The majority of major corporations and countries are headed by men. When women are appointed to leadership positions, it tends to be when an organisation is in crisis – a phenomenon known as the glass cliff. Recent examples include: the appointment of Lynn Elsenhans as CEO of the oil company Sunoco in 2008, just after their shares had halved in value; and the election of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as prime minister of Iceland, just after her country’s economy had been crippled by the global recession (2012 update: or the appointment of Marissa Mayer as Yahoo CEO?).
Real life examples are supported by lab studies in which male and female participants show a bias for selecting female candidates to take charge of fictitious organisations in crisis. Further investigation has ruled out possible explanations for the glass cliff – it’s not due to malicious sexism nor to women favouring such roles.
Now a brand new study suggests the phenomenon occurs firstly, because a crisis shifts people’s stereotyped view of what makes for an ideal leader, and secondly, because men generally don’t fit that stereotype. ‘…[I]t may not be so important for the glass cliff that women are stereotypically seen as possessing more of the attributes that matter in times of crisis,’ the researchers wrote, ‘but rather that men are seen as lacking these attributes …’.
Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla Branscombe first established when the glass cliff is most likely to occur. They presented 119 male and female participants with different versions of newspaper articles about an organic food company. Participants were more likely to select a fictitious female candidate to take over the company if it was described as being in crisis, and its previous three leaders had all been male. For participants who read that the previous managers had all been female, the glass cliff disappeared – they were just as likely to select a fictitious male candidate to take over the crisis stricken firm as they were to select a female.
This finding suggests the glass cliff has to do with people believing that a change from the status quo (from male leaders to a female) is what’s needed in a crisis. However, this explanation breaks down because the reverse pattern wasn’t found. Participants didn’t show a bias for a male candidate to take over a crisis-stricken company that had had a run of three previous female leaders.
A second study explored the role of gender and leadership stereotypes and involved 122 male and female participants reading about a supermarket chain described either as thriving or in crisis. Next the participants rated their impression of two briefly described, fictitious managerial candidates, one male, one female, using attributes previously identified as being stereotypically male (e.g. competitive) or stereotypically female (e.g. strong communication skills). Finally, the participants rated the suitability of each candidate and stated which of them they’d hire.
In a successful context, the male candidate was judged to be more suitable for the role and was more likely to be selected – a replication of the bias seen in real life. More intriguing was that a crisis context led participants to attribute fewer stereotypically female attributes to the male candidate and to judge him as less suitable for the managerial role. Meanwhile, the crisis context didn’t alter the qualities attributed to the the female candidate, nor the perception of her suitability. Crucially, however, she was more likely to be selected in the crisis situation – you might say almost by default, given that the male candidate was now seen as being less suitable and having fewer appropriate attributes.
‘Our findings indicate that women find themselves in precarious leadership positions not because they are singled out for them, but because men no longer seem to fit,’ Bruckmüller and Branscombe explained. ‘There is, of course, a double irony here. When women get to enjoy the spoils of leadership (a) it is not because they are seen to deserve them, but because men no longer do, and (b) this only occurs when, and because, there are fewer spoils to enjoy.’
Bruckmüller, S. & Branscombe, N. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49 (3), 433-451 DOI: 10.1348/014466609X466594
Previously on the Digest: