Monday, December 10, 2007

Glass Cliff for Women

You've heard of the glass ceiling -- the metaphorical barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising beyond a certain point in an organization. I hadn't heard of glass cliffs, but it turns out there's a research group at the University of Exeter looking into it:

Research into the glass cliff examines what happens when women (and other minority groups) take on leadership roles. Extending the metaphor of the glass ceiling, 'the glass cliff' describes the phenomenon whereby individuals belonging to particular groups are more likely to be found in leadership positions that are associated with a greater risk of failure and criticism.
The research started with business and then moved to politics. Then the team examined law firm dynamics. Julie S. Ashby, Michelle K. Ryan & S. Alexander Haslam, Legal Work and the Glass Cliff: Evidence That Women Are Preferentially Selected to Lead Problematic Cases, 13 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 775 (2007), available on HeinOnline (UW restricted).

The experiment described in the article doesn't necessarily show much, but the issues are intriguing. In the experiment, participants were given profiles of three lawyers -- a man and a women with comparably high qualifications and a man who was clearly less qualified. They were also given a news story saying that the lead counsel for a case was stepping down and a new lead was to be appointed. Some participants had a story saying the lead was leaving because the case was in trouble. When a case was seen as risky, participants were much more likely to say that the woman was the best one to take it on. Why? Because they think women can handle challenges? Because they think it won't matter as much if a woman fails?

The participants in the experiments were undergraduate law students in British university. I'd be curious to see the results if they ran it with, say, mid-career U.S. attorneys.

Photo of cliff from Oregon Parks and Recreation Department: Planning.

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