Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It!

The Glass Cliff: How we’re setting women and global majority men up for leadership failure

May 23, 2024 Sian Harrington Season 2 Episode 2
The Glass Cliff: How we’re setting women and global majority men up for leadership failure
Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It!
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Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It!
The Glass Cliff: How we’re setting women and global majority men up for leadership failure
May 23, 2024 Season 2 Episode 2
Sian Harrington

In this episode Siân Harrington speaks to Sophie Williams about the  concept of the glass cliff, where women and marginalized groups are often hired in leadership roles when a business is already underperforming, setting them up for failure. It delves into the impact of the glass cliff on women in the workplace, the reasons behind it and the implications for organizations. The discussion also covers practical advice for HR leaders and individuals to mitigate the glass cliff and create more inclusive work environments.

Key takeaways:

  • Women are now in regression, not progression, around the world
  • The glass cliff phenomenon sets up women and marginalized groups for failure by hiring them in leadership roles during times of organizational crisis
  • The impact of the glass cliff extends beyond individual experiences to the broader implications for workplace diversity and organizational culture
  • The Great Break-Up: why women in leadership positions are leaving organizations
  • The need for organizations to create more inclusive work environments and recognize the value of diverse leadership perspectives
  • Practical steps for both HR leaders and individuals to mitigate the effects of the glass cliff

About Sophie Williams

Sophie Williams is the author of the new book The Glass Cliff, which draws on almost 20 years of research from around the world on The Glass Cliff phenomenon. She is a former global Leader at Netflix and has held the titles of COO and CFO in London advertising agencies. Williams is also author of Millennial Black & Anti-Racist Ally, a TED Speaker, the voice behind Instagram’s @OfficialMillennialBlack, and part of the UN Women UK’s delegation to the Commission of the Status of Women conference in 2023 and 2024.

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode Siân Harrington speaks to Sophie Williams about the  concept of the glass cliff, where women and marginalized groups are often hired in leadership roles when a business is already underperforming, setting them up for failure. It delves into the impact of the glass cliff on women in the workplace, the reasons behind it and the implications for organizations. The discussion also covers practical advice for HR leaders and individuals to mitigate the glass cliff and create more inclusive work environments.

Key takeaways:

  • Women are now in regression, not progression, around the world
  • The glass cliff phenomenon sets up women and marginalized groups for failure by hiring them in leadership roles during times of organizational crisis
  • The impact of the glass cliff extends beyond individual experiences to the broader implications for workplace diversity and organizational culture
  • The Great Break-Up: why women in leadership positions are leaving organizations
  • The need for organizations to create more inclusive work environments and recognize the value of diverse leadership perspectives
  • Practical steps for both HR leaders and individuals to mitigate the effects of the glass cliff

About Sophie Williams

Sophie Williams is the author of the new book The Glass Cliff, which draws on almost 20 years of research from around the world on The Glass Cliff phenomenon. She is a former global Leader at Netflix and has held the titles of COO and CFO in London advertising agencies. Williams is also author of Millennial Black & Anti-Racist Ally, a TED Speaker, the voice behind Instagram’s @OfficialMillennialBlack, and part of the UN Women UK’s delegation to the Commission of the Status of Women conference in 2023 and 2024.

  • Interested in insights about people leadership, HR and the future of work? Sign up for our free fortnightly newsletter here: https://bit.ly/TPSupdates
  • Follow Siân on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sian-harrington-thepeoplespace/
  • Skip the search. Make informed decisions in minutes, not hours. Our curated and created content cuts through the noise, providing you with the precise information and expert analysis you need to tackle your challenges, when you need it! The People Space Premium https://bit.ly/TPSPremium
  • Follow The People Space on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ThePeopleSpace

Sophie Williams (00:00)

 The Glass Cliff is a phenomenon that recognises that women and black and global majority men are much more likely to be offered leadership positions in businesses or organisations that are already in a moment of crisis. And that moment of crisis, that moment of operational failure, means that these people who are already underrepresented in these spaces suddenly become much less likely to be able to turn that appointment into a success story because, as well as doing all of the difficult job of leading that all leaders have to do, they're also firefighting. They're also putting out fires and cleaning up messes that they inherited that they didn't create. 

Siân Harrington (00:40)

Hey everyone, welcome to Work’s Not Working, a show about forward -thinking people leaders, innovators and academics, and how they think we can fix work to make it more meaningful, healthy, inclusive and sustainable. Brought to you by The People Space.

I'm Siân Harrington and on the show today Sophie Williams on the glass cliff.

I bet you’ve heard about the glass ceiling. This is the metaphorical barrier that prevents someone from advancing to a top position in a company or organization, particularly women.  

But do you know about the glass cliff? This is where women and marginalised groups are often only hired in leadership roles when a business is already underperforming, meaning their chances of success are limited before they ever even start in the role. In other words, they are being set up for failure. 

It’s more common than you think – as Sophie found studying almost 20 years of research from around the world on The Glass Cliff phenomenon. The term was originally coined in a study by University of Exeter social scientists Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in 2005 in response to a newspaper article questioning the wisdom of putting women on boards. The academics recently conducted a new analysis and found no evidence the trend was slowing. 

Women and marginalized groups are not given enough time to turn around companies in difficulty, says Sophie. Indeed business magazine Fortune recently published research from Equilar that showed that, in 2023, the average tenure for female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies was 4.5 years, compared with 7.2 years for men. 

It’s data like this that prompts Sophie to declare that women are in regression not progression around the world. 

Later on we’ll discover how politics is one of the best examples of the glass cliff theory. We’ll hear how white men represent about 30% of entry level junior roles but by the time we look at the C-suite, that figure has ballooned to nearer 68%. And we’ll learn how we as individuals can spot we are facing a glass-cliff scenario. And Sophie will share the role HR and people leaders can play in helping break down the glass-cliff in their organization.

But first, a little bit about Sophie. Sophie is an ex Global Leader at Netflix and has held the titles of chief operating officer and chief financial officer in London advertising agencies. Her TED presentation  – The Glass Cliff - Why Some Leaders Aren’t Set Up For Success – has received more than 1.5 million views. 

Her new book The Glass Cliff - Why Women in Power Are Undermined and How to Fight Back is her third, following Anti-Racist Ally and Millennial Black. So I start by asking Sophie about the state of play for women in the world of work today.  

Well, it's lovely to have you with us today, Sophie. I'm very much looking forward to discussing The Glass Cliff. So that's the name of your new book. And you start it with the statement that women are in regression, not progress. Why do you think that is the case?

Sophie Williams (03:55)

Yeah, hi. Thank you so much for having me. So yeah, The Glass Cliff, it's my third book. It was released in March and I agree. It's a pretty punchy way to start something, isn't it? But the reason that I started it like that is because in 2020, where are we now? 2024 now, so 2023, I was invited by the United Nations Women UK to be a delegate to the United Nations Commission to the State of Women Conference, which is an in-person conference, but as part of sort of, you know, an unofficial UK delegation, I was from the comfort of my living room, dialling into all of these UN meetings. And what I really expected from this conference, which is all about women and sort of their place in the world, and, you know, there was a focus on technology that year, I really thought we would be talking about progress and how far we've come and what we've achieved and where we had to go, but all the great things that happened. 

And while we did talk about progress, we didn't talk about it in the way that I was used to hearing. I think if we go to women's events, we're involved in these conversations in these spaces, we talk so much about the achievements, but the real consistent theme throughout the United Nations conference was this conversation about losing momentum and not even only losing momentum, but that being a backward slide into losing the rights and the progress that had already been made. 

And so we see that women are disproportionately impacted by job losses during COVID. We see that in places like America, women's healthcare is at risk. The fundamental rights of access to abortion, things like Roe v Wade, things that people really fought hard for. Those not at risk of being lost, that isn't codified in the US anymore. That progress that women fought so hard for has been lost. 

One of the examples that I use at the start of the book is around the gender pay gap, because the gender pay gap in the UK in 2022 was 8.2 % on average. That was an increase from 7.7 % that it was the year before in 2021. And that's when we look at sort of people who were working full time. But we know that because of, you know, expectations of caregiving, whether that's for elderly people, whether that's for children, whenever that is, women are more likely than men to be in part -time work. So when we look at the pay gap between all employees, rather than just between those in full -time work, we see that the gender pay gap in the UK actually steps up to being 14%, and I've even got that wrong, that's 14.9%. So, you know, generously, we can call it 14, but really, it's 15, isn't it? And so, you know, that found that instead of closing that gender pay gap for women was actually about the same as it was in the 1970s. 

But we see that compared to women in the 1970s, women now are much better educated, they're much more likely to have not only finished school, but finished higher education and degrees know, all of these things. And so despite women doing the work, and you know, these conversations are so often framed in what can women do? What can we change? How can we better our situations? 

