Think Crisis, Think Female, and the Glass Cliff

Earlier, I wrote about “think manager, think male” – the idea that people associate men and masculine characteristics with leadership.  In general, men are often thought of as (and promoted to) leadership positions more so than women.  However, what do Ellen Pao, Marissa Mayer and Theresa May all have in common?  Yes, they are all women leaders  …  but they were also all appointed to leadership positions during times of difficulty.  Is this a coincidence?

Research suggests this is not uncommon.  One study[1] recently looked at 15 years of CEO transitions in Fortune 500 companies.  What they found was that when it was time for a new CEO to take over and the organization was performing poorly, women were more likely to be promoted to the role than men (this study also found similar results for people of color).  We know that, in general, people tend to “think manager, think male,” but it seems not to be the case in poor organizational performance situations.  Why is this?

Industrial-organizational psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “think crisis, think female” and have supported this finding in various studies.  What this means is that although people typically associate males and masculine qualities with successful leadership, people prefer females and feminine qualities in leaders when there is a crisis.  This was supported by one study[2] that asked people what qualities and leadership characteristics they associated with both successful and unsuccessful companies.  As expected, they found that for successful companies, “think manager, think male” occurred.  But for unsuccessful companies, it was “think crisis, think female.”

What is particularly interesting about this study is that not only did they document what happened, but they also investigated why it happened.  Specifically, they looked at things people might want a leader to do during a crisis and compared that to the desirability of masculine and feminine leadership qualities.  They found that when leaders were needed to endure the crisis, be responsible for the crisis, or manage people through the crisis, people preferred feminine leadership qualities over masculine ones.  In other words, people thought female leaders would be effective in crisis situations because they believed women would be particularly good at these three aspects of crisis leadership.  However, when leaders were needed to either be a spokesperson for the crisis or to help improve the crisis, people had no preference between masculine or feminine leadership characteristics.

Is “think crisis, think female” good or bad?  On the one hand, it gives women leadership opportunities that are usually reserved for men.  But at what cost?  The authors of the previously discussed study referred to this as the “glass cliff.”  Similar to the glass ceiling (i.e., the invisible but very real barrier for women to attain leadership positions), the glass cliff refers to the idea that these leadership roles can be “dangerous” for women, and the danger can be invisible as it is wrapped in what seems to be an opportunity.  The woman is being promoted to a failing situation, which may be too far gone for saving, and it will look bad for her when she can’t.  Or if she is able to fix the problem, what is her reward?  She may become known as someone who can “fix” situations and therefore might be moved into another failing role.

The thing to keep in mind about “think crisis, think female” is that it does not only occur in CEO situations; this is a general phenomenon that affects how people view women and what they are good at.  Think about circumstances you’ve seen.  Are women given tougher assignments than men?  Are women set up to fail more than men?  By being aware of “think crisis, think female,” we can all help to ensure it happens less and that men and women are both on equal footing as leaders.

[1] Cook, A., & Glass, C. (2013).  Above the glass ceiling: When are women and racial/ethnic minorities promoted to CEO?  Strategic Management Journal, 35, 1080 – 1089.

[2] Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M. D., & Bongiomo, R. (2011).  Think crisis-think female: The glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager-think male stereotype.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 470 - 484.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.