The Glass Cliff – How Women In Power Are Undermined and How to Fight Back

Sophie Williams

Hello dear readers! I’m pleased to share here with you an extract from my book The Glass Cliff – How Women In Power Are Undermined And How To Fight Back.

The Glass Cliff really is a look at the reality of life for underrepresented leaders in modern workplaces. In this extract, and in the book, I have focused on the experiences of women, but those who are familiar with the phenomenon will be aware – the same research holds true for racially marginalised men at the top, which means everyone except white men are left susceptible to it’s precarious, and often invisible, perils. I feel that we’ve suffered in silence with the Glass Cliff, and misinterpreted its results as individual, personal shortcoming or failings, because we haven’t had the necessary language or perspective to zoom out to see it as the systemic social issue that it really is. I hope that now, in giving the experience a name, and reframing it as a shared experience, we can begin to loosen its grip, and give underrepresented leaders everywhere the fair shots they have always deserved – but so rarely received.

Have you ever wondered why there are so few success stories of women in leadership? Or maybe you’ve wondered what life is really like on the other side of the Glass Ceiling? The world of work is supposedly changing, embracing diversity – yet are the opportunities we’re giving to women really equal to those of men?

Like most other people, my understanding of the Glass Cliff began with another glass metaphor – that of the Glass Ceiling. For as long as I can remember, the Glass Ceiling has been a part of mainstream cultural conversation. All of my life, I’ve seen think pieces, read magazine articles and heard discussions about that invisible, but seemingly impossible to break through, barrier that sits above the heads of women in their working lives, as they try to reach the fullness of their professional potential.

I’m starting this conversation about the Glass Cliff by discussing the Glass Ceiling because, really, the when we talk about about the Glass Cliff we’re talking about what happens when women break the rules, break through the Glass Ceiling and break out of the roles that have historically been assigned to them in their careers and professional journeys.

As a society, we have accepted women joining the workforce, particularly in times of great need. However, the message has always been clear, and consistent:

Not too much.

Not too well paid.

Not too senior.

And certainly not as leaders.

This means that, all too often when a woman decides that she wants, deserves and has earned more than the limited role she has historically been conditioned to play – and when she has the courage, skills and opportunity to take the next steps towards leadership and the fulfilment of her own professional capabilities – she will find herself at odds with our society’s expectations of her. While this tension begins with trying to break through the Glass Ceiling, all too often it ends with her finding herself in a precarious position, teetering on the edge of the Glass Cliff.

In recent years, though, we have all witnessed a shift as more and more women have broken through the Glass Ceiling, and taken up their rightful positions as leaders. So why aren’t we hearing more of the success stories of women who have secured their positions in these prestigious, high flying roles?

Although some stories of stratospheric success do exist, they are few and far between. What we find instead, time after time, were stories of almost-successes. Or of temporary-successes. Or, worst of all, crashing falls from impossible positions at the edge of invisible Glass Cliffs, as female leaders repeatedly found themselves being put into leadership positions that they were destined to fail in before they even began, despite their talents, and best efforts.

So, what’s going on?

In 2003, The Times newspaper in the UK ran an article on the front page of their business section with the headline ‘Women on board: a help or a hindrance?’, written by journalist Elizabeth Judge. In her article, Judge put forward evidence which she claimed showed that