Tipping point for glass cliff

The phrase, born out of psychological research, was a contender for 'word of the year'. Ella Rhodes speaks to Michelle Ryan.

A phrase born out of psychological research made it into the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year shortlist – being trumped for the top position by ‘post-truth’. 'Glass cliff', a term first coined by University of Exeter psychologist Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam (University of Queensland), describes the propensity for women and other minorities to be found in leadership positions where there is a high risk of failure.

Although Professor Ryan first coined the term in a British Journal of Management article in 2004, it is in recent years that 'glass cliff' has come to be more widely used. Ryan told us the phrase had fluctuated in its popularity in the last 13 years, but with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister in the wake of the EU referendum and Hilary Clinton running for US President, it had become even more commonly used. 

Ryan explained: ‘We do lots of work to promote the research and the terms with the media and the wider public. Over time, as people find out about the term, it has now become part of common parlance and its usage has a life of its own. After a media article, where perhaps we do an interview, you can see the usage of the term spreading over social media.’

And the phrase hasn’t only struck a chord in English-speaking countries: ‘There is a lot of coverage in the UK, the USA, and Australia, Canada and the Netherlands – because this is where we work and travel often. But the term is used in research and the media across the world – including India, China, Spain, Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Singapore. This suggests to us that it is a term and a phenomenon that crosses international boundaries and crosses cultures.'

With her work attracting such broad interest, I asked Ryan how academics can achieve wide reach with their research. She said it was important to engage not only with the media but with the public more generally: ‘Alex Haslam and I have always worked closely with the media – doing newspaper, radio and TV interviews on request, but also pitching stories through press releases. Both Alex and I are active on Twitter. We also work closely with organisations and the general public, speaking at industry events and public science events. It’s also very important to situate the research in current circumstances – using up-to-date examples and explaining how the research is relevant.’  

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