After a female faculty member was promoted into seminary leadership, a colleague stopped by her office to congratulate her. But he also asked, “Does this mean the school is in trouble?”  

It didn’t — but the colleague was assuming the theory of the so-called “glass cliff” might be at play.

Unlike the “glass ceiling” — which refers to the informal barrier that keeps women from advancing up organizational ladders — the “glass cliff” means that women are more likely to get promoted, but only if the organization is facing a crisis. (It has also been applied to other underrepresented groups.)

The term was first coined in 2004 by two British professors whose study found that companies with poor performance were more likely to appoint women to their boards. Other research has found evidence that the glass cliff applies in other contexts, including politics.

Explanations for this phenomenon vary from so-called “feminine” qualities being seen as useful, to a greater desire for change when current leadership isn’t working, to a possible preference for women as scapegoats. It may also be that women are more likely to take on such challenges. Whether any of these explanations are intentional or subconscious is unclear.

Either way, the glass cliff — so named because of the risk and precariousness of leadership during tumultuous times — can hurt women if they are unsuccessful in turning organizations around. Or it may provide opportunities for women to take on challenges and succeed, such as Dr. Carol Taylor, who accomplished a dramatic turnaround at Vanguard University, an evangelical Christian school in Costa Mesa, California, that was facing financial challenges and loss of accreditation.

So is there a “stained glass cliff” in theological education? Given the challenges facing seminaries today, are women leaders being called in to do the hard work of shutting institutions down or being asked to do the nearly impossible task of turning some institutions around?

An Association of Theological Schools Women in Leadership initiative study shows some growth in women’s leadership over the last 10 years, but overall women are still not uniformly being supported, promoted, or funneled into leadership roles. Women continue to be better represented in middle management and operational levels than in upper-level positions, the study found.

Still, perhaps for the 13 percent of seminary CEOs and 25 percent of chief academic officers who are women, the influence of a possible stained glass cliff may be worth pondering.