But we've seen women are, in the US, black women are the best educated group in the country. They have the highest degree of bachelor's degrees, undergraduate degrees, but we still see that these pay gaps persist and at the same rate as in the 1970s where we would have hoped we would have seen such dramatic closure. And so yeah, I think it's a really punchy start and I ummed and ahhed about it. But I think it's really important to say, you know, we spent all of our time congratulating ourselves on the achievements that we've made and we have made some amazing achievements, but we need to be careful and mindful and observant of not now losing those while we congratulate ourselves for them.

Siân Harrington (08:03)

Yeah, I thought it was a really good start actually. It's really quite shocking to look now and see what a lot of the things that we thought had changed and had changed for good have, as you said, not just gone backwards. I mean, they've been taken away. So it's extraordinary. And of course, often when we talk about women in leadership, and I mean, a lot of money has gone into investing different programmes to try and get women into leadership positions, but when we talk about women we usually talk about the glass ceiling and there is still a glass ceiling. We can say that. But now this book is about the glass cliff. So for those who don't know it, can you explain what is a glass cliff? 

Sophie Williams (08:45)

Absolutely. And, you know, having written a book about it and done a TED talk on it a few years ago, you'd think I'd have like a pithy soundbite about it now, but I don't really. So for you, and for your listeners, here's my longer explanation.

So the glass, and even I still get them sometimes mixed up, the glass cliff is really what women who breaks through the glass ceiling often find themselves facing. So we talk about the glass ceiling as that sort of invisible, but, you know, impossible to break through limiting barrier above the heads in women's careers. And it stops them not only from reaching the pinnacles of what we imagine as professional success, it also stops them from reaching their own personal, professional peak. They are stopped before they're able to do everything that they are capable of. 

But we do know that some women do manage to break through that glass ceiling, of course. We see women stepping into those leadership positions. And so the glass cliff really looks at what are the circumstances that allow women and racially marginalized black and global majority men to step through that invisible barrier. And also really importantly, what is it like for them when they get into leadership.

And what the glass cliff recognizes is that people who don't meet our archetypal image of whiteness and maleness when it comes to leadership are often not given opportunities to lead in the same context of success as their peers. And so what that means is when women or racially marginalized men are given the opportunity to step into those most senior leadership positions, such as CEO, such as prime minister, such as all of these things, when we see these opportunities being opened out by two people who don't meet those traditional white male archetypes that we hold for leadership, we see that those businesses, those organizations, those circumstances are often really unfavourable. 

Siân Harrington (10:43)

 I noticed this first a fair few years ago when there were some quite high profile women going in, as you said, into businesses when it was in a terrible state. But I think perhaps one of the more easy to recognize in the UK is some of our politicians, and I'm not going to get political about whether these people are good or not, but you have David Cameron, white male with a very set, educated background. And then it was all imploding and Theresa May comes in and then you had Boris Johnson. And then it all implodes again. And then Liz Truss and then Rishi Sunak come in. So why do you think this is happening? What's going on?

Sophie Williams (11:22)

The Conservative Party is a really good example of this. And it's such a good example, in fact, that the researchers who first coined the term the glass cliff have actually done an entire study on the UK Conservative Party, because we see it playing out so much within that space. 

And just to give you a little bit more context on the glass cliff, the glass cliff was first identified by two researchers in 2003. And so at this point, it's got almost 20 years of research backing it up as well as those initial researchers who were based in the UK, it's been backed up further by researchers in Australia and researchers in America in 20 years of longitudinal studies. And so there's loads and loads of examples that we can pick from.  

But you're right, the Conservative Party gives us a really clear image of it. So if we think about why this is happening, so we have someone who, like David Cameron, is the expected face of leadership, right? If we think of a Tory leader, if we think of a prime minister, except for one previous historical example, they are white men. And so we have these people who are sort of continuing on this status quo business as usual sort of approach. Then we have this moment, this sort of watershed moment where the UK under David Cameron's leadership votes to leave the European Union. And that is, you know, we've been talking about businesses or organizations in crisis, that's a country in crisis, right? 

We have these people, whether you're pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit, we have these people who have made this choice, but it's going to mean significant turmoil, significant upheaval, as we try and figure out how to implement that and put that in place. But despite leading us to that point, the men who led us there suddenly disappeared. We see David Cameron stepping away. We see Nigel Farage. This was his whole thing, right? This was his whole jam. Suddenly, he's nowhere to be found.

