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Have you finally broken through the glass ceiling or unknowingly stepped onto a glass cliff?

Friday, February 17, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Cue the music. Tammy Wynette just didn’t know the half of it. We’ve heard for years about the glass ceiling effect for women. The belief is that there is an invisible barrier (or glass ceiling) that exists just beneath the top of the corporate ladder and blocks successful women (or minorities) from achieving the highest rungs. More recent writers have referred to this as a ‘labyrinth’ since they believe there are multiple obstacles to women moving into top leadership positions.

Arguments regarding the existence or absence of the glass ceiling aside–when women are promoted there is evidence that it tends to be a precarious promotion with high potential for negative repercussions. Seriously? Seriously.

Researchers wanted to see if it were true that women were more likely to be appointed to leadership positions in companies in crisis rather than stable companies. They used similar candidates who varied in gender for a company finance director position and asked research participants which candidate they favored for a growing company (stable position); a winnable political seat (stable position) or a company in crisis (failure position); or an unwinnable political seat (failure position).

For stable situations (i.e., the growing company or the winnable political seat) the male and female candidates were equally favored. Participants seemed to look at the applicant credentials and chose men and women equally.

However, for failure situations (i.e., the company in crisis or the unwinnable political seat), the female candidate was much more likely to be chosen.

Why was this? Maybe women are seen as strong and terrific in crisis? Maybe women are seen as able to take control when a situation is in chaos and improve performance more effectively? Or that women have more skills to balance risk? The researchers were curious and as you may guess–”No, that isn’t it”.

Another study showed that companies in stable contexts were seen as needing leaders who were assertive, competitive, or other traits adjudged to be stereotypically masculine.

In contrast, companies in crisis contexts were seen as needing leaders who exhibited more stereotypically female characteristics: understanding, tact and creativity.

So that isn’t all bad. What happened next? The researchers wanted to see which female characteristics were seen as more well-suited for leadership in crisis.

A follow-up study showed that the stereotypically female characteristics identified as better for a company in crisis [i.e., understanding, tact and creativity] were seen as more well-suited to soaking up criticism or enduring negative conditions. In other words, women were thought to be more able to ‘take’ blame and hostility for longer periods of time than were men.

Further, (this might be thought of as pouring salt in the wound) when the crisis situation had the full support of senior leadership, there was no preference for women to take on the role.

In other words, the researchers opine, women are preferred in leadership situations where it is not only risky but also very precarious. The researchers suggest that organizations rethink the “think crisis-think female” tendency and instead focus on how leaders ‘should be’ for the specific situation at hand.

As a female attorney or an attorney taking on a high profile female leader as a client, awareness of these tendencies (to “think male for manager” positions and “think female for crisis” leadership positions) can aid you in making good choices about cases, organizational assignments, and case selection.

When anyone is hired into a high-risk position, the stress is higher, the prospects for success are lower, and the potential for being blamed for a negative outcome are greater. A successful work environment needs to keep this in mind when they do hiring.  Right or wrong, having a major failure attached to your name usually impairs your future prospects.  If women are not to be disproportionately blamed [and unfairly blamed] for these high-risk failures, there will have to be a greater appreciation for context.

We hope awareness of this phenomena will help you understand ‘failure’ a little differently and take steps to protect yourself when you choose to step out onto the ‘glass cliff’.

Ryan MK, Haslam SA, Hersby MD, & Bongiorno R (2011). Think crisis-think female: the glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager-think male stereotype. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (3), 470-84 PMID: 21171729


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