From glass cliffs to sticky floors, social scientists often use evocative imagery to highlight the barriers that women face in work and life – but are there downsides to relying on these metaphors?

Do you ever find yourself teetering off the edge of a glass cliff? Are you constantly stuck to a sticky floor? Or lost in a labyrinth? Chances are that, if you’re a woman, these metaphors are describing – even shaping – your life.    

Social scientists examining gender inequality have often conjured up bizarre imagery to try and explain social phenomena in the workplace. The ‘glass ceiling’, for example, is well known, but researchers have also proposed many other metaphors to describe the barriers and experiences that women – and men, too – face in their careers.

So, what do these metaphors mean, and could these words influence the way gender inequality is or isn’t tackled?

Metaphors powerfully capture our imaginations, and researchers have found that they can even influence our behaviour without us realising.

Consider an experiment that explored how the metaphors of crime can affect people’s decision-making. In 2011, Lera Boroditsky and Paul H Thibodeau at Stanford University asked students to read one of two crime reports; one described crime as a “wild beast preying on the city” and the other as a “virus infecting the city”. The solutions that the students presented to reduce crime were fascinating: 75% of the ‘beast’ students thought jail or punishment would resolve crime and 25% suggested social reforms. Yet of those that had been told crime “plagued” neighbourhoods, only 56% opted for more enforcement and 44% wanted social reforms. 

When the scientists asked students to circle which parts of the text had most influenced them, the majority picked the numbers – the cold, hard, crime statistics – and not the metaphors. It suggests that humans aren’t necessarily aware of what shapes their opinions, or indeed the power that language has over substantive evidence. 

Metaphors can help us understand novel and complex topics, but they are often a simplication  

However, as the writer TS Eliot once pointed out, metaphors also have their limitations: “It was doubtless an ingenious idea to call the camel the ship of the desert,” he wrote in 1860, “but it would hardly lead one far in training that useful beast.”

In other words, metaphors can help people understand novel and occasionally complex topics, but they are a simplification, offering only a specific angle or viewpoint that isn’t the full picture.

You can see similar limitations with the description of ‘glass ceilings’ in the workplace. Originally popularised by Gay Bryant at the height of the feminist movement in the 1980s, it’s a widely used term today that describes an invisible barrier that keeps women from occupying executive positions. The metaphor suggests that women should aspire to ‘break through’ the ceiling – but the problem is that it describes only the women reaching up, rather than, say, the men that are peering down from the top. This arguably places unfair responsibility on women to smash the ceiling, rather than focusing on the role of men in creating and maintaining it.

It also applies to the various other metaphors that have been proposed to describe women in the workplace. For example, for lower-paid workers, there is the ‘sticky floor’, which describes how women often feel stuck in low-wage jobs where career ascension is unlikely. Then there are ‘labyrinths’ for women to navigate, ‘firewalls’ to cross, and all sorts of variants on glass, from glass doors (a barrier to initial hiring) to glass walls (a barrier to horizontal transfer in a corporation).

“Women are the effect to be explained,” says Michelle Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Exeter. “We never talk about men being overconfident, we always talk about women being underconfident. And we never talk about men having privilege or finding it easy; we always talk about women finding it difficult.”

Ryan believes that the metaphors we’re using to describe women at work reflect the world’s androcentricism – our insistence that, even in 2017, we consider the male experience as “the norm”.

Ironically, Ryan and her colleague Alex Haslam are actually responsible for another metaphor, born in 2005: the glass cliff. 

The pair had noticed a story in the business section of British newspaper The Times, which claimed that women who were given senior roles in FTSE 100 companies were causing those companies to perform badly. “They said women are wreaking havoc, corporate Britain would be better off without women on board,” says Ryan, “and I guess we read that article and were quite astonished by the vehemence of that claim.”

The two professors aggregated data from these companies and discovered that a reverse causality was taking place instead – women were in fact being hired for senior roles at companies that already had poor company performance. “Once we found that phenomenon I guess we wanted a metaphor to communicate that and we came up with the glass cliff.”

The metaphor describes how senior women are often hired for risky and precarious roles at times of crises. “So, it’s this idea of women teetering off the cliff edge.”

Metaphors are employed when there is an ‘exception’ to the rule or gender stereotype  

A current example is UK Prime Minister Theresa May, according to Ryan. May opposed a Brexit campaign led by male politicians who subsequently retreated to the sidelines, but now has to see it through, which is “a risky and untenable position”. Calling a general election in early 2017 that weakened her position may have been her own decision, says Ryan, “but it also came out of the fact that she came out of this difficult and risky position. Her response to that was getting rid of some of this precariousness and risk by getting herself a mandate.”

Interestingly, there is one related metaphor that focuses on men’s careers – the glass escalator. It’s used “to describe the tendency for men in female-dominated industries to ascend to upper ranks more quickly than women in these industries”, according to Caren Goldberg of Bowie State University in Maryland. Such industries include jobs like nursing or primary school teaching, but the metaphor in itself has only come into being because, as Goldberg points out, metaphors are employed when there is an “exception” to the rule or gender stereotype. “For example, the Ben Stiller male nurse character in the Meet the Parents movies was taunted by his future in-laws as effeminate and incapable of having been admitted into medical school.” 

The obvious upside of any these metaphors, however, is that they highlight social phenomena that might otherwise remain invisible and therefore impossible to resolve. But in order to address the circumstances that lead to women being held back, and men rising seamlessly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that metaphors simplify complexity.

If, as the research on crime metaphors suggests, these words can subtly influence how we choose to act, then they may have unintended consequences. The glass ceiling, for example, implies that there’s a single barrier that, if only women work hard enough, can be shattered once and for all. As various social scientists have since pointed out, the reality is that there are countless deeper-rooted problems and pressures that hamper women’s progression in workplaces where male privilege is the norm.

“There’s that Ginger Rogers quote that women have to do the same as men but backwards and in heels,” says Ryan. “It’s the idea that women have to work harder to get to the same place as men.”

Ryan pauses for a second. “That should have a name. I don’t know what that is! We need a metaphor for that.”

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