And we have this leadership vacuum because we know this is going to be a really hard, really un- thanked and potentially reputation ruining thing for a prime minister to take us through. And so we don't see Boris Johnson stepping forward as people expected to say, I want to do this. And so we see this leadership vacuum. And it's really important to point out with the glass cliff, generally speaking, it's not that anyone is consciously saying, I want this woman to fail. Instead, what we're seeing is people saying, I don't want to fail. I don't want to be the person who is associated with this mess. And so the people who would normally put themselves forward and step into that space instead step back and we leave a space for people who are equally qualified, but aren't given those opportunities to lead in the same degree or to the same level. 

And so we see Theresa May take on leading the UK through that bargaining about what an exit from the EU will be like, even though she didn't call this referendum and was a Remainer. And so she becomes really intrinsically tied to this idea of Brexit. And that becomes really damaging for her career. And again, not because someone like Boris Johnson thought I want to ruin Theresa May, but because he thought this isn't a good opportunity for me. And I know that if I wait another, better for me, opportunity will come along. Whereas if you're from an underrepresented group who doesn't get the opportunity to lead that often, you might fully recognize the opportunity you've been given isn't fantastic. But you also might not have that confidence to think, if I wait, someone else will step in and I can come when it's a better time. You know, when you when you don't get given the shot that often, you have to shoot that shot, even if it's a long shot.

Siân Harrington (15:15)

I'm hearing a few things there, which are really interesting. Effectively, we're almost setting people up to fail in this scenario. I like the reputation ruining point you've just made – it’s very interesting because you get, as you said, underrepresented groups, once they're in a position like this and it fails through no fault of their own, then everyone from that underrepresented group is ‘no good’ at it. And also the idea it's seen as that personal failure as opposed to there's other structural reasons behind it. So why do you think if we go back into the workplace, why does this matter generally for women and underrepresented groups in work? 

Sophie Williams (15:55)

Well, I think it matters for women and underrepresented groups, but it matters for all of us. So as we all know, we all have these conversations about diversity and inclusion, and we talk about the fantastic benefits that we can have from that. We all know that when you have a representative mix of people in the room, when you're making a product, when you're making a service, when you're talking to customers, clients, whatever that is, the more voices from the more different backgrounds, ways of life, ways of thinking, all of those sort of lived experiences, the more variety of voice that you can have who are empowered to speak up in that room, the better the outcome will be for all of us because instead of businesses doing something wrong and then having public backlash of, well, how did this happen? Weren't there any women in the room? Weren't there any black people in the room? Weren't there any queer people in the room? So whatever that was, if we can have those people, not only in the room, but in the room and empowered to think about what actually matters to them and what would actually resonate with their communities, then we have a much better opportunity as a business to one, resonate with the widest possible customer base that we could, and two, to avoid those difficult, unnecessary, embarrassing mistakes that businesses often make.  

And we also see that it really matters because of, like you were just saying, when one person like you fails, the idea that we get pushed back is that all of you were no good for this. And so when we have women or racially marginalized men who we bring into these opportunities, and I'm going to use opportunities like little air quotes here, we bring into these opportunities to lead, when really it's an opportunity to be a face of an issue. When we do that, when we don't set these people up to success, when we don't even give them a fair shot of success, the message that gets sent back is, well, of course, of course she wasn't a good leader. That's not what a leader looks like. 

And that just reinforces and reinforces because if we put people in positions where they're disproportionately set up to fail, if and when they do fail, the message we get back is, well, of course, of course they did. That sort of person isn't a good leader. You should have stuck with a tried and tested leader. And it's no surprise in that case, I think, that we see white men enter the workforce with about 30 % representation at entry level junior roles, according to Lean In and McKinsey. But by the time we look at the C-suite, that figure has ballooned to either 65 or 68%, a huge, huge, huge over-representation of one single demographic at that most senior business level. 

And so to go back to that conversation about the glass ceiling, we could argue that white men, because they are the only group, I should say, they're the only group whose representation grows as they become more senior. Everyone else starts out at a figure that then shrinks when we look up towards the C-suite and senior leadership. But white men started at 38%, so it's up to that 30% figure and then more than double it by time we're looking at the C-suite. They're the only group who we can say has the opposite of the glass ceiling. Instead of looking up and not being able to see yourself represented beyond a certain level in leadership, this is a demographic group who are used to looking up and seeing nothing but themselves represented. And that's because we do have this sort of self -fulfilling, cyclical view of who can and should be a leader. And we just keep on reinforcing that. 

