Gendering the Workplace Injustice: Cliff or Prison

  • Abdulfattah YaghiEmail author
Living reference work entry



Glass Cliff refers to a metaphor that describes the difficulties which women in leadership may face before, during, and after they are hired. Glass cliff suggests that men put women in peculiar positions making it difficult for women to succeed.


In spite of the legal and institutional developments that improved the workplace environment during the past 100 years, injustice inside organizations remains an undeniable reality that affects both men and women (Yaghi and Yaghi 2013). Workplace injustice is not limited to lower-level jobs, but men and women leaders (e.g., managers, CEOs, and directors) suffer from various forms of discriminatory treatment (Stivers 2002; Yaghi 2016a). Economic, social, political, psychological, personal, and organizational factors may amalgamate in such a way that makes it difficult for leaders to succeed in performing their job (Yaghi 2016b; Yaghi and Yaghi 2014). Some literature argues that women, unlike men, are victims of organizational injustice especially the covert and indirect bias against women managers (leaders). Researchers used various metaphors to describe their perceived injustices, such as glass ceiling, glass walls, glass slippers, sticky floors, and glass escalators (Connolly 2004; Griffiths 2004). Research on those metaphors has increased significantly in the past 40 years supported by various feminist groups and more voices pushing for fundamental changes in the laws that governed employment and human resource management (HRM). Glass cliff is a continuation of the previous metaphors, which focuses mainly on the single factor of gender, thus gendering organizational injustice and blaming men in particular for it (Ryan and Haslam 2005). This entry discusses the flip side of the glass cliff and argues instead that the implied demonization of men and the overemphasis on gender may create an illusion, an equally harmful thinking that is a “glass prison” which regenerates the stereotypical views of women leaders and their success by implicitly claiming that women’s success is predetermined by somebody else (i.e., men).

Glass Ceiling and Glass Cliff

Glass ceiling is the oldest metaphor that describes the invisible barriers which organization members, such as people with certain age, race, economic status, or physical abilities, and women may face. Originally this metaphor was initiated, per Frenkel (1984), by Marilyn Loden in 1978 and Gay Bryant aiming to draw the attention of decision makers to systematic discrimination that could not be documented. Later on, other researchers expanded the examination of glass ceiling reporting new forms of injustice at work. They branched concepts from glass ceiling such as glass escalator (Goudreau 2012), sticky floors (Booth et al. 2003), and finally glass cliff (Ryan and Haslam 2005).

Researchers in the glass cliff literature argue, explicitly or implicitly, that established systems and organizational culture disadvantage women leaders. Men orchestrate conspiracies to put women in difficult (e.g., risky, peculiar, unusual, dangerous, and uncertain) jobs where the chances for failure are preknowingly high (Gartzia et al. 2012). Because most of the glass cliff research comes mainly from western, Anglo-Saxon societies, such as the United Kingdom, the USA, and Australia, one may think that glass cliff can be peculiar to such countries (Yaghi and Alibeli 2013); Yaghi et al. 2007). In order to test the glass cliff argument outside western societies, the present entry relies on data collected from United Arab Emirates (UAE) where women achieve noticeable success in leading public and private organizations and live within a conservative social culture and liberal economic system (Yaghi and Aljaidi 2014).

The Flip Side of Glass Cliff Argument

John Connolly (2004) and Julie Griffiths (2004) describe the injustice that some women face when performing leadership tasks as a glass cliff. Other researchers expand the examination of glass cliff metaphor by a series of semi-experimental and scenario-based studies (Ryan and Haslam 2005, p.83). The dominant argument in mainstream glass cliff research is that the established system (e.g., laws, regulations, work ethos, organizational culture, and procedures) in various public and private sector organizations create discriminatory practices in staffing leadership jobs by specifically targeting women and recruiting them to lead organizations (departments and units) where work conditions and the prospects of the jobs are noticeably unusual and difficult (Ryan and Haslam 2005, p.83). The established system does not treat men the same way as women are treated, which leads many women to have limited options at work. In particular, women leaders either spend extra physical, psychological, and personal resources to succeed in managing the unusual work conditions, or take a shortcut and quit. In both scenarios, women leaders are unnecessarily struggling to perform a task for which they are chosen based mainly on gender criteria.

While the argument of the glass cliff may describe workplace injustice in some organizations in particular cultures (i.e., Anglo societies), it seems that the argument overlooks well-documented evidence that women fail in performing leadership jobs because of many factors, such as personal, organizational, political, cultural, economic, and social. Therefore, the flip side of the glass cliff seems to insinuate almost entirely the opposite of what it intends to describe. Specifically, attempting to justify the failure of some women leaders by blaming men or the “established system” bluntly suggests that women managers are either super leaders (i.e., superheroes) who cannot fail or women managers are dependent on men who decide for them what jobs to accept. While being hero is obviously a naïve suggestion that cannot be entertained, the second one is highly suggestive. This entry argues that while the failure of some women organizational leaders can be a natural occurrence, it is not gender alone to be considered. Therefore, it can be proposed that:

Proposition 1: While gender cannot entirely be overlooked, there are other factors that impact women in leadership and their success or failure.

