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I think that the ARC needs to put in place stringent rules on gender equity and diversity of age profiles in teams applying for funding.

Glass ceilings and cliffs 

Glass ceilings and glass cliffs are metaphors that represent key barriers women face in the workplace. The term “glass” is used because these barriers can be invisible, yet nonetheless are significant obstacles for many women’s career advancement. There is both archival and experimental evidence supporting the existence of both the glass ceiling and glass cliff [1].

Contributors to the glass ceiling include:

  • human capital barriers, such as lacking the requisite education, resources, or achievements (see getting and managing grants)

  • gender-based stereotypes about women (e.g., the notion of “think manager, think male”)

  • gender differences in communication styles (see communicating your research)

  • women’s exclusion from informal networks (see building networks)

  • limited management support for work/life programs (see flexible work arrangements)

  • a lack of mentors and role-models for women (see supervising and mentoring early career scholars)

  • occupational sex segregation (see targets and quotas), and

  • attitudinal and organizational biases [2] (see a diversity-friendly culture).

The "glass ceiling" [2] effect describes the invisible barrier that can prevent talented women from senior leadership roles. Popularized in the 1980s, the effect has attracted a great deal of research attention. Studies have identified organisational practices and interpersonal biases that inhibit women's advancement.

Glass Ceilings

Although some have questioned the existence of the “glass cliff” [5], there is strong experimental evidence in support of the concept [6]. When asked to select ideal managers for successful companies, respondents show no gender bias. However, when the selection was for an unsuccessful company, respondents associated ideal managers with female stereotypes. This is referred to as “think crisis-think female” [7].

Recent examples of the glass cliff include the appointment of Theresa May to Prime Minister of Britain [8] after the Brexit referendum, a position that May resigned from three years late having failed to negotiate a satisfactory Brexit deal. A similar corporate example is Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who was appointed as 30,000 employees were being laid off. She was ousted after six years, with some describing her as one of the worst technology CEOs of all time [9].

The "glass cliff" [3] is a phenomenon that was more recently recognized, compared to the glass ceiling. It refers to the disproportionate representation of women in senior leadership positions that are risky and precarious [4]. In other words, when women become leaders, they are more often placed in leadership roles that are associated with an increased risk of negative consequences.

Glass Cliffs

Why are glass ceilings and cliffs a gender issue?

Although women in male-dominated fields seem to hit the glass ceiling, men in female-dominated fields are not similarly impeded. Instead, men benefit from gender norms that match typically masculine traits with the skills and capabilities necessary for senior leadership. This serves as a masculine advantage when it comes to men’s promotion in female-dominated workplaces [10]. Some research suggests that rather than a ceiling, men instead ride the ‘glass escalator’, helping them to accelerate through organisation ranks towards leadership positions [11].


In academia, The Monitor Women Professors (2016) report revealed a “ruthlessly thick” glass ceiling within Dutch universities [12]. Statistics showed that fewer than one in five professors in the Netherlands are women. Furthermore, female academics earned, on average, 53 euros less per month than men. They were also systematically awarded lower job levels.

In contrast, the glass cliff is a double-edged sword for women’s advancement. On one hand, institutions in crisis are more likely to take risks, try new things, and question the status quo [13]. As such, poor organisational performance offers women the opportunity to secure leadership roles.


On the other hand, the glass cliff phenomenon suggests that breaking through the glass ceiling is not enough. Men may be more likely to initially turn down glass cliff roles [14], leaving women to take on these precarious positions not because they are more suited to the role, but because they are “not men” [14]. Once in the role, observers are more likely to blame leaders for poor organisational performance than to blame situational factors [15]. This means women in glass cliff roles, far from being set on an upward career trajectory, instead may face diminished career prospects. For example, leaders of poor performing companies are less likely to be appointed to leadership positions in the future [16]. Furthermore, given the rarity of women in senior roles, one woman’s leadership failure may result in observers drawing negative conclusions about all women’s abilities to perform in leadership roles [17].

