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By dawn billings On October - 4 - 2010   

Why Women Leaders Choose to Stand on the Edge of the Glass Cliff

Hey Women Entrepreneurs. It’s Dawn Billings, CEO & Founder of, and The Heart Link Women’s Network and creator of the CAPABLES Parenting tool

Have you heard of the term “glass cliff?” Word Spy offers an example of the term “glass cliff” in use: [I]n a study of FTSE 100 companies, Haslam and his team discovered that most appointed women to senior positions only after a downturn in their fortunes, leaving them standing on the edge of a “glass cliff.” —Women face ‘glass cliff’ effect, September 8, 2004 I thought it would be great for you to know and understand how “glass cliffs” affect women leaders and how women leaders feel about glass cliffs.

The below article is by Jessica Stillman | September 15, 2010  Jessica is an alumna of the BNET editorial intern program, which taught her everything she knows about blogging. She now lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing. A young woman who is looking carefully at some realities that impact women leaders in corporate environments.

Here’s what Jessica has to say: Statistically women are a rare breed at the top of major corporations, but there is one exception — companies in crisis. It’s so well known that women are often chosen to steer companies through troubled waters that the phenomenon has received a catchy nickname: the glass cliff. From the female prime minister elected after Iceland’s financial meltdown to Lynn Elsenhans leading Sunoco after its shares tanked in 2008, it often falls to females to handle the worst periods for an organization. Why?

Psychologists Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla Branscombe set out to uncover the answer in a series of experiments. First to confirm the phenomenon, they gave 119 subjects fictional case summaries of a company in crisis and asked them to select a new leader. But the exercise uncovered something odd. When the company’s previous leaders were all male, females were chosen to lead more often. When the previous leaders were women, the participants were just as likely to choose a man, but they didn’t choose men more often than women as you would logically expect. In other words, women were preferred to take over from failing men, but when women failed, men and women were just as likely to take charge.

To explain this paradox, the scientists asked a further 122 study subjects to choose leaders for hypothetical companies — some thriving, some struggling — from male and female candidates. Participants were also asked to say whether they thought the candidates exhibited stereotypical male (competitive, etc) and female (good communicator, etc) characteristics. The results showed that perceptions of female managers and their abilities never changed. Instead. Opinions of men simply tanked in a crisis. Bruckmüller and Branscombe offer a less than cheery summary:

Our findings indicate that women find themselves in precarious leadership positions not because they are singled out for them, but because men no longer seem to fit. There is, of course, a double irony here. When women get to enjoy the spoils of leadership (a) it is not because they are seen to deserve them, but because men no longer do, and (b) this only occurs when, and because, there are fewer spoils to enjoy.

What do you make of the authors’ depressing take on their study? Is the glass cliff phenomenon really so disheartening for women leaders?

A Business Woman’s blog written by Dawn L Billings, author of over 20 books and hundreds of articles on parenting, relationships, entitlement and networking and an ardent advocate for womens and children’s issues. Dawn is the CEO and Founder of The Heart Link Womens Network, Trova Women Business Directory and Trova Small Business Directory, The Heart international women’s networking organization and online community, and the creator of the new parenting toy/tool called Capables. In 2008 Dawn was selected by Oprah Magazine and The White House project as one of 80 emerging women leaders in the nation. Find out more and buy Dawn’s books To learn more about women networking check out our videos

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