Shattering the Glass Cliff: Exposing Crisis Appointments & Rewriting the Narrative for Women in Leadership

By Rosheeka Parahoo, Interim Director & Senior Manager, Research & Advocacy | October 05, 2023

In a recent opinion piece by Tim Kiladze, published in The Globe and Mail on October 4 2023, the departure of Rania Llewellyn as CEO of Laurentian Bank took center stage. While we can’t and shouldn’t make assumptions about what transpired without delving deeper into the dynamics at play, what we do know is that moving beyond the headlines (1) (2) (3) of this topic lies a deeper systemic issue across the finance industry regarding women leaders and crisis appointments; the concept of the ‘glass cliff’.

Kiladze raises an essential point about this, which states the glass cliff is about offering women leadership roles when organizations are in turmoil (i.e., crisis appointments); and subsequently happily letting these women take the fall during difficult times. This creates and perpetuates a damaging storyline while redirecting the focus towards the perceived lack of leadership abilities among women in C-suite positions, coupled with the notion that women are being selected as a diversity checkbox and not because of their skillset. Here, we explore the implications of the glass cliff phenomenon and its role in perpetuating biases against women, prompting a critical reevaluation of gender equity in the corporate world, particularly at the C-suite level.

The gender bias underlying the glass cliff narrative raises concerns about the unequal treatment of women as leaders. Unlike their male counterparts, women face harsher judgments while in leadership roles, and lack the grace period typically afforded to departing male CEOs when their tenure has ended - usually earlier than expected. The impact of this trend is not exclusive to corporate leadership and extends to politics, and academia, for example. The scarcity of women at the top in Canada, where they make up only about five per cent of publicly traded company CEOs, underscores the need for systemic change and the dismantling of harmful stereotypes about women in leadership roles.

The persistent phenomenon not only reveals a stark gender bias but also perpetuates a dangerously misleading narrative about women in leadership; one that subtly sustains the idea that women cannot effectively lead in challenging circumstances. It's a narrative that we must confront head-on. It's time to support women in leadership without preconceived notions that they are destined to fail, and even more so, it’s time to stop giving women the opportunity to lead only when ‘there is nothing else to lose’.

Worse still are the organizations that use these crisis appointments as a shield, showcasing their commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, only to swiftly cast women aside when it becomes apparent that the monumental expectations set for them may be unattainable - and do so without acknowledgement of the other issues at play. The narrative then becomes about the inability of women to do the job, instead of the impossible task set before them, thereby adding to the double standards that women already face.

When male leaders falter, external factors are readily blamed – economic downturns, market fluctuations, or unforeseen crises. However, when a woman is at the helm and faces adversity, the blame is often placed squarely on her shoulders. This disparity in how we perceive and critique leadership failures based on gender not only hampers women's progress but also distorts the perception of their capabilities. This is not just an unfortunate coincidence; it's a systemic issue that undermines the potential of women in senior roles and sets an unjust standard.

It's not merely enough for women to be equally as qualified, experienced, and competent as their male counterparts. Instead, they are often held to impossibly high standards, expected to be better, extraordinary, or even exceptional. And if, for any reason, they fall short of these unrealistic expectations, it's not just the individual but an entire gender that gets cast aside, reinforcing the urgent need to challenge these deeply ingrained biases and systemic inequities. This practice not only perpetuates the damaging glass cliff phenomenon but also raises significant questions about the commitment of these companies in fostering genuine gender equity and providing women with opportunities to succeed in leadership roles.

The narrative surrounding C-suite women and the glass cliff is not just a matter of concern; it's a pressing issue that demands immediate action. It's time to challenge the status quo, hold organizations accountable for their treatment of women leaders, and recognize that women can lead effectively in any context. The glass cliff should be shattered, not reinforced, because women are more than capable of leading us to success in both calm waters and stormy seas. It's high time for change—a change that hinges on results, not rhetoric.

As we confront the reality of the ‘glass cliff’ and the unrealistic expectations placed on women in leadership, here's a thought-provoking question to ponder: If qualifications and competence know no gender, why do we still expect women to wear capes when we hand them the reins?

(1) Andrew Willis, Laurentian Bank board chair resigned to protest sudden firing of CEO,

(2) Allan C. Hutchinson, Rapid turnover at Laurentian Bank suggests tumultuous reality in Canada’s banking world,

(3) Tim Kiladze, The odds are still so stacked against women in banking, and it’s embarrassing for us all,

What is your reaction to the fact that the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women will be chaired by a man?