Black Female Leaders and the Glass Cliff

Leadership is all around us. Often, we think of leadership in corporate or political settings, but it isn’t confined to just that. Sometimes, our best examples of leadership are in the world of sports!

One recent study looked at leadership among black women head coaches in NCAA women’s basketball[1]. This study connects to a number of topics I have previously written about. You may remember me discussing the glass cliff in a previous post; the glass cliff refers to the idea that women are often promoted to leadership positions during crises and are just generally thought of as who would be best to lead when things go wrong. This can be dangerous for women leaders (thus it’s a cliff) because it may set them up for failure but may look like a great opportunity (thus it’s glass because the threat is invisible) because it’s a leadership role.

Additionally, you may remember me discussing intersectionality, or the idea that some people identify with multiple minority statuses (such as black women) and their experiences are fundamentally different from those who identify with one minority status (such as white women). Putting the two ideas together poses the question: how does the glass cliff operate for black women in particular? That’s what the study on black women head coaches examined.

This study looked at 1,414 coaching appointments for NCAA D-I women’s college basketball head coaches. This is a great place to examine intersectionality and the glass cliff because there is a lot of diversity; in 2018; 46 percent of head coaches were white women, 11 percent were black women, 35 percent were white men and 5 percent were black men[2]. The glass cliff would suggest that if a team was performing poorly, a woman would be appointed as coach. This was somewhat supported.  Women were not always appointed head coaches of poorly performing teams . . . but they were significantly more likely to be appointed as coach of a poorly performing team if the previous coach was a man. In other words, if a man coached a team that didn’t do so well, there seemed to be a thought that “it’s time for a change” and a woman was named the next coach.

What about differences between black and white women; did the glass cliff operate the same for them? Yes and no. On the one hand, black and white women were equally likely to be named coaches of poorly performing teams, so there was no difference there. However, black women were more likely to be appointed coach if the previous coach was not a black woman. Similarly to what I stated before, it seems that this feeling of “it’s time for a change” particularly resulted in black women being named coach when things were going bad.

Studies such as this represents the most current research in the field – so recent, in fact, that it hasn’t even been published yet! In the spirit of seeking out the newest and most current research on leadership, diversity, and inclusion, I attended the annual Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference earlier this month, which was where I learned about this study. Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is the scientific study of people at work: how to help people perform their jobs better as well as how to help people enjoy their jobs more (and it’s also my educational background!). I-O psychologists conducted many of the studies I highlight on this blog as this field is very interested in the world of leadership, diversity and inclusion.

Because the study I highlighted in this post hasn’t been published yet, you won’t be able to find it online in a journal. However, the conference paper can be downloaded from the SIOP website[3], and you can email the first author Desmond Leung with any questions you have.

Let’s hope that we continue to see more unique research in the future such as this!


[1] Leung, D. W., Rainone, N., & Alenick, P. R. (2019, April). Falling off the glass cliff? Black women head coaches in NCAA women's basketball. Poster presented at the 34th annual meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, National Harbor, MD.

[2] Lapchick, R., Feller, A., Boyd, A., Estrella, B., Lee, C., & Bredikhina, N. (2018). The 2017 racial and gender report card: College sport. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Retrieved from


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.



Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.