Gender Bias at Work: The Glass Cliff

Gender Bias at Work: The Glass Cliff

by Felicity Menzies
While following media coverage of the leadership failures at AMP, I was reminded of a study exploring whether gender is a factor in how harshly leaders’ failures are judged. The study, published in Psychological Science, found that when leaders fail in roles that are traditionally not aligned with their gender they are assessed more harshly than leaders whose gender aligns with traditional stereotypes for that role.
In that study, participants were presented with a fictional news story about a police chief in a major city preparing for a big protest rally. Several hours in, the protest got out of hand and the chief dispatched squad cars. The chief didn’t send enough officers, and twenty-five people were seriously injured.
The researchers discovered that when a male police chief found himself with twenty-five injured civilians, his rating as an effective chief dropped by roughly 10 percent. However, when the police chief making the same mistake was female, her ratings dropped by almost 30 percent. Further, the participants expressed that the female police chief should be demoted, whereas the male chief should not be. In summary, the female chief was judged more harshly and penalised significantly more than the male chief for making an identical mistake.
Interestingly, there was no rating differential between male and female police chiefs when the protest was successfully pacified by the chief sending in a sufficient number of squad cars. In this scenario, no one was injured and the protest didn’t escalate. It was only when the female police chief failed that a gender gap in approval was evident.
The researchers sought to replicate their findings in additional studies, reporting similar gender disparities in the penalties judged appropriate for mistakes made by male and female CEOs of an engineering firm and for a male and female chief judge of a supreme court. Similar to the study of police chiefs, errors made by women in these roles were judged more harshly and those women incurred higher penalties for their mistakes compared with men making the same mistake. The researchers concluded that women are rated more harshly compared with men for mistakes made in a traditionally masculine role.
The researchers then sought to explore whether the reverse was true—would a man occupying a traditionally female role be judged more harshly for a mistake than a woman making the same mistake in that role? They confirmed this to be true. Male presidents of a women’s college were found to be judged more harshly for an error of poor judgment than female presidents of a women’s college.

The Glass Cliff

Outside of the laboratory, gender disparities in the judgment and penalisation of leadership failures have a disproportionate effect on women because men have traditionally occupied the vast majority of professional domains—across politics, banking, manufacturing medicine, tech, law, sports, the military and the stock market, men dominate.
Termed the ‘glass cliff’, women who manage to break through the glass ceiling to achieve senior leadership positions traditionally reserved for men (such as CEO or Chair of the Board) find themselves in a precarious position—women in leadership positions attract greater scrutiny and are judged more harshly on their performance compared with male peers and are more likely to be fired. According to a 2013 study of 2,500 public companies by consulting firm Strategy&, over the previous 10 years, women CEOs are more likely to get fired than men – 38% to 27%. Further, research by the Rockefeller Foundation reports that women are more often blamed when things go wrong at their company. When a company led by a woman was in crisis, 80 percent of the news stories on the situation cited the CEO as a source of the problem. When a man was running the company in crisis, stories only blamed him 31 percent of the time.

Explaining the Glass Cliff

Researchers in the police chief study suggested that individuals occupying counter-stereotypical roles attract harsher judgments and penalties in response to their errors most likely because they are more conspicuous—individuals in roles not traditionally aligned with their gender stand out more and this triggers greater attention and scrutiny. Because a female leader is novel in most professional settings, her gender captures our attention and we are more likely to notice her mistakes.
There may be another reason, however, why women attract harsher condemnation for leadership failures than men do. Psychologists note that stereotypes influence what details we pay attention to and what we discount. Studies confirm that people do not evaluate information even-handedly. We tend to pay relatively more attention to behaviour that aligns with a stereotype and much less attention to behaviour that contradicts a stereotype. Because gender stereotypes are negatively biased against female performance and competency in professional settings, when a woman fails in a leadership role, we notice it more because it is congruent with traditional gender stereotypes.