An important aspect of the glass cliff argument is the claim that patriarchal system dominates the workplace; thus, women managers are disadvantaged. Similar to other “glass” metaphor-based concepts, such as glass ceiling, the argument is already made that men dominates the workplace decision-making processes; therefore, fingers are pointed to them (see, Al-Lamki 2007). An alternative reading of this argument suggests that focusing on men-women relationships reproduces gender stereotypes that hurt women themselves. In particular, blaming men for injustice that grows in the workplace creates the illusion of a “glass prison” that men target women. Believing that the destiny of women leaders and the future of their career depend on men’s well can verily limit women and undermine their leadership capabilities (Sabharwal 2015). The glass cliff claims unnecessarily revisit the notion of think evil-think men suggesting in doing so that women leaders are helpless and men are evil wanting them to fail (Cook and Glass 2013). Contrarily, this entry argues that some men, as well as some women, want women leaders to fail, while many other men want women to succeed. Hence, it is proposed here that:

Proposition 2: While some men are supportive of women’s professional advancement, there are those who are not. The lack of some men’s supportive behavior may be driven by jealousy, departmental politics, and personal and organizational self-interest.


It is necessary for public administration scholars and practitioners to put theoretical arguments, such as glass cliff, into empirical testing. In order to do this, the glass cliff argument and the counter argument (i.e., the aforementioned two propositions) are analyzed using the triangulation of qualitative and quantitative methods. Specifically, in order to scrutinize the origins and the major theoretical developments of the concept, the literature on glass cliff which was published in the past 10 years was screened and analyzed. Then, two waves of in-depth interviews of 62 women (34 and 28 in the first and second wave respectively) were conducted with women holding leadership jobs in both public and private sector organizations within the UAE between January 2015 and October 2016. In order to ensure the validity of data collection, a team of male and female graduate students and professional researchers was formed and trained to perform the Internet literature search and the in-depth interviews. The interviewees were selected from successful and poorly performing organizations with job titles ranging from CEO to supervisor. The interviewed had a minimum of 3 years of experience in their current leadership positions, and their age ranged from 26 to 59 years old. Thematic analysis of the transcribed interviews revealed the following themes: speed of hiring process, difficulty level of tasks, risk level associated with the assigned tasks, role of gender in hiring, and role of men in women’s professional life (see, Table 1).
Table 1

Analysis of in-depth interviews.

Themes of interview questions

1st Wave (N = 34)

2nd Wave (N = 28)

Hiring process

- women recruited from other organization

11 (32%)

7 (25%)

- women recruited from the same organization

23 (68%)

21 (75%)

- women were asked to give presentation as part of the recruitment process

5 (15%)

6 (21%)

Wait period

- acceptable time

32 (94%)

17 (61%)

- longer than expected

1 (3%)

3 (11%)

- quicker than expected

2 (6%)

8 (28%)

Difficulty of the assigned duties:

- duties are demanding

13 (38%)

22 (78%)

- duties are relatively normal (balanced)

21 (62%)

5 (17%)

- duties are easy

5 (15%)

1 (3%)

Risk of assigned work

- comparable to that of male counterparts

20 (59%)

19 (68%)

- could not be compared due to having no male colleagues in similar jobs

12 (35%)

9 (32%)

Role of gender in designing the job

- gender has no role

20 (59%)

19 (68%)

- not sure

10 (29%)

6 (21%)

- gender has a role

4 (14%)

Influence of men on female leadership

- men are supportive

27 (79%)

23 (82%)

- men are not supportive

3 (9%)

4 (14%)

- men have an unclear role

4 (12%)

1 (3%)

Perceived role of men as conspirer to fail women

- male colleagues and/or superiors do not conspire against women

32 (94%)

25 (89%)

- male colleagues and/or superiors do conspire against women

2 (6%)

3 (11%)

Percentages are rounded and indicated in parentheses

Analysis and Findings

Flaws in the Literature

Research on glass cliff continues to grow. However, there is no yet a systematic or empirical analysis of the concept itself. In October 2016, the keyword “glass cliff” in Google Scholar produced 1600 entries. Because not all those entries were academic studies, this entry relied on analyzing the five major studies which combined had 58% of all the 935 glass cliff citations in Google Scholar.

