Female Candidates Risk Falling Off the ‘Glass Cliff’

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A record 257 women are running for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. These candidates are overwhelmingly Democrats, so conventional wisdom suggests that their success in the primaries reflects a backlash against President Donald Trump’s sexism. That’s only part of the story.

The higher number of female candidates on the ballot this year likely reflects a phenomenon called the “glass cliff.” This is the theory that women often are chosen for business and political leadership when times are tough.

How this will play out at the ballot box Tuesday is far from clear, however. While this dynamic provides women with opportunities to ascend to the highest positions, it also can put them in positions where the odds are stacked against success. Although there isn’t data that prove conclusively how women tend to perform in such thorny roles, researchers suspect that they are often set up to fail and end up taking the blame for intractable situations.  

Consider the following recent examples. A 2007 study by University of Exeter researchers found that in the U.K.’s general elections, women were more likely to be selected as candidates for seats that their parties appeared unlikely to win. In a 2010 study, the same researchers found that political science students thought women would be better candidates when political campaigns looked particularly difficult. There are exceptions, of course. One example of a woman who overcame almost impossible odds is Africa’s first female elected head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became president of Liberia in 2005 after a brutal civil war that left her country in ruins. She later received a Nobel Prize for promoting peace.

But not all stories of women in politics are uplifting. Michelle Ryan, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Exeter who has co-authored many of the studies on the subject, told me she believes one of the lesser reasons people turn to women in times of crisis is that “stereotypes about gender and leadership suggest that women might have the traits needed" in those situations — like being tactful and good at managing people. A bigger reason, she says, is that women are being chosen for roles where success in the job is almost impossible. She says U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is a good example: “She is there to be a scapegoat for the drama surrounding Brexit, while the men like Boris Johnson wait in the wings for the crisis to be over.”

The glass cliff also tends to produce mixed outcomes in the business world. A 2005 study by two of the University of Exeter researchers, for example, found that, during periods of overall stock decreases, FTSE 100 companies that had experienced five months of bad performance were more likely to appoint women to their boards. According to a 2013 study by  researchers at Utah State University, women, along with men of color, were more likely than white men to become chief executives of Fortune 500 companies that were performing poorly. A 2006 study found that law students were more likely to choose a woman to serve as lead counsel on a case that was considered risky because it wasn’t going well and was generating negative publicity.

As in politics, women placed in such positions sometimes succeed. The highest-ranked Fortune 500 company led by a woman is General Motors, whose chief executive, Mary Barra, took over in 2014 as the company coped with a safety recall involving millions of cars. Last year, one analyst claimed she’d done more in her first three years than most chief executives achieve in three decades. But there are also prominent examples of failure: Marissa Mayer, who became chief executive of the ailing Yahoo! in 2012, stepped down in 2017 after being unable to turn the company around.

Alex Haslam, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland who has also researched the glass cliff, told me that the shorter tenure of female chief executives supports the idea that they are set up to fail. In 2015, female leaders of S&P 500 companies served two years less than men in similar jobs, according to S&P’s Financial Services. And, according to the Utah State study, women were often replaced by white men, a phenomenon the researchers dubbed the “savior effect.”

The members of Congress elected on Tuesday will face particularly tough challenges once in office. In the American Psychological Association’s annual “Stress in America” survey, 63 percent of respondents this year said they were worried about the country’s future. Those concerns outpaced worries about work and money, which usually top the list. And PPRI’s 2018 Voter Engagement Survey found that 64 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

It’s no wonder that angst-ridden Americans have turned to female candidates in the primaries. It remains to be seen whether those who win their races under these unusually tough conditions will succeed, or whether they will be set up to fail.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.

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