An analysis published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that US companies are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to appoint an Asian-American CEO when they are in decline than when they are succeeding. This suggests that Asian-Americans are often put in “glass cliff” situations, appointed to precarious leadership roles that others don’t want to risk taking—and stereotypes of Asian-Americans may be driving this phenomenon. Jane C. Hu discusses the study’s findings at Quartz:
In their analysis, the researchers found that Asian-American leaders tapped to lead declining companies also faced a glass cliff, experiencing shorter tenures as leaders than white leaders in the same position. Even when Asian Americans were asked to lead companies that were not in decline, they were in charge for about half as long as white CEOs (3.25 years versus six years).
The researchers also ran a few online experiments to dig deeper into people’s perceptions of Asian-American leaders. In one study, participants read a fake article, either about a struggling company or a successful one. They were then asked to rate how important they thought certain behaviors were in a leader, like working weekends or forgoing a bonus. People who read the article about a struggling company were more likely to think that “Alex Wong” would make a better CEO than “Anthony Smith”; compared to the white candidate, the Asian-American leader seemed like a better match for participants’ idea of a selfless leader. In a different study, participants rated the CEO “Alex Wong” as more likely to be self-sacrificing, and in a third study, participants chose an Asian-American executive to lead a struggling company.
Asian-Americans occupy a unique place in the conversation about diversity and inclusion in the US: Unlike black or Hispanic Americans, they are not underrepresented in professional fields, but Asians still frequently report experiencing discrimination on the job and are markedly less likely than their white peers to be promoted into leadership positions. A landmark study on racial inequality in the US tech sector last year found that white men and women were twice as likely as Asians to become executives and held almost three times as many executive jobs, with Asian-American women particularly underrepresented in these roles.
Discrimination against Asian-Americans looks different than discrimination against other minority groups because many Americans do not perceive racial stereotypes about Asians as negative. Indeed, racialized assumptions that Asians are diligent, self-sacrificing, and good at math and science may make employers more likely to hire them as employees—but then make it impossible for them to advance, as the dark side of these “positive” stereotypes” is a belief that Asians lack the creativity and leadership skills to succeed in higher-level roles. Recent research on Asian-Americans’ experiences in engineering has shown that Asian American women, in particular, feel the need to provide more evidence of competence than white men to be taken seriously in their workplaces.
The “glass cliff” phenomenon was first identified as something women leaders experience when they are excluded from most top-level leadership roles except those with a high risk of failure. Research going back 15 years has shown that female CEOs were more likely to be appointed to organizations whose share prices were already falling. More recent studies have also suggested that women CEOs are more likely than their male peers to be challenged or targeted for removal by activist investors.
Recent examples of women leaders who took up CEO positions at troubled companies include General Motors CEO Mary Barra, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman. UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who came to power in a crisis in 2016, is also sometimes cited as an example of the “glass cliff.” A frustrating consequence of the glass cliff phenomenon is that when women are consistently more likely to be put in positions with a high chance of failure, this generates a correlation over time between their tenures and declining performance that can be misleadingly attributed to their poor leadership, furthering the stereotype that women are less capable in these roles.