Organizational Psychology: The Glass Cliff

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    • 00:04

      [Organizational Psychology: The Glass Cliff]

    • 00:10

      MICHELLE RYAN: I'm Michelle Ryan.I'm a professor of Social and Organizational Psychologyat the University of Exeter. [Michelle Ryan,Professor, University of Exeter, Social and OrganizationalPsychology] My expertise is in leadership, and in particular,in women in leadership.[The Glass Cliff] Today I'm goingto speak to you about the glass cliff, whichis a phenomenon that has been recently discovered

    • 00:31

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: that looks at the types of leadership positionsthat women take on once they do break through the glassceiling, once they become leaders,once they join boards of directors,and once they take on these roles that have previouslybeen all-male bastions.[Introduction to Research] The research

    • 00:51

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: began in response to a newspaper articlethat was on the front page of the businesssection of The Times.At first glance, the newspaper articlelooked like a positive, upbeat story about women breakingthrough the glass ceiling.But when you looked in more detail,it wasn't positive or upbeat at all.Here's a quote from the article, "So much for smashing the glassceiling and using their unique skills to enhance

    • 01:13

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: the performance of Britain's biggest companies.The triumphant march of women into the country's boardroomshas instead wreaked havoc on company performance."[Elizabeth Judge, The Times, p.21, 2003]So that's a very strong claim to make.What sort of evidence did the journalist have for this?Every year the Cranfield School of Managementputs out a female FTSE index, where

    • 01:34

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: they rank all of the top 100 companieson the London Stock Exchange, relative to the number of womenon their boards of directors.What the journalist noticed was, that six outof the top 10 companies on the Cranfield Indexwere under performing.That is, their average annual share pricewas less than could be expected from the average FTSE company.

    • 01:57

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: So these are six of the top companies,both with the most women on board.But what the journalist also found was, of the bottom fivecompanies, that's those with the least number of women on board,and indeed, some of these had no womenon their boards of directors, all of these companiesover performed.That is that their share price was better than to be expected.

    • 02:17

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: So the conclusion of the article thenwas, corporate Britain would be better off without womenon board.Now this is a very, very strong claim to make,and as a social scientist, my question really was,is there any evidence to substantiate this claim,or is it just journalistic license?When you look at the data in more detail, what you find

    • 02:39

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: is that there is, indeed, a relationshipbetween the number of women on boards of directors and companyperformance.That is, the more women there are,the worse the company tends to do.But the first thing that we teach our studentsin STATS 101, is that correlation is not causation.Just because you have two things associated with each other,doesn't mean that one causes the other.

    • 02:60

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: But indeed, The Times was making a very strong, causal claim.Women cause poor company performance.Just because women are on boards doesn't meanthey cause company performance.And indeed, the reverse causality could be true.It could be the case that when a company does poorly,they actually appoint more women to their boards of directors.

    • 03:21

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: So this led us to conduct a detailed archival studyto see whether we could find supportfor this archival analysis, for this alternative analysis.So instead of just looking at average annual share price,we looked at a much more nuanced measure of company performance.We looked at changes in share price from month to month.And rather than just looking at the number of women

    • 03:42

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: on boards of directors, we actuallylooked at the appointment of women to boards of directors,and compared these to when men were appointed.So in this way, we could look at how company performance changedbefore, and after, men and women were appointedto boards of directors.What we found was that when men were appointed

    • 04:02

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: to boards of directors, there was no real clear patternof company performance.It went up, it went down, as share price often does.But actually, when you looked at the appointment of women,you saw a very clear pattern of performance.Before women were appointed, in the months proceedingtheir appointment, they had a consistent patternof poor company performance.

    • 04:23

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: It dropped 5%, it dropped another 4%, another 3%,and then women were appointed.But what happened afterwards was the share price went up.So then contrary to The Times article,it wasn't that women were causing poor companyperformance, but rather that poor company performancewas causing women to be appointed

    • 04:45

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: to the boards of directors.Extending the metaphor of the glass ceiling,because, I guess, we wanted to have a sexy metaphorto go with the research project, wedescribe this phenomenon as a glass cliff.The idea that women were appointed to their leadershippositions in problematic, organizational circumstances,and therefore, their leadership positions

    • 05:05

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: are risky and precarious.So the idea of the glass cliff is that they're up high,they're on the board of directorsof FTSE 100 companies.But they are perhaps teetering on the edge, ready to fall.[Experimental Research] Now that we'veestablished the phenomenon of the glass cliff using

    • 05:26

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: real world archival data, our next stepwas really to look at the processes underlying the glasscliff phenomenon.Our first research question here was,is it the case that women are actuallypreferentially selected for these glass cliff positions?Is it something to do with the recruitment process?In order to answer this question,we've done a series of experimental studies,

    • 05:47

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: and indeed, we've done at least 20 studies in this area now.So what I'm going to do really isgive you a broad overview of the type of methodologythat we use, and then look at some specific examples.What we essentially do is describe participantsa scenario where they have to choose a leader for a positionin a company that's either doing well or doing badly.

