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Opinion: Glass cliff means few women in top positions

The number of women in top positions is still disgracefully low in the Netherlands . There’s more than enough reason, therefore, for Minister Ronald Plasterk to have stated in his recently published Emancipatienota [Emancipation Paper] that the emancipation process has stagnated. In other countries, too, the climb to the top is not easy for women. According to Professor Michelle Ryan, the current holder of the Jantina Tammes chair at the University of Groningen , for those women who do break through the glass ceiling, there is still a risk of the glass cliff.

In the last twenty years, more and more women have broken through the glass ceiling and ended up in top management positions. Michelle Ryan is researching what happens to these women next. She has come to a remarkable conclusion. Women often end up in precarious jobs whereby they have to negotiate a ‘glass cliff’ – a term invented by Ryan and her colleague Alex Haslam. ‘The cliff is glass because while these women are at the top, they could fall down it at any moment. It’s very subtle because you don’t immediately see that they are balancing on the edge.’ Thanks to their precarious jobs, women have more trouble with stress and have a greater chance of failure and criticism.

Part-time jobs

Recently, Helen Mees claimed that women do not rise because they consistently choose inferior part-time jobs and have no ambition. Ryan has her doubts. ‘Mees is right when she says that part of the problem is the choices women make. But these choices are not made in a vacuum. If women are struggling in the workplace with glass cliff positions, it is sometimes no wonder that they may opt for a part-time job. The glass ceiling and the glass cliff make it very difficult to advance. It’s certainly not the case that they have no ambition.’

Woman are like teabags

Why are women more likely to get precarious jobs? ‘It’s not necessarily the case that men think let’s put women into a difficult position. It is more subtle than that. Part of the issue is the stereotypical image of women as good crisis managers.’ Ryan then refers to a statement by Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water! ’ Her research supports this. ‘People choose a man as leader when everything is going well in the company, and a women if things are going badly. ’ Ryan thinks it is a positive thing that women are regarded as good problem-solvers. ‘The disadvantage is that they then end up on the glass cliff. No-one wants to be in hot water all the time.’

Don’t refuse

According to Ryan, it’s very difficult to tackle the problem of the glass cliff. ‘You can’t send round a memo telling everyone to stop thinking in stereotypes. ’ Ryan doesn’t think that women should necessarily refuse precarious jobs because of the glass cliff. ‘No, because it may be a chance to prove yourself, and women don’t get that many of those opportunities. But you have to be aware of the circumstances. Women never want to be seen as complainers and may thus often keep quiet about the risks involved. While winging is never constructive, it makes sense to make others aware of the risks and difficulties involved.’

Informal networks

In addition, women should endeavour to become part of the informal networks in their organisations. ‘People in these networks often protect each other from precarious jobs. Women should thus try to join them. ’ Government can also play a role. ‘Legislation may be useful because something has to happen. However, it’s not enough just to say that we want X percent of women at the top. We also have to look at what kind of positions women are achieving. If many of these women are on a glass cliff, that doesn’t help matters at all.’

Curriculum Vitae

Dr Michelle Ryan gained her PhD from The Australian National University with a thesis investigating gender differences in the self-concept. In 2003 she moved to the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter, UK, where she became a senior research fellow. She is the current holder of the Jantina Tammes chair at the Faculty of Economics and Business. In that capacity, and together with Prof. Janka Stoker and Dr Floor Rink from Groningen , she is researching the glass cliff.

On 1 November, Michelle Ryan will give a lecture on the glass cliff in Groningen . For more information about lecture and research.

Contact information

Dr. Michelle Ryan. Tel. (work) 050-363 7199. Tel. (secr) 050-363 4288. E-mail: m.ryan@exeter.ac.uk

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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