Workplace discrimination: Welcome to the 'glass cliff'

Workplace discrimination occurs when people hold jobs not normally associated with their gender, a new Yale study says.

CBS/Great Wolf Resorts, Inc., Bill Matlock/PRNewsFoto/File
Kim Schaefer, CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, North America's largest family of indoor water-park resorts, worked as an aquatics supervisor as part of her profile on an episode of the CBS series "Undercover Boss." Women in traditional male jobs encounter extra scrutiny – workplace discrimination – as do men in traditionally female jobs, according to a new study.

You’ve heard about the ‘glass ceiling,’ but do you know about the glass cliff? If you’re a woman in a traditionally male job, you probably have. New research from Yale University finds that when a person has a high level job traditionally held by the opposite gender, they are judged more harshly for their mistakes.

Getting a job with high status isn’t enough, said Victoria Brescoll, a psychological scientist at Yale University and first author of the study. “You have to keep it.”

Brescoll said she suspected that people who have a job not normally associated with their gender would be under closer scrutiny and more likely to get in trouble for mistakes.

“Any mistakes that they make, even very minor ones, could be magnified and seen as even greater mistakes,” she said.

Brescoll’s research on workplace discrimination involved asking 200 volunteers to read different job-related scenarios in which the high level executive – police chief, college president, judge – made a mistake. People who were the non-stereotypical gender were judged more harshly, the researchers found. The volunteers saw them as less competent and deserving of less status. The same was true in other tests with a female CEO of an aerospace engineering firm and a chief judge. The results also held true for men who held high level jobs that are normally held by women -- such as president of a women's college.

“There is an effect called the glass cliff,” Brescoll says. Like the glass ceiling that keeps women from rising higher, the glass cliff is what counter-stereotypical individuals (such as female police chiefs) are in danger of falling from. “You don’t really know, when you’re a woman in a high status leadership role, how long you’re going to hang onto it,” she says. “You might just fall off at any point. Our study points to one way that this may happen for women in high-powered male roles.”

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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