Expert Commentary

Women, leadership and the “glass cliff”: Research roundup

2013 review of research on how women leaders can be set up to work under difficult conditions that can lead to dissatisfaction and higher turnover.

Women in the United States are increasingly breaking through the proverbial “glass ceiling.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1970 approximately 17% of managers were women; in 2009 nearly 40% were. A growing number of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Archer Daniels Midland, and Lockheed-Martin. And while women politicians in the U.S. lag behind their counterparts overseas, the current Congress is the most diverse in history.

While more women are moving into the corner office, they can face significant challenges once they arrive. The “glass cliff” is a concept first identified by Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam in a 2005 paper and documented in dozens of studies since. It describes situations where women executives can be set up to work under conditions that lead to job dissatisfaction, feelings of disempowerment and higher turnover.

Ryan and Haslam identified the glass cliff at law firms, where women were more often given problematic cases; and politics, where they are selected for hard-to-win seats. Other research suggests a status quo bias, in which male-led companies do not feel the need to change until they become financially troubled; only then are women are considered for leadership positions. Experimental studies have even shown that a wide range of participants — including business leaders, graduate students in management and high school students — were more likely to pick females to head companies in decline. Why might this be? Some studies indicate that male leaders, unconvinced about the effectiveness of women, place them in less-desirable management positions.

women manager (Census Bureau)Other research has failed to confirm the existence of a “glass cliff,” however. A 2007 study of corporate performance preceding CEO appointments showed that women executives are no more likely to be selected for poorer-performing firms than males. Another study that measured an “intent to leave” among senior executives in the federal government found that, overall, men were more likely to “want out” than women. It was only after government agencies were studied individually did the findings reveal a glass cliff (or a higher intent to leave) among women than men.

While the causes and scope of the “glass cliff” is still being studied, what follows is a representative sample of research to date.

“Cracked Ceilings, Firmer Floors and Weakening Walls: Trends and Patterns in Gender Representation among Executives Leading American State Agencies, 1970-2000”
Bowling, Cynthia J.; Kelleher, Christine A.; Jones, Jennifer; Wright, Deil S. Public Administration Review, November 2006, Vol. 66, No. 6, 823-836(14). doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6210.2006.00651.x.

Abstract: “Trends of female access to and presence in responsible governmental positions have gained substantial attention. The research reported here assesses and seeks convergence on several issues associated with gender representation. It extends the research by focusing on top executive posts in American state governments. In particular, the presence of women agency heads in all 50 states is examined from 1970 through 2000 using the lenses of passive representativeness and active representation. The authors find, first, that women face fewer blockages in securing top posts — the glass ceilings are cracking. Second, women’s access to peak executive positions springs from more solid educational, career, and organizational foundations or ‘floors.’ Third, lateral career movements are penetrating the ‘walls’ surrounding traditionally male-dominated agency types. The essay concludes with a framework for understanding relationships involving passive representativeness, active representation, and representative results. That framework assists in shifting attention toward the consequences of both passive and active representation.”


“The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions”
Haslam, S. Alexander; Ryan, Michelle K. British Journal of Management, June 2005, Vol. 16, No. 2, 81-99.

Abstract: “There has been much research and conjecture concerning the barriers women face in trying to climb the corporate ladder, with evidence suggesting that they typically confront a ‘glass ceiling’ while men are more likely to benefit from a ‘glass escalator’. But what happens when women do achieve leadership roles? And what sorts of positions are they given? This paper argues that while women are now achieving more high profile positions, they are more likely than men to find themselves on a ‘glass cliff,’ such that their positions are risky or precarious.”


“Are Female Executives Over-represented in Precarious Leadership Positions?”
Adams, Susan M.; Gupta, Atul; Leeth, John D. British Journal of Management, November 2007, Vol. 20, Issue 1, 1-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8551.2007.00549.x.

Abstract: “We use a sample of CEO appointments at U.S. corporations over the years 1992-2004 to test the ‘glass cliff’ hypothesis, which posits that females are appointed to leadership positions at firms that are in a precarious financial condition. Our analysis utilizes three measures of stock-price-based financial performance and two distinct control samples of appointments of males to the CEO position. We find that corporate performance preceding CEO appointments tends to favor females, implying that females (males) are appointed to the CEO position largely at times when the firm is in relatively better (worse) financial health. Disaggregating the data by appointments in up versus down markets, at high-risk versus low-risk firms, and by calendar time yield similar conclusions. There appears to be no glass cliff facing female CEOs at U.S. firms.”


