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On the Edge of a Glass Cliff: Women in Leadership in Public Organizations

Author: AMY E. SMITH
Published in PAQ, Vol. 39 No. 3

Public management research and research on organizations more generally has focused on diversity in leadership, with particular attention to issues of gender. Yet, little is known about the organizational circumstances under which women attain leadership positions, particularly in public sector settings. The glass cliff theory, stemming from research on private sector organizations, can further our understanding of these circumstances in public organizations. The glass cliff theory suggests that when women do get into leadership positions, it is most likely when the organization is in a period of crisis and when the risk of failure is higher. Using a national sample of local education agencies, this study finds support for the glass cliff theory and also finds that women hold more leadership positions in public organizations when women are in elected positions, women are in lower ranking positions, and agencies are larger.

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