On the Edge of the Glass Cliff

Although I have been interested in gender equality and learning about the causes of gender discrimination my entire life, I have always mainly focused on external factors that have caused such a disparity in the number of women and men in top leadership roles in this country. I have also generally focused on corporate America. In this project, I will be looking more specifically at unconscious gender bias, and how it plays a role across all sectors and industries. The literature I read discusses the presence of gender bias and its impact on how women are described as leaders in not just the business realm, but also in politics, the public sector, the legal profession, STEM, and sports. Therefore, I hope to learn more about other fields that I don’t have as much experience in and am not studying in college that I otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to. Specifically, I am interested in learning about how gender bias impacts how people describe success and failure of male and female leaders differently across all areas. Female leaders who are successful aren’t given personal credit for their successes, but rather external factors tend to be attributed to their success; male leaders who succeed are seen as having traits that make them a good leader. On the other hand, when it comes to failure, female leaders are typically blamed as being incompetent or personally responsible for an organizational failure, whereas for men, external factors are attributed as the cause. This leads female leaders who fail to face a nearly impossible challenge of ever holding a leadership position again, and women who succeed aren’t actually given the credit they deserve, inhibiting progress to be made across the board for improving the perception of female leaders. Throughout my research, I hope to learn how to have female successes be viewed as due to internal traits and characteristics of her leadership style, rather than just external factors which prevent women as a whole from making progress in closing the leadership gender gap. 

In my Senior year of High School, I did a large symposium- style research project on the lack of female Fortune 500 CEOs, why this is a problem, and potential solutions to this problem. Part of my research involved interviewing female professionals about their experience with gender discrimination in the workplace and their ideas on how to best address it. Some of their responses are right in line with the aspect of my research project that focuses on searching for solutions to the Glass Cliff phenomenon. For example, one of the women, who is a Managing Director at Deloitte, explained that leadership workshops for women can at times be alienating and make them feel even more unequal to their male counterparts. Instead, she suggested having workshops for men and women that address gender inequality in general and how its harmful for everyone in society. When reviewing the literature on the Glass Cliff, this exact solution was suggested by more than one author. Additionally, in my project in High School, I found that unconscious gender bias was one of the causes preventing women in Fortune 500 companies from breaking the Glass Ceiling. However, I didn’t have a chance in that project to go into much depth on how to prevent this other than to raise awareness in the workplace that it’s occurring. I am very excited that in my current project, I will have the opportunity to try and figure out how to change how people view women in leadership roles. Additionally, in much of the literature that I read, unconscious gender bias is thought to play a large role in the persistence of the Glass Cliff. 

The Glass Cliff phenomenon is the observation across many sectors that women are often advanced into positions of leadership when organizations are on the brink of failure. Although much research proves its existence and points to potential causes and solutions, I hope to hone in specifically on what I believe to be one of the main underlying causes, and then conduct interviews of female Pitt alum to ask about potential solutions. Some of the existing literature focuses on observations of the Glass Cliff occurring, including in corporations, politics, and the legal profession. Several of the studies involve showing a sample of participants descriptions of either a failing company or bad opportunity and ask about whether they would choose an equally qualified man or woman to take on the role. In line with the research idea of “Think Manager- Think Male,” a “Think Crisis- Think Female” phenomenon has been seen. Participants in studies like these will much more frequently choose a woman to take over a failing organization over a man, but when an organization has been succeeding, gender doesn’t make as much of a difference in leadership selection. This research points to the idea that people tend to associate attributes that they look for in a leader in times of a crisis to be in line with attributes given to women. For example, women are seen as more emotional, people-oriented, and empathetic, which are also traits people think are needed in a leader during a time of crisis. Further explanations for the Glass Cliff include a range of benign to malignant causes; ranging from sexism to organizational factors. Men tend to downplay the existence of the Glass Cliff at all, or attribute it to more benign factors, whereas women are more likely to accept it and point to sexism or in-group favoritism as its cause. Because there are likely many reasons the Glass Cliff occurs, I won’t be looking to find specifically its cause, but rather want to delve into the aspect of unconscious gender bias when it comes to how people view the successes and failures of men and women. Specifically, I want to answer the question of how to change the way people attribute success to women; because right now, as Dean Murrell and I have put it, “success isn’t sticky” for women. This means that because when women succeed people tend to attribute it to external factors, their successes don’t help to increase their long-term reputations as leaders, preventing people’s predisposition towards preferring male leaders from changing. I plan to adapt the methodology used in an existing research study that focuses on gender attribute bias to conform to my research and help determine how to make success “stick” for women. This will likely include using online samples due to the remote conditions I am working under. After that, I will interview female Pitt alum and ask them a variety of questions about their own personal experiences, as well as their ideas for how to mitigate the negative impacts of unconscious gender bias and the Glass Cliff. 

One of the issues facing the mitigation of gender bias is that many people don’t recognize it’s existence or understand why gender diversity in leadership is actually important. This is exactly why continuing to research and discuss its very persistence in our society is so important. When people start to read and talk more about subconscious biases such as this one, awareness can spread and the true implications and search for solutions will be more widely discussed. Having female leadership is extremely beneficial not just for women, but for all of society. Studies show that companies perform better financially with more gender diverse leadership, employees feel more represented, which leads to a better working environment, and having more women in leadership roles in all sectors helps bring new perspectives and ideas that aren’t always considered by just men. Furthermore, organizations with more female representation tend to have better parental leave and flexible work hours, which can allow everyone to be more involved with their families and feel less stressed about missing time at work, improving mental health. The list goes on and on as to why having women leaders is a good thing, but not everyone realizes it or has accepted it fully. I hope my research will help answer one of the underlying questions about why unequal representation of women persists in leadership positions and can help offer solutions for this detrimental problem in our society. 

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