Are female leaders facing a ‘glass cliff’?

As Theresa May is appointed Prime Minister in the UK, are women more likely to be given ‘high-risk’ leadership roles?

It’s a good time for women in leadership roles right now: In the UK, Theresa May has been appointed Prime Minister, with MP Angela Eagle angling for the role of leader of the opposition Labour party, and across the pond in the US, Hillary Clinton has become the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party in this year’s presidential race.

Scratch at the surface however, and research suggests that what these women are facing in their leadership roles is in fact a ‘glass cliff’.

Alongside the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’ – that women face an invisible barrier when it comes to advancement in the workplace compared to men – the ‘glass cliff’ theory is based on research which suggests that women are more likely to be appointed to high-profile leadership positions at a time when the organisation has been facing a tough or tumultuous period.

Academic research conducted by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in 2005 looked at the performance of FTSE 100 companies after they had appointed new CEOs, and found that female CEOs were more likely to be appointed to organisations whose share prices were already falling – meaning their leadership and performance would be under even greater scrutiny.

What does this tell us about gender bias when appointing women to leadership roles?

"When you look at opportunities for leadership that one might describe as high-risk, women are more likely to be selected into that kind of role," according to Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

"There's this expression -- think crisis, think female," Cooper told the Washington Post.

The 'glass cliff' concept is particularly apt in the current political situation in the UK – May is taking the helm from David Cameron, who resigned after his ‘vote remain’ campaign lost in a national referendum to an unexpected Brexit vote, leaving the undesirable task of leading Brexit negotiations to his successor.

“It’s a complicated story with a number of different strands, but the key explanation put forward by the authors lies in the notion that in times of crisis we are more likely to take risks,” Julia Yates, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of East London wrote in The Conversation.

She added: “If all the usual plans and ideas have failed, the organisation is likely to look around, desperate to try anything which might work. Even a woman.”

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