Illustration of the Capitol building in Washington along with the symbol for female

Looking over a glass cliff: Why female leaders are set up to fail

October 20, 2020

Research & Innovation

Among her other areas of expertise, Crystal Hoyt, a professor of leadership studies and psychology, researches topics related to women and minority leaders. She talked about some of the issues that women leaders experience, and how bias against them can be addressed.

What challenges do women in leadership positions face? 

While explicit biases against women in leadership have decreased over the last half-decade, there are powerful and pernicious biases that work to undermine women’s access to power. The stereotype-based prejudice and discrimination that women confront in the domain of leadership is subtle and often hard to detect.

Social psychologists have devised clever approaches to illuminate these often-inconspicuous biases. In one experimental approach, people are asked to evaluate identical information for a job application, such as resumes, with one catch: Half the people are told it is a man’s resume, the other half, a woman’s. Using this paradigm, research has demonstrated clear and blatant discrimination against women in leadership selection, in that men with identical qualifications to women are more likely to be selected. Identical qualifications are deemed “better” or “more meritorious” when a male name is attached.

Women are more likely than men to be appointed to precarious leadership situations associated with greater risk and criticism, placed on what is termed a “glass cliff.” 


headshot of Crystal Hoyt
Crystal Hoyt
Professor of Leadership Studies and Psychology

Not only do women experience discrimination based on gender stereotypes, these stereotypes also place women in a double bind in leadership. For example, feminine women are often criticized for being deficient leaders, and masculine women often experience backlash for not being properly female. Gender stereotypes also contribute to the type of leadership positions women tend to reach. For example, women are more likely than men to be appointed to precarious leadership situations associated with greater risk and criticism, placed on what is termed a “glass cliff.” 

Biases against female leaders stem from the mismatch between gender stereotypes and the leadership role. It is the deeply ingrained stereotypic beliefs that women take care and men take charge that give rise to crafty biases against female leaders.

Do all women experience similar barriers to leadership?

Because white men are viewed as prototypical leaders, when considering gender bias in leadership most research has focused on white women relative to white men. Research is just starting to take an intersectionality approach, investigating the experiences of people with multiple subordinate identities — for example, women of color. By taking intersecting identities seriously, we are discovering important new findings that expand established wisdom. For example, some research indicates that Black women experience “double jeopardy” — they suffer the effects of both gender and racial prejudice. Other work suggests that women of color experience “intersectional invisibility,” such that they are marginalized or ignored.

How might we fight these gender-based biases in leadership?

Research focused on understanding and trying to control our subtle biases gives us some insight into how to fight these gender biases in leadership. One of the most powerful weapons to fight biases is becoming aware of them and understanding their power. One approach individuals can take is working to replace their stereotypes with images that counter them — such as showing examples of strong and effective women leaders. Many of these biases are most potent when we are thinking fast, so slowing down during important decisions and evaluations can be important. And, of course, one of the most important ways to intervene in these gender-based biases is to focus on addressing inequities and bias at the level of structures and institutions with a focus on accountability.