Break the Glass Ceiling, Fall Off the Cliff

Last Updated Dec 27, 2010 9:17 PM EST

With two women named to the Supreme Court this year, it is tempting to predict that the glass ceiling--that invisible barrier preventing women from reaching the top--is finally gone. But new research suggests it has been replaced by a "glass cliff"--for men, too.

That's what Victoria Brescoll, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, calls the precarious territory occupied by individuals whose occupation runs counter to gender stereotypes--female police chiefs, say, or male nurses. One misstep, her study found, could be enough to get you sacked. "You don't really know, when you're a woman in a high-status leadership job [or a man in a non-traditional leadership job], how long you're going to hang onto" that position, Brescoll says.

Working with Erica Dawson, also of Yale, and Eric Luis Uhlmann, of HEC Paris-School of Management, Brescoll studied how both men and women in jobs traditionally associated with the other gender were judged when they made mistakes. About 200 volunteers read two scenarios in which the high-status leader made a mistake. The scenarios were exactly the same--the person failed to send in enough police during a protest--except that in the first scenario, it involved a male police chief and female president of a women's college. And in the other, it was a female police chief and male president of a women's college. The volunteers were then asked their opinions of the police chief and college president.

The findings had both good and bad news.

1. Men and women are viewed the same, whether in traditional or non-traditional roles, as long as they don't make any mistakes. The researchers found no difference in how volunteers viewed the college president and police chief, before the hypothetical protest. That's the good news.

2. But, if you're in a non-traditional role, making just one mistake can derail your career. "Any mistakes that they make, even minor ones, can be magnified," says Brescoll. In the study, the volunteers viewed the female police chief and male president of a women's college as less competent and less deserving of high status after the "protest."

Brescoll says that even though minorities and women have made significant, high-visibility progress lately, her research shows that those gains are more fragile, and more likely to be undermined by bias. Brescoll and Uhlmann also jointly authored a well-known study on gender and anger in the workplace, showing that women who get visibly angry in the workplace are viewed as incompetent and unworthy of status or power, but men who get angry in the workplace are rewarded.

In their latest study, Brescoll notes, it took only one mistake for the perceived status and competence of the female police chief or the male president of a women's college to plummet--what she calls falling off the "glass cliff."

Do you think individuals in roles that go against gender expectations are as vulnerable as Brescoll found? What has been your personal experience?

photo courtesy of flickr user alfo23, CC 2.0

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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.