Siân Harrington (19:33)

That figure is really stark, isn't it? It really, you know, brings it to home, I think, actually, I bet a lot of our listeners won't realize that that growth from 30 to 60 something, and the fact it's the only, the only growth group. And of course, you know, one thing that really bugs me and we see it all the time is headlines when it's first, well, it's not even first black CEO or first woman prime minister anymore. It's like ‘woman appointed to CEO job’, ‘black guy appointed to CEO job’. It's just that that is being put right in front and centre of everybody, even outside that business world, that this is how we're going to look at that person in that role. So I think that's a really an interesting thing. 

Sophie Williams (20:22)

No, you're really right. And that language is really interesting and it's really tokenizing, isn't it? It's not like ‘tried and tested businessmen’. When we see a white man being appointed to these positions, his race or gender is never commented upon. But when it's anything other than that, it becomes the story. That's a really interesting framing. 

Siân Harrington (20:41)

So how do we spot this? If we've managed to break through that glass ceiling and as women, how can we spot that we're heading for a glass cliff and mitigate it? 

Sophie Williams (20:55)

Yeah. So I think it's really important and I really like to point out that these conversations about the glass cliff, it can be taken as saying every woman or black and global majority man who steps into leadership is destined to fail. And that's not the case. And I think if that were the case, that would be a really sad story to tell and be a rather sad podcast, right? Like, no, we’re doomed. 

We want to fix this. We don't want to be keeping it going. So, yeah. But so first of all, that's not the case. It could be that one of your listeners has just stepped into a leadership position and is listening to this and thinking I don't know what I'm going to do here. But in order to know if you're going to face the glass cliff, there were several sort of circumstances that have to come together to create that. 

So first, as we've already been speaking about, a business organization, sports teams, whatever it is, because we see the glass cliff playing out in all kinds of contexts. But to keep it sort of business for our conversation, a business needs to be in some kind of moment of crisis. And so we see that those businesses that are choosing to appoint women for the first time in glass cliff scenarios are already in a consistent period of five or more months of poor performance. And that poor performance can look like all kinds of things. It could be a hit to stock market positioning. It could be a hit to valuation or profitability. It could be a reputational scandal where that tarnished is likely to be passed on to a new leader. It could be a global financial crisis. But whatever it is, these businesses need to be in some kind of moment of crisis for a prolonged period. 

The second thing that you can look out for is what the history of leadership has looked like. So if a business up to this point has only had a single demographic group in their C-suite, if you are the first woman, for example, coming in to a business in a CEO position or a leadership position that has only been occupied by men, and particularly by white men up to that point, then your risk of facing the glass cliff is heightened. And that's because of the idea of novelty. So if a business has never looked at a woman or a racially marginalized man before and thought you could be good, but now there's a crisis, suddenly they're looking to you, then it's likely to be that they don't actually have the value system that is going to be useful to having you be successful long-term. Instead, what the research shows that they're most likely looking for consciously or subconsciously is novelty, is to say, look, we've changed. We've changed so much. We're so progressive and inclusive that we brought in this woman. We're so progressive and inclusive that we brought in this black or global majority man. And so the research shows that it doesn't matter what the difference is, whether it's race or gender, so long as there's some visible difference, that's what people are looking for. 

The other thing that might mean that we bring women particularly into these leadership positions during this time is this perception of soft skills. And so if a business is in crisis, it's very likely that the team who's working for that business isn't feeling great. And so we see businesses suddenly turn to women for the first time, even if she has the proven ability to lead transformational change, not for that ability, but for her perceived soft skills and her ability to re-engage, re-energize a team that might be waning. And so look out for a moment of crisis, look out for a history of all male leadership – and those are two things that you can do before you take on a role. 

And the third thing that you can do is to think about internal support. So to take it back to Theresa May, would she have been successful in her prime ministership if her party supported her? Possibly. And we see this time and time again with women who step into glass -clinked roles. Because they are seen as a novelty, because they are seen as an untried and untested quantity, what we see is the people who are in her team, her newly inherited team, especially if they've already been through a moment of crisis like we've been talking about, suddenly become much less willing to invest in her, suddenly become much less willing to trust her and to implement the transformational work that she's trying to do. Because she's seen as an unproven quantity. We've only had men up to now and they've been successful. And so why would I attach myself to this person who is more than likely going to fail in my opinion. And so we see that internal teams don't give the support that is necessary for any leader to come in and make transformational change during the crisis. And that means that these women on average are not given the time that they need to make change. And so we see all of these things coming together. 

