For forty years now, the phrase “glass ceiling” has been part of our vocabulary. On May 24, 1978, management consultant, Marilyn Loden, coined the phrase, and unfortunately, it is as relevant now as it was forty years ago.* We all are familiar with the barriers to success and advancement that many women encounter in their business careers. We know too well about the inability of women to climb the career ladder beyond the lowest rung of middle management.

The glass ceiling has long been part of our Baptist church culture as well. Even today, women in ministry struggle to move past the associate level in congregations. Baptist Women in Ministry has advertised well the statistic 6.5 percent. Only 6.5 percent of Cooperative Baptist churches have women pastors, and the Baptist state denominations fall far below that number.

But there is a new concept to consider. It is one we have talked about—told stories about—pondered over, but the actual phrase is new (at least to me). The glass cliff.

A few weeks ago, my friend, LeAnn Gunter Johns, sent me a link to an episode titled “After the Glass Ceiling, a Glass Cliff” featured on Freakonomics Radio. The episode was hosted by Stephen J. Dubner.**  Dubner begins with this statement: “Only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Why? Research shows that female executives are more likely to be put in charge of firms that are already in crisis. Are they being set up to fail?”

Dubner then tells the story of Carol Bartz, who in 2009 became C.E.O. of Yahoo. Yahoo had been a wildly popular search engine, with a market cap of more than $110 billion. But in 2009, the company was faltering badly. Bartz took the job as head of Yahoo, thinking she could turn things around. But instead the company continued to flounder, more money was lost, and the board of Yahoo decided to fire Carol Bartz. She fell through the “glass cliff.”

Research into this glass-cliff phenomenon began in the U.K. in the early 2000s. Michelle Ryan, professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Exeter, along with her colleague, Alex Haslam, read an article in the London Times about the top companies on the London Stock Exchange, and the article stated that companies with more women on their boards under-performed companies that had no women or few women board members. So the obvious conclusion was that women were the cause of under-performance, but that didn’t seem right to Ryan and Haslam. The two then conducted a study, looking at when women were appointed and the company’s performance prior to women coming on the board.  What they discovered was that most companies were in financial crisis before they appointed women.

Ryan and Haslam called this new phenomenon “the glass cliff.”  Their study suggested that women were most likely to be appointed by desperate companies that were losing money, declining rapidly. Thus, these women board members stood on a glass cliff, one that could shatter at any moment.

American researchers, using this new glass-cliff narrative, studied the C.E.O. transitions of Fortune 500 companies over a fifteen-year period. Their study had the same results. They discovered that women were more likely to be hired to run big businesses when those businesses were already in deep financial trouble. Thus, women are more likely to move into top leadership roles in periods of crisis or downturn, when their chance of failure was highest. These female executives were placed on a very fragile “glass cliff” and had very little real chance of succeeding, and when they did NOT save the company, did NOT move it from failure to success, they were blamed for the decline and sometimes fired.

Ryan and Haslam, after further study, suggested that troubled businesses often looked for leaders with traits that are stereotypically feminine: “good with people, warm, good communicator, tactful, sociable.”  Two insights from their study: (1) they concluded that like much of culture, the business world tends to “think crisis, think female,” and (2) a typical male C.E.O. candidate can afford to pass up an opportunity at a troubled company, knowing he will mostly like have other offers.

For decades now, Baptist women ministers have often whispered about and occasionally shouted about the “glass cliff,” but we didn’t know it had a name. In the past fifty years, a good number of Baptist women have been called as pastor by churches in decline, desperate churches with significant financial struggles or severely dysfunctional congregations. Women take on these fragile churches, knowing that there will likely NOT be other opportunities for them to pastor. These women walk sometimes unknowingly onto a glass cliff, and all too many of these women fail to achieve the impossible. They do not save the church. They cannot save the church.

And the congregation responds by saying, “Well, what do you expect when you call a woman pastor?” or “We had a woman pastor once, but she was a nightmare. We won’t make that mistake again.”

Glass ceilings. Glass cliffs. Our Baptist world.

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. 


*“100 Women: ‘Why I invented the glass ceiling phrase,’”

**“After the Glass Ceiling, a Glass Cliff,”