Tapping Leaders for a Crisis: Are Women Better At Fixing the Problems?

By the time Marissa Mayer took over a struggling Yahoo! and Meg Whitman rushed into aid a fading Hewlett-Packard, the term glass cliff was well-ensconced in the businesswoman’s lexicon. A steady stream of psychological research was showing that women are indeed more likely to be tapped for corporate leadership positions during times of crisis, when the risk of failure is at its highest.

The widespread assumption is that feminine leadership traits, such as being understanding and tactful, work better under such circumstances.

Some psychologists, however, suggest that the “think crisis—the female” association fuels a form of sexism, in which where men are setting women up to take an inevitable fall. But are women simply more inclined than men to take on these “fix-it” roles?

In a pair of studies last year, European psychological scientists found evidence to the contrary.

Led by Floor Rink of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the research team found that women tend to evaluate precarious leadership roles more negatively than men do.  But they’re more likely to accept those challenges if they believe they’ll have social resources—the acceptance and support they receive from colleagues and employees, for example.

Conversely, men want assurances about financial resources before accepting hazardous stints at the helm.

The research team asked Dutch business students to imagine working for a large company in financial crisis. They were offered a top leadership position at the hypothetical company, where they would be in charge of resolving the crisis. All of the students read a passage containing information about the social and financial resources that came with the position. One group read that they had employee support (social resources) and financial investment from management (financial resources), a second group read that they had financial investment but no employee support, and a third group read that they had employee support but no financial investment.

Comparing across genders, women generally seemed less likely than men to evaluate any of the positions positively. Yet comparing across the three scenarios, women were particularly less likely to accept the position that lacked social resources, while men were less inclined to accept the position that lacked financial resources, confirming the researchers’ hypotheses.

A second study suggests these findings may have been driven by internalized gender stereotypes about leadership. The researchers found that women viewed employee acceptance as a factor that would lead to influence, while men viewed influence as an attribute that would lead to employee acceptance.

The results indicate that gender stereotypes not only sway the way women and men behave at work. It can also influence which leadership positions they take on during an organizational crisis.

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