On the Other Side of the Glass Ceiling, a Glass Cliff

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African American woman clinging to branch on cliff

Are women in leadership roles judged more harshly than men because people are just harder on women? Or is it because women are simply worse at leadership than men? Or could it be that people come under more scrutiny when they take jobs that are usually held by the opposite sex? A new paper out of Yale University’s School of Management suggests it may be the last one.

Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior, specializes in studying the effect that stereotypes have on the perception of a person’s role within an organization or corporation. “There was so much talk about race and gender barriers being broken,” she said, that she wanted to see how well people who broke the barriers did once they got to the other side. And often it’s, well, not so well. (More on Are Women Less Competitive Than Men?)

The difficult position in which glass ceiling crackers often find themselves is poised at the edge of a glass cliff, an idea conjured up by two British professors in 2004. It suggests that after women break through the glass ceiling, they are left stranded at an invisible precipice — in a high-risk position. One wrong step and they plummet into the abyss of professional failure.

Recently, with women running successful election campaigns and dominating higher education, it would seem that stereotypes are toppling like fruit carts in an old movie car chase. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still exercise some influence over people’s expectations. And it is those stereotypical expectations that may lead people to judge women holding traditional men’s jobs (or men holding traditional women’s jobs) more harshly when they fumble. “Stereotyping thrives on ambiguity,” says Brescoll in the study, published in the journal Psychological Science. “Mistakes create ambiguity and call the leader’s competence into question, which, in turn, leads to a loss of status.” (More on Explaining the Complicated Women + Math Formula)

To test her thesis, Brescoll and two co-authors Erica Dawson and Eric Luis Uhlmann first made a list of all the high-status professions that were primarily associated with one gender over the other. Not surprisingly it was vastly easier to think up male-dominated prestigious jobs than female-dominated ones.

Then they devised scenarios in which people of equal merit held jobs typically dominated by the other gender (such as a female police chief or a male head of a women’s college) and handled a crisis badly. The scenarios described the police chief or college president failing to send enough police
officers or campus security officers to respond to a protest. (In some scenarios, however, following tradition, the police chief was male and the women’s college president was female.) (More on The State of the American Woman)

The researchers asked 200 people read the scenarios. When asked to judge the leader who made the not terribly significant mistake, the study volunteers said worse things about the person who was the non-typical gender: the male women’s college president and female police chief. They were judged more harshly than people who made the same mistakes, but who were the usual gender for the job.

This gender-based difference held up when the jobs involved aerospace company CEOs or judges too. We tend to magnify the mistakes of people we think don’t know how to do the job.

Brescoll’s study was of individuals in high-status jobs, but a similar phenomenon may be in play at lower-status occupations too. A recent story in the New York Times Motherlode blog detailed how young male babysitters often find themselves at a disadvantage, partly because everybody wonders why a young male would ever want to babysit, and then fears the worst. (More on Another Clue to the Scarcity of Women Executives)

On one hand, it’s a bit of a relief to know that bias is not just directed at women, but “driven by reactions to individuals in roles inconsistent with their gender,” as the study puts it.

On the other, it’s not all good news. “Though women and minorities have made progress in reaching high-status positions,” say the authors, “the present research draws attention to an unsettling bias that may readily undermine these achievements.”

In other words, as far as things have come, they have a way to go.

Related Links:

Are Men the Weaker Sex After All?

The 25 Most Powerful Women of the Past Century