Gladys Ryland was born on June 30, 1900 in Pine Bluff, North Carolina to Henry and Effie Ryland and grew up in the coal towns of Western Pennsylvania. Interested in the connection between physical activity and morale, she began studying physical education in Battle Creek, Michigan. She moved to New York in 1921, where she earned her certificate in physical education in 1923 and moved to Chicago, where she taught classes in sports and dance to women at the YWCA in the Loop. After stints at YWCAs in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Buffalo, New York, she returned to New York City in 1927, where she earned a B.S. in education from New York University.
Ryland returned to Chicago in 1931 to work as the Health Education Director at the West Side YWCA. She continued, as she would for most of her life, to teach classes in sports and dance. In 1937, she joined the faculty of Western Reserve University's School of Applied Social Sciences and then moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, eventually becoming an assistant professor and earning a master's degree in education in the Graduate School of Education. In Pittsburgh, Ryland began to work seriously on developing a theory of group work. In 1949, she and Gertrude Wilson published their seminal work, the textbook Social Work Group Practice. In 1950, she moved to Tulane University, where she continued to teach and conduct group work in the community.
In 1965, Ryland retired to the mountains of Northern California with her lifelong friend, Ms. Wilson. She passed away on April 3, 1980.