Strategies for managing glass ceilings and cliffs

What can you or your organisation do to break through the invisible leadership barrier, or stop yourself falling from a precarious leadership perch?


Organisations can make a variety of changes to account for this decision-making bias, to decrease the barriers that women face in the form of glass ceilings and cliffs [1]:

  • Awareness is key: awareness is the first step to changing biased decision-making. Knowing that there is an issue for women in leadership can help with formulating a strategic organizational response.

  • Objective performance evaluations: use objective measures of performance to judge female leaders. It is easy for a company in crisis to be swayed by subjective (and potentially biased) opinions of stakeholders and investors, rather than using objective indices to evaluate performance.

  • Diversity programs: engage in programs such as unconscious bias training which are designed to de-bias decision making and raise awareness of bias and discriminatory practices. Reducing gendered associations may drive a more objective, skills-based appointment process.

  • Utilize social resources: ensure that women have access to appropriate formal and informal social resources, such as mentors, networks, and support programs.

  • Framing of interventions: don’t just discuss stereotypes of women – it runs the risk of normalizing men as being seen as a more ‘natural’ fit for leadership roles. Find a balance, for example, by running programs as ways of tackling structural inequality or using gender-neutral promotion of training programs.

  • Understand the confidence gap: research has found that men consistently overestimate their performance and abilities, whereas women underestimate theirs [20]. Hewlett Packard discovered that men apply for roles when they meet 60% of the criteria, but women only apply if they meet 100% [21]. Having confidence in your abilities, and projecting this confidence, is critical for taking on leadership roles and putting yourself forward for the job.

  • Take a balanced approach to negotiations: successful employees have access to both social and economic resources. However, negotiating for economic resources e.g., salary, conditions, can result in backlash against women as tough negotiation is seen as masculine [22]. Although women who negotiate are still seen as competence, it can result in women being seen as less likeable, and their colleagues may no longer want to work with them [23]. Strategies such as using inclusive language – saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ to show that your success is tied to the organisation’s success – can mitigate some of the negative effects of negotiating for economic resources [24].

  • Get comfortable with rejection: research has shown that men are more likely than women to reapply for a job similar to one they had been rejected for in the past [25]. It is important for organisations to demonstrate that their application processes are fair and transparent, so that women continue to vy for roles. Equally important is that women recognize failure as an opportunity for growth, and rather than trying to avoid it, embrace it instead.

Strategies for Managing the Glass Ceiling

The David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah [19] offers a range of strategies for women looking to break through the glass ceiling and seize a senior leadership role.

For individual women, [26] recommends the following strategies before taking a promotion:

  • Know why you are being chosen: reflect on your capacities and have enough self-awareness to recognize the unique qualities that have led your organisation to recommend you for the role. Highly effective leaders are more self-aware and have more accurate perceptions of their own skills and qualities [27].

  • Know what to expect: know the history of the organisation, your predecessor, and how company performance is evaluated by key stakeholders e.g., consumers, employees, the board, general public. Having this information is key in predicting what sort out outcome you may expect as a result of failure in the role, and whether you will receive unmerited blame.

  • Know who you’re dealing with: Women in leadership are more likely to be ousted compared to male leaders [28], potentially because they are more likely to be hired from an external organisation rather than being promoted internally. This leaves women with fewer networks and soft capital to draw upon.

Strategies for Managing the Glass Cliff

Sometimes glass cliffs are unavoidable. Incumbents or successors to a role must be judged with the precariousness of the role in mind. However, it is essential that management also recognize the propensity to appoint women to precarious roles, and the stereotypes about the role requirements that are affecting this decision [14].

Suggested videos and podcasts

The glass cliff phenomenon

Women in Research "Small Wins" Webinar
with ARC Laureate Fellows Professor Sharon Parker and Professor Alex Haslam

See full reference list
  1. Bruckmüller, S., Ryan, M. K., Rink, F., & Haslam, S. A. (2014). Beyond the glass ceiling: The glass cliff and its lessons for organizational policy. Social issues and Policy Review, 8(1), 202-232.

