Navigating the Glass Cliff: Key lessons for HR leaders and individuals

3 minute read

Women and Black and global majority men are often being set up for failure in leadership roles, says author and former Netflix global leader Sophie Williams. Discover why people who don't meet the 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

Sian Harrington

Thumbnail from Sophie Williams Work's Not Working podcast episode

Sophie Williams has a stark message: women are not progressing, but regressing. Despite decades of effort and numerous achievements, the progress made by women in the workplace is being undone. 

In a compelling episode for the Work’s Not Working… Let’s Fix It! podcast Williams, an author and expert on diversity and inclusion, tells The People Space editor Siân Harrington there are several alarming trends that highlight this backslide. Drawing from her latest book, The Glass Cliff, she explains that the very structures designed to uplift women are often setting them up for failure.

Williams shares her observations from the 2023 United Nations Commission to the State of Women Conference, where the narrative was unexpectedly grim. “While we did talk about progress,” Williams notes, “we didn't talk about it in the way that I was used to hearing.” Instead of focusing just on women’s achievements the conference emphasised a loss of momentum and a troubling backward slide in women's rights and opportunities. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic women were disproportionately impacted by job losses and in places like the United States fundamental rights such as access to abortion have been significantly eroded.

This regression is also evident in the gender pay gap. Williams highlights that the gender pay gap in the UK widened from 7.7% in 2021 to 8.2% in 2022 among full-time workers. When considering all employees, including part-time workers, the gap jumps to a staggering 14.9%. This is a clear reminder that despite increased educational attainment among women – who are now more likely to have higher education degrees than ever before – pay disparities persist at levels comparable to those in the 1970s.

Moreover, Williams points out that the setbacks are not limited to economic measures. Social and political structures continue to undermine women's progress. She notes that even though Black women in the US are the most educated demographic, they still face significant pay gaps and career obstacles. This indicates that the issue is not about women's capabilities but about systemic barriers that continue to restrict their advancement. 

The glass ceiling – the metaphorical barrier that prevents someone from advancing to a top position in a company or organisation, particularly women – is a well-known phenomenon. Williams notes that while we see white men enter the workforce with about 30% representation at entry level junior roles, according to Lean In and McKinsey by the time we look at the C-suite, that figure has ballooned to either 65 or 68%. This is, she says, a “huge over-representation of one single demographic at that most senior business level.”

However, another concept of concern is the ‘glass cliff’. This is where women and marginalised groups are often only hired in leadership roles when a business is already underperforming.

As Williams explains: "The glass cliff 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."

She adds "We see that female leaders get disproportionately questioned for their right to be in that [leadership] space, they face microaggressions and outright aggressions at much higher rates than their cis male counterparts."

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. The key is to understand when you are and to make your decision accordingly, says  Williams. In the episode she explains how to spot when you are facing a glass cliff situation. 

Understanding this concept is crucial for HR leaders and aspiring female and Black and global majority leaders alike. Here are some key lessons and takeaways from the episode:

For HR leaders

  1. Recognise crisis contexts: Be mindful of the conditions under which diverse leaders are appointed. Ensure that appointments during crises are paired with robust support systems and resources to enhance the likelihood of success.
  2. Value soft skills: Traditional metrics often overlook soft skills like empathy, communication and team cohesion, which are vital for effective leadership. Develop methods to quantify and reward these attributes, making them integral to performance evaluations and promotions.
  3. Promote inclusivity beyond tokenism: Avoid the trap of appointing diverse leaders merely as a symbolic gesture. Foster an inclusive culture where all leaders, regardless of background, receive genuine support and the opportunity to thrive.
  4. Implement structural changes: Consider quotas and other structural changes to ensure a diverse leadership pipeline. While controversial, these measures can counteract ingrained biases and promote a more equitable workplace.

For aspiring leaders

  1. Assess leadership opportunities: Before accepting a leadership role, evaluate the organisation’s current state, history of leadership and internal support. Recognising a potential glass cliff scenario can help you make informed decisions about your career.
  2. Stay true to yourself: Embrace your unique qualities and resist pressures to conform to traditional leadership stereotypes. Your authenticity and excellence are your greatest assets.
  3. Seek supportive environments: Look for organisations and teams that value diversity and provide the necessary support for diverse leaders. Environments that align with your values and strengths will enhance your leadership journey.
  4. Leverage opportunities wisely: Even in challenging circumstances, taking on a glass cliff role can offer valuable experience and visibility. Weigh the risks and benefits carefully to make the best decision for your career trajectory.

By understanding and addressing the glass cliff phenomenon HR leaders can create more supportive environments and individuals can navigate their careers more strategically. Together, these efforts can lead to more equitable and effective leadership across organisations.

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.

Listen to the full podcast here

Published 29 May 2024
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