In 2003, Elizabeth Judge (2003) wrote in The Times that British women managers (i.e., leaders) were responsible for the failure of their companies and therefore, women managers could not be given a leading role in the private sector. Two years later, Ryan and Haslam (2005) refuted Judge’s claim based on their analysis of archival documents of the failed companies showing that blaming women was not based on accurate facts (p. 32). In 2006, Wilson-Kovacs, Ryan, and Haslam (2006, p. 676) claimed that glass cliff was a “widespread” in the organizational world despite the “unique abilities” which women leaders possess and hence glass cliff leads women to fail. In 2007, Ryan, Haslam, and Postmes (2007) relying on hypothetical scenarios have asked college students to choose a leader in each given scenario. The study concluded that glass cliff mentality was persistent in the simulation! In 2014, Bruckmuller, Ryan, Rink, and Haslam (2014, p. 218) reported that despite the fact that men and women were automatically given different assignments at work, gender stereotypes have disadvantaged women – especially when the organization faced difficult times. In 2013, Cook and Glass (2013) reported little historical support of the glass cliff (p. 100) and argued that many other factors besides gender were responsible for disadvantaging women leaders. In 2015, Sabharwal (2015) reported that surveying American senior executive service managers revealed that socio-psychological factors could explain the happening of glass cliff.

Looking at the previous studies shows that until 2015 most of early glass cliff research was done using a small number of interviews or surveys. A small number of personal testimonials and many hypothetical scenarios were the origins from which the glass cliff generalizations have emerged. Because the data collection and data analyses suffer from validity issues, the authenticity of the findings could also have suffered poor inferences and generalizations.

Contrary to research traditions in social and management sciences, the glass cliff literature does not seem value-free because many researchers make gendered judgments about workplace injustice even before they analyze their data. For example, several studies start off by claiming that discrimination against women is factual (Adams et al. 2009). Instead of starting with neutral position until the analysis reveals the findings, it seems that some researchers put the cart in front of the horse, as to speak, by making emotional conclusions rather than fact-based. This is a major flaw that should be recognized.

While workplace injustice is a reality, the glass cliff research tends to overlook the importance of the interpretation of terminologies used. In the process of trying to convince their audiences that women leaders are being unfairly treated, glass cliff researchers seem to use accusative language that traps them in bad logic. Specifically, the very claim that women are “put” in dangerous, peculiar, or unusual positions can fairly insinuate that women are amenable to manipulation. Logically, if individuals (women) can easily be dragged into accepting any leadership jobs, such individuals cannot be considered capable, professional, or competent leaders. The dilemma here is that the glass cliff literature regenerates stereotypical views of women and helps portraying them as less competent than men, the ones who supposedly put them in peculiar positions (Yaghi and Antwi-Boateng 2015, 2016). The practical implication of this dilemma is to indirectly claim that women are inferior and dependent on men. Unfortunately the good faith in the glass cliff argument does not eliminate its strong insinuations about the vulnerability of women (Wilson-Kovacs et al. 2006).

The last flaw in the literature is over-simplifying workplace injustice. Instead of properly exposing the causes, forms, and victims of injustice, the glass cliff research overwhelmingly limits its scope to examining gender and the relationship between men and women in the workplace. Such narrow approach does not provide a valid or even a broad understanding of workplace injustice. Even when the research focuses on victimization of women, it does not seem to recognize important factors that contribute to the status quo other than gender and the old-new claims that men are responsible for discrimination against women. Because workplace injustice is the core issue, rather than gender, we may ask: does the glass cliff apply to others besides women, such as minority men, male and female managers who have physical disabilities, male and female managers from economically lower classes, men and women from different cultural, racial, age, professional, economic, and social backgrounds? The examination of workplace injustice should be broad enough to recognize the universal nature of it rather than one aspect of it (gender).

Analysis of the Interviews

Circumstances Surrounding the Appointment of the Women

Table 1 summarizes the thematic analysis of the interviews with sixty-two women leaders in public and private sector organizations. The findings indicate that standard human resource processes and procedures were strictly followed in selecting women for leadership vacancies. Hiring committees were involved; therefore, the final decisions were not an individual act. Moreover, each committee was staffed by men and women in order to ensure that hiring decisions were merit-based and not gender-biased. As part of the hiring process, around 18% of the women gave professional presentations and over 71% of all women came from the same organizations; thus, they were familiar with the organizational environments that surrounded the new leadership position. When asked about their perceived length of the hiring process, over 77% of all women indicated an acceptable time for the hiring process. One can assume that an acceptable time means that there was no reason to believe that the selected women were over-scrutinized during the selection and appointment processes. Only 17% and 7% of the women perceived the hiring process shorter and longer than expected, respectively. Since the hiring process was time-adequate, over-scrutiny of the women does not seem possible.

