Why are women chosen to lead organisations in a crisis? (The following passage is from the BPS Research Digest, 2010).
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.
‘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
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest. Visit the DIGEST BLOG https://digest.bps.org.uk/ to search past items and discover more links.