COVID-19: Could it be the next glass cliff for female leaders?

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With female political leaders praised for their handling of the Covid-19 crisis, why are there still so few women at the top in many organisations? 

The current pandemic has cast a spotlight on leaders around the world, with a number of female leaders receiving widespread praise for their handling of the crisis [1,2,3], from Angela Merkel in Germany, to Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, among others.  We also know that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions during or following a crisis – a trend known as the glass cliff phenomenon – so could this pave the way for more female leaders reaching leadership positions more generally? 

Many organisations are actively searching for ways to remove the barriers hampering women’s leadership progression within their business.  These barriers are complex, and largely invisible, yet their impact on female leaders’ progression keenly felt and seen in organisational data. May 2020 marks 50 years since the passing of the UK’s Equal Pay Act (1970), begging the question: why hasn’t more progress been made towards gender equality? 

In this article we share evidence-based insights about why women aren’t progressing to senior roles as rapidly as we might hope, and outline ways to address the issue. 

Women are more likely to work in lower-paid occupations

Despite 50 years having passed since launch of the UK’s Equal Pay Act (1970), equal pay claims continue to surface.  In addition, introduction of gender pay gap reporting highlights a broader problem: collectively, the average hourly earnings for women in the UK is significantly lower than men’s.  What’s more, the data reveals that this is primarily due to the fact that women are more likely to work in lower-paid occupations – specifically, they’re less likely to work as ‘managers, directors or senior officials’[4]. Why?

Gendered views of leadership are a significant part of the problem. Effective leaders are typically considered to be strong, assertive, decisive, agentic; characteristics stereotypically associated with men. Of course, women can be strong, assertive, decisive, and agentic, but when they demonstrate these characteristics, they’re judged more negatively by both men and women compared to male professionals demonstrating the same behaviours [5]. A double-bind is created for women, whereby to be seen as an effective leader they have to demonstrate these agentic traits, yet when they do they face social and economic penalties for behaving counter-stereotypically.  

Women are also statistically less likely than men to succeed in negotiating a pay-rise [6], potentially because it requires self-advocacy which contrasts with the stereotype of women as communal, concerned less about themselves than others. Research shows that, mindful of the potential backlash they may receive, women hedge their assertiveness, use fewer competing tactics and get less. In contrast, when vouching for others, women achieve better outcomes as they don’t expect a clash with gender norms, so don’t engage in hedging [7].

Women are more likely to work flexible hours

More women work part-time, many changing their working patterns after becoming mothers (38% of mothers work part-time compared to only 7% of fathers) [8], which often comes at a cost to progression. Many part-time women are dissatisfied with their quality of work and promotion prospects, and feel they’re working below their potential. Almost a quarter report no chance of promotion [9]. On average, part-time workers’ negligible wage increases year on year are far below what would be expected in proportion to their full-time equivalents [10]. Importantly, it’s not the time mothers spend out of employment on maternity leave, but more what happens when they re-join the workforce part-time that explains the widening pay gap[11]. The pay gap between mothers and fathers continues to increase for years after maternity leave, reaching a difference of 21% by a child’s 20th birthday [12]. 

What can be done about this?

Space prevents us from discussing the full range of forces potentially impeding women’s progress in your organisation. Tackling these implicit barriers requires a multi-pronged approach, but here’s a few places to start:

Review policies, processes and practices

  • Many organisations have taken steps to reduce potential bias in their recruitment processes (such as anonymising job applications), and have seen improved gender balance as a result. However, the same attention must be paid to promotion, pay, and the even day to day allocation of projects and opportunities.
  • Flexibility in working patterns is essential, so challenge assumptions around why certain roles and responsibilities can’t be offered to part-timers, recognise outcomes rather than hours put in, be as flexible as possible on when and where work needs to be completed, or simply be more planful. For instance, when overtime hours are scheduled three months in advance, men and women work a similar number of hours; but when those hours are offered at the last minute, men work nearly twice as many. [13] 
  • Encourage flexibility for all, not just women. Full-time employees in the UK work some of the longest hours per week in Europe, but as a total household unit, when men work longer hours, women work fewer. [14] The same applies to uptake paternity leave – in Sweden, each additional month that a father stays on parental leave has been shown to increase the mother’s earnings by 6.7%. [15]

