“This week I attended a talk by Professor Michelle Ryan, where she explained how she serendipitously uncovered the subtle sexism that goes on beyond the glass ceiling
Michelle Ryan is a Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter. With Alex Haslam, she has uncovered the phenomenon of the glass cliff. This research was sparked by a newspaper article that claimed that companies with women as their leaders were more likely to fail. Professor Ryan revealed that in reality the causation of this association was reversed – women are more likely to be hired into positions of power in times of crisis. Research into the glass cliff was short listed for the Times Higher Education Supplement Research Project of the Year in 2005 and was named by the New York Times as one of the ideas that shaped 2008.
Consider the scenario: recession has hit, things aren’t looking good. There is going to be a big fall-out, redundancies, cut-backs. Stocks are falling. Whatever it is, things are looking bleak. You need to hire someone in or promote someone up who can deal with the crisis. What traits will this person require? Professor Ryan explains that her research has shown that in this situation people seek a leader who has endurance and empathy, with good management skills and who can take responsibility for the situation. These also happen to be traits that the general public consider to be female traits.
This leaves us in a situation where a person’s traits are assumed, subconsciously, based on their gender, rather than their C.V. The consequences of this are not initially obvious. We are talking about a rather impressive skill-set that women are being assumed to have, we are talking about them being called in to do a job a man is assumed to be inferior at completing. Maybe this is good news for equality? Maybe this is a compliment to women? Women could be happy, even proud that in a time of crisis they are called in to apply the band-aid. The motivations are based on women being different, not inferior. Women are different. So is there anything wrong with this?
The problems become evident when we take a look at the longer term consequences of these subconscious decisions. Is it fair to disproportionately select women for jobs that have an inescapably higher risk of failure? Is that the environment you would want your daughter to encounter? She will push ahead in her career, impressing those around her, excelling in her field, and then being appointed a leadership role with new responsibilities. The new job requires a huge investment from her, she tackles it gracefully and with clear talent but it’s too little too late. The company was doomed before she held the reins but she takes the hit and watches her hard work crumble to dust at the bottom of the proverbial glass cliff. The confidence knock and the reputation of failure married to the societal ideology that she is of that age, lead her to drop her career in favor of a role in the home.
In broad terms, the sector loses out on an asset that has been heavily invested in through years of training. Business in general is likely affected by the deficit of females in high up positions. Talented young females lose out on the possibility of a role model in their area of interest, thereby depriving companies of their potential in the future. But on top of these logical and financial reasons to protest the acceptance of the glass cliff scenario in society, there is the ethical argument. A moral obligation for equality. A female should have the right to be judged on her credentials and not the perceived notions of society that generalise and stereotype women and men into separate compartments. There are traits that are more likely to be associated with a particular gender, but these vast generalisations should not be the building blocks by which we select leaders, nor is it fair that they should be, even in a world where they held absolutely true.
The daunting question of how to change this inequality, so subtle in its action and so critical in its result, remains. And the answer is, like so many things, simple to say, not so simple to do. Forcing the subconscious to the conscious through awareness of the decision making process and taking responsibility for articulating decisions based on things like “gut-feeling”. Women and men are just as likely to fall into these traps. It is not your traditional sexist male thinking women are inferior. It is a deeply ingrained idea of what it means to be a woman or a man that has formed through the subtle cues we pick up through our lives. Therefore, this awareness must be felt among women as well as men. On top of that, awareness must come from the prospective employee as much as from the employer. When you are offered that position, think about it. Is there support there? What is the quality of the position in terms of career progression? Will taking this position lead to long-term personal success?
Don’t just wait to be offered a position that might railroad you down a certain track. Keep on top of positions becoming available and put yourself forward for the roles that fit your criteria. Be aware of where you are and where you are going and take responsibility for your own future, hopefully the rest of society will catch up sooner or later!”
Picture edited from (Weyant & Cagle Cartoons, 2013)Weyant, C., & Cagle Cartoons. (2013). Truthdig – Tag – Path To Citizenship. The Hill. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from http://www.truthdig.com/tag/path_to_citizenship