Are organizations more likely to promote women to top IT management posts during hopeless crisis situations? Apparently, yes.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

August 8, 2023

4 Min Read
Business woman carries heavy red arrow shape above her colleague across cliff gap.
Leo Lintang via Alamy Stock

The glass ceiling -- the barrier that blocks women from upper management roles -- is well known. What’s less apparent is the glass cliff, a term University of Exeter researchers coined when they discovered that women have a better chance of breaking through to top management when an organization is facing an existential crisis.

IT isn’t immune to glass cliff promotions, says Tulika Mehrotra, chief digital officer at Peterson Technology Partners, an IT recruiting and consulting firm. She believes that female IT leaders face a glass cliff due to persistent systemic biases and stereotypes as well as gender imbalances within the industry, contributing to underrepresentation. “With the massive changes occurring in the IT industry due to the evolution of AI, there’s a desire to find a scapegoat and, historically, women are often appointed to leadership positions in times of crisis or organizational downturn,” Mehrotra states.

No matter how you cut it, the challenge persists, says Cara Shortsleeve, founding CEO of The Leadership Consortium (TLC), a leadership training and coaching organization. “Women in IT are not represented well enough in leadership, and glass cliffs abound.”

Turbulent Times

During periods of organizational duress, white male candidates may decline to step in, opening the way for women and other minorities to come into positions of power. “Just as U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May took her position at a time when Britain was going through severe political and economic crisis, with her term ending abruptly in predictable failure,” Mehrotra observes.

Sarah Doughty, director of recruitment at technology recruiter TalentLab, points to Twitter’s CEO, a company which has since rebranded to simply X, as a prime example of an enterprise appointing a female CEO after years of fiscal mismanagement and stifled innovation. “Twitter hasn’t been relevant for some time, and Elon Musk’s dramatic shake-ups really only served to further destabilize the organization,” she states. “Now the board has chosen to bring in a female [Linda Yaccarino] at a time when the company has never been in a more vulnerable state.”

While progress has been made toward increasing gender diversity in various fields, including IT, the the glass cliff persists in many organizations, observes Shelli Brunswick, COO of the Space Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting space exploration and space-inspired industries. Stakes for business performance are incredibly high, and in, many environments, people simply look for women to fail, she explains. “Unfortunately, it seems to be easier to make a woman the scapegoat than the hero.”

Pushed to the Edge

The glass cliff can appear at any time and in any IT area. “A woman is placed in a senior leadership role during a time of intense stress and failure at an organization without any allies or resources,” Mehrotra says. “This placement appears to be the organization’s effort to turn the ship around, but remains a superficial effort without the expectation of the new leader’s success.” She notes that in times of change and uncertainty, it’s easy to pacify a board with an appointment that won’t create a significant domino effect if it fails.

The more senior the position and/or challenging the situation, the higher the likelihood that the new leader will face a glass cliff. “Given that logic, CIO roles are particularly susceptible, as they bear the largest responsibility,” Shortsleeve says. “When an organization is facing disruption or crisis, the CIO will face significant challenges and risks associated with navigating complex IT landscapes and driving successful transformations.”

Yet glass cliffs exist at all IT leadership levels, Shortsleeve notes. “Consider the IT project manager who you’ve asked to salvage a key project or to right the ship in times of duress -- you may very well be assigning a glass cliff assignment.”

Jill Willard, CTO, payments, at business software developer Xplor Technologies, says the world has come a long way since her career began some 20 years ago. “I have a lot of hope that 20 years from now we will not see a glass cliff,” she states.

In the meantime, there should be a focus on creating opportunities for early career success. “This will help women build the confidence and skills needed to go after the more sought-after leadership roles,” Willard says. “This can begin with setting the tone with high school students, partnerships with universities, and mentoring programs.”

For now, however, Willard would like to see a greater emphasis placed on leadership qualifications that go beyond technical abilities, including emotional intelligence, entrepreneurship, strategic thinking, and team development. “These skills are quickly taking over ... and giving those who have them a competitive edge, especially when it comes to C-suite positions,” she explains. “With changes in job descriptions and more inclusive hiring practices, we will organically see change in the diversity of leaders and the elimination of all those barriers that previously contributed toward glass cliffs.”

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About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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