Do We ‘Think Crisis—Think Female’?

GlasscliffBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Erin Callan, Zoe Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Patrica Russo: these are the names of women who have been put forth as victims of the notorious glass cliff in the recent past.

The glass cliff, it has been theorized, is when women take on the mantle of leadership during a time of crisis. The position is highly visible and comes with a lot of potential power – but the risk of failure is high; so high in fact, that the board or management committee decides it’s time to try something completely new and different to try and get it right: put a woman in charge.

Often the person peering over this glass precipice is charged with an impossible task, lacks the resources or training to overcome the challenge, or is simply scapegoated for circumstances beyond their control. That’s why it’s called a glass cliff – it’s a gender-based assignment at a very high level, for which failure is eminent.

Glass cliff skeptics suggest that women in such situation select these roles for themselves – if they fail, it’s their own fault and gender bias has nothing to do with it, they argue. On the other side of the coin, the glass cliff theory runs a dangerous risk of treating women as passive puppets – assuming they had no choice or agency in taking on the task.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science refutes both claims – and examines how women and men judge perilous jobs differently, while at the same time corporate management may have a role to play in the unusually high ratio of women to men in these risky roles.

Evaluating Influence

The researchers, Floor Rink and Janka Stoker of the University of Groningen and Michelle Ryan of the University of Groningen and the University of Exeter, used two experiments to examine how men and women think about risky assignments.

In the first one, they found that women would be more likely to agree to take on a risky job if they had employee support. Conversely, men would be more likely to agree to take on a risky job it had financial investment from management. This is not surprising, the researchers believe.

Because women are socially conditioned to be interested in the more communal aspects of leadership, they would be more likely to focus on social resources. On the other hand, men are socially conditioned to desire hierarchical aspects of leadership, so financial support from management would appeal more to them.

Of course, the researchers point out, having both social and financial resources would preferable to males and females. But given the choice of one or the other, more women chose social support and more men chose financial support. “Our results in Study 1 indicated that women’s and men’s evaluations of a glass-cliff position were dependent on the availability of resources that would facilitate the fulfillment of gender-stereotype-consistent leadership roles—social resources for women and financial resources for men,” they write.

Next, they examined why men and women preferred different kinds of support in a risky job. In a second experiment, they found that because of societal expectations for how men and women lead, men and women choose different paths to influence.

Women are expected to be more communal leaders, and therefore, their path to influence means gaining employee support. Men are expected to be more commanding, so they tend to believe that by having the financial resources to complete a task, they will gain acceptance and influence along the way.

The researchers explain:

“However, it was not the case that women were unconcerned about influence. Rather, women saw influence as a product of the acceptance they could acquire as a leader. Similarly, it was not the case that men were unconcerned about acceptance. Men believed their acceptance among employees would stem from their influence as leaders. Thus, concerns about not having the proper means to successfully fulfill a leadership role caused both women and men to negatively evaluate the position. For women, these means were social resources, whereas for men, these means were financial resources.”

The study shows how men and women see different methods for accruing power in risky jobs. It also shows that in glass cliff situations, women are far from powerless – they make a choice to take the job just as men would, but they evaluate the potential for success differently.

Women and Agency

But, the researchers continued, this doesn’t explain why there seems to be so many more women in a risky position. Do more women simply choose this scenario, as glass cliff skeptics suggest?

The researchers report that, in fact, women evaluated these positions more negatively than men did in their experiments, which suggests that women are not opting into the glass cliff. More likely, they continue, management is putting more women on the short-list for these kinds of assignments. They write, “our findings make it clear that the glass cliff cannot be attributed to women’s failure to recognize the precariousness of glass-cliff positions, and thus add weight to the argument that the phenomenon is bound up in leader appointment processes.”

Women are not passive appointees to the glass cliff – but they are overrepresented there. Management certainly has something to do with that. Additionally, perhaps the research indicates that because women value social support more than men do, they may be more willing to take responsibility in these situations. Because of their prioritization of social support, if they feel their employees want them to take leadership, they may feel more strongly obligated to do so. What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.