“Falling Over a Glass Cliff: A Study of the Recruitment of Women to Leadership Roles in Troubled Enterprises”
Hunt-Earle, Keziah. Global Business and Organizational Excellence, June 2012, Vol. 31, No. 5, 44-53.  doi: 10.1002/joe.21441.

Abstract: “Are women breaking through the glass ceiling only to arrive at a glass cliff — that is, being preferentially appointed to leadership roles where the chances of failure are higher? This study investigates the concept of the glass cliff, both by seeking evidence for its existence and by examining its implications. Focusing specifically on the impact of the recruiter’s gender, the researchers asked professionals from a range of backgrounds to evaluate candidates for a post in a hypothetical company that was portrayed either as a success or as in decline. Taken as a whole, the results support the existence of a glass cliff. When the results from male and female recruiters were analyzed separately, a different picture emerged, however. Male recruiters showed no gender preference in the failing company context but favored the male candidate for the low-risk position. In contrast, female recruiters consistently favored a female candidate, with this preference being more marked for a high-risk role. The study concluded by looking into the possible motivations for these biases and examining their implications in informing recruitment and career decisions.”


“Above the Glass Ceiling: When Are Women and Racial/ethnic Minorities Promoted to CEO?”
Cook, Alison; Glass, Christy.  Strategic Management Journal, 2013, Vol. 34, No. 9. doi: 10.1002/smj.216.

Abstract: “Using a dataset of all CEO transitions in Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period, we analyze mechanisms that shape the promotion probabilities and leadership tenure of women and racial/ethnic minority CEOs. Consistent with the theory of the glass cliff, we find that occupational minorities — defined as white women and men and women of color — are more likely than white men to be promoted CEO to weakly performing firms. Though we find no significant differences in tenure length between occupational minorities and white men, we find that when firm performance declines during the tenure of occupational minority CEOs, these leaders are likely to be replaced by white men. We term this phenomenon the savior effect.”


“From Glass Ceiling to Glass Cliff: Women in Senior Executive Service”
Sabharwal, Meghna. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory Advance Access, June 2013. doi: 10.1093/jopart/mut030.

Summary: “Using data from the 2010 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, this research examines the challenges women face in Senior Executive Service (SES) in various US federal government agencies (distributive, redistributive, regulatory, and constituent policy). The study is based on three widely discussed theories in the field of social psychology — think manager–think-male, social role theory, and role incongruity theory. The study findings indicate that SES women in distributive and constituent policy agencies are most likely to face glass cliffs. The odds of women falling off the cliff are less when women have influence over policymaking decisions, perceive empowerment, and experience organizational equities.”


“The Road to the Glass Cliff: Differences in the Perceived Suitability of Men and Women for Leadership Positions in Succeeding and Failing Organizations”
Haslam, S. Alexander; Ryan, Michelle K. Leadership Quarterly, October 2008. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2008.07.011.

Abstract: “This paper presents three experimental studies (Ns = 95, 85, 83) that represent the first experimental investigations of the glass cliff phenomenon. In these, management graduates (Study 1), high-school students (Study 2) or business leaders (Study 3) selected a leader for a hypothetical organization whose performance was either improving or declining. Consistent with predictions, results indicate that the likelihood of a female candidate being selected ahead of an equally qualified male candidate increased when the organization’s performance was declining rather than improving. Study 3 also provided evidence that glass cliff appointments are associated with beliefs that they (a) suit the distinctive leadership abilities of women, (b) provide women with good leadership opportunities and (c) are particularly stressful for women. These findings define an important agenda for future research.”


“Legal work and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women Are Preferentially Selected to Lead Problematic Cases”
Ashby, Julie S.; Haslam, S. Alexander; Ryan, Michelle K. William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, fall 2006.

Abstract: “This paper extends research on the glass cliff by examining the precariousness of the cases women are assigned in a legal context. An experimental study conducted with law students (N = 114) investigated the appointment of a candidate to lead a legal case that was defined as either low-risk or high-risk…. Results indicated that a male candidate was as likely as a female to be selected as lead counsel for a low-risk case but that there was a strong preference for a female rather than a male appointment for a high-risk case. The study also examines the way in which participants’ evaluations of candidates and their perceptions of risk and opportunity related to candidate selection. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.”


“Politics and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women Are Preferentially Selected to Contest Hard-to-Win Seats”
Haslam, S. Alexander; Kulich, Clara; Ryan, Michelle K. Psychology of Women Quarterly, March 2010, Vol. 34, issue 1. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01541.x.

