Michelle Ryan is a professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter and a professor of Diversity at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. Together with Alex Haslam, she uncovered the phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’, whereby women (and members of other minority groups) are more likely to be placed in leadership positions which are risky or precarious.
“…barriers women face are, for the most part, because they are not members of the same group as those in charge – and the old boys club are not just boys, they are also likely to be white, to be straight, to be able-bodied, and to be of a certain agar. Thus, anyone who isn’t part of this group is likely to face additional barriers…”
Piquing my interest in gender differences in the workplace
I started off my career as a social psychologist studying gender and gender differences, but I was drawn into the organisational realm by an article in The Times which argued that women were creating havoc on the boards of FTSE 100 companies – my interest in understanding gender differences in the workplace was piqued.
An academic life is extremely varied – at the moment most of my time is spent doing research, but this involves a myriad of things. One of the best parts of my job is mentoring Ph.D. students and collaborating with my post docs [researchers] – they’ve got such unending levels of enthusiasm and great ideas, it’s inspiring.
I also enjoy the travelling, both within the UK and internationally – this could be to present research at academic conferences, to speak to the general public and organisations, or liaising with organisations so we can collect data together. At other times, I have also spent a lot of time in senior university management roles, including a stint as Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Exeter, where I established a university-wide Doctoral College to support Ph.D. students and post docs.
Developing the theory of the glass cliff
The glass cliff is a phenomenon whereby women and other minority group members are over-represented in leadership roles that are risky and precarious. The glass cliff occurs in the business realm, often when organisations are performing poorly, but they can also occur in politics in the face of political crisis – think Theresa May and Brexit.
We (Alex Haslam, myself, and other colleagues) have been working on understanding this phenomenon for over 10 years now, and it seems like it is multiply determined – it is about gender stereotypes, it is about setting women up for failure, it is about protecting in-group members [an exclusive, typically small, group of people with a shared interest or identity], and it is about signalling change when things are going badly.
Taken together, the glass cliff is a very subtle phenomenon that makes it even more difficult for women to succeed in the workplace.
Current examples of the glass cliff
I think that Brexit is a classic example of the glass cliff. Whether or not you support Brexit there is no doubt that it is a tough political situation. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that we have Theresa May at the helm, while David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage all stood back from leadership roles.
Glass cliff positions do not inevitably lead to failure. There are certainly women that take on positions in times of crisis and do terrifically well – for example Angela Merkel as German Chancellor and Mary Barra as CEO of General Motors. But leading in times of crisis can certainly be seen as a tougher job than leading when all is calm.
Barriers faced by other minority groups
The barriers that women face in the workplace are also experienced by members of other minority groups. For example, we have demonstrated that glass cliff positions exist for members of racial minority groups.
This similarity is not really a surprise – the barriers women face are, for the most part, because they are not members of the same group as those in charge – and the old boys club are not just boys, they are also likely to be white, to be straight, to be able-bodied, and to be of a certain agar. Thus, anyone who isn’t part of this group is likely to face additional barriers.
New work on women’s leadership ambitions
I have recently been awarded a large grant from the European Research Council to spend five years examining how the career choices that women make can be constrained by the context in which they are embedded.
We are looking at women’s ambition, their choices around work-life balance, and their willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for their careers. The preliminary research suggests that rather than there being innate differences between men and women when it comes to these choice, career choices are shaped by our gendered norms and stereotypes and by how the workplace is structured. I will keep Womanthology readers posted with progress.