  2. Cotter, D. A., Hermsen, J. M., Ovadia, S., & Vanneman, R. (2001). The glass ceiling effect. Social Forces, 80(2), 655-681. doi:10.1353/sof.2001.0091

  3. Bruckmüller, S., & Branscombe, N. R. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49(3), 433-451. doi:10.1348/014466609X466594

  4. Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over‐represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16(2), 81-90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00433.x

  5. Adams, S. M., Gupta, A., & Leeth, J. D. (2009). Are female executives over‐represented in precarious leadership positions?. British Journal of Management, 20(1), 1-12.

  6. Ryan, M. K., & Alexander Haslam, S. (2009). Glass cliffs are not so easily scaled: On the precariousness of female CEOs' positions. British Journal of Management, 20(1), 13-16.

  7. Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M. D., & Bongiorno, R. (2011). Think crisis–think female: The glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager–think male stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 470.

  8. Werber, C. (2016). Theresa May is the latest woman leader appointed in a crisis and set up for failure. Quartz. Retrieved from

  9. Sonnenfeld, J. (2015, Aug). Carly Fiorina as a boss: The disappointing truth. Retrieved from

  10. Cognard-Black, A. J. (2012). Riding the glass escalator to the principal’s office. Teorıja In Praksa let, 49(6), 878-900.

  11. Williams, C. L. (1992). The glass escalator: Hidden advantages for men in the ‘female’ professions’. Social Problems, 39, 253–267.

  12. Landelijke Netwerk Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren (2016). Monitor Women Professors 2016. Executive summary. Retrieved from

  13. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (2013). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. In L. C. MacLean & W. T. Ziemba (Eds), Handbook of the fundamentals of financial decision making: Part I (pp. 99-127).

  14. Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2007). The glass cliff: Exploring the dynamics surrounding the appointment of women to precarious leadership positions. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 549-572.

  15. Meindl, J. R., & Ehrlich, S. B. (1987). The romance of leadership and the evaluation of organizational performance. Academy of Management Journal, 30(1), 91-109.

  16. Ferris, S. P., Jagannathan, M., & Pritchard, A. C. (2003). Too busy to mind the business? Monitoring by directors with multiple board appointments. The Journal of Finance, 58(3), 1087-1111. doi:10.1111/1540-6261.00559

  17. Judge, E. (2003, November 11). ‘Women on board: Help or hindrance?’, The Times, p. 21.

  18. Peterson, H. (2016). Is managing academics “women’s work”? Exploring the glass cliff in higher education management. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 44(1), 112-127. doi:10.1177/1741143214563897

  19. David Eccles School of Business. (2017, Feb). Breaking the glass ceiling: 3 career strategies for women. Retrieved from

  20. Beyer, S. (1990). Gender differences in the accuracy of self-evaluations of performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 59(5), 960-970.

  21. Mohr, T. S. (2014, Aug). Why women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

  22. Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2008). Backlash effects for disconfirming gender stereotypes in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 28, 61-79.

  23. Heilman, M. E., Wallen, A. S., Fuchs, D., & Tamkins, M. M. (2004). Penalties for success: reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks. Journal of applied psychology, 89(3), 416-427.

  24. Bowles, H. R., & Babcock, L. (2013). How can women escape the compensation negotiation dilemma? Relational accounts are one answer. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(1), 80-96.

  25. Brands, R. A., & Fernandez-Mateo, I. (2017). Leaning out: How negative recruitment experiences shape women’s decisions to compete for executive roles. Administrative Science Quarterly, 62(3), 405-442.

  26. Berhanè, S. (2016, Apr). How women and minorities can avoid the glass cliff. Retrieved from    

  27. Yammarino, F. J., & Atwater, L. E. (1993). Understanding self‐perception accuracy: Implications for human resource management. Human Resource Management, 32(2‐3), 231-247.

  28. Gupta, V. K., Mortal, S. C., Silveri, S., Sun, M., & Turban, D. B. (2018). You’re Fired! Gender Disparities in CEO Dismissal. Journal of Management, 0149206318810415.

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