Are Women Leaders Being Pushed Toward a ‘Glass Cliff’ in Times of Crisis?

Don Tennant
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The glass ceiling that hovers over women, especially in male-dominated fields like IT, is a well-documented, acknowledged fact of corporate life. But ongoing research suggests that women are also subjected to what has been dubbed “the glass cliff,” our tendency to push women into leadership positions during times of crisis.

Perhaps the most widely referenced research on this phenomenon is a study conducted by Harvard Business School, which found that when a company was doing well, two-thirds of the study participants preferred a male in the top leadership position. But in times of crisis or uncertainty, nearly as high a majority preferred a female.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss this phenomenon with Terence Mauri, a UK-based executive coach whose book, “The Leader’s Mindset: How to Win in the Age of Disruption,” is being released today. I opened the discussion by asking Mauri what he sees as the reasons behind this phenomenon. He cited two — one that’s benign, and one that’s anything but:

One of the possible reasons is that women tend to be characterized as having more emotional intelligence. They have natural qualities around nurturing and caring, and there could be an innate tendency to move toward women leaders in times of crisis, because we feel they will cope better with peak levels of stress, uncertainty and volatility. That’s more of a benign reason. No. 2 is a dark reason — that we prefer women to take the blame in times of high uncertainty. The risk of failure is higher, and there’s an ingrained bias to put women in those roles in order to protect the men. It’s an inconvenient truth, but we can deduce from the emerging research that this could also be a reason.

Mauri said he has also concluded that the glass cliff phenomenon is more prevalent in male-dominated professions like IT:

Look at Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors — crisis situations, female leaders. So I think it is pervasive, and it comes back to this ingrained, collective bias. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, we’re often ‘blind to our own blindness.’ We’ve got Theresa May, who has just become Prime Minister of the UK, post-Brexit; we’ve potentially got Hillary Clinton as President of the U.S. So once you start thinking about this theory, and look at information technology, you might think of Angela Ahrendts, [senior vice president, retail and online stores] at Apple, the former CEO of Burberry. There’s word on the street that sometime in the future, she could potentially become CEO of Apple. It would be interesting to see, if that did happen, whether it happens because Apple’s share price drops over the next few years. It would be an interesting test of the theory.

So are women equally as likely as men to prefer a female CEO in times of crisis or uncertainty? Mauri referred back to the Harvard Business School study:

What it suggests is that men prefer women during times of crisis, and women prefer men during times of crisis. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. It’s a theory that needs ongoing validation, but if you go back to some assumptions around gender archetypes, it could be that women look for strong, male parental qualities to provide protection; men look for a caring, nurturing figure to provide reassurance during a time of crisis.

Mauri talks a lot about risk-taking in his new book, so I wrapped up the conversation by noting that I had recently spoken with a leadership consultant who said women are less likely to take risks than men are. I asked for Mauri’s thoughts on that, and he shared this insight:

I recently met an anthropologist at UCL [University College London], who argues that males, having more testosterone, are hard-wired to take more risks — there’s an evolutionary bias for males to take more risks. That’s not to say that women can’t learn to take more risks, but they’re less likely to do so without experience and cultivating a certain mindset. But this risk-taking mindset can be good and bad. If you look at the financial crisis of 2008, and some of the other problems in what is still a male-dominated world, sometimes the risk-taking is out of control.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.


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