Women Perched Atop the Glass Cliff in Politics

Are women placed to run in political contests where failure is more likely?

Posted Sep 05, 2019

Social psychologists often study prejudice (e.g., sexism) at the level of the individual. For instance, to what extent does a sexist belief/stereotype held by a man predict his degree of sexism toward women?

But like sociologists, we also study contextual factors. That is, prejudices and biases also exist at the level of the institution or state. For instance, women can face what is called a “glass ceiling,” an almost invisible barrier that restricts women from being promoted and advanced at the same rate as men. Most big businesses and government offices continue to be dominated by men, even in the relatively progressive Western world.

But are women also being promoted into precarious positions when things are going poorly for an organization? And as a result, are they unlikely to be unsuccessful? Research by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam suggests that this is the case. They call this the “glass cliff,” whereby “women are elevated but dangerously exposed” (Haslam et al., 2010, p.485). Their research is fascinating and compelling; I’m particularly impressed that they examine this phenomenon in the real world. For instance, they have examined the board memberships of FTSE 100 companies, the sex compositions on their boards, and several objective and subjective indicators of company success. Rather than repeat the findings here, you can find them discussed in a previous Psychology Today column by Kirsten Anderson.

The short version is that women tend to be placed in leadership positions when things are already going poorly, when the proverbial “ship” is sinking. This is problematic, of course, because it reinforces stereotypes that women are less suited for leadership positions; people observe the failing company and note the female figurehead, without appreciating that the company was already on a downward trajectory when she was “promoted” into that position (all of this being compared relative to men, of course).

But what about political careers? Is there a glass cliff in politics too?

The CBC (Canada’s public broadcaster) recently combed through federal election data from 2008, 2011, and 2015, analyzing 3,882 candidates and their performance outcomes. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that, relative to men, women ran less often for office and were less likely to win their political ridings.

This could reflect sexism, of course, but it could also reflect other factors. But evidence of sexism became more apparent when the researchers dug deeper. They found that women were more likely than men to be placed in risky or “unsafe” ridings for the political party, and thus were more likely to lose their elections. Put another way: men were more likely to be placed in “safe” ridings where victory was already considerably more likely, regardless of the candidate’s qualities.

Moreover, according to Elections Canada filings, female candidates were given fewer campaign funds than men, hampering their ability to perform well. One reasonable interpretation is that political parties want to be seen promoting women but perhaps do not take this task seriously. As such, they can give the appearance of running female candidates for their party while systematically hampering women's ability to be successful.

Clearly, men and women are not operating on equal playing fields here. Men are given the advantage by being assigned safer ridings and given more money on top. The situation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby men then “do better” at winning elections than women. Politics becomes a “man’s game” but the deck is stacked to favor men. This can be difficult to spot with the naked eye; it is only by examining the numbers and carefully looking at historical trends (e.g., what makes a particular seat “safe” or not) that we can spot the glass cliff and the women precariously placed there.

Interestingly, this type of analysis reflects decisions made by the political parties more than by the electorate. To read more about sexism in the electorate itself, particularly in the context of the 2016 U.S. election, feel free to read one of my previous columns.

References

Haslam et al in the British Journal of Management, Vol. 21, 484–497 (2010) DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8551.2009.00670.x

Ryan & Halsam in the Academy of Management Review 2007, Vol. 32, No. 2, 549–572.

Rothwell, V., Hodson, G., & Prusaczyk, E. (2019). Why pillory Hillary? Testing the endemic sexism hypothesis regarding the 2016 U.S. election. Personality and Individual Differences, 138, 106-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.09.034

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