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Gender Bias in Leader Selection

Companies turn to women leaders in troubled times because of stereotypes about their ability to thrive during a crisis.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls (Subscription or fee required.)

Authors: Susanne Bruckmüller (University of Erlangen-Nuremberg) and Nyla R. Branscombe (University of Kansas)

Publisher: British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 49, no. 3

Date Published: September 2010

Women are most likely to achieve high-profile leadership positions during times of corporate crisis, or when an organization faces an increased risk of failure. So goes the phenomenon known as the glass cliff, originally postulated by professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the U.K.’s University of Exeter in their paper, “The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women Are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions,” published in the British Journal of Management in 2005. According to their research, hiring women executives into precarious roles is widespread. Indeed, their examination of the top 100 firms on the London Stock Exchange found that companies were more likely to appoint women to their executive board when a company had consistently performed poorly for many months.

So why are women most likely to be given key leadership roles in times of crisis? To find the answer, the writers of this paper conducted an experiment to examine gender and leadership stereotypes, asking 122 male and female participants to read passages about a supermarket chain defined either as thriving or in trouble. Given the choice between two fictitious managerial candidates for this company — a man and a woman — the participants rated these prospective CEOs by attributes that traditionally have been seen as either stereotypically male (“striving for power,” “competitiveness,” and “independence,” for example) or female (“fairness,” “good communication skills,” and “ability to work in teams”). For the thriving supermarket, participants picked leaders with more masculine attributes, but for the company in crisis, they opted overwhelmingly for feminine attributes. The authors argue that this means stereotypically female qualities are seen as merely “sociable” when times are good, but these same attributes become much more valuable when companies are in trouble and require leaders who can communicate effectively and motivate groups of workers to put their egos aside and pursue a turnaround.

The researchers believe that the glass cliff is primed for elimination or at least reduction in corporations with a record of female leadership. In a separate experiment — with a somewhat ironic result — the authors polled subjects on who they’d choose to lead a company in crisis. If the company had a history of male leaders, participants were more likely to pick a female chief. But if the company had already hired women as top executives, the glass cliff cracked: participants were just as likely to choose a man to take over the problem company. This indicates that the endurance of the phenomenon may in part be tied to the way most companies’ leadership has been structured historically. A higher proportion of female executives, the authors reason, should result in changes over time to the associations between masculinity and strong leadership. By showing that women can run companies in good times and bad, leaders may eventually be selected on the basis of their true qualities — not their gender.

Bottom Line:
According to the glass cliff phenomenon, companies in trouble often turn to female leaders in an attempt to break the status quo of male mismanagement, because feminine attributes are associated more with cooperation and other interpersonal skills needed to rescue a firm from crisis.

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