On Wednesday, 9th of October, Prof. Michelle Ryan from the University of Exeter gave an up-to-date overview of the available evidence and provided some ideas whether the appointments of female leaders have something to do with financial and economic crises or whether it is all just coincidence. After her presentation there was a lively discussion with the audience, highlighting different viewpoints on the subject.
The term “the glass cliff” refers to the precariousness
and risk of failure which women, who take over positions of leadership experience. Contrary to their male counterparts, women are likely to be appointed to positions where they have to deal with difficult situations. This could either be a company or department facing a crisis or the lack of resources and support needed for success. Prof. Michelle Ryan summed up the recent research on this topic. She started with a provocative finding which showed that there is a negative correlation between women in top management and performance of the company. Does that mean the more women on the board of managers the lower the performance of the organization? Prof. Ryan explained this correlation with some of her own research. In her studies she showed that companies often hire women in hard and troubling times, where there is a great chance of failure as a leader. She confirmed this with an experimental study in which participants had to select either a man or a woman with identical CVs for a vacant leading position – in an organization where things are going well and in a company facing a crisis. In the first situation, the participants chose the male candidate, in the second company they went for the female leader. According to Prof. Ryan this is the evidence that “the glass cliff” exists.
“A woman is like a tea bag - you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” With this quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt explained Prof. Michelle Ryan why there is a relationship between the appointments of female leaders and critical situations in the company. In another experiment, Prof. Ryan found out that in successful organizations the desired leadership traits are stereotypical male characteristics – confirming the “think manager, think male!”-prejudice. But in companies having a difficult time, participants opted for the stereotypical female traits when they had to decide what attributes are required from a good manager. This can be summed up by “think crisis, think female”.
As a résumé, Prof. Michelle Ryan emphasized that male and female leaders are facing different leader positions. But which practical implications do these findings have? What can women do? Prof. Ryan stressed that women should not avoid leadership positions. Women, having a position at a “glass cliff”, should make others aware of the quality and challenges of their jobs and claim the time and support needed to master the challenge.
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