How pride and prejudice blur men's view of the glass cliff

September 05, 2004

Accepting a fact as scientific is not a simple matter of whether the methodology is sound - what matters is whether the science that underpins it is compatible with our stereotypes and prejudices.

That is the key finding of a new study produced as part of ESRC research into social identity and discrimination by Professor Alex Haslam, of the School of Psychology, University of Exeter.

Professor Haslam and Dr Michelle Ryan, also at Exeter, analysed reactions to previous research into women who have managed to break through the so-called 'glass ceiling' into company boardrooms. This had found that those women who do make it are more likely than men to find themselves on a 'glass cliff', meaning their positions are risky or precarious.

The 'glass cliff' research also showed that companies doing badly are more likely to appoint a woman to the board - but once performance picks up, other women are less likely to be made directors.

Today (Monday, September 6) in a presentation at the British Academy Festival of Science, in Exeter, Professor Haslam says analysis of reactions to this earlier research found that what we perceive as scientific is clouded by our own viewpoints.

A survey on the BBC website found that women tended to believe in the 'glass cliff' effect. Men, however, were generally antagonistic to the notion, with one describing it as 'crap science', and another saying he was 'disgusted' by the research. Professor Haslam says: "We are more readily seduced by 'facts' that emerge as a product of 'science-like' science.

And this is especially true if those facts bolster, rather than threaten our sense of who we are and our place in the world.

"We should be particularly wary of those scientific 'facts' that conform to stereotypes - not because they are less likely to be true, but rather because we are less likely to reject them as impostors when they are false. "Perhaps too, we should be more open to science that does not reinforce prejudices, such as The Glass Cliff study. This is not because it is more likely to be true, but rather because we are more likely to reject it as false when it is not."

According to the online survey, 17 per cent both of males and females believed women were more suited to dealing with a crisis and more willing to take risks.

Around 20 per cent of women believed that their sex was singled out for inferior positions in companies, whereas only four per cent of men held this view. And 18 per cent of the women thought that men in senior positions preferred to hire other men for 'cushy' jobs. None of the men surveyed took this view, however.

Seventeen per cent of women thought they were seen as more expendable than men, as compared with none of the men believing that.

Women have fewer opportunities than men and therefore accept riskier positions, according to 31 per cent of women, but just eight per cent of men. However, only three per cent of women thought that the women were not picked for precarious leadership positions, as compared with half of the men.
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Economic & Social Research Council

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