Addressing subtle gender discrimination in the workplace

Researchers in Psychology at the University of Exeter have uncovered a new phenomenon relating to gender discrimination in the workplace. Called the 'glass cliff', the research has identified that women tend to occupy more precarious leadership positions than their male counterparts.

In November 2003 The Times published an article entitled ‘Women on Board: Help or Hindrance’. It reported a tendency for UK FTSE 100 companies with women on their boards to perform less well than those that have all-male boards. Their conclusion was that women were ‘wreaking havoc on UK companies’.


The Exeter team did an in-depth analysis of the performance of FTSE 100 companies and published the results in the British Journal of Management. It showed that while there was a relationship between female board members and share price performance, the causal relation was very different from that claimed by The Times.

Rather than women in top jobs causing poor company performance, they were more likely to be appointed to such jobs after a consistent pattern of poor company performance. Thus, women tended to occupy leadership roles that were more risky and more precarious than their male counterparts – the glass cliff.

Professor Michelle Ryan, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology, explained: “Our research into the glass cliff shows that women are more likely to be placed in leadership positions which are risky or precarious. Women who make it to board-level in the UK have typically overcome significant hurdles to get there and are often required to operate in a hostile environment.”

Since its discovery, the term ‘glass cliff’ has been widely discussed, with the concept now both informing and shaping debate and the public understanding of women’s leadership positions.

Professor Ryan added: “A major impact of this work has been informing public debate. The New York Times named the glass cliff as one of the Top 100 ideas that shaped 2008 and it has been used to describe the situations of many women in leadership including Julia Gillard in Australia, Carly Fiorina (HP) and women in banking after the Icelandic crisis.”

Raising awareness 

The work has also being adopted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and integrated into organisation practice by trainers, coaches, and HR professionals, including the commission of two CIPD publications. 

Professor Ryan has worked with large companies and organisations, including IBM, Met Office, MoD, Microsoft and the Royal College of Surgeons to deliver dedicated seminars and workshops to raise awareness and advise on new strategies to address the issue.

Following the study many influential employers have changed their human resources procedures to include revised flexible working options, bonus schemes, and the creation of internal support networks.