Challenge leadership (and gender) stereotypes

  • Encourage men and women to challenge their assumptions about what effective leadership looks like, as well as their perceptions of women when they behave assertively. Targets for proportions of female representation at more senior levels can help, since exposure to female leaders breaks down gender stereotypes and reduces bias. [16] Targets have not only been shown to induce more talented women to put themselves forwards for positions [17] but also help to create critical mass. Without critical mass, members of a minority group are likely to be treated as tokens; their minority status makes them visible and easily reduced to their demographic characteristics. [18] In other words, a sole female board member is considered the spokesperson for women rather than as the expert in her field.
  • Provide support and development for female leaders to help them navigate the headwinds they face as a result of the unconscious bias relating to leadership and gender stereotypes. This could include introducing a formalised sponsorship programme for high potential women, as without it, senior men naturally tend to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. [19]


The glass cliff phenomenon arises because women are seen as having a leadership advantage during times of crisis; stereotypically female traits such as communality, care, and risk aversion are considered particularly valuable during times of adversity or recovery.  But of course, these are just stereotypes, stereotypes which act as barriers to women’s progression in ordinary circumstances. 

Crisis or not, it’s important to ensure that leadership appointments are not based on assumptions about any individuals’ suitability for leadership roles, but instead are determined by an independent and robust assessment of capability and suitability .This alone helps to reduce the impact of bias, identifying potential which might otherwise have been undervalued.

However, another reason why more female leaders are appointed during or following crises is that crises provide an opportunity to try something new or question the status quo.  So don’t let this crisis go to waste – there may be women in your organisation whose potential has previously been overlooked.  Just remember the precariousness of the glass cliff – anyone brought in to deal with a crisis faces a tough task, yet there’s a tendency to blame leaders themselves for poor organisational performance rather than blame situational factors.  Consequently, provide the equivalent amount of support and development to match the weight of the challenge.  

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[1] Management Today. (2020). Jacinda Ardern: A role model for empathetic crisis leadership. Accessed:

[2] Management Today. (2020). Jacinda Ardern: A role model for empathetic crisis leadership. Accessed:

[3] Marks, Z.  (2020). In a global emergency, women are showing how to lead. The Washington Post. Accessed:

[4] ONS (2019). Gender pay gap in the UK: 2019.

[5] See: Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb. (2011). Taking Gender Into Account: Theory and Design for Women's Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10, 474-493.

[6]  Artz, Goodall, & Oswald. (2018). Do Women Ask? Industrial Relations, 57, 611-636.

[7] Amanatullah & Morris. (2010). Negotiating gender roles: Gender differences in assertive negotiating are mediated by women’s fear of backlash and attenuated when negotiating on behalf of others.

[8] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 256-267. ONS (2017).  Families and the labour market, England: 2017

[9] Warren & Lyonette (2018). Good, Bad and Very Bad Part-time Jobs for Women? Re-examining the Importance of Occupational Class for Job Quality since the ‘Great Recession’ in Britain. Work, Employment and Society, 32(4), 747–767; Tomlinson (2007). Female part‐time workers’ experiences of occupational mobility in the UK service industry. Women Management Review, 22, 305–318.

[10] Costa Dias, Joyce & Parodi (2018). Wage progression and the gender wage gap: the causal impact of hours of work by Monica, Institute for Fiscal Studies,

[11] Francis-Devine & Pyper (2020). The Gender Pay Gap, Briefing Paper Number 7068, 6 March 2020, House of Commons Library,

[12] Francis-Devine & Pyper (2020), Ibid. Bolotnyy & Emanuel (2018). Why Do Women Earn Less Than Men? Evidence from Bus and Train Operators

[13] Working Paper, November 28th, 2018, 

[14] Misra, Budig & Boeckmann (2011). Work-family policies and the effects of children on women's employment hours and wages, Community, Work & Family, 14, 139-157.

[15] Johansson, E. (2010). The effect of own and spousal parental leave on earnings. Swedish Institute for Labor Market Policy Evaluation, 

[16] Elsesser & Lever (2011). Does bias against female leaders persist? Quantitative and qualitative data from a large-scale survey. Human Relations, 64, 1555-1578.

[17] Niederle, Segal & Vesterlund (2012). How Costly Is Diversity? Affirmative Action in Light of Gender Differences in Competitiveness, Management Science, 59, 1.

[18] Bohnet (2016). What Works: Gender equality by design. Harvard University Press.

[19] Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb. (2011). Taking Gender Into Account: Theory and Design for Women's Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10, 474-493.

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