The Project

Experiences of Women Leaders

Leading at the top: Understanding women's challenges above the glass ceiling
Christy Glass and Alison Cook
The Leadership Quarterly (2016)

Women leaders contribute positively to organizations yet remain significantly underrepresented in corporate leadership positions. While the challenges women face are well-documented, less understood are the factors that shape the experience and success of women who, against significant odds, rise above the glass ceiling. Drawing on in-depth interviews with women executives across a variety of sectors and biographical sketches and career trajectories of all women that currently serve or have ever served as CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the authors sort to answer three related research questions: First, do female leaders experience a glass cliff in job assignments and/or promotion opportunities? Second, after promotion, do female leaders experience a lack of support and/or challenges to their leadership? Finally, do female leaders experience heightened scrutiny and/or performance pressures that limit their leadership tenure?

Findings revealed that women are more likely than men to be promoted to high risk leadership positions and often lack the support or authority to accomplish their strategic goals. As a result, women leaders often experience shorter tenures compared to male peers. This paper advances scholarship on women and leadership by analysing the conditions under which women are promoted to top leadership positions and exploring the opportunities and challenges they face post-promotion.


Practical Takeaways

  • Women are far more likely than men to be appointed CEO in a firm that is struggling
  • Interviews with female leaders confirm that women receive promotions during times of crisis, restructuring or performance declines
  • Promotion decisions for senior leadership positions tend to be non-routine, non-standardized, informal, and in the case of senior executive, CEO or board member selection, highly secretive. As a result, these decisions are susceptible to evaluation bias and stereotypes
  • The lack of formality and standardization for these decisions may increase female leaders' susceptibility to glass cliff promotions.
  • Applying the same degree of formalization and standardization to senior level positions as are routinely applied to lower level positions may reduce the extent to which women are at greater risk for being appointed to leadership positions during times of crisis.
  • Aggressive efforts to integrate senior levels would go a long way in reducing the salience of gender at higher echelons.
  • The scrutiny and performance pressures female leaders experience puts them at greater risk for higher turnover and shorter tenures.
  • Women who reach the top are exceptional in terms of their skill development and leadership capabilities
  • Shorter tenures and higher turnover for women is bad for companies because it represents a significant loss of valuable leadership capital.
  • Increasing the number of women in leadership positions will lessen the scrutiny women experience in terms of job performance and physical appearance.


Glass C. & Cook A. (2016) Leading at the top: Understanding women's challenges above the glass ceiling
The Leadership Quarterly, 27(1), 51-63

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