Is cleaning up the financial crisis women's work? Iceland apparently thought so. After its banks collapsed under a mountain of debt bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy, it appointed for the first time two women, Elín Sigfúsdóttir and Birna Einarsdóttir, to lead its newly nationalised banks. Not long after, the US president, Barack Obama, appointed Mary Schapiro as the first woman to head the US Security and Exchange Commission - just as the institution was coming under fire for failing to heed the warnings that could have prevented the investment scandal that Bernard Madoff is accused of perpetrating.
Observers interpreted the appointments in two ways. One camp lauded the changes, seeing the economic downturn as creating opportunities for women and minorities. As Erika Watson, the head of Prowess, a UK confederation of women's business groups, told Britain's The Observer newspaper: "There is evidence that women's business leadership style is an important factor in minimising and balancing risk and raising profits and innovation... As recession bites, the female model of collaborative leadership and gradual growth could prove more durable."
But others looked at the appointments with concern, seeing in them a pattern that Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, both professors at the University of Exeter's school of psychology, have dubbed the "glass cliff", a play on the "glass ceiling", which is a concept describing the invisible barrier preventing women from reaching the uppermost heights of management. The researchers found that when groups are experiencing a crisis, they are much more likely to appoint a woman than at other times - a tendency that means women disproportionately take the fall when at the helm.
"Our research shows that when people say 'why would you want to appoint women?' one of the common things people say is 'women are good at dealing with crisis because they are communal and they are not abrasive, and so they are going to make everybody bind together and be cohesive and deal with adversity'," Dr Haslam said. "And I think that's kind of true, but the question is, why would those qualities not be valued in other situations?"
The professors' research examined the data behind a 2003 article in The New York Times, which showed that companies with women on their boards fared worse than those with all-male boards. After studying the performance of the companies mentioned in the article, they found that women were likely to be put into positions of power when the company was experiencing turmoil. Thus women were more likely to be associated with poor performance. Further experimental studies confirmed this finding, they said.
"When we did all this research three or four years ago, people were actually very sceptical about it," Dr Haslam said. "I think it's interesting that it is being borne out now." Interest in their research has grown during the credit crisis and the subsequent fall of some of the most prominent women on Wall Street, including Erin Callan, the former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, Zoe Cruz, the former co-president of Morgan Stanley, and Sallie Krawcheck, the former chairwoman and chief executive of Citi Global Wealth Management.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the founder of the Center for World-Life Policy in New York, said women being disproportionately placed in precarious leadership positions in downturns meant recessions were bad news for female executives. "In the private sector, in terms of women in leadership, there is this phenomenon of women being set up for failure, put in the hot seat and assumed that they are kind of fall guys," she said. "But I am just finishing some new work on the impact of the recession on men and women at the top and there are also some very interesting other dynamics going on. One is that women are disproportionately being fired."
She found in a recent survey that a third of all respondents of both sexes reported that women were being pushed out the door at a more rapid rate than men. This finding - combined with recent research showing that in economic tough times women are more willing to "recalibrate the margin", or opt out of working - does not bode well for the advancement of women in management, especially in what is expected to be a long downturn.
"I think when the story is over," Ms Hewlett said, "there will be fewer women at the top." email@example.com