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Breaking Boundaries: Uncovering the ‘Glass Cliff’

3 November 2020

3 minutes to read

Breaking Boundaries: Uncovering the ‘Glass Cliff’

Research at the University of Exeter has uncovered a previously unknown phenomenon, in which women are more likely to be appointed to risky and precarious leadership positions in times of crisis.

The ‘glass cliff’ is the phrase used to describe this situation. It follows previous research has described the barriers women face in trying to climb the corporate ladder, with evidence suggesting that they typically confront a ‘glass ceiling’. Men on the other hand are more likely to benefit from a ‘glass escalator’.

Professor Michelle Ryan

In 2003 an article reported a tendency for UK Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 100 companies with women on their boards to perform less well than those that have all-male boards. They concluded women were “wreaking havoc on UK companies”. This led to Professor Michelle Ryan and Professor Alex Haslam to investigate these claims.

They found that women were more likely to be appointed to senior management jobs after a consistent pattern of poor company performance. With this knowledge they tested the hypothesis that women are more likely than men to be appointed to risky and precarious leadership positions.

Results showed that when the company was performing poorly, between 65 and 86 per cent of participants preferred the female candidate, but only between 39 and 57 percent preferred the female when the company was performing strongly.

Ryan and Haslam’s research was shortlisted for the 2005 Times Higher’s Research Project of the Year.

More recently, the research has been expanded to investigate situations outside corporate organisations to political settings and focused on explanations including the glass cliff being used as a signal of change, and a mechanism to set women up to fail.

Further research has been done in the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, and Germany continuing the discussion on how women tend to occupy leadership roles that were more uncertain and perilous than their male counterparts.

An example of the glass cliff being used in politics is Theresa May taking leadership of the Conservative Party in the UK during Brexit negotiations between 2016 and 2019.

Since the glass cliff impact case study was submitted to REF2014, the term ‘glass cliff’ has continued to have an impact on public discourse. While initial media coverage was restricted to reports about the research project, in more recent years this has no longer been the case.

In 2016, glass cliff was one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Words of the Year’. The phrase had 394,603 Wikipedia page views since it was created in 2015 and 1,211 tweets containing ‘#glasscliff’ on Twitter since 1 August 2013.

This research continues to inform and shape debate and increase public understanding of women’s leadership positions by providing a clear and resonating metaphor. It identifies and analyses contemporary gender bias where the alternative is to sustain gender bias by focusing on women’s poor performance.


Breaking boundaries provides a bitesize look into the variety of leading research that has, and still is changing the world from the University of Exeter.

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Professor Michelle Ryan talks about gender equality & women in leadership, including the glass cliff


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