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Women face 'glass cliff' effect


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Career women in business and law, like Ally McBeal, may be getting tougher jobs than their male counterparts.
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LONDON, England -- Social psychologists have identified a new obstacle to female success in the workplace.

Growing numbers of women are smashing through the so-called "glass ceiling" into senior managerial roles, but many are finding themselves in precarious positions with a high risk of failure, according to Professor Alex Haslam of Exeter University.

Professor Haslam's research followed an article last year in The Times newspaper of London, which questioned the performance of FTSE 100 companies that had appointed women to their boards.

One commentator for the newspaper suggested "the triumphant march of women into the country's boardrooms has wreaked havoc on companies' performances and share prices."

But in 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."

"It takes the form of a glass cliff, where women are more likely to be appointed to precarious positions than men," Haslam told the British Association science festival in Exeter.

"What was found was that in all of those cases women had only been appointed after company performance had slumped quite dramatically.

"So women are parachuted into rather hazardous leaderships situations. What is typically happening is that if everything is going well with a company there is no motivation for change; you can carry on with the same 'jobs for the boys' approach."

With failing companies likely to attract adverse media attention, women in "glass cliff" positions are more exposed to public criticism and risk being blamed for a management failure that had already occurred before their appointment, Haslam said.

But the study also found that companies' performances were better than average in the five months after a female appointment.

While some women may be the victims of overt sexism, Haslam suggested that other factors also have a role in creating "glass cliff" situations, such as the habit of predominantly male managers recommending friends for desirable jobs but giving less desirable positions to those they didn't know.

"The way that it is conceptualized in management literature is: think manager, think male. Think of a leader and people tend to spontaneously generate male characteristics," said Haslam.

On the other hand, Haslam suggested, women were sometimes perceived as being better at crisis management than men.

The study also identified a "glass cliff" effect in law and politics, with women more likely to be handed tougher workloads than their male counterparts, as well as in an experiment in which students were asked to choose between male and female candidates in business recruitment scenarios.

"There is evidence that this is the next wave of subtle discrimination," said Haslam.

"I don't think it is limited to women but could also occur with all minority groups. It shows that opportunity is not the same as equal opportunity."


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