So before you take on a role, you can check if there's been a moment of crisis, sort of reputationally or financially. You can check what the history of leadership with that role in that business has been like. And during the interview process, you can talk to the people who are going to be your closest cohorts. You can check that essentially you vibe with them. You can check that you trust them to be supported. Even the greatest leader is never going to make success and transformational change alone. We are all part of communities. We all need our communities if we're going to be successful. And so if those people who you need to rely on are not able to offer you that support, then you need to really consider whether the role is right for you. 

And what I will say to your listeners is you could look through all of that checklist and you could think, yes, there's a crisis. Yes, it's only been one demographic of leadership. I don't vibe with these people. I don't think they're actually going to have my back when it comes to it. You could really recognize that you are in line for a glass cliff scenario and you could still decide to go for it - and that is totally valid because as we've been saying, people who don't fit that sort of think manager, think male archetype that we have of leadership aren't always, aren't often given the same access to leadership opportunity. And so if you have this opportunity and if it's a really well-paid opportunity that you think you can stick out for a year and that's valuable to you, then do it.

There's all sorts of personal circumstances that might mean that people recognise they're being set up for a not fun time, but have some other element of it that is valuable to them and that outweighs it. So I would never say really the glass cliff means you shouldn't do it. You shouldn't take this opportunity. You shouldn't take the money. You shouldn't take whatever it is. You shouldn't take the title that's going to go on your CV, but you have to be aware of the potential downfall. You have to be aware that, you know, that title on your CV could be really great, but it could ruin or at least damage your reputation. And so, absolutely, the glass cliff existing, one, doesn't mean that all women are destined to fail in leadership at all. And two, even if you take on a position where the glass cliff is likely, there are still some really valid reasons for your own personal life, your own personal aims, ambitions, roadmap, situation, whatever it is, that you might decide to say, well, I'm going to do it anyway. 

Siân Harrington (28:35)

And as we're coming towards the end, I want to look at organizations and work more generally. We've talked a bit about the impact. If I was going to put a totally financial head on now, I would say, well, one, one of the reasons that glass cliff and the glass ceiling, in fact, are ridiculous is that businesses are investing millions, if not billions of pounds and dollars on trying to get some more marginalized groups into these leadership positions and it's not working. So it's, it's clear, you know, that is a waste of money. If you think of it like that, we know the importance as you've brought up of DEI and more inclusive cultures, again, an area that businesses spend a lot of money and talk a lot about, but these structural things are stopping it really being made into a reality.

One thing you mention in your book, The Glass Cliff is the Great Break-Up. So can you tell me a bit about the wider implications here for organizations and what is the Great Break-Up? How does that fit into this? 

Sophie Williams (29:39)

Yeah, the Great Break-Up is really interesting, I think. And it's a term that isn't mine, so I can't claim it. I think it was first coined by the Lean In Foundation and McKinsey. And each year, Lean In Foundation and McKinsey do a report called Women in the Workplace. And if any of your listeners are interested, it goes back years and years and it's really interesting and it's free. And I really, I have relied on it for all of my books. I think it's a really great free resource that these organizations provide. 

So the Great Break-Up is essentially, researchers noted in I think, 2023, 2022, 2023, that women were leaving leadership positions at the highest rate they had ever seen. And so these women were breaking through the glass ceiling, they were taking up these leadership positions, whether they were sort of set up for success or glass clipped. And they were choosing to leave at a higher rate than women have ever chosen to leave leadership work positions before. So much so actually, the researchers mentioned that for every one woman who was being brought in to a senior leadership position, two were churning out. And their research mainly focuses on the US, but we can see this being replicated around the world. 

And so what it means is these women are working incredibly hard and dedicating themselves and their time and their energy to their careers. And they are being successful and they are having these achievements. But then when they get to these positions that they've worked their whole lives and their whole careers for, they're looking around and they're thinking, I don't like this. This isn't working for me. This isn't what I need. 

And so I think the Great Break-Up really should be a wakeup call for employers because we can say that we're making these investments. We can say that we're doing this training. We can say that we're opening these doors. But if we're not looking at the culture that we make, if we're not looking at the spaces that we have on offer, if we're not looking at what the reality of life is for people once they do manage to take on those most senior positions, as you say, it has to a degree all been for nothing, because they're deciding, well, I don't want to do this. 

