When Do Organizations Prefer Female Leaders?

female ceo on computer
Topic(s): fairness, gender, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2010)
Article: Think Crisis–Think Female: The Glass Cliff and Contextual Variation in the Think Manager–Think Male Stereotype
Authors: M.K. Ryan, S.A. Haslam, M.D. Hersby, R. Bongiorno
Reviewed by: Kerrin George

Traditionally, in what has been called the “think manager-think male” (TMTM) stereotype, males tend to be viewed as more suitable for leadership positions. However, this relationship may be context dependent, as preliminary examinations reveal that women appear to be appointed to leadership positions more often in crisis situations, the “think crisis-think female” phenomena (TCTF).


The researchers (Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, & Bongiorno, 2010) recently examined the TMTM versus TCTF phenomena in a series of studies. They found that the TMTM stereotype is persistent for managers of successful companies, especially among male respondents. Traits that typically characterize males (e.g., forceful and aggressive) tended to be desired considerably more than stereotypically feminine traits (e.g., understanding, sympathetic). The authors argue that this finding may be due to typical relationships between gender and upper-level leadership, as a subsequent study that asked participants to characterize ideal managers of a successful company showed that both masculine and feminine traits were desired.

In contrast, when imagining organizations performing poorly, male characteristics were negatively associated with the manager characterization, suggesting a “think crisis-think not male” relationship that may instead lead women to occupy these positions.

When describing ideal managers for unsuccessful companies or to indicate desirable traits, a think crisis-think female relationship was supported, as feminine traits were used in descriptions more than traditional managerial/masculine characteristics. Interestingly, managers of unsuccessful companies in crisis situations may be seen as both positive (e.g., sympathetic) and negative (e.g., wavering), leading them to be seen as beneficial for crisis situations or to blame for downfall.


The authors argue that these findings suggest gender-leadership stereotypes may be somewhat dissipating, as both masculine and feminine leadership characteristics appear desirable. Nonetheless, while women leaders may be preferred under the context of an organizational crisis context, thus giving them the opportunity to assume leadership positions and to demonstrate their abilities, the authors note that it concurrently presents them with the disadvantage of possibly becoming the scapegoat for organizational downfall. The authors encourage organizations to use this information to make informed decisions about leadership in hopes that increased awareness may mitigate the marginalization of women into career-threatening leadership positions.


Ryan, M.K., Haslam, S.A., Hersby, M.D., & Bongiorno, R. (2010). Think Crisis–Think Female: The Glass Cliff and Contextual Variation in the Think Manager–Think Male Stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 470-484.