What Is Better for Gender Equality: Hard or Soft Policy Strategies?

There are different approaches when it comes to achieving gender equality and quotas are a hotly debated issue. But what do women directly affected by hard and soft policy strategies think? To answer this question, Casey, Skibnes and Pringle interviewed women in senior management both in Norway and New Zealand – both of which are countries that rank high in gender equality. However, while New Zealand’s strategy to improve gender equality on company boards is a soft one, meaning that they encourage companies to appoint more women to their boards without any legal consequences, Norway introduced a quota that companies are obliged by law to fulfil.

Interestingly, they found that gender equality was perceived as quite similar by female senior managers both in New Zealand and in Norway. However, while women from Norway were generally in favour of the quota, women from New Zealand had strong objections towards it. The authors conclude that it is hard to say which strategy is better – while the quota has definitely succeeded in drastically changing the gender landscape of management in a short period of time in Norway, it may also result in women being pushed into positions they might not feel comfortable taking and negative evaluations of these women. Soft measures, on the other hand, work much slower or not at all, which results (among other things) in the need for women in senior management to adhere to masculine norms.

We would like to add another thought. First, while quotas certainly increase the quantity of women in management, it might not necessarily mean that their positions are equal in quality to those of their male counterparts. Our research suggests that these women might run the risk of finding themselves on a glass cliff. On the other hand, however, the think-manager-think-male stereotype is only going to change if women are equally represented in leadership positions – which might then very well make quotas unnecessary.

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The Glass Cliff

“I didn’t have any medics in my family to get the stories so surgery is something you see on TV and they’re always depicting men in surgery and then the women who are struggling to be at the same level as them. And then as a student I’d come to the hospital and I’d have my placements and every time in general surgery I’d see these old school surgeons and the top ones were always male. I hardly saw any females.”

The quote above is taken from our last post on role models in surgery and illustrates an important point: While more and more women are entering medicine in general and surgery in particular, the higher echelons of surgery are still almost exclusively populated with men. This is of course by no means a problem for surgery alone. The same pattern can be observed almost everywhere from the corporate world to politics and there are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. One widely used metaphor is the Glass Ceiling which refers to the fact that women hit an invisible barrier which keeps them from progressing as they advance through the ranks. However, recent research shows that women face additional obstacles even if they manage to break through the Glass Ceiling – they might find themselves on a Glass Cliff.

This term, coined by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, describes the fact that women who break through the glass ceiling often find themselves in more precarious leadership positions where failure is more likely in comparison to their male colleagues. Evidence backing up this idea was first found when re-examining the fact that as the number of women on FTSE 100 company boards increased, the performance of these companies decreased. This had previously been interpreted as evidence for the lack of women’s leadership ability, but as it turned out, it was not the number of women that predicted company performance, but rather company performance that predicted the number of women. In other words, more women were appointed to company boards in times of crisis. This pattern was not found for men.

Since first discovered in 2005, the Glass Cliff has been studied in a variety of settings (e.g. politics) using a variety of samples (e.g. business leaders, students) and methods. If you are interested in reading more, here are links to some interesting articles about the Glass Cliff:

The article discussing the findings above (abstract)

Politics and the glass cliff (abstract)

The glass cliff as a result of stereotypes (abstract)

The glass cliff and suitability of men and women for leadership positions (full pdf)