The Rejection of Successful Women as Role Models

Women in fields in which they are under-represented often name the lack of female role models as a barrier in their careers. Yet, research often finds that the successful women who are available are often rejected. They are seen as pushy, overly masculine and cold and generally not as someone most women can identify with – even when no information indicating these traits is given. But why is that?

A study by Parks-Stamm and colleagues suggests that this might be a strategy to protect our beliefs about our own competence. In other words, if we saw a successful woman as highly competent and on top of that as nice and likable, this might undermine our own confidence. After all, how are we supposed to compete with that? The authors tested this idea by presenting men and women with information about a highly successful woman. In some cases, this woman was described as warm and likable, whereas in other cases no such information was given. Unsurprisingly, both men and women in the former condition described her as less pushy and cold than those in the latter condition. What was interesting, however, was that those women who had been told that the successful target was warm and nice, rated their own competence as lower compared to those who were able to penalise the potential role model.

So what does this mean? Should successful women be presented as unlikable and cold? Certainly not. It is, however, important, that they are described in ways that make them seem attainable. Evidence for this claim comes from a second study by the authors in which they show that the negative effect of preventing women from penalising the role model disappears when they are given positive information about their own future success.

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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)