Gender Bias and the ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon: Interview with Professor Michelle Ryan
Published: Jun 15, 2017 By Seema Sharma
In a continuation of our recent article series on gender bias, I spoke with Michelle Ryan, currently Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and Dean of Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter. In 2005, Professor Ryan, published key research findings with Alexander Haslam that detailed a new hurdle that women face when applying for leadership positions, coining the term ‘the glass cliff’ to describe the phenomenon . The research showed evidence that when women do break through the ‘glass ceiling’ to achieve leadership roles, they are more likely to be promoted into roles where there is significant risk of failure and criticism. Since its discovery, the concept of the ‘glass cliff’ has been widely discussed, forming an integral part of the understanding of women’s leadership positions. The concept was named by the New York Times as one of the top 100 ideas that shaped 2008.
What is the main focus of your research?
My research focuses broadly on diversity in the workplace and, more specifically on the barriers than women face as they climb the career ladder.
You first described the glass cliff phenomenon in 2005, mentioning that although women were beginning to break through into leadership roles, those that did faced other challenges. Can you give an overview of the phenomenon and the primary conclusion of this research?
The research shows that women are more likely than men to occupy positions of leadership in times of crisis, such that women's leadership positions can be seen as relatively risky and precarious. The glass cliff is multiply determined - and can be due to stereotypes about gender and leadership, about organisational strategy, and about sexism and the old boys club. It is a subtle form of gender discrimination that affects individual women, but also reinforces the stereotype that women aren’t cut out for leadership.
"The research shows that women are more likely than men to occupy positions of leadership in times of crisis, such that women's leadership positions can be seen as relatively risky and precarious."
Over a decade on from the original research, are we seeing changes to the ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon? What are those changes?
We haven’t seen great change in the phenomenon over ten years, although we certainly know more about it now, than we did a decade ago. Unfortunately, the pace of change when it comes to women in leadership can be glacially slow.
In your opinion, what progress if any, has been made in the last decade for women in leadership roles?
I think that progress is much slower than we would like - and indeed sometimes it seems like we are sliding backwards! We can legislate about equal pay, or against overt discrimination - but we cannot legislate against unconscious bias. For this reason, I think that affirmation action measures are necessary to achieve timely change.
"I think that progress is much slower than we would like - and indeed sometimes it seems like we are sliding backwards!"
Are there sector specific differences that you’ve investigated?
There are some sectors that are more equal than others — for example women tend to do better in healthcare, education, the public sector, and in the charity sector - but unsur-prisingly, these are also sectors that tend to be underpaid and undervalued.
What advice would you give women that are taking on leadership roles?
Be aware of the glass cliff - make sure that you have the resources and support to deal with any crises that might be on the horizon.
How can employers address the underlying prejudices and beliefs that drive the glass cliff phenomenon?
I think awareness and acknowledgement of subtle, (and sometimes not so subtle), gender bias is important. While unconscious bias training doesn’t improve unconscious bias, it can ensure that you re-evaluate choices and decisions. I thick organisations should al-so contemplate the implementation of affirmative action processes and work towards clear equality targets.
"I think awareness and acknowledgement of subtle, (and sometimes not so subtle), gender bias is important. While unconscious bias training doesn’t improve unconscious bias, it can ensure that you re-evaluate choices and decisions."
A study by Grant Thornton , shows that globally, women hold an average of just 25% per cent of senior management roles in 2017, up by 1% from the previous year. So progress is slow in the right direction. The UK is below average — where only 19% of senior roles are being held by women in 2017.
"A study by Grant Thornton, shows that globally, women hold an average of just 25% per cent of senior management roles in 2017, up by 1% from the previous year...."
What do you think are the main barriers to success?
I think the main barriers to success are the subtle cultural barriers that constrain women’s career choices. These might be expectations about what leadership looks like, expecta-tions about how men and women should act, both in the workplace and at home, and the stubbornly persistent division of labour in the home.
Given the statistics, some women may feel that they have limited opportunities for promotion and may not get another chance. How can they identify if they are being offered a risky or precarious position?
I think it is important to speak to people and find out about the position. A job ad is never going to mention crises, so talking to people in the know is imperative.
Should they take the opportunity anyway? Does it have the potential to be detrimental?
Glass cliff positions are potentially detrimental, as leaders are often blamed for crises, even if they start before the leader came into the role. But precarious positions might be the only opportunity available, so making sure there are resources and support available could help mitigate the risks.
What key advice would you offer, based on your work in the field?
I think understanding that subtle barriers persist and will need to be overcome is im-portant - this helps with making attributions about success and failure.
How is the "glass cliff" being addressed?
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- Professor Michelle K. Ryan. University of Exeter Profile. http://psychology.exeter.ac.uk/staff/index.php?web_id=michelle_ryan
- TEDX Talk: Michelle Ryan – Work-life balance: balancing time or balancing identity? http://tedxexeter.com/category/michelle-ryan/
- Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00433.x/abstract
- Women in Business 2017. International Business Report. Grant Thornton: https://www.grantthornton.global/en/insights/articles/women-in-business-2017/
- Ellemers, et al., (2012) Women in high places: When and why promoting women into top positions can harm them individually or as a group and how to prevent this. Research in Organizational Behavior, 32,163–187: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191308512000044