Professor Michelle Ryan to return to Canberra as director of Global Institute of Women's Leadership ANU

Professor of social and organisational psychology Michelle Ryan is excited to return to Canberra for her new role. Picture: Supplied
Professor of social and organisational psychology Michelle Ryan is excited to return to Canberra for her new role. Picture: Supplied

Fifteen years ago Professor Michelle Ryan identified the concept of the "glass cliff" - the phenomenon where women were too often thrust into precarious leadership roles at times of crisis and instability in organisations.

Aside from a few examples of high-profile women making it into powerful roles, not much had changed for women since that time.

Australia's gender pay gap has hovered between 13.9 per cent and 19 per cent for the past two decades. Only 30 per cent of directors in the ASX 200 were women.

Professor Ryan hoped to give the drive to gender equality a big push in her role as the inaugural director of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership (GIWL) at the Australian National University.

"It's almost like it's stagnated a little bit over the last 15 to 20 years," she said.

"We need to be doing [this research] because things aren't changing as as quickly as we might have liked it to."

Professor Ryan grew up in Canberra and completed her undergraduate through to PhD studies at the ANU. But for the past 17 years, she has been working at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

As the first person in her family to attend university, she didn't know where the campus was let alone the difference between a lecture and tutorial. A timetable clash meant she couldn't follow her interests in physics and psychology.

"It's basically 'guys do physics' and 'women do psychology'. When I tried to enrol in both, I couldn't so I ended up choosing physics because I'd studied physics in high school."

The physics didn't stick and she eventually switched to learning about sociology, women's studies and philosophy. Her honours and PhD supervisor Dr Barbara David helped shape her understanding of the big questions around inequality.

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Professor Ryan did not buy into the idea differences in men's and women's leadership styles were hardwired.

However, men and women leaders were judged differently, as demonstrated in the 2016 US presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

"Everyone was outraged with Hillary because of her emails which is such a small thing compared to the sort of the things that Trump subsequently gets away with. So I think we have very different expectations and evaluate men and women very very differently," Prof Ryan said.

The original GIWL at King's College London was founded and chaired by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

If the UK example of the time between the election of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May was anything to go by, Professor Ryan said it could be a very long time before Australia had its second woman prime minister.

"This also is really about change, not necessarily being steady and linear upwards," she said.

"I think sometimes you absolutely get progress and then it slides back."

The academic was wary of Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 book Lean In, which encouraged women to take control and make decisions to help themselves to get ahead.

"What really worries me is that sort of empowerment message puts the onus on women to change and often change in ways that make them more stereotypically masculine, instead of saying, 'How can we change institutions or organisations or social structures, so that women's leadership occurs'?" Prof Ryan said.

That's one of the big questions the institute's first Asia-Pacific outpost would tackle from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

"We don't just want to be academics sort of doing academic things in some ivory tower," Prof Ryan said.

"What we really want to make sure is that it's grounded in the experiences."

This story The gender gap hasn't improved in two decades. Professor Michelle Ryan wants to change that first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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