This article appeared in Yahoo Finance Canada and was published on January 11, 2017

The media is apt to blame female CEOs more often than males when business goes awry, according to a report on gender and leadership roles.

A recent study, by The Rockefeller Foundation and the Global Strategy Group, on how the media influences perception of women in leadership examined 100 news stories about 20 CEOs – 11 of those were women – found female CEOs were blamed as the source of the crisis in 80 per cent of the stories versus 31 per cent of the time for their male counterparts.

But Wendy Cukier, founder and director of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute says the findings aren’t surprising.

“It confirms years of research on women in leadership that suggests women are held to higher standards than men,” she says. “(Research) continues to show that when things go well, male leaders are more likely to get the credit, but when things go wrong female leaders are more likely to be blamed regardless of the circumstances.”

The study also found differences in the way the media treated female CEOs versus males with 16 per cent of the articles about women in leadership roles delving into their personal life versus only 8 per cent of the male CEO-focused pieces talking about their personal life. In the articles that discussed females CEO’s personal life 78 per cent spoke about family. None of the articles discussed male CEOs’ children or family.

“There is little doubt that women have made significant advances in society and are taking their place in some leadership positions and, in terms of the media, are more often seen as experts, for example, in anchoring national news,” explains Cukier. Yet there is still a long way to go according to the Diversity Institutes own findings.

“A study of broadcast news showed women were almost absent from stories on business or the economy and over represented in lifestyle and entertainment, reinforcing stereotypes,” she says, adding that further research by the Global Media Monitoring Project found women in Canada are most represented in social and legal stories, followed by celebrity, arts, media and sport and under-represented in stories about politics and government or economic news.

The portrayal of women in leadership by the media has also kicked up discussion surrounding an extension of the “glass ceiling” known as “the glass cliff” a phrase coined by University of Exeter researchers Dr. Michelle Ryan and Professor Alex Haslam in 2005. They found that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions that are associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure.

“Often because of the intensity of the challenge (when) the organization does not do well, they are blamed and punished,” says Cukier. “In contrast, there have been many stories of male leaders receiving large financial bonuses in spite of the poor performance of their organizations.”

Part of it emanates from the relative obscurity of women in leadership roles. Women hold only four per cent of leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies and in Canada, a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found only two women among the top paid 100 executives in the country.

“There’s just not a lot of women in powerful positions… it’s still new,” says Kelly Raz assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Western University’s Ivey Business School whose own research has found women and minorities who traditionally have not had high status in society and take on power positions tend to be mistrusted more than their more stereotypical counterparts.

“Once it becomes more normative and we see it a lot more I think some of that will change,” she says. “And I do think if the media is aware of that going on they can change their narrative.”

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