How Women End Up on the Glass Cliff

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By now everyone is familiar with the glass ceiling—the informal barrier that keeps women out of upper management. In the past few years, researchers have found that women have a better chance of breaking through that ceiling when an organization is facing a crisis—thus finding themselves on what Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, of the University of Exeter, have termed the “glass cliff.” But the question remains why.

To explore possible answers, we conducted two experiments. In the first we asked 119 college students to read two newspaper articles about an organic food company. The first article discussed the upcoming retirement of the CEO. We created two versions of the piece; in one the company was currently and historically headed by men, and in the other it was headed by women. We also created two versions of the second article, which dealt with the company’s financial status, so that some students read about a company that was growing, others about one that was closing stores and laying people off. We then asked the students to choose between two equally qualified candidates for CEO, one male and one female.