    • 06:08

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: We tend to illustrate that by some sort of graph going upor some sort of graph going down.I'll come back to that again in a moment.And then we presented them three candidates for this leadershipposition.We give them a photo, and a small CV,and our two key candidates that we'remost interested in is a male and female candidate, who arematched on all key dimensions.

    • 06:30

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: So they're equally talented.They have equal experience.They're equally good looking.And indeed, we had photos of themthat showed them as very much leadership material.They were good looking with glasses.They were very much leadership types.And we matched them on all dimensions,so that the only thing that differed, was their gender.And in fact, we counterbalanced their CVs as well.

    • 06:54

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: We also include a middle candidate, another man,to add a bit of realism, but he reallyisn't particularly qualified for the job.And then we ask candidates to choose.Who do you prefer?Who do you prefer when things are going well?And who do you prefer when things are going badly?What we find, very consistently, across all of the studies,

    • 07:15

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: is that when things are going well,the male and female candidate are equally preferred,really reflecting the fact that their CVs are equivalent.But what we find when things are going badlyis much more dramatic.We find here that the woman is overwhelmingly preferred.When things are problematic, when things are risky,she is chosen over and above him, almost every time.

    • 07:39

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: And we find this in a range of different circumstancesas well.We had a group of the students come into our department,and we described a music festival, thatwas either increasing in popularity,or decreasing in popularity, and when it was decreasingin popularity, they chose her.We had a group of lawyers choose a leaderfor a highly criticized and difficult legal case,

    • 08:02

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: and they chose her.We asked business leaders to choosea financial director for a poorly performing company,and they chose her.And we asked the average voter on the streetto choose a politician for a by-electionin a very difficult to win constituency,and they chose her.So what we have here is very different circumstances, very

    • 08:23

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: different leadership positions, in very different sectors,with very different participants,but what is clear across all of these studies,is that she is chosen, when things are difficult,when things are risky, when things are precarious.So what these studies do is experimentally reinforcethe idea of the glass cliff, and showthat is something to do with the selection process.

    • 08:45

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: [Underlying Process] So hopefully I'veconvinced you that the glass cliff phenomenon reallydoes exist.I've given you archival evidence,and I've given you experimental evidence,to show that women are preferentiallyselected for these glass cliff positions,that they are risky and precarious.

    • 09:05

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: But hopefully the question in your mind now is, why?Why are women placed in this position?I recently did a radio interview wherethe announcer asked me the same question,why is this happening?And she said, she thought it was somethingto do with the fridge magnet that she had.Now I'm not sure whether we can encapsulatea decade's worth of research in a fridge magnet,

    • 09:25

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: but this fridge magnet was a quotefrom Eleanor Roosevelt. It said, women are like tea bags.You don't know how strong they are until you put themin hot water.So the idea here is, maybe women are chosen for these glasscliff positions, because there's something about them thatmake them good at dealing with crisis,and being leaders in times of crisis, as well.

    • 09:49

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: Now rather than just taking Eleanor Roosevelt's wordfor it, we wanted to see whether wecould do some experimental research, to look at this idea,to see whether stereotypes could help explain the glass cliff.So we conducted a series of experimental studies thatreally drew on some classic research conducted by VirginiaShine in the 1970's.

    • 10:10

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: We took a list of 92 traits that couldbe used to describe people.So it could be about people being intelligent, or warm,or forceful, or kind, and we asked peopleto say how descriptive these words were of men,in general, and of women, in general.And this gave us an idea of gender stereotypes.

    • 10:30

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: We then took the same list of 92 traits,and we asked people to describe how characteristic thesewere, or indeed, how ideal and desirablethese were of leaders.Leaders when things are going well,and leaders when things were going badly.So what sort of traits do we want from our leaders,

    • 10:50

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: when things are going well, or when things are going badly?When things are going well, what we foundwas a replication of the classic research by Virginia Shine.We found what we call, a think manager--think maleassociation.And this means, that what is neededwhen things are going well, what things are desirable,are typically masculine traits.

