If a company had been founded or historically run by other women, they don’t encounter the same issues as when the company was historically run by men,” Case told me. “Another reason to believe the glass cliff is a product of deeply-rooted bias.”

Is Twitter’s new CEO, Yaccarino, on a glass cliff?

Last month, WIRED reporter Vittoria Elliott said this about Yaccarino’s predicted appointment to CEO of Twitter:

“But although Yaccarino is widely regarded in the ad industry as highly competent, people who study workplace gender dynamics see her as the latest victim of a pernicious pattern known as the glass cliff, in which women are more likely to be promoted into top jobs at organizations in crisis,” Elliott writes. “That makes women leaders appear less likely to succeed, because they are drafted when times are toughest.”

Case reflected on what it can be like for women and people of color to be elevated to leadership positions during tough times.

“It all fits in this in this narrative that white men have the privilege to make mistakes fail fast. They’re celebrated,” said Case. “And they seemingly are able to be put in positions where they’re able to be successful a little bit easier, because the system has been built for them, whereas women and people of color we have to work that much harder to get into those roles to begin with. So then, when we are elevated into those roles, then it’s like we are in this fishbowl, everybody is looking at us, because there’s so much pressure on us to succeed.”

But Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst at Insider Intelligence, penned an op-ed for Barron’s titled, “Don’t Write Off Twitter’s New CEO Yet.” In it, she acknowledges the glass cliff phenomenon, but she also makes space for more discussion about Yaccarino’s capabilities.

“At NBC Universal, where Yaccarino was chair of global advertising and partnerships until May 12, she convinced advertisers to continue spending on linear TV as consumer behavior shifted toward streaming, while simultaneously building Peacock’s streaming ad business,” Enberg writes. “At the very least, Yaccarino will be the adult in the room, and that’s exactly what Twitter needs right now.”

We’ll see.

Case pointed out the unfair spotlight of women and people of color who are promoted when an organization is struggling.

“We already have to perform a hundred times more in order to equate a man’s effort,” said Case. “Once we are put in these positions that are really precarious, or they’re really risky, or there’s a crisis happening, then it’s even more likely that we are that we get pushed over the edge.”

With all eyes on Yaccarino, I just want to plead—plead—please, let’s keep an eye on Twitter, specifically how Twitter supports Yaccarino in her new role. Let’s question whether Twitter steps up to ensure Yaccarino is successful.

Because we should be talking less about the effectiveness of women leaders (come on, that’s been more than proven) and more about the ability of organizations not to create work environments that are described as freakin’ cliffs.