Are Female Leaders Constantly Tapped for Crises?

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.

However, women are not passive individuals; just as men, they evaluate any new job or position and make decisions accordingly. So is it that women are always selected for relatively risky leadership positions, or may they sometimes also actively seek them out and see them as a challenge?

A study by this article’s authors investigated how men and women evaluate these glass-cliff positions. The authors proposed that, all else being equal, women should not be more — or less — attracted to precarious leadership positions than men.

Rather, the researchers argued that women and men themselves are also likely to be informed by the gender-related leadership stereotypes and gender norms that exist in society — a process called self-stereotyping. Prior research has also demonstrated that women are clearly aware of the existence of gender stereotypes in the workplace and believe that their influence is derived primarily from interpersonal skills.

Men, in contrast, tend to rely on more traditional notions of leadership, based on authority and hierarchical influence. As such, it was expected that gendered leadership beliefs would not only affect others’ perceptions of women’s and men’s suitability for leadership positions, but they would also affect the beliefs of women and men themselves.

As such, both women’s and men’s evaluations of a risky leadership position should likewise be informed by characteristics of the situation related to prevalent gender stereotypes. Whereas women should be more attentive to communal leadership requirements, men should be more attentive to top-down leadership requirements.

Findings recently published in Psychological Science — “Influence in Times of Crisis: Exploring How Social and Financial Resources Affect Men’s and Women’s Evaluations of Glass Cliff Positions” — were largely in line with such predictions. In the first study, researchers asked Dutch business students to imagine working for a large company that was performing relatively poorly and thus experienced a crisis. They were offered a leadership position at this company, where they would be in charge of resolving the crisis. To cue the importance of communal leadership skills versus more top-down, transactional leadership skills, all of the students read a passage containing information about the social and financial resources that came with the position.

One group read that they had employee support (social resources) and financial investment from management (financial resources), a second group read that they had financial investment but no employee support, and a third group read that they had employee support but no financial investment.

Comparing across genders, women seemed less likely than men to evaluate any of the risky leadership positions positively. But comparing across the three scenarios, women were particularly less likely to accept the position that lacked social resources, while men were less inclined to accept the position that lacked financial resources.

These findings suggested that women’s and men’s own evaluations of glass cliff positions are guided by an internalization of broad societal gendered leadership beliefs. A follow-up scenario confirms this notion.

The second study was similar to the first one, except that the researchers also measured men’s and women’s beliefs about what skills would be needed to become successful as a leader. It found that women view employee acceptance as a factor that would make them influential, while men view influence as an attribute that would eventually help them to gain employee acceptance. These beliefs explained why women were concerned about their success in the crisis situation where communal leadership skills were important — because social resources were absent — and why men were concerned about their success in the crisis situation where transactional leadership skills were necessary — because financial resources were absent.

The glass cliff cannot be attributed to the notion that women are more willing than men to accept any kind of leadership role, even risky ones. Societal gendered beliefs clearly also affect women and men themselves when they think about the leadership skills they possess.

Practically, organizations and diversity executives should be aware of the glass cliff phenomenon and the process of self-stereotyping when searching for new leaders to guide them through a crisis. It is well known that relying heavily on stereotypes in making leadership appointments is unlikely to yield optimal results, as female leaders can experience backlash effects when they do not act in line with these stereotypes.

Yet it is also important women be taught to make correct attributions about their own performance and abilities so that existing gendered leadership beliefs no longer inform their career decisions.

Floor Rink is an associate professor at the University of Groningen, Michelle K. Ryan is a professor at the University of Exeter and at the University of Groningen and Janka I. Stoker is a professor at the University of Groningen. They can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.