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Michelle Ryan talk

MichelleRyan_portraitIn the fourth session, we come back to ourselves. Michelle is describing how the opportunities for women have made incredible strides, but they [we!] continue to be under-represented in various sectors (surgery, science) and roles (senior management). Try googling CEO images, and you’ll find the first 80 are of men and the 81st is Barbie. [I found one woman at #50, but the point still stands.]

Some argue that women choose not to go into particular roles or sectors, often because of the hours required and the sacrifices that need to be made. Many women say this, and many do opt out before they hit the glass ceiling.

We need to look at these decisions, but also at what underlies these decisions. Why are women less ambitious? Is there something innate about the desire for a work-life balance that women might have? Michelle is presenting some recent research that may shed some light.

So first, are women less ambitious? At the beginning, no, but ambition erodes over time, for students, police officers and surgeons in training. Is it because of the biological clock? Probably not – students are in their late teens, police in their mid-20s and surgeons in their mid-30s. It is more likely to be exposure to male-dominated environments, and perceptions that those who have become successful ahead of them are very different from them. So they will have a lower possibility of success. Are women saying: that thing over there that you say I can’t have, I want it anyway? Or are they saying: I’m not interested anyway?

How one feels about the workplace is at least as important as the issue of time. Surgery involves long and unpredictable hours, being called out in the middle of the night. But so do nursing and midwifery, professions dominated by women.

Feeling similar to those who have been successful before you reinforces identity, that who you have to be at work is similar to who you are at home. It also makes you feel you can be successful in the future, and therefore that any sacrifices you make could be worth it.

One of the biggest differences between men and women in middle-management is that women are much less willing to make sacrifices, because they don’t expect those sacrifices to be rewarded or that the workplace be meritocratic.

The implications are first, that work-life balance is not just an issue for women. All types of people might feel that they don’t belong. So we have an explanation that work-life balance is about identity. Second, working part-time and from home are touted as solutions to work-life balance, but may ironically exacerbate this identity problem.

So we need to encourage the imagination and the view that success is possible.

Michelle Ryan biography

Michelle RyanMichelle Ryan is a Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and Dean of Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter, UK, and Professor of Diversity at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

With colleagues she has uncovered the phenomenon of the glass cliff, whereby women (and members of other minority groups) are more likely to be placed in leadership positions which are risky or precarious.

Research into the glass cliff was named by the New York Times as one of the top 100 ideas that shaped 2008.

News about Michelle Ryan

More articles in the press

Doing a bit of a catch-up of articles in the local press about TEDxExeter 2016 …

… and alumni Michelle Ryan and Andy Robertson

TEDxExeter talk by Exeter Professor tops TEDx YouTube Channel playlist: The Way We Work

Press release

Professor Michelle Ryans 2015 TEDxExeter talk has been viewed nearly 70,000 times in the past six months, and tops a recent compilation of TEDx talks on the way we work.

Michelle Ryan is Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter. Her TEDxExeter talk examines work-life balanceasking whether it is about balancing time or balancing identity. Her research demonstrates that in male-dominated professions, such as surgery, science and the police force, men and women start out with the same ambition to succeed, but womens ambition erodes over time.

It was incredible to participate in the TEDxExeter event and be able to speak to so many engaged people about my research,” says Professor Ryan. “To see the talk reach out to a global online audience through the TEDx website is very rewarding. We really need to rethink what we mean by work-life balance and understand how issues of identity and belonging might feed into how we can strike a balance between who we are at home and who we are at work.”

The lack of women at the top is often put down to a ticking biological clock or the time constraints of having a family. Professor Ryan’s research has found other reasons why women dont make it. Fewer than 10 per cent of surgical consultants are women and yet their hours and demands on time are no less than those on nurses or midwives, both careers with many women in senior roles.

Ryan argues that how people feel about their workplace is important. You feel you have a good work-life balance if people like you have made it [to the top].Where people cant see anyone like them in senior roles they are more likely to stop aspiring to achieve them, and are less likely to make the sacrifices needed to succeed.

We are delighted that Michelles talk has got this recognition from TEDx,says TEDxExeter licensee and curator Claire Kennedy. It brings a new angle to why women are not as successful in the workplace as we know they can be, and that knowledge will help more people to break down barriers.

It is also exciting that another TEDxExeter talk has been highlighted. Other talks have been selected to be on including Scilla Ellworthys talk on fighting win non-violence and Bandi Mbubis talk Congo Calling from 2012. Karima Bennounes when people of muslim heritage challenge fundamentalism and Harry Bakers love poem for lonely prime numbers were also chosen for in 2014. These four talks have been viewed over 4 million times, and talks from our first four conferences have been viewed more than 5 million times.

For more information about TEDxExeter please contact Cathy Debenham,, 07786 440129. Photos of Michelle Ryan are attached. If you use them, please credit James Millar.

Photographs of past speakers and events are available for download from the TEDxExeter Flickr page. Click on individual pictures to see captions and picture credits.

Notes to editors

TEDxExeter is organised by a team of local volunteers. It is made possible by the generosity of local companies who support the event. TEDxExeter 2016 will take place in the Exeter Northcott Theatre on Friday 15 April, with a simultaneous livestream to the nearby Alumni Auditorium. Tickets for both venues ar now sold out (the Northcott has a waiting list). Other livestream viewing parties will take place in venues around Exeter and beyond. Details will be announced nearer the event.

Our sponsors are:
University of Exeter
Stephens Scown
SunGift Energy
Wilkinson Grant
Exeter City Council
LHC Architects
Exeter Northcott Theatre
Websites Ahoy
Southernhay House
Dacors Design
Exeter College
First Sight Media

About TEDx x = independently organized event

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TED Talks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)

Follow TEDxExeter on Twitter at For more information and to watch our talks visit our website:

About TED

TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or fewer) delivered by today’s leading thinkers and doers. Many of these talks are given at TED’s annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and made available, free, on TED speakers have included Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sir Richard Branson, Nandan Nilekani, Philippe Starck, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sal Khan and Daniel Kahneman.

TED’s open and free initiatives for spreading ideas include, where new TED Talk videos are posted daily; the Open Translation Project, which provides subtitles and interactive transcripts as well as translations from thousands of volunteers worldwide; the educational initiative TED-Ed; the annual million-dollar TED Prize, which funds exceptional individuals with a “wish,” or idea, to create change in the world; TEDx, which provides licenses to thousands of individuals and groups who host local, self-organized TED-style events around the world; and the TED Fellows program, which selects innovators from around the globe to amplify the impact of their remarkable projects and activities.

Follow TED on Twitter at, on Facebook at or Instagram at

The way we work

Michelle Ryan’s talk from TEDxExeter 2015 on “Work-life balance: balancing time or balancing identity?” is currently headlining a playlist curated by TEDx Talks on YouTube.

Michelle says:

It was incredible to participate in the TEDxExeter event, and be able to speak to so many engaged people about my research. To see the talk reach out to a global online audience through the TEDx Talks website is really rewarding. We really need to rethink what we mean by work-life balance and understand how issues of identity and belonging might feed into how we might strike a balance between who we are at home and who we are at work.

The playlist “The way we work” also features talks on “How to manage for collective creativity” and “Why work doesn’t happen at work” among others.