    • 11:11

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: This might be about being ambitious,about being objective, about being logical,about being forceful.This is what's needed when all is going well.But what we also found is that when things are going badly,this phenomenon changed around.We no longer had a think manager--think maleassociation, we had a think crisis--think female

    • 11:33

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: association.So when things are going badly peoplesaid that they wanted leaders who were warm,who are approachable, who were sociable, who were kind,as sort of stereotypically feminine traits.So what we've got here is an explanationthat supports a little bit of this idea about womenbeing like tea bags.

    • 11:54

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: Now we might see this as a really positive explanation.This idea that women have great traits that are particularlygood in times of crisis.But I guess I'm a little bit skeptical.So I conducted another study, whereactually what we wanted to do wasexplore what leaders could be expectedto do in times of crisis.We did a second study, where instead of just saying

    • 12:15

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: that we wanted a leader, in general, when things are goingwell or when things are going badly,we concentrated just when things were going badly.And we really specified what it wasthat we expected from a leader.We found that when we said that we wanted a leader,either to just sit there and endure the poor companyperformance, or to be there, and be a scapegoat,

    • 12:37

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: we absolutely found the think crisis--think femaleassociation.We want people who are warm, and kind, and approachable.We also found that when we wanted a leader to actuallymanage personnel issues throughout a crisis,that we also found a think crisis--think femaleassociation.When a company is in crisis, there may be redundancies.

    • 12:59

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: There may be restructurings.Where being warm, approachable, being intuitive,might be helpful.But when we actually wanted leaders to be more active,to actually change things, and turn things around,or to be an active spokesperson for their company in timesof crisis, the think crisis--think female

    • 13:21

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: association disappeared, and instead,we reverted back to think manager--think male.So if we go back to our metaphor of women being like tea bags,it's saying that they are only seen to be good at crisis,if they are to be scapegoats, if they are to sit there, if theyare to look after people.But if they're actually there to turn things around,

    • 13:41

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: that's not there anymore.We go back to think manager--think male.So I guess my response then to the metaphor of womenbeing like tea bags, and this being a very positive thing,is that I'm not sure that woman want to be dunked in hot wateragain, and again, and again.[Conclusion] So now we have evidence

    • 14:04

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: that women are preferentially selected for these positions.They occupy them in the real world,and that it's something to do with our stereotypes.So taken together, it really questions our original Timesarticle that says that women cause poor company performance.Rather we can see that poor company performancesees women being appointed to leadership positions.

    • 14:26

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: It's something about the preferences that we have.And this is underlined by stereotypes.There's also some idea here, that it's not justbecause we think women are great at their jobs,that they're great at crisis.But it is something to do with scapegoating, as well.So if we take all of this together,what we have is evidence that really, I guess,

    • 14:46

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: questions the original Times article.It is not that women cause poor company performance,but rather that women occupy leadership positions thatare very different from their male counterparts.They occupy risky, precarious leadership positions.Now this has some really strong implicationsfor how we think of equal opportunity and gender

    • 15:07

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: equality.We often think about gender equalityin terms of a numbers game.How many women are in leadership positions?How many women are on the boards of FTSE 100 companies?But what this suggests is, that looking at numbersis not enough.It's not just about the quantity of women in these leadershippositions, but it's about the quality of those positionsas well.

    • 15:27

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: If we promote women, if we put them on boards of directors,but if we're setting them up to fail,because these positions are risky and precarious,we run the risk of just simply reinforcing the idea that womenare bad for business.So I think what we need to do is not just look at the numbersgame, but I think if organizations wantto ensure that women are there, that women take on leadership

    • 15:51

      MICHELLE RYAN [continued]: positions, they have to not only promote them, but make surethat the positions that they haveare equal to that of men, that havethe same ability for success, and give them the chanceto show that they are strong leaders,and that they have those abilities.

Organizational Psychology: The Glass Cliff

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Abstract

Inspired by a newspaper article that blamed poor company performance with female leadership, Professor Michelle Ryan began research into when women are appointed to board leadership and the types of positions they are given. She identified a phenomenon dubbed the Glass Cliff, which states that women are given precarious leadership positions when a company is in crisis, either because they are expected to deal with layoffs or because they are to be scapegoats for the company's problems.

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Organizational Psychology: The Glass Cliff

Inspired by a newspaper article that blamed poor company performance with female leadership, Professor Michelle Ryan began research into when women are appointed to board leadership and the types of positions they are given. She identified a phenomenon dubbed the Glass Cliff, which states that women are given precarious leadership positions when a company is in crisis, either because they are expected to deal with layoffs or because they are to be scapegoats for the company's problems.

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