Skip to main content
25th July 2016

Times of Crisis: Appointing Women as Leaders

In a world of politics where the most senior positions are dominated by men (32% of the Cabinet Posts in 2015 were held by women), the appointment of our second female Prime Minister, Theresa May, brings to mind a concept from the leadership research known as the ‘glass cliff’.

Many people are familiar with the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’, whereby women face invisible (or in some cases visible) barriers to the top positions in their organisation. The ‘glass cliff’ metaphor suggests that women who break through the glass ceiling are more likely to be given senior leadership roles during times of organisational crisis, compared to their male counterparts, potentially leaving them more open to failure (Bruckmüller, Ryan, Rink, & Haslam, 2014).

There is evidence that many people perceive men to have more stereotypically favourable leadership traits, such as independence and competitiveness resulting in a ‘think manager-think male’ phenomenon. However a ‘think crisis-think female’ phenomenon comes into play in times of organisational difficulty (Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, & Bongiorno, 2011).

Numerous research studies have found evidence for this ‘think crisis-think female’ effect, including research involving business leaders. When given the option between a male and a female candidate who are equally qualified and experienced, business leaders were more likely to choose the female candidate to lead an organisation in crisis. This is because female candidates were perceived to have traits that are more desirable in times of crisis e.g. ability to build confidence in others, cooperation, communication skills, ability to encourage others and ability to work in teams (Bruckmüller & Branscombe, 2010).

This ‘think crisis-think female’ approach during times of organisational crisis is also more likely to occur depending on what is required of the leader. When the main objective is to manage people through a crisis, a female is more likely to be chosen because gender stereotypes suggest that she is more likely to have the traits needed. However, when the main objective is to be a spokesperson or improve organisational performance, male and female candidates are equally likely to be selected (Ryan et al., 2011). It has also been suggested that the ‘glass cliff’ may be a result of self-stereotyping, where women put themselves forward for leadership roles during times of crisis, or poor organisational performance because they see themselves as having ‘what it takes’ to put things right (Bruckmüller et al., 2014).

Further research suggests that female leaders are selected to signal change to the outside world, rather than create actual change. Additionally, the ‘glass cliff’ is more likely to occur when crisis is associated with a cause that can be controlled from within the organisation, such as past leadership, rather than uncontrollable external factors such as the global economy (Kulich, Lorenzi-Cioldi, Iacoviello, Faniko, & Ryan, 2015).

Some argue that the ‘glass cliff’ puts women in a position that leaves them more open to failure, resulting in women being labelled as poor leaders. For example, an article in The Times in 2003 concluded that women had ‘wreaked havoc’ on the organisations that they led because those that had underperformed had more women on their board of directors. When looked into in more depth, research discovered that these women had been appointed at a time when share prices were either dropping, or fluctuating, before they were appointed; whereas men were appointed when company performance was steady. This resulted in these female leaders being associated with poor company performance in the article, when in fact the causes were in place before they took the leadership positions (Ryan & Haslam, 2005).

More positively, the ‘glass cliff’ can also be seen as an opportunity for women, highlighting their abilities and giving them greater visibility within an organisation (Bruckmüller et al., 2014). We might argue that they are more courageous in picking up the pieces after a crisis. Is this research something that Theresa May needs to consider?

The ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon is very much based on gender stereotyping but both male and female leaders may also exhibit traits that are stereotypically assigned to the opposite gender e.g. women can be competitive and men can be good communicators. It is important to be mindful of stereotypes and other biases when running a selection process. What matters most in any leadership contest is ability to do the job and to do it well, regardless of gender.

Author: Sarah Lavin, Assistant Business Psychologist.Times of Crisis: Appointing Women as Leaders 1


Bruckmüller, S., & Branscombe, N. R. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology49(3), 433-451.

Bruckmüller, S., Ryan, M. K., Rink, F., & Haslam, S. A. (2014). Beyond the glass ceiling: The glass cliff and its lessons for organizational policy. Social Issues and Policy Review8(1), 202-232.

Kulich, C., Lorenzi-Cioldi, F., Iacoviello, V., Faniko, K., & Ryan, M. K. (2015). Signaling change during a crisis: Refining conditions for the glass cliff. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology61, 96-103.

Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over‐represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of management16(2), 81-90.

Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M. D., & Bongiorno, R. (2011). Think crisis–think female: The glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager–think male stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology96(3), 470.

Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., & Kulich, C. (2010). Politics and the glass cliff: Evidence that women are preferentially selected to contest hard-to-win seats. Psychology of Women Quarterly34(1), 56-64.