Holding a role usually occupied by the other gender can lead to significant media coverage, such as Sally Ride’s selection as an astronaut or Marissa Mayer’s appointment as CEO of Yahoo while in the later stages of her first pregnancy.
However, incumbents of roles usually held by people of the other gender can evoke harsh judgments about competence and suitability for leadership roles, according to Yale’s Victoria Brescoll and Erica Dawson with Eric Luis Uhlmann of HEC Paris.
This effect was most noticeable when both male and female leaders in “gender-incongruous” roles made minor errors in experimental studies.
Both male and female evaluators judged minor mistakes as indicators of role incompetence when male and female leaders held jobs typically performed by the other gender.
Brescoll, Dawson and Uhlmann suggested that “gender-incongruous” roles are seen as “ambiguous” by observers, leading to uncertainty, and negative assessments to “restore implicit order.”
The team referred to this rater bias as the “glass cliff effect.”
The researchers concluded that “the high status and senior leadership achieved by both men and women in gender-incongruent roles is fragile, vulnerable and unstable.”
This effect may be due to both the role’s gender incongruity and high status.
An earlier blog post highlighted Alison Fragale’s demonstration that higher status individuals are judged more harshly than lower status people when they make the same mistakes.
Her team at University of North Carolina found that observers in two experiments attributed greater intentionality, malevolence, self-concern to the actions of high status wrongdoers – and recommended harsher punishment for the same actions that earned lower status people “the benefit of the doubt.”
Although Brescol, Dawson and Uhlmann did not offer recommendations to mitigate the risks of being a pioneer in holding non-traditional job roles, Fragale’s team found that high status wrongdoers could protect from the impact of subsequent mistakes by demonstrating, warmth and concern for others and engaging in charitable giving.
Other strategies to consider include:
- Cultivating strong executive alliances and sponsorship
- Assembling a risk mitigation team to provide expert messaging during a crisis, focusing on external attributions of the error
- Balancing demonstrated competence with the “humanness” of a small error
- Offering plans for future action unrelated to the error to demonstrate decisive leadership and action-orientation.
-*What approaches are most effective to mitigate “The Glass Cliff”?