A fundamental assumption of the glass cliff is that women leaders are assigned peculiar tasks (e.g., difficult-to-perform, risky). In order to test this, the findings in Table 1 show that 58% of the women perceive their work duties as demanding and 39% perceive them as relatively normal, while 9% says the duties are easy. Around 63% of them describe the risk associated with their work as being comparable to that in their male counterparts’ work. None of the interviewed women indicated that their work was riskier than that of the male counterparts. One woman said: “the work itself is intense and I have to be alert all the time (Department Chair)” another said: “…my male colleagues are always in a rush to have their assignment successfully completed. The same is with me…I really have never looked at this matter as though I am doing riskier assignments (Manager of Auditing Department).”

It was essential to ask each interviewee if she believed that being a female has influenced her hiring decision. Table 1 shows three types of responses: women who firmly rejected the idea that gender has influenced their appointment (63%), women who were not sure about the role of gender (25%), and women who indicated that gender might have influenced the selection and designing of their jobs (14%). In their narrations, most of the women asserted that even if gender was a factor in their hiring, the biggest factor was their merit. As an example of these narrations, one woman said:

I honestly hate it when people strip me of my capabilities and attribute my success to my gender….it was not my biological features that achieved all the profits my company gained every year during the past four years. It was not that which caused my company to expand from one branch to five branches in five major cities (President of a Business Company).

One final assumption of the glass cliff is that men target women and work covertly and overtly to fail them. In this entry, the interviewees were asked about the perceived role of men in their career and personal lives. Table 1 shows that 80% of the women perceive men as supporters, 11% perceive them as unsupportive, and 7% perceive men’s role both ways. Most of the women perceive male superiors and colleagues as professionals and about 91% of them dismissed the idea that men have agenda to get them fail in leading their units or organizations. Table 1 shows that about 8% of the women think that men may conspire against them but also women cited other factors besides gender, such as organizational politics, rivalry with others including men, and jealousy. As an example, one woman explained:

….men and women often like to see their competitors and opponents fail. It is not about men and women…it is about surviving and proving yourself. I worked under a female supervisor before, and she did the impossible to fail me…but that was because she was afraid I could take her position in the future…men do the same. Do not tell me man and woman… it is person and person (General Director, public sector department).


Researchers suggested that one new obstacle faced women in the workplace is the vulnerability to manipulation and continuous discrimination (i.e., glass cliff). The previous analysis confirms that glass cliff may have failed to properly examine the circumstances that surround women in leadership. There seem to be many social, cultural, political, and economic factors that were overlooked when blaming men for the failure of some women leaders. The analysis shows that demonization of men leaves negative impact on professional relationships between men and women in the workplace and implicitly portrays women is incapable leaders.

Final Thoughts

As this entry proposes, the glass cliff research seems to continue capitalizing on the narrow notion of gendered injustice and that men conspire against women wanting them to fail. Therefore, think evil-think men way of thinking dominates the arguments and assumptions of the glass cliff. Over emphasizing the role of gender and demonization of men creates hence a glass prison, an imaginary prison that confines professional women and therefore limits their success in the leadership world. This is simply because glass prison does not recognize merits or individual capabilities but considers instead gender as the sole determinant of organizational behavior and the life and progress of women leaders. Blaming men for possible failure of a woman in handling a leadership job serves as a pretext to justify workplace injustice and the poor organizational culture that restrict women’s progress.

This entry presents a counterargument to the glass cliff showing that while gender might seem an important factor in leadership appointments, other factors may effectively contribute to the success or failure of women in their leading jobs. The empirical analysis and the analysis of the glass cliff research reveal supportive results to this counterargument.

An important dimension of women leadership that has been ignored in the glass cliff and should be examined in the future is the role of national culture and societal factors. Looking at the origins and the classic work on glass cliff, it seems possible that the whole phenomenon is country-based (e.g., Anglo societies) rather than a universal phenomenon. The analysis of the interviews provides strong evidence that nonwestern societies may not have conditions that enhance the development of glass cliff culture. The women cite not gender, but performance, professionalism, and merits as important factors in filling leadership vacancies. The women do not perceive men colleagues and superiors as a source of threat, but instead they cite jealousy, rivalry, and many other psychological and work politics as potential causes of making the work of women leaders more challenging. Instead of solving the real reasons behind the failure of men and women leaders, examining injustice, and broadening the scope of the concept of success, the glass cliff literature limits its endeavor to a gendered analysis. The mentality of think evil-think men can affect the organizational culture and the way women are being treated in the workplace.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Center for Public Policy and LeadershipUnited Arab Emirates UniversityAl-Ain CityUAE