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)

 

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