The Glass Cliff

“I didn’t have any medics in my family to get the stories so surgery is something you see on TV and they’re always depicting men in surgery and then the women who are struggling to be at the same level as them. And then as a student I’d come to the hospital and I’d have my placements and every time in general surgery I’d see these old school surgeons and the top ones were always male. I hardly saw any females.”

The quote above is taken from our last post on role models in surgery and illustrates an important point: While more and more women are entering medicine in general and surgery in particular, the higher echelons of surgery are still almost exclusively populated with men. This is of course by no means a problem for surgery alone. The same pattern can be observed almost everywhere from the corporate world to politics and there are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. One widely used metaphor is the Glass Ceiling which refers to the fact that women hit an invisible barrier which keeps them from progressing as they advance through the ranks. However, recent research shows that women face additional obstacles even if they manage to break through the Glass Ceiling – they might find themselves on a Glass Cliff.

This term, coined by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, describes the fact that women who break through the glass ceiling often find themselves in more precarious leadership positions where failure is more likely in comparison to their male colleagues. Evidence backing up this idea was first found when re-examining the fact that as the number of women on FTSE 100 company boards increased, the performance of these companies decreased. This had previously been interpreted as evidence for the lack of women’s leadership ability, but as it turned out, it was not the number of women that predicted company performance, but rather company performance that predicted the number of women. In other words, more women were appointed to company boards in times of crisis. This pattern was not found for men.

Since first discovered in 2005, the Glass Cliff has been studied in a variety of settings (e.g. politics) using a variety of samples (e.g. business leaders, students) and methods. If you are interested in reading more, here are links to some interesting articles about the Glass Cliff:

The article discussing the findings above (abstract)

Politics and the glass cliff (abstract)

The glass cliff as a result of stereotypes (abstract)

The glass cliff and suitability of men and women for leadership positions (full pdf)


4 thoughts on “The Glass Cliff

  1. Well this is encouraging… ? :/ I thought WinS was meant to help us feel empowered and support us in our drive to become surgeons? This article and actually the last few posts I’ve read from WinS has on the contrary made me more anxious and self-conscious of my gender! There’s now a glass cliff too?? What after, an invisible tornado?

  2. Thanks for your comment! Part of our rationale here is to describe the kinds of experiences that many women have in male dominated fields. We feel that it would not be honest to pretend that these kinds of problems don’t exist (for some individuals at least), as having some sense of potential barriers can help one to prepare oneself better for this possibility. It also means that if a women does have a certain gendered experience, she knows that she’s not alone, and that it says nothing about her and her ability to be a surgeon.

    Having said all of that though, many female surgeons that we speak to report that their gender has not been a problem in their career at all. So, obviously there are many different experiences!

    We certainly take your point that a lot of these posts have had a negative tone; the last things that we want to do is to discourage you – or anyone else! We will make sure that we have a better representation of women’s positive experiences and achievements in surgery too. If you have any other suggestions of topics that we could cover, we would love to hear from you – or any of our other readers!

  3. Pingback: What Is Better for Gender Equality: Hard or Soft Policy Strategies? | Women in Surgery

  4. Pingback: The Effects of Talking About Gender Discrimination | Women in Surgery

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