Why One Woman’s Failure Becomes a Gender Issue

Not only do women attract harsher condemnation and penalties compared with men for leadership failures, the failure of a female CEO often triggers broader concerns about the capabilities of all female leaders. Although gender is not a reliable predictor of leadership competency or success, when a female CEO fails, her gender attracts attention.
The fundamental attribution error is a term used by social psychologists to describe the tendency of people to over-emphasise personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behaviour. When explaining a person’s actions, we typically give more weight to salient dispositional influences than less salient situational causes.
Studies comparing the reporting of female leaders compared with male leaders in the media confirms that gender is a salient characteristic of female leaders but inconsequential for male leaders. The Rockefeller study looked at more than 100 articles from 37 news outlets, written about 20 CEOs ― male and female ― in the Fortune 1,000 and at major tech companies. They considered stories in four categories: Those written about companies in crisis, about newly appointed CEOs, fired or resigning CEOs, and those who retired. Articles about women brought up gender 49 percent of the time, compared with 4 percent for male chief executives.
Because a female leader is novel in most professional settings, her gender captures our attention more readily than other aspects of the situation and we are more likely to attribute her failures to her gender and to discount the contribution of the contextual influences. Further, psychologists have shown that we discount situational causes, even if we notice them when other, more salient, dispositional causes might have produced the outcome. Because women suffer a competency discount in professional settings, her failure reinforces gender stereotypes. Gender assumes the primary attribution for the failure and situational attributions are discounted. When women leaders fail, both the fundamental attribution error and the discounting principle reinforce negative stereotypes about female leaders.
Another concept from social psychology that is helpful for explaining why the failures of women leaders attract more attention than the failures of male leaders is ‘paired distinctiveness’. Paired distinctiveness refers to the emphasis of two distinctive events even more because they doubly occur. Distinctive events capture our attention. Women leaders are distinctive because they are in the minority. Corporate failures are also distinctive events because of their negative consequences for a range of stakeholders. When a corporate failure occurs under the leadership of a woman, the event is doubly distinctive. Further, paired distinctiveness contributes to another phenomenon that psychologists term ‘illusory correlations’. Illusory correlations refer to our tendency to imply correlations or relationships between events that are not actually related.

Women Leaders More Often Have the Odds Stacked Against Them

The phenomena of paired distinctiveness and illusory correlation are particularly problematic for advancing the case for women in leadership because studies show that women are more likely to have the odds stacked against them.

Women Most Often Appointed to Lead Companies in Crisis

Studies show that women are more likely to be appointed to a leadership role at a company in crisis. A 2010 study titled, The Road To The Glass Cliff showed that 62 percent of participants picked a man to lead a healthy company, and 69 percent chose a woman to turn around a company in a crisis. There are a couple of explanations given for this. First, men may be more likely to decline leadership roles in a struggling company because they have more options to choose from. Women, on the other hand, may take a leadership position at a struggling company because fewer leadership roles come their way and they may perceive it as their only chance. Second, women may be perceived to have the leadership qualities required to engage the workforce in a corporate turnaround. Irrespective of the reason, when women are more often appointed to leadership positions of companies in crisis and men are more often appointed to leadership positions in healthy companies, the odds of leadership failure are already stacked more highly against women.

Women CEO’s More Likely to be External Appointments

The Strategy& report referenced above also found that external CEO appointments are more likely to fail compared with internal appointments and that female CEOs are more likely to come from outside the organisation than are male CEOs. While the majority of male CEOs (78%) are recruited from within the company, this is only true for 65% of women.

One Step Forward, Two Back

Further compounding misperceptions about women and leadership competency, a study published in the Strategic Management Journal by Utah State University researchers reports that when women and other minorities leaders are fired from a leadership role, they are typically replaced by the traditionally dominant leadership stereotype — a white man. Analysing leadership transitions in Fortune 500 companies, the researchers found that women or minority CEOs succeeded other “non-traditional” CEOs in only four of 608 transitions from 1996–2010. When the successor is successful at getting the company back on track, they are perceived as a ‘saviour’, reinforcing traditional leadership stereotypes.

Moving Forward

Gender bias in assessments of leadership competency is deeply entrenched. Consider recent comments made by Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways. When asked about his role, Al Baker replied: “Of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.” Closer to home, Harvey Norman chairman Gerry Harvey told the ABC that boards were appointing unqualified women to boards just to fill a 30 percent target set by the ASX. Whether conscious or unconscious, traditional roles influence our assessments of women who lead. Increasing the incidence and visibility of successful female leaders will disrupt those biases. Organisations can help by committing to develop a pipeline of female leaders from within and by appointing women to leadership positions in good times as well as bad.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.