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The glass ceiling and the glass cliff

Prof. Michelle Ryan discusses some of the barriers facing women at work, including the glass ceiling and the glass cliff. Twitter: @ShellKRyan
When it comes to understanding workplace inequality one of the most popular and indeed one of the most useful metaphors I think is the idea of the glass ceiling. So this is the idea that there is a certain level to which women can’t move beyond it’s an idea about sort of vertical progression within organizations. And the metaphor suggests that there’s some sort of barrier that prevents women reaching their full potential or reaching the top echelons of organizations. Now the metaphor itself is really powerful. The idea of glass suggests that it’s not about policy or rules or practice that says that women are not allowed to move beyond those positions but rather it’s transparent.
There’s something that’s sort of unspoken or unsaid but yet it’s a very real barrier that’s out there. Now what’s really interesting about the metaphor of the glass ceiling is that it’s what we call a structural metaphor. It’s about something about organization something about society or something about the system that suggests that women can’t move ahead. So in that way it’s been incredibly influential ever since the 1980s when it was first coined. Now its popularity has given rise to a whole range of different metaphors that look at workplace inequality. Some of these metaphors talk about barriers for other groups. So for example we talk about the pink ceiling where LGBT people perhaps can’t reach the top echelons as well.
But there’s also other metaphors that suggests that there are similar barriers but perhaps in different areas. So we’ve got a stained glass ceiling where women can’t take on leadership positions in the church or the celluloid ceiling where women can’t take on leadership positions within the film industry. So you can see the influence of such a metaphor in the way that it’s expanded to really look at workplace inequality with gender but with other minority groups as well. What’s also interesting is that the metaphor of the glass ceiling has really sort of spawned a whole range of different metaphors that talk about different types of workplace gender inequality. So for example there’s the glass escalator.
So again we’ve got this idea of glass. So this is about sort of relatively transparent or relatively subtle kinds of workplace inequalities but the escalator is focusing on what happens to men. So the idea of the glass escalator is that men when they’re in perhaps female dominated areas rather than facing a sort of equivalent glass ceiling actually what they get is an escalator. They get a boost to the top. So an example you can think of is men in nursing for example they’re very underrepresented but yet they’re overrepresented in the top echelons.
This is mainly because our ideas of leadership and what leadership looks like really doesn’t change even if we’re in female dominated areas like health care or nursing or childcare. So if you think of primary schools for example the overwhelming number of teachers primary school teachers are women. But if you look at the top. You have men on this glass escalator being more likely to take on leadership positions there. We’ve also got other types of metaphors that that pull on this idea either of glass or of sort of structural inequality.
We talk about glass walls where the idea is that women are perhaps confined not necessarily just vertically but also sort of horizontally as well that there are particular roles within an organization that women are more likely to be in. So they’re more likely to be in PR so public relations and marketing sort of side of things or they’re more likely to be in human relations. What’s interesting there is that even though those women might be able to do relatively well within those roles it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to reach the absolute upper echelons of an organization.
And that’s because the types of people that take on the top leadership roles such as CEO on the boards of executives are more likely to come from particular areas of the organization and those are the areas that women aren’t in. So these might be sort of more core business rather than support like PR and HR.
We’ve also got the metaphor of maternal walls and this is the idea that it isn’t necessarily just about the structures within an organization that might confine women but also certain points within their life sort of lifecycle so the idea is that when women become pregnant or have children that they do face inequalities there as well either at a societal level or within an organization that makes it more difficult for them to progress. And finally a metaphor that’s come out of the idea of the glass ceiling is my own work on the glass cliff. So this really looks at when it is that those women that do break through the glass ceiling tend to take on leadership positions.
So our research suggests that while only very few women make it to the top of organizations there are particular circumstances in where that’s likely to happen. So the idea of the glass cliff is that women are more likely to take on leadership positions when things are risky and when their precarious. So for example think Theresa May and Brexit she came into you know the most senior leadership position her prime ministerial position when things were really difficult in terms of getting a Brexit deal through the EU. So the idea of the metaphor then is we’ve still got the idea of glass, it’s relatively subtle it’s relatively transparent but at the same time we’ve got this idea of the cliff.
So women are at very senior levels very senior positions but their positions are rather risky and precarious because they’ve come in in times of crisis. So therefore the idea that they might fall off the edge is very very real. So taken together then we’ve got a whole range of different metaphors that can explain the different types of very subtle kinds of discrimination or inequality that women can face within the workplace.

Prof. Michelle Ryan discusses some of the barriers facing women at work, including the glass ceiling and the glass cliff. Twitter: @ShellKRyan

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Understanding Gender Inequality

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