Psychology of the Glass Cliff: Why Women Lead in Crises

Last Updated Sep 15, 2010 9:39 AM EDT

Statistically women are a rare breed at the top of major corporations, but there is one exception -- companies in crisis. It's so well known that women are often chosen to steer companies through troubled waters that the phenomenon has received a catchy nickname: the glass cliff. From the female prime minister elected after Iceland's financial meltdown to Lynn Elsenhans leading Sunoco after its shares tanked in 2008, it often falls to females to handle the worst periods for an organization. Why?

Psychologists Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla Branscombe set out to uncover the answer in a series of experiments. First to confirm the phenomenon, they gave 119 subjects fictional case summaries of a company in crisis and asked them to select a new leader. But the exercise uncovered something odd. When the company's previous leaders were all male, females were chosen to lead more often. When the previous leaders were women, the participants were just as likely to choose a man, but they didn't choose men more often than women as you would logically expect. In other words, women were preferred to take over from failing men, but when women failed, men and women were just as likely to take charge.

To explain this paradox, the scientists asked a further 122 study subjects to choose leaders for hypothetical companies -- some thriving, some struggling -- from male and female candidates. Participants were also asked to say whether they thought the candidates exhibited stereotypical male (competitive, etc) and female (good communicator, etc) characteristics. The results showed that perceptions of female managers and their abilities never changed. Instead. Opinions of men simply tanked in a crisis. Bruckmüller and Branscombe offer a less than cheery summary:

Our findings indicate that women find themselves in precarious leadership positions not because they are singled out for them, but because men no longer seem to fit. There is, of course, a double irony here. When women get to enjoy the spoils of leadership (a) it is not because they are seen to deserve them, but because men no longer do, and (b) this only occurs when, and because, there are fewer spoils to enjoy.
What do you make of the authors' depressing take on their study? Is the glass cliff phenomenon really so disheartening for women leaders?

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user clurr, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.