When issues of women rising to leadership positions arise within organisations there is much squirming in the seats by senior managers (male and female) who invariably believe (or at least articulate) there is no problem here as ability always trumps gender. Since the term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined in 1984 to illustrate the invisible yet real barriers women aspiring to top positions had to surmount, there has been significant improvement. However, while the glass ceiling may well have been broken, there is compelling evidence that a ‘glass cliff’ still exists.
Stimulated by a Times article that claimed women had ‘wreaked havoc’ as leaders of FTSE 100 companies, Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam researched the context of women’s appointments and found that women were more likely to be appointed to senior positions if a company was in crisis than men. Such positions were risky and precarious, hence ‘the glass cliff’. For some women, to break through the glass ceiling by tackling the glass cliff was the only way. It is tempting to argue that men saw the precariousness and perceived such positions as potential career killers.
Subsequent research has shown that the glass cliff phenomenon is not the preserve of the FTSE 100. While male leaders are often portrayed as agentic leaders who are self-confident, assertive and authoritative; women are perceived as better leaders in times of crisis and transformation which require communal skills stereotypically associated with women such as empathy, intuition and cooperation – or perhaps a scapegoat.
Of course gender stereotypes are just stereotypes. Not all male leaders are assertive, self-confident and dominant or women leaders lack those traits. But such stereotypes are prevalent and persistent. They colour organisational and individual decisions on how we appoint our leaders or shape careers.
For those squirming in their seats when issues of gender are broached, the bad news is there is still a problem.
The problem is not just that men still dominate senior leadership positions. This may well change as and there are increasing numbers of women leaders (and not only in the ‘traditional’ preserves of the care, social and retail sectors) as well as aspirant leaders being trained across the public, private and social sector as well as in universities. The problem is in what we expect of our leaders and stereotypically framed notions of leadership.
We expect a lot. We want decisiveness and compassion, but on balance we want authoritative decision makers that look the part and we feel we can trust. We do not want our leaders to dither or show doubt.
Leaders fear failure, which contributes to the glass cliff phenomena. Leaders fear showing weakness and uncertainty. Indeed much leadership can be seen as a performance (akin to theatre) with the back stage of deliberation and doubt remains hidden and front stage full of bluff and bravado.
The cult of the decisive leader and fear of failure often leads to a culture where showing weakness is akin to career suicide. All leaders (male or female) can be infected equally; it seems to come with the senior territory.
Increasingly research shows that the ability to apply a suite of skills that encompass empathy, cooperation, decisiveness, tact and assertiveness in a timely and appropriate fashion leads to enhanced performance and good leadership. In other words hybrid leadership that combines communal and agentic traits.
Self-aware leaders realise that their power is actually limited and commanding action is rarely productive, therefore, to achieve goals they must work effectively through others. Moreover, the key skills required in modern organisations are how to lead in complex and ambiguous contexts.
I would also suggest that doubt is strength as it can protect individuals and organisations from complacency and hubris. If you read the dairies or private papers of acclaimed leaders from all walks of life, doubt is central within their reflections. The world is rarely clear cut and difficult decisions are often agonised over. What appears in the public realm as a decisive decision is more often than not a product of angst; if it isn’t, it is often a knee jerk reaction which invariably unravels. What good leaders bring is a mix of experience (I have been here before) and doubt (but my experience does not necessarily totally fit) to make sense of complexity or new situations.
Without diminishing the challenges faced by women in achieving senior leadership positions (after all, those with power rarely give it away without a struggle), the glass cliff phenomena highlights outdated stereotypical notions of gender specific leadership which leads to expectations which are counterproductive to organisations and society as a whole. Tomorrow’s exemplary leaders will be versatile, reflexive, and compassionate as well have the ability to make timely and difficult decisions.
Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S.A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in
precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90.
The glass cliff perspective has also been applied to research on other minority groups
Bruckmuller,S., Ryan, M.K., Rink, F., & Haslam, S.A. (2014) Beyond the Glass Ceiling: The Glass Cliff and Its
Lessons for Organizational Policy. Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2014, pp. 202–232
Weick, K.E. (1993,The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4. pp. 628-652