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“The Glass Cliff” And 4 Other Ways Our Coworkers Treat Us Differently Because of Gender

“The Glass Cliff” And 4 Other Ways Our Coworkers Treat Us Differently Because of Gender
Published February 12, 2015 by Christian Jarrett
No matter how self-aware you may be, you’re subtly influenced by the personality and demographic characteristics of those around you.

It’s an awkward reality of most people’s daily experiences. Women and men will tell you—and their anecdotes are backed up by psychology research—how they are treated differently in professional situations simply because of their gender. Especially when we don’t act in what is considered a "gender appropriate" manner, it can adversely affect how other people of both sexes perceive us.

What are these biases? Here are five ways you can expect your gender to shape your experience at work:

Women are penalized for speaking out and getting angry

Professional women are judged harshly (by men and other women) for being vocal. For instance, one study found that male and female participants rated a female CEO as less competent and less suitable for leadership roles when she was described as being outspoken and opinionated. The precise opposite pattern was found for male CEOs, who were judged negatively for being reticent.

It’s a similar story when it comes to expressing anger—an emotion, which, so long as it’s controlled, can be an important part of negotiation and a tool for motivating under-performers. Unfortunately, if you’re female and you vent your frustration by getting angry, you can expect to pay a price. A 2008 study showed that men who got angry were viewed by men and women as high status and more competent, yet women who displayed their anger were rated afterwards as less competent and lower status.

Male and female participants rated a female CEO as less competent and less suitable for leadership roles when she was described as being outspoken and opinionated.

Helpfully, the same study pointed to a strategy for female workers to avoid this backlash—make the source of your anger explicit and shift the focus onto the reasons for your frustration, and in the process you’re less likely to be penalized.

Men don’t get a free ride, either. They too suffer discrimination when they behave in ways, such as being modest in an interview, that are considered "unmanly." 

Men suffer prejudice for having a female boss

As opportunities in the workplace become more obtainable for both sexes, an inevitable side effect is more men with female bosses. Yet such is the persistence of old-fashioned ideas about gender, that if you’re a man in this position, you’re likely to be treated differently, especially in industries usually considered male territory.

This effect was highlighted in a study that asked research participants to read hypothetical scenarios. When a man was described as working for a woman in the construction industry, male and female participants said they’d pay him less, and they considered him lower status and less masculine compared with men who had male bosses. (Female workers did not suffer they same prejudice if they were described as working for a male boss in a female industry.)

We should also recognize that when their male reports are perceived as having lower machismo, this likely reverberates on the female leader. Due to the fear of being perceived as less masculine, men may be reluctant to work under a woman.

Admittedly this is not a practical solution, but the study found that in their trials, the bias against men with female bosses was offset if men emphasized stereotypical masculine credentials, such as mentioning they liked sports and fast cars. That can feel unsatisfactory however, as the real answer is that we need a change in perspective and attitude about gender stereotypes overall.

Women tend to be placed in charge of failing organizations

Despite evidence suggesting that companies perform better when they have more women on their boards, it remains the case that women are hugely under-represented in senior management. And when they are promoted to the top roles, psychologists analyzing British firms have noticed a trend—women are especially likely to be placed in charge of failing organizations, an effect referred to as the "glass cliff."

Women are especially likely to be placed in charge of failing organizations, an effect referred to as the "glass cliff."

Anecdotally, one high-profile example was the election in 2009 of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as prime minister of Iceland—the first woman to fill that role—just as the country was reeling from the global recession. Some have also identified Marissa Mayer’s appointment at Yahoo in 2012 as another classic case.

It’s thought the effect occurs because people value traditionally feminine characteristics in times of crisis, such as strong communication skills. But of course, the timing of this favoritism represents a poisoned chalice for women—by taking over a failing organization, they are more likely to be blamed if and when the ship finally sinks. 

Men who take family leave are seen as weak

Workplace reforms have made it easier for men to take (often unpaid) leave to care for newborn children or sick relatives, but changes to people’s attitudes are more stubborn. Research suggests that many of us still cling to traditional ideas that say men’s priority should be their work and we judge them negatively if they do otherwise. Scholars call this the "flexibility stigma."

One study using fictitious personnel records found that men, but not women, who took leave to care for a child or sick relative were judged harshly by participants—it was assumed they were less dedicated at work and less helpful to their colleagues.

A more recent study by psychologists at Rutgers University told a similar story and gave clues to the reasons for the stigma. Participants read an interview transcript between a male employee and an HR manager. Men who requested time off to care for a sick relative were judged to be poorer workers and given fewer rewards because male and female participants saw them as weak and feminine. 

Men who requested time off to care for a sick relative were judged to be poorer workers and given fewer rewards.

It seems it’s not enough to introduce policies that allow men time off for their families—we also need a revolution in attitudes. One option is to make paternity leave compulsory so that men aren’t prejudiced against for choosing to put their families first.

We should also add that women too, frequently suffer prejudice in relation to family issues, no more so than when they are pregnant. The myth of "baby brain" or "pregnesia" is widespread (the idea that women’s minds go awry when they’re pregnant), and studies show that pregnant job candidates are less likely to get the role than their non-pregnant peers with matching qualifications and interview performance.   

Women suffer from "benevolent sexism"

Benevolent sexism describes the way women are often treated with apparent kindness because it’s assumed they are less capable. For example, consider the finding from the NHS in England—women managers were sent on just as many training courses as men, but they were less likely to be assigned to the most challenging tasks, such as learning how to handle major incidents and emergencies.

The researchers think this is because many male decision-makers still assume that women need protection from harm— a classic case of benevolent sexism. Yet a follow-up survey with students found that women express just as much desire to take part in the most challenging work experiences as men. Eden King at George Mason University and his colleagues concluded their results show "women’s advancement may be stifled not only by traditional (hostile) forms of sexism but also by seemingly positive (benevolent) decisions and behaviors."


The psychology literature is full of examples of how men and women are penalized when they behave in ways that clash with traditional ideas about the genders. Overturning these prejudices is going to take time, but simply being aware of these gender effects will give you the chance to put counter-strategies in place.

By allowing everyone to reach their true potential, regardless of their gender, we all win. Don’t just take my word for it—last year, when researchers in Canada and Singapore looked at Olympic medal tallies by country, a clear pattern emerged: in countries with more gender equality, both women and men tended to score more medals.

How about you?

Have you noticed any of these biases in your career?

More about Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

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