A pair of intriguing experiments shows that women are more likely than men to be selected as leaders during times of crisis. Check out this summary over at BPS research of the "glass cliff" by Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla Branscombe. In the first study:"They presented 119 male and female participants with different versions of newspaper articles about an organic food company. Participants were more likely to select a fictitious female candidate to take over the company if it was described as being in crisis, and its previous three leaders had all been male. For participants who read that the previous managers had all been female, the glass cliff disappeared - they were just as likely to select a fictitious male candidate to take over the crisis stricken firm as they were to select a female."
The second study involved "122 male and female participants reading about a supermarket chain described either as thriving or in crisis" and found that:"In a successful context, the male candidate was judged to be more suitable for the role and was more likely to be selected - a replication of the bias seen in real life. More intriguing was that a crisis context led participants to attribute fewer stereotypically female attributes to the male candidate and to judge him as less suitable for the managerial role. Meanwhile, the crisis context didn't alter the qualities attributed to the the female candidate, nor the perception of her suitability. Crucially, however, she was more likely to be selected in the crisis situation - you might say almost by default, given that the male candidate was now seen as being less suitable and having fewer appropriate attributes."
The authors overall conclusion is not very comforting as they suggest that people (and perhaps companies too) only prefer female leaders when things have been so screwed up by men that they are desperate enough to try different path. In their words: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.
Remember that this is an experiment so we don't know how well it generalizes to the real bosses in real companies in the real world. There are certainly cases that fit the evidence, such as the appointment of Anne Mulchay at Xerox during the firm's darkest hour. But it remains to be seen if this pattern can be replicated in sample of leaders and firms.
What do you think? Does this ring true?
Here is the citation: Bruckmüller, S. & Branscombe, N. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49 (3)