Abstract: “Recent archival and experimental research has revealed that women are more likely than men to be appointed to leadership positions when an organization is in crisis. As a result, women often confront a ‘glass cliff’ in which their position as leader is precarious. Our first archival study examined the 2005 UK general election and found that, in the Conservative party, women contested harder to win seats than did men. Our second study experimentally investigated the selection of a candidate by 80 undergraduates in a British political science class to contest a by-election in a seat that was either safe (held by own party with a large margin) or risky (held by an opposition party with a large margin). Results indicated that a male candidate was more likely than a woman to be selected to contest a safe seat, but there was a strong preference for a female rather than a male appointment when the seat was described as hard to win.”


“Think Crisis–Think female: The Glass Cliff and Contextual Variation in the Think Manager–Think Male Stereotype”
Ryan, Michelle K.; Haslam, S. Alexander; Hersby, Mette D.; Bongiorno, Renata. Journal of Applied Psychology, May 2011, Vol. 96(3), 470-484. doi: 10.1037/a0022133.

Abstract: “The ‘think manager–think male’ (TMTM) association underlies many gender inequalities in the workplace. However, research into the ‘glass cliff’ has demonstrated that the suitability of male and female managers varies as a function of company performance such that in times of poor performance people may ‘think female’ (Ryan & Haslam, 2005, 2007). Three studies examined gender and managerial stereotypes in the context of companies that are doing well or doing badly. Study 1 reproduced TMTM associations for descriptions of managers of successful companies but demonstrated a reversal for managers of unsuccessful companies. Study 2 examined the prescriptive nature of these stereotypes. No TMTM relationship was found for ideal managers of successful companies, but ideal managers of unsuccessful companies were associated with the female stereotype. Study 3 suggested that women may be favored in times of poor performance, not because they are expected to improve the situation, but because they are seen to be good people managers and can take the blame for organizational failure. Together, the studies illustrate the importance of context as a moderator of the TMTM association.”


Think Crisis–Think Female: Further Evidence
Aritzeta, Aitor; Balluerka, Nekane; Gartzia, Leire; Ryan, Michelle K. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, October 2011,  Vol. 21, No. 4, 603-628; doi: 10.1080/1359432X.2011.591572.

Abstract: “Many studies have demonstrated that interpersonally oriented leadership abilities such as being empathetic, supporting work relationships, or explicitly stating an interest in helping others are particularly relevant in crisis contexts. Since these leadership abilities coincide with stereotypically feminine roles and traits, it has been proposed that a “think crisis–think female” association may exist. In a field study (N = 301 workers and managers) we examined this association and identified two relevant factors that may hinder the acceptance of female leaders and stereotypically feminine characteristics in crisis management: instrumental (male) leadership role models and sexist attitudes. In doing so, we provide new insights into the “think crisis–think female” relationship and illustrate the potential implications of this occurrence for gender studies and for research into work and organizational psychology.”


“Sex, Gender and Aspirations to Top Management: Who’s Opting Out? Who’s Opting In?”
Powell, Gary N.; Butterfield, D. Anthony. Journal of Vocational Behavior, February 2013. Vol. 82, No. 1, 30-36. doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2012.11.003.

Abstract: “The ‘opt-out revolution’ has become a much-discussed phenomenon over the last decade. According to media reports, highly educated women are increasingly opting out of careers that would place them on the fast track to top management levels. However, little attention has been devoted to whether the opt-out revolution may also apply to highly educated men. The present study examined individuals’ aspirations to top management, which provide an indication of the extent to which they are opting in or opting out of careers that might lead to top management. Participants were drawn from two populations, undergraduate business students and part-time (evening) MBA students. Part-time MBA students were found to be significantly less likely to aspire to top management (i.e., more likely to ‘opt out’ of careers aimed at the highest managerial level) than undergraduate business students, especially male part-time MBAs compared with male undergraduates; male part-time MBAs were least likely to aspire to top management of the four combinations of sex and population. However, contrary to prior research, women’s and men’s aspirations to top management did not significantly differ. Also, individuals with a gender identity of high masculinity were significantly more likely to aspire to top management (i.e., ‘opt in’) than individuals with a low-masculinity gender identity. These results suggest that further study of the opt-out revolution should incorporate gender-related constructs such as gender identity and devote attention to men’s as well as women’s aspirations to top management.”


Tags: women and work

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