After a lot of confusion following the Brexit results, we eventually learned that our next prime minister would be a woman. Despite her questionable history of supporting women’s rights, the fact that Theresa May has won this position of immense power can be regarded as something of a milestone for women’s equality. Indeed, women politicians more generally seem to have gained momentum recently: Andrea Leadsom was May’s opponent for becoming prime minister, and Hillary Clinton succeeded in being nominated for the Presidency of the United States just last week. Seemingly, women are making great strides towards closing the power gap.

Certainly, these developments are fantastic. As a feminist, I rejoice to see that people trust women with the most challenging and important positions in the world. As a social psychologist, I expect an increase in diverse perspectives in government to result in improved decision-making. As a potential parent-to-be, I am grateful that my children will grow up in a world with a lot of strong female role models in public positions, a privilege that my generation was sadly lacking.

So with all this in mind, I should be absolutely pleased with the situation. But I am not. Instead, an image regularly pops up in my mind: May and Clinton, and other women leaders, together, standing at the edge of a teetering glass cliff that could collapse at any second.

Women are making strides, but what towards? (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

The glass cliff analogy describes the phenomenon that women frequently take over leadership positions with a high likelihood of failure, and are put in charge during precarious times. Prof. Michelle Ryan (University of Exeter) and Prof. Alex Haslam (University of Queensland) first discovered this in 2005. The researchers stumbled upon an article that claimed that women CEOs have a negative impact on the performance of their companies. Allegedly, data had shown that many companies perform poorly after a female CEO has been appointed. Ryan and Haslam found this conclusion curious and started investigating the data it was based on. They found that, in fact, the opposite was true: Women CEOs do not cause poor performance, rather, poor performance causes women CEOs. The investigated companies performed poorly before a woman was appointed CEO, not the other way around.

Since then, myriad studies have shown that women are put in charge primarily during risky times. This pattern emerges across experimental and archival field studies, and across contexts (business, law, politics, student organizations etc). Indeed, there are numerous examples of women who took over glass cliff positions over the past decade. For instance, Marissa Mayer took over Yahoo just after it lost a significant market share to Google. Similarly, Ellen Pao had to resign her position at Reddit due to controversial decisions that had been made before she had been appointed CEO.

Researchers propose a variety of theories that might explain why it is often women who take over precarious positions. A prominent one focuses on gender stereotypes. According to these, women are more socially skilled than men are, and are therefore better at difficult negotiations that occur during periods of crisis. Another theory posits that women might lack the insider information that men might have.

women leaders, together, standing at the edge of a teetering glass cliff that could collapse any second

Predominantly male networks (“the old boys’ club”) might function as a source of insider information about open positions. Excluded from these, women simply might now know that a given position is precarious. Furthermore, women still experience discrimination in the workplace and often do not have the choice between several positions. A precarious leadership position might seem more attractive than none at all. More cynical voices suggest that men exploit women as scapegoats to avoid burdening members of their in-group with difficult or impossible tasks.

Whatever the cause might be, the outcome is problematic. More women than men hold precarious positions where it is almost impossible to succeed. Women are not lacking the ability or the motivation to work hard and to excel, but often their playing fields differ significantly from those of men. Inevitable failure on the part of women in glass cliff positions is not only detrimental to their personal careers, but also to gender equality more generally. Given the small number of women leaders, society scrutinizes each one of them carefully. If one fails, it is easy to dismiss the (frequently unknown) circumstances and to falsely conclude that women possess fewer leadership skills than men, and that companies would fare better if they appointed male CEOs instead.

At this point in time, we undeniably find ourselves in a period of political instability ripe with challenges. Therefore, I feel ambiguous about the increasing number of women leaders. Whilst I am convinced that these ladies will handle the crisis as good or as bad as any other politician, I am worried that this upsurge of women leaders during a time of crisis might have negative consequences for the women’s movement on the long run.

Fingers crossed that I am wrong.

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