Michelle Ryan

(WOMENSENEWS)–Margaret Thatcher is Britain’s most well known female politician and only female prime minister.

Two British gender researchers, however, don’t consider her unique.

In looking at the circumstances that shaped her career, academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter, say that like many women in high places, Thatcher was often on the edge of a “glass cliff.”

When Thatcher became education minister in the early 1970s, student radicalism was at its peak and she faced riots and strong criticism. In 1979 when elected to prime minister, Britain was facing rampant unemployment and a recession.

Thatcher, along with other women who take on such bad odds, managed to stand her ground. Her situation was not unusual for a woman in a high place. According to the researchers, women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions where the chance of failure is high, meaning that many are doomed to fail when the challenges are too great.

Spurred by Press Attack

Ryan and Haslam became interested in high-powered women on the edge of a possible career crash after one newspaper in the United Kingdom–The Times–ran a story criticizing women for failing their companies once they had managed to “break through the glass ceiling” and secure high level boardroom jobs.

According to the article, companies led by women were performing poorly compared to others listed on the FTSE average–the Financial Times Stock Exchange Average, England’s chief stock-market indicator–and were taking a financial downward turn.

The female chief executives were blamed for “wreaking havoc” on share prices and profit. The Times concluded that businesses may be better off “without women on the board.”

Curious about the situation, Ryan and Haslam–organizational psychologists who were working separately on gender and leadership issues–collaborated to determine whether it really was the case that companies were worse off when headed by a woman and, if so, why this was happening.

They established that 19 of the UK FTSE 100 companies in 2003 had a female leader and began investigating the share price performance of their firms, both before and after the election of the female board leader.

They looked at the circumstances leading to the appointment of a female director and found that when a company had been underperforming for at least five months prior to an appointment, they were more likely to elect a woman to that role while men were consistently recruited into stable positions.

Study Published in September

Their study, published in the British Journal of Management in September, warns that women who manage to burst their way through the glass ceiling and into leadership roles in business, or politics, may find themselves at the edge of a new problem, the so-called glass cliff, where the chance of failure is high.

The authors discovered that–in contrast to the perception of women being a burden to corporations–many women, like Thatcher, managed to pull their organizations back from the brink.

Ryan and Haslam found that 63 percent of female directors who had assumed risky jobs actually increased company performance after five months in post. The Times, they also found, was judging women immediately after election to the role and had failed to look at long-term performance.

Overall, the researchers found that women are recruited to these very unstable leadership positions far often more than men and thus facing greater odds of failing. The researchers say that anecdotal evidence they have been collecting since they ended the study has further substantiated this analysis.

Widespread Phenomenon

The researches say the situation is by no means isolated to women in England.

Australia’s only two female state premiers, Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence, are two high-profile examples of women who wound up on the glass cliff. Both were appointed in times of exposed scandal and lost their subsequent elections.

“We have heard stories from women all around the world that support our research,” Ryan told Women’s eNews. She said comparisons were particular strong for women in the United States and the United Kingdom because of similarities between educational establishments and corporations in the two countries.

U.S. businesswoman Susan Mucha believes she faced a glass cliff a few years ago, while working for Elamex, a diversified manufacturing company based in Mexico and the United States that she joined in 1997.

Mucha was appointed vice president of the firm to help boost sagging sales. She said she was meeting the challenge well; in 1999 the company acquiring its largest number of customers in a single year. But then came a buyout of the company and a subsequent management shakeup.

That’s when she felt pushed to the edge.

“My new boss felt that, in a recession, sales expenditures should be minimal, so he cut my budget,” Mucha told Women’s eNews. “Without it, I couldn’t do my job properly. Rather than stay until my results were so poor that I was fired for incompetence, it seemed wiser to work out a reasonable severance agreement.”

“Women often get significant career advancement opportunities when a company needs someone to take a position with an uncertain probability of success,” Mucha says. “When that job gets done, the field of candidates immediately expands and the better positions may be given to close associates rather than the woman who achieved the desired performance results.”

Mucha now heads her own firm, Powell-Mucha Consulting, Inc., a strategic planning consultancy for electronics manufacturers, based in El Paso, Texas.

Ryan and Haslam hope that their findings will be used by human resource departments and management organizations so that strategies for increasing gender representation in the workplace are implemented and evaluated fairly.

Complex Psychology

They also hope to study the psychological dimensions of the issue, which they say are complex.

Not all women see the glass cliff as negative. Some women, they say, relish the opportunity to “prove themselves” in an inherently tough job.

“Some of them felt that their promotion was quite deliberate and manipulative, that they were moved as a scapegoat who would take the fall,” says Ryan. “But that wasn’t the whole story. Other women said they felt they were put in these difficult positions because they could cope very well. And still others said they actively sought out the jobs–quite often the only top positions available–because if they succeeded, the rewards were great.”

Andrea Wren is a freelance writer and researcher based in Manchester, England.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.