Women in Leadership and the Glass Cliff

10/29/2010 07:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

As the mid-term elections draw near, I have been following with interest the large number of female candidates and political influencers. Forbes' "Top 25 women political influencers" include women from the left and the right. Whether I agree with the politics of these female candidates or not, and whether I would vote for them or not, I applaud that more women are running and getting their voices heard, and serving as role models for the next generation. While women heads of state are still a rarity, the field of politics has made some progress in gender representation considering that women only got the right to vote 90 years ago -- a fact that will never cease to amaze me, considering how my generation has always taken this right for granted).

As more women assume leadership positions, we however have to be aware of a very real and very damaging form of potential bias against women candidates: the Glass Cliff. This body of research shows that women are more likely to be chosen for leadership positions when the position itself is precarious -- that is, when the risk of failure is high. This phenomenon, coined by academics Alex Haslam, Michelle Ryan, and their colleagues, shows that when a job description entails an organization or group in "crisis," individuals are more likely to choose a woman for that position: in this article, Haslam says his research shows "There seems to be an unwritten law that says 'think female, think crisis...' 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."

Indeed, their research has shown that in both the board room and politics, women are more likely to be put forth for those precarious positions -- the situations where success is unattainable.
Back to politics, perhaps the best example of a Glass Cliff political appointment was Kim Campbell. I am not sure anyone remembers, but Canada did have a woman head of state... for 132 days. Kim Campbell was the 19th Prime Minister of Canada, and lasted 4 months in the job. After 9 years as Prime Minister, in 1993 Conservative Party lead Brian Mulroney was facing supremely low approval ratings, and the discontent for his party was high. His party was facing an almost assured loss in the upcoming general elections. Mulroney resigned, knowing he couldn't lead his party to victory. Many thought the party would then elect up-and-coming candidate Jean Charest; instead, the party picked Defense Minister (and inexperienced campaigner) Kim Campbell. Campbell became de-facto Premier upon Mulroney's resignation and led her party into the mandated general election 4 months later, which saw the liberals take control of the country and of a record number of seats lost for the conservatives. After Campbell's ouster on the heels of this humiliating defeat, party leadership was then handed over to Jean Charest, who had in effect been spared being identified with the humiliating defeat of the elections. At the time in my twenties and living in Canada, I was not a conservative voter but I was embarrassed that our only ever woman head of state would have been associated with such a dismal failure (4 months in office!). When I read the Glass Cliff research a few years ago, I immediately thought of Campbell.

Do people always pick the woman candidate when the situation is dismal? No. If this were the case, Hilary Clinton would have been ensured the presidency two years ago, inheriting a mess of epic proportions. (An interesting point is that researchers suggest that the glass cliff phenomenon applies not only to women but other minority groups -- in the case of the race for the Democratic nomination, two minority candidates were vying for the post (Clinton and Obama)). Regardless, this body of research is critical for people to be aware of -- in politics and in companies, genuine efforts to advance more women in leadership positions can backfire if women are being chosen for precarious projects.

In our own work with women in high-technology, women in senior leadership positions often discuss how they are consistently given the "messy", under-resourced, "clean up" projects. One research report also finds that there is a greater price to pay for women who fail under such conditions.

In your experience, are women more likely to be picked for leadership positions that involve messy, high-risk projects? Do you think this will influence people's votes on Tuesday?