And so it could be that women are post COVID – and I'm never sure when we can say post COVID, because I'm not sure it is over – but you know, I think we know sort of colloquially what we mean by post COVID. But so women post COVID have potentially had time to think what do I want? What is valuable to me? What is important to me? And is working incredibly hard in an environment where you have to continually prove yourself? Because we do see that female leaders get disproportionately questioned for their right to be in that space. They get told that they don't. They get asked to re-prove their credentials. They get challenged for their rights to be there. They face microaggressions and outright aggressions at much higher rates than their cis male counterparts in those positions. 

So, you know, we see these women who've got to these positions, and we imagine that it would be smooth sailing once you get there, but they're getting there and they're seeing the reality is not what they imagined. And so instead of suffering in silence, like people might have done, you know, 10, 15 years ago, instead they're saying no. No, this is my life and I don't want to give it to you on these terms. And so I think that's really interesting. So the Great Break-Up is just these women finally getting to senior leadership positions and saying, no, this isn't good enough for me. And taking matters into their own hands and choosing to leave. 

And I think that is potentially a success story. It's really sad to have worked really hard and to have got someone for it to not be for you. But it could be that these women have worked really hard and have got their own thought. I can make something better. I can do something different. I can do something that works for me. And I don't need you or your validation of your business to make me, me. And so I think it's hopefully a really good thing that these women have reached the absolute peaks and pinnacles of their careers. And they've just said, well, I'm not going to continue to kill myself to do this for you. I'm going to do what I want now. And that's on my own terms and away from you. So yeah, while it's difficult for businesses, I hope in terms of women and like our self-actualisation and our perception of ourselves outside of a person who works, but just as a person who exists, I hope it's a positive story. 

Siân Harrington (34:30)

So to draw it together, we like some quite practical advice and actually a lot of our listeners will be HR leaders in some of these big organisations and big corporates. So I believe they truly want to try and break down these barriers and to remove the glass ceiling. What can they do as HR leaders, what can they do to help their organizations remove the glass ceiling, get rid of the glass cliff and actually, I think you use the word glass elevator, get a glass elevator in place as opposed to a glass cliff. 

Sophie Williams (35:03)

So the glass elevator does exist and that's about men and particularly white men experiences in female-dominated workforces. The glass escalator already exists and that's not as it might sound, a positive thing unless you are a white man, in which case it's fantastic. Chefs kiss delicious. But what can HR leaders do? What we can do is we can start to quantify and value things that we haven't previously quantified or valued. 

So for example, we talked a lot about soft skills and how that is increasingly necessary in a modern work environment. But because that's such a good to quantify, that is very rarely taken into consideration when we talk about pay rises, about promotions, progression, because it's seen as sort of this intangible, sort of squishy, hard to hold thing. Whereas in reality, we can measure sort of how your team feels when you work with them, how supported they feel. We can measure how, yeah, we can measure your impact of your work with your team. And so we need to start really valuing things that we've historically thought of as unimportant or unquantifiable. 

We can also consider quotas. I know that can be a controversial thing to say, and I've historically not been in favour of quotas because I don't think anyone wants to come into a business, into a role, into position and worry, have I just been brought here because we need to because the business has made this commitment. Am I actually the best person for this role or am I just the best person who ticks these boxes for this role? And no one wants to feel like that. But that would only work, that would only, I think, be a real challenge or sticking point if everything else in the workplace was purely meritocratic. But it's not. 

If a single demographic group is the only group whose representation grows as we look towards leadership, if everyone else shrinks, then it would be really, really strange to imagine that that is because they are the only people who are good at work. They're not the only people who are good at work, they're just disproportionately given opportunities because as well as not being able to historically measure things like soft skills, we have just put loads and loads of emphasis on traditionally male ways of being as indicators of suitability for leadership. The sort of confidence being outspoken putting yourself forward doing all of this. And so we disproportionately at the moment favour men because of think, manage and think male. All of these attributes that we think are stereotypically male, we also think are stereotypically signs of good leadership. And so they get that sort of glass escalator, they get that invisible speeding lift. 

And so I think what we need to do is we need to think less potentially about what policy can we change and what training can we do and all of this stuff. But we need to look at what really are the skills that we need for leaders? What really are the things that we see moving the dial in terms of productiveness? What are really the things that we see moving the dial in terms of staff retention? Because if you've got a manager who's kind to you, who likes you, who invests in you, who nurtures you, then you're more than likely going to stay in the business for longer, rather than having to churn out and having to recruit and retrain and do all of that tying expensive and cash expensive work. So we can look at the things that we thought are unquantifiable and we can try to quantify them. I don't think it's about changing anyone's behaviour, but I think it's about changing our expectations of what makes a successful leader and how we measure and engage for that. 

Siân Harrington (38:56)

So the last thing, let's bring it back to the individual. So I think that people listening to this probably think you and I, we're women, we've got to certain levels, we're out there communicating, we have a voice. But for other women, for other Black and global majority people in the workplace who want to get to a senior position, a top leadership position, what can they do? What would be one or two or three steps they can do to make themselves ready for this workplace we're talking about, where the likelihood is that they are going to face these sort of structural barriers and the glass cliff?

Sophie Williams (39:33)

So as I say, not every woman or black and global majority man who is offered or who accepts or who steps into a leadership role faces the glass cliff. So there are those three sort of major watch outs and that is a moment of crisis, that is a history of a single demographic of leadership and that is a lack of internal support. 

So the first thing we can do when we're assessing whether or not a role is something that we want to take on is we can be able to look out for those things. And as we've already discussed, we can look at businesses that have been set up by a different group of people. And so as we said, if you are a woman who is looking to step into a leadership position, you are much less likely to face the glass cliff in a female founded or female run business, for example, and I think you're right. It is absolutely never on the victimized person to make the change. And so the way that I've gone through my career and just for your listeners, I was a chief operating officer before I turned 30. I've been a global leader at Netflix. I've sort of done all kinds of stuff and my approach has always been I am me and I am excellent. And so I am not willing to change what I do for an organization. 

And I think so often for women and for black and queer majority people and for queer people and for trans people, there is so much pressure to change or hide or just reinterpret who you are and to try to translate that into a way that can be understood if you're a black person by your majority white colleagues, if you're a woman by all of the men who you have to impress in the boardroom, whatever it is. But my approach and what I would advise is you are in this space, you are in this consideration, you are thinking about this because you are excellent. You do not need the validation of these people to continue your excellence. And you will find spaces where your excellence is the type of excellence, is the fit, is the, I don't know, the secret sauce that they need. And you will have other environments where it is not. And so it's not about changing yourself. It's not about folding yourself in half. It's not about pushing through, being treated badly because this is what work is. Work is whatever we want it to be. 

And as well as us taking money from the organizations that we work for, we are earning money for them. So there are hardships that are real, unfair, structural inequities. But I think if we can be us unapologetically and authentically, even though it's hard, then we have the best chance of success. 

Sian Harrington (42:24)

That's Sophie Williams on the glass cliff.  

By the way, Sophie wrote her book just as what looks to be a high profile example of the glass cliff was taking place - the appointment of Linda Yaccarino as CEO of X, formerly Twitter, to replace Elon Musk. It’s got all the signs – a business haemorrhaging ad revenue, a tumbling stock price and public sentiment very much against the brand. 

There’s no doubt Linda realized what she was stepping into so it’s like a calculated risk. Plus, as Sophie points out, if internal stakeholders are aware and sympathetic to the potential harms of the glass cliff they can help reduce its impact. It will be an interesting one to watch. 

In the meantime, thank you so much for listening to the show this week. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you want to send a tweet, it's @TPSHub, or @sianharrington, and you can follow me on LinkedIn. That's at Sian Harrington The People Space. And if you want more insights and resources on the future of work, check out thepeoplespace.com.

This episode was produced by Nigel Pritchard. I'm Siân Harrington, and you've been listening to Work’s Not Working – Let’s Fix It. See you next time. 

Introduction
Introduction to the glass cliff and Sophie Williams
Women in regression: why women are in regression, not progress, including examples from the UN conference and gender pay gap data
Explaining the glass cliff: Detailed explanation of the glass cliff and its implications for women and racially marginalized individuals in leadership
Political examples: Analysis of the glass cliff in UK politics, including examples like Theresa May and Liz Truss
Impact on women and under-represented groups: Discussion on why the glass cliff matters for women and underrepresented groups in the workplace, including data on representation and leadership
Tokenism and representation: Exploration of how women and minority leaders are often tokenized and the implications of this framing
Spotting and mitigating the glass cliff:Practical advice for women on how to identify and mitigate the risks of the glass cliff
The Great Break-Up: Introduction to the concept of the Great Break-Up and its implications for organizations and women in leadership roles
HR Leaders' Role: Strategies for HR leaders to break down the glass ceiling and glass cliff, including valuing soft skills and considering quotas
Advice for individuals: Practical steps for women and racially marginalized individuals to prepare for and succeed in leadership roles
Conclusion