The Real World

February 2009
The Psychologist, 22 (2), 97.

These are bleak times, of credit crunch and of global economic woe. But is there a silver lining for some? A number of commentators have remarked that the downturn provides leadership opportunities for members of minorities who don’t normally get much of a look in when all is going well.

Writing in The Observer on 4 January, Richard Wachman noted that ‘according to several organisations that spearhead campaigns on behalf of female entrepreneurs… opportunity knocks for women, especially in a recession’. The shining example of this comes from the bleakest source: Icelandic banks. In late 2008 the three national banks collapsed, taking with them around £5bn of investors’ cash (including £100m from UK universities). Hitherto, all three banks were renowned for their aggressive approach to business — an approach epitomised by the men at their helm. So who would be appointed to try to clean up the mess? Step forward Elín Sigfúsdóttir and Birna Einarsdóttir: new chief executives of two state-run banks and the first women to assume leadership positions in the Icelandic financial sector.

Elsewhere, hot on the heels of another minority representative – Barack Obama – getting what several commentators described as ‘the worst job in history’, Mary Schapiro was selected as the first woman to lead the US Securities and Exchange Commission, charged with solving the problems of the US financial system. Interestingly for psychologists, the pattern of such appointments might have been anticipated on the basis of a large body of work on ‘the glass cliff’ by Michelle Ryan and colleagues at the University of Exeter. Their archival, survey and experimental research suggests that when groups and organisations are in crisis, they are much more likely to appoint women to leadership positions than they are at other times.

There appear to be multiple reasons for this, including a desire to signal change, a willingness to try a new approach, a belief that a ‘communal’ style will be more successful than an ‘agentic’ one, and the fact men are less likely to push themselves forward (or be pushed forward by their ‘old boy’ peers) when their prospects are less than rosy. The data supporting these ideas was greeted with some scepticism when it was first published (well before the current global crisis), but it appears to have been peculiarly prescient.

Bearing this in mind, it may be worth reflecting on several other findings from the glass cliff literature. First, it would appear that one reason why women’s leadership skills are sometimes seen as inferior to those of men is that they suffer from the negative attributions that derive from being at the helm when organisations are most likely to fail. So while male leaders get the credit when organisations succeed (as shown in James Meindl’s classic work on ‘the romance of leadership’), women often end up getting the blame when things go pear-shaped. Second, even if they do turn organisations around, there is evidence that women have difficulty holding on to leadership positions when things improve. Third, a key reason for this is that, as a result of the types of leadership opportunity they are given, women are more likely than men to find the experience of leadership highly stressful – making them more likely to ‘opt out’ of organisational life altogether. And if they do, this is typically presented as a ‘lifestyle choice’ or as an indication of their lack of resilience. In this way, when women (or other minority group members) are pushed from the top of glass cliffs, this is conveniently interpreted as a jump.

So, yes, for those so often left out in the cold, there may indeed be some comfort in harsh times. But beware, lest this serves only to
entrench inequalities once the economic going improves.