Not so much a glass ceiling as a glass cliff

Sep 06 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Women who break through the glass ceiling in organisations are far more likely to be given difficult jobs than their male colleagues, psychologists have discovered.

Professor Alex Haslam and Dr Michelle Ryan, from the School of Psychology, University of Exeter, claim that those women who do make it to the top of organisations are more likely than men to find themselves on a 'glass cliff', meaning their positions are risky or precarious.

In a presentation to the British Academy Festival of Science in Exeter, Professor Haslam said that companies doing badly are more likely to appoint a woman to the board, but once performance picks up, other women are less likely to be made directors.

"Women are breaking through the glass ceiling... but the jobs are often a poisoned chalice," Professor Haslam said.

"It seems that if the company is in crisis, then managers always turn to women as a kind of last resort. Male managers seem to think women are better at dealing with a crisis."

"This is just the latest example of discrimination in the workplace. Although women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling, there is this new wave of subtle sexism. Women are getting these jobs, but it is a real poisoned chalice. It is definitely more of a glass cliff."

"In all the studies we have done, we have never not found evidence of the glass cliff," he added.

The professor based his conclusion on research in which more than 300 people were interviewed and shown a male and female CV before being asked to choose a candidate. If the job was in a successful company, most chose the male candidate. If the company was failing women were chosen.

"There seems to be an unwritten law that says 'think female, think crisis'," he said. " If a company is doing well, then the 'jobs for the boys' rules still apply, but if it is in trouble, no man wants to give the job to their friends it seems, so for many the answer is to get in a woman."

The research also suggested that the phenomenon was not confined to any one profession or social group, but could be found across the business spectrum.

In the legal profession, for example, the researchers found that women were often given the harder cases or those in which it was expected that the client would prove to be a late payer.

Analysis of date from the recent Scottish elections also revealed that women were put forward for marginal seats, while only men stood in safe seats.

Another key finding of the research was that men vehemently deny the existence of the glass cliff. Via a survey on the 'glass cliff' effect on the BBC website, one man described it as 'crap science' and another said he was 'disgusted' by the research.

"People's reaction to this research has been fascinating," Professor Haslam went on. "Women can come up with dozens of examples, and are intrigued by how it affects their career prospects.

"Men, on the other hand, dismiss it as rubbish and refuse to believe this exists, despite the overwhelming evidence we have already collected."

According to BBC survey, 17 per cent both of males and females believed women were more suited to dealing with a crisis and more willing to take risks.

Around one in five per cent of women believed that their sex was singled out for inferior positions in companies, whereas only four per cent of men held this view. And 18 per cent of the women thought that men in senior positions preferred to hire other men for 'cushy' jobs. None of the men surveyed took this view, however.

Seventeen per cent of women thought they were seen as more expendable than men, as compared with none of the men believing that.

Women have fewer opportunities than men and therefore accept riskier positions, according to 31 per cent of women, but just eight per cent of men. However, only three per cent of women thought that the women were not picked for precarious leadership positions, as compared with half of the men.

"We should be more open to science that does not reinforce prejudices, such as The Glass Cliff study," Professor Haslam said. "This is real science, and it is something these male senior managers need to take note of."

Older Comments

Its not confined just to women - you should try to be a gay man in a senior position in most companies - you tend to work in the more high risk areas doing the things that other people dont' want to do or those that are generally unpopular.

There's usually a credibility issue to deal with first of all too!!

chris North East England