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The "glass cliff" is the phenomenon where struggling companies or organizations often place women in positions of leadership, where they are expected to "rescue" the group they are leading. This pattern disproportionately sets women up for failure, and may rely on essentialist ideas about women's role as "nurturers." The term was coined in 2004 by University of Exeter researchers Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam after examining how companies performed before and after appointing new board members. Ryan and Haslam discovered that companies that appointed women to their boards had generally performed worse in the preceding five months than companies that appointed men to their boards. Their conclusion was that despite the fact that more women are breaking through the glass ceiling, "evidence suggests that, once women attain these leadership roles, their performance is often placed under close scrutiny... and their evaluation is not always positive."
The phenomenon has also been observed anecdotally to apply to men of colour, as well as women, appointed to leadership positions in struggling organizations, for example Satya Nadella becoming CEO of Microsoft, or Marvin Ellision, the first CEO of colour of JC Penny in that company's 112-year history.
- Jill Abramson, who was fired as editor of the New York Times in May 2014 after less than three years in the position, and shortly after discovering that her pay was significantly less than that of her predecessor. See NPR's All Things Considered interview, "In Jill Abramson's Firing, Was The 'Glass Cliff' To Blame?"
- Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, who was "shoved into an impossible, no-win position" with the company.
- Zoe Cruz, former co-president of Morgan Stanley, who was let go after the firm suffered huge losses. The New York Times suggests that the blame for the company's failed strategies actually rests on the shoulders of its then-CEO.
- Sallie Krawcheck, former CEO of the wealth management division of Citi (2002-2008), and former head of the Merrill Lynch division of Bank of America (2009-2011). In both positions, Krawcheck was hired into divisions that were struggling with employee attrition. Cited as an example in Harvard Business Review's "Steer Clear Of That Glass Cliff."