Women are better in crisis conditions but are always hanging on the glass cliff

  • Rita Chowdhry
  • December 21, 2018

“So much for smashing the glass ceiling and using their unique skills to enhance the performance of Britain’s biggest companies. The triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has instead wreaked havoc on companies’ performance” Judge, 2003, The Times.

Once women manage to break through the glass ceiling and take on positions of leadership they often have experiences that are different to men. Women are more likely to be appointed leadership roles that are risky and precarious – this is because they are appointed lead of an organisation that is in chaos or they are not provided with the support and resources needed for success. This is known as the Glass Cliff – referring to the danger of the potential risk of falling which is not already apparent.

One well-known instance of this is Theresa May, who was put on a Glass Cliff after being appointed Prime Minister at the time of Brexit mayhem.

So why are women put in this inevitable position?

Past research shows that women are more likely to find themselves in these difficult roles as stereotypical feminine traits are often regarded a better fit for leadership roles in these difficult times.

They are more likely to be:

  • Empathic
  • Nurturing
  • Friendly
  • Showing interest in helping others
  • Creative
  • Intuitive
  • Supportive of work relationships

What past research has been done on this?

A study led by Michelle Ryan, a researcher at the University of Exeter, showed strong evidence for the existence of the Glass Cliff. The study involved people rating personality traits on how desirable they would be for leadership positions in successful and unsuccessful companies. Results from this particular study found that masculine and feminine traits were desirable for leadership positions in successful companies and only feminine traits were desirable for leadership positions in unsuccessful companies. As women are associated more with having these feminine traits which are more desirable for these roles, they are more likely to be appointed leaders in tough times.

But why could this have such a devastating impact on women’s reputations in business?

Although it is great that women are breaking through the glass ceiling and making in roads within businesses, the glass cliff is in fact putting women’s reputation in business at stake. This is because these leadership roles, in times of crisis, are attracting far more attention than leadership roles in situations where everything is running smoothly. So people in these positions are more likely to be in a position of facing criticism and backlash. As well as this, they have an increased risk of failure due to the tricky situation they have been put in and people are quick to blame the leader if something goes wrong rather than the situation. As women are more likely to find themselves in these difficult roles, people may now associate women in business and politics with negative consequences.

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