Back in 2003, Michelle Ryan checked her pigeonhole and found an article from the business section of The Times in 2003, stating that the ‘triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has wreaked havoc’ on companies' performance. This was to be the spark for a line of enquiry that has borne years of fruitful research, and the story began her DOP keynote tour of the 'glass cliff'. The term riffs on the metaphor of the glass ceiling – the invisible limit which prevents women from making it to the top of organisations. The glass cliff is an invisible risk, referring to the experience of women who make it to senior positions, only to discover they are unusually precarious.
Ryan began to perceive the glass cliff by scrutinising the claims of that newspaper article, deposited by an unknown friendly colleague. Historical data comparing 19 women appointed to the Board of Directors with a matched sample showed that appointments of women were indeed associated with slumps in share price, but that the slump preceded the appointment. The article had based its claims on a false assumption of causality, and it seemed instead that women were more likely to be appointed to companies in crisis.
Ryan then used experimental investigations involving hypothetical situations. She asked participants to decide how they would fill a position, such as company finance director, by choosing between two similar candidates who differed in gender. When the position was presented within a stable context – a growing company, a winnable political seat – then the candidates were similarly favoured. However, when the situation was presented as one with a high chance of failure – a company in crisis, or an unwinnable seat – the woman was a far more popular selection. People were even more likely to choose a female youth representative for a festival that was experiencing declining popularity.
Perhaps women are seen as better crisis managers than men? (Ryan quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.’) In another study, participants judged that a company in a stable context need a leader who was assertive, competitive, or possessed other traits judged to be stereotypically masculine by other participants in a pre-study phase. Meanwhile, leaders in crisis situations should be understanding, tactful, creative – more stereotypically feminine.
But what is it about crises that women are seen as suited for: taking control and improving performance, for instance? Not so; a follow-up that separated out different aspects of leading in crisis found female traits were only favoured for the purpose of soaking up criticism or enduring negative conditions. And another study showed that when the crisis situation had full support of senior leadership, there was no preference for women to take the role. The data suggests that women are preferred when the situation is not just risky but actively precarious, with likely negative repercussions for the situation and themselves.
What are the consequences for female board members? Well, there is evidence that female CEOs have far shorter tenures, and these may reflect the fact that their positions are often set up to fail. Ryan concluded that in the pursuit of equal opportunity, we shouldn't be misled by the raw numbers of women in leadership positions; the nature of the role matters just as much.
In an interesting extension of her experimental work, Ryan and colleagues collected folk theories for the glass cliff via the BBC website. Women tended to believe that women are singled out for precarious positions, or that they have fewer opportunities and therefore accept riskier positions. The majority of men simply didn’t believe that women are differentially placed on the glass cliff.