Precarious paths

In 2017, the term ‘glass cliff’ became mainstream after it was shortlisted for the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year.

UQ’s Professor Alex Haslam coined the term ‘glass cliff’ in 2005 with University of Exeter researcher Professor Michelle Ryan. While honoured by this recognition, he is just glad that the phenomenon, which has been prevalent in boardrooms, court rooms and politics for far too long, is finally coming under scrutiny.

Women who progress to the highest echelons of leadership can suffer from being placed on a ‘glass cliff’ – that is, women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions in problematic organisational circumstances, making their status and job security more precarious than their male counterparts.

Professor Haslam has spent over a decade researching this phenomenon with colleagues from around the world.

“The evidence that women tend to be appointed to sub-optimal leadership positions in business is now pretty incontrovertible,” he said.

Women surveyed during his studies cited issues like in-group bias and sexism as the cause of the phenomenon, and many believed that limited career opportunities relative to their male counterparts led to women accepting precarious leadership positions.

Professor Haslam, together with Professor Ryan and Dr Julie Ashby from the University of Exeter, also explored whether the phenomenon existed in fields outside of business.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they discovered it occurred in the legal industry and in politics, where they found that female candidates are more likely to contest an unwinnable seat or take on a difficult case than their male counterparts.

“Women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions in problematic organisational circumstances, making their status and job security more precarious than males.”
Professor Alex Haslam

While acknowledging its existence is a great initial step to addressing the glass cliff, Professor Haslam now wants organisations to stop it from occurring in the first place by auditing themselves to see what meaningful development opportunities and career paths are offered to women.

“This can be a struggle for many organisations, because they have often invested pretty heavily in the process of defending themselves against accusations of bias, for example, by having various diversity policies in place.

Woman stepping off glass cliff

“In our experience, audits tend to uncover a range of inequalities – some subtle, others not. Having done one, you can set about trying to correct inequalities, preferably in consultation with both women and men, so that people understand what you are trying to do and why.”

To take this advice on board and provide an inclusive environment where diversity thrives, UQ is proactively supporting women to reach their leadership potential and offers a range of professional development and mentoring programs, flexible working arrangements, generous parental leave, convenient parking for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and parenting rooms to make the transition back to the workforce a positive one for new parents of both genders.

UQ is also one of 40 Australian organisations participating in the SAGE Pilot of Athena SWAN program, a UK-based model that applies a rigorous evaluation and accreditation framework to improve gender equity in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) disciplines.

Professor Haslam says that while these initiatives lay the foundation for positive change, more research and consultation is required to make
real progress.

“I think there is quite a bit of evidence that the research has already had a lot of impact, but we want to find out more about how barriers to progress can be overcome collectively, in ways that make sense, and are appealing, to both men and women,” he said.

Connect with Professor Haslam, or support the School of Psychology's important research.

Credits: opening video: Getty Images/simonkr; opening image: Getty Images/Yuri_Arcurs; woman on stairs: Getty Images/DNY59

Two women sharing notes

Women at UQ discussing equity programs.

Women at UQ discussing equity programs.