Are Female Leaders Constantly Tapped for Crises?

 -  4/15/13

Although generally underrepresented in leadership positions, women are more likely than men to be appointed as a leader when a company is in crisis.

In 2003, an article published in The New York Times revealed a negative relationship between the presence of women on top management boards and company performance. Such a negative relationship led the article to conclude that women are not suitable for top management positions.

Critics, however, questioned whether the relationship could be interpreted differently — maybe women were only appointed to leadership positions when companies were performing poorly.

Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam from Exeter University in the U.K. were the first to provide evidence for this logic in 2005; they labeled the phenomenon the “glass cliff.” This occurs at top management levels and entails a certain amount of riskiness for the women involved. After all, as was the case in The New York Times article, poor company performance is often attributed to the personal failure of its director and can thus cause misguided perceptions of women’s management skills.

During the last eight years, the tendency of people to favor a female over a male leader in times of company crisis has been observed across a range of studies — including experiments that simulated a company crisis, archival studies that related company performance to CEO appointments and field studies that examined the leadership preferences of managers who make such hiring decisions. Together, these findings demonstrate the robustness of the phenomenon.

Notable in some of the glass cliff studies was the fact that the researchers varied the different types of crises that an organization may encounter. These studies point out that the glass cliff phenomenon arises particularly when a crisis is characterized by internal struggles and a lack of support within the organization. This type of crisis calls for feminine leadership traits such as being understanding and cooperative, and people then seem to make a “think crisis, think female association,” these studies suggest.

When, however, a crisis situation is primarily characterized by the presence of a competing, threatening business environment, it also calls for masculine leadership traits such as being influential and directive. People then often retain a preference for a male leader. These findings strongly suggest that leadership preferences in times of crisis are informed by traditional gender-related leadership beliefs. While female leaders are expected to be communal, male leaders are expected to be more top-down and transactional.



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