Unearthing the Glass Cliff: Professor Michelle Ryan

“Glass cliff appointments may be seen as an example of progress towards gender equality. But in reality, the opposite may be the case”: Professor Michelle Ryan shares a snapshot of her story.
Women & Leadership Australia
4 mins

Professor Michelle Ryan is the inaugural Director of the Global Institute of Women’s Leadership (GIWL) at The Australian National University (ANU).

Her insights on creating equitable workplaces, research with Alex Haslem uncovering the glass cliff phenomenon, and optimism for the future of gender equality provide invaluable perspectives that inspire change and progress.

Prof. Ryan is speaking at our upcoming Canberra Women’s Leadership Symposium in May. We had the privilege of conducting a pre-event interview, exploring her career journey and gaining valuable insights into her outlook on gender equality in this enlightening Q&A.

How did your early life experiences shape your career path?

Prof Ryan: I never had a very clear sense of my potential career path when I was younger – but I can see looking back that my parents, and especially my father, encouraged in me a great curiosity and a strong sense of social justice, which I think underpins a lot of what I do today. I only discovered social psychology and feminism once I got to university (on my second attempt!) and from then on I had a clear direction on where to channel my energies. After spending 18 years working in the UK after finishing my PhD, I saw the job description for the inaugural Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL) at The Australian National University and I knew I had found my dream job – I couldn’t have made up a more perfect job for my passions and my experience.

Michelle Ryan

How can organisations create more inclusive and equitable workplaces for women?

Prof Ryan: I think the key thing here is that workplace equality goes well beyond any specific diversity and inclusion initiatives that are implemented by HR departments. Gender equality needs to be imbedded in every part of an organisation and comes down to organisational culture and organisational practices that are inclusive, fair, and gender aware. Gender equality needs to championed and role modelled from the top down, the senior manager ‘walking the talk’. Gender equality needs to be front and centre in hiring and promotion practices, and organisation have to rethink job selection criteria, what gets rewarded, and what leadership and success looks like.


Your research on the glass cliff phenomenon has significantly impacted public discourse around women’s leadership positions. Could you share more about how you and your colleague, Alex Haslam, discovered the glass cliff, and its implications for women?

Prof Ryan: Alex and I first uncovered the phenomenon of the glass cliff in direct response to a newspaper article on the front page of the business section of The Times. This article presented evidence that companies that had more women on their boards of directors had poorer share prices, and thus the increasing number of women on UK corporate board was ‘wreaking havoc’ on corporate Britain.

We suggested an alternative explanation, where rather than women causing poor company performance, it was poor company performance that led to women being appointed to boards. We conducted an analysis of board appointments and company share price fluctuations and demonstrated that this alternative explanation was indeed the case—women were appointed to boards after a consistent period of poor share price performance.

Since this first uncovering of the phenomenon, we’ve conducted two decades of work to understanding the glass cliff. It is not restricted to corporate settings and has also been found in (a) the political sphere—see for example all three of the UK’s female Prime ministers: Thatcher (1980s recession), May (Brexit) and Truss (energy crisis and spiralling inflation); (b) sporting contexts and (c) in NGOs.

“The importance of the glass cliff here is that it points to the need to look beyond the number of women in leadership positions, to understand the circumstances under which women are likely to be appointment. If we just take the proportion of women in leadership roles as a measure of gender equality, then glass cliff appointments may be seen as an example of progress towards gender equality. But in reality, the opposite may be the case.”

Having spent a considerable portion of your career in the UK, what motivated your return to Australia and how do you plan to leverage your experiences from the UK to drive positive change in Australian workplaces?

Prof Ryan: It was such an exciting opportunity to return to Australia to set up GIWL. My time in the UK gave me a lot of opportunities to work with large multi-national corporations, the UK and Dutch Government, and the European Union and to understand how gender equality varies across contexts and across countries. Hopefully I can bring these experiences back to Australia to help inform gender equality initiatives in organisations, and gender equality policy at all levels of government.

Given the ongoing challenges and setbacks in achieving gender equality, what gives you hope for the future, and where do you see the most potential for progress?

Prof Ryan: At GIWL we have established a Global Youth Committee of 17 young people, chaired by the wonderful Chanel Contos, to help shape and inform the research we do and what we prioritise in our work. The skill, passion, experience, and activism shown by these Youth Committee members is astonishing – they are so accomplished and so committed to making the world a more gender equitable place, they inspire me every day and give me hope for the future.

Professor Michelle Ryan - ANU
Credit: ANU https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/ryan-mk

How do you balance your professional life with personal commitments and maintain a healthy work-life balance?

Prof Ryan: Work-life balance is critical to me. We do research in this area, so we think it is important to put our money where our mouth is. GIWL offers flexible working, and work from home options, we don’t glorify a long-hours work culture, and we value the down-time, family-time, and leisure time. We know that the work we do is creative and challenging, so people need to be rested and energised to make a difference.

What advice would you give to youth who are passionate about advancing gender equality and women’s leadership?

Prof Ryan: Join our Youth Committee!!


Don’t miss the opportunity to hear first-hand as Professor Michelle Ryan shares more of her insights at the upcoming Canberra Women’s Leadership Symposium. Book your tickets now to be inspired by her incredible story!

We also had the chance to speak to Anoushka Gungadin, Symposium Speaker. Read her story here.