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February « 2011 « Diversity in Leadership

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Think Female – Think Crisis

Women often find themselves leading “turn around” situations at a higher rate than men.  Like standing on the edge of a cliff, accepting a leadership position in a failing organization or department can be an unsafe career move. In fact, this tendency has been afforded the name, the “glass cliff.” New research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology provides new insights into why and when women are selected for these more precarious positions.

The authors, Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, and Bongiorno (2010) , pose 2 alternative explanations for the glass cliff phenomenon:

  1. Women are chosen to lead turn around situations because they are “second rate” opportunities most men would not accept
  2. Women are chosen to lead turn around situations because they possess the right qualities needed to lead in a crisis

At first, their results suggest the second option. When given a description of an unsuccessful company (versus a successful company) and asked to describe the ideal leader, research participants used more words that are typically associated with women. For instance, words like understanding and tactful were used more often. The authors described this as the think crisis – think female phenomenon.

The think crisis – think female phenomenon was further investigated, though, and the authors found that “women are not seen to be suited for crisis per se. Instead, their anticipated traits are seen to make them more suitable for particular tasks” (p. 10), such as managing people, enduring the crisis, or even taking the blame. When a leader was needed to serve as a spokesperson or improve company performance, the think female-think crisis tendency dissipated.

The glass cliff is thus explained by an association between what is seen as needed in many crisis situations and the qualities stereotypically associated with women. This is very important to keep in mind, both for women considering a particular position, as well as decision makers selecting new leaders. For women themselves, carefully considering the leadership positions you are being offered is key. Although accepting a leadership role in a crisis situation may be a way to prove yourself and get some much needed recognition, you should also think carefully about whether the situation is fixable or if you would be taking a “scapegoat” position. For organizational decision makers, be aware of the fact that this is a form of discrimination. Be sure that you are making selection and promotion decisions based on validated selection tools and giving men and women opportunities that are equally likely to result in success.

Article Referenced: 

Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M. D., & Bongiorno, R. (2010). Think crisis-think female:  The glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager-think male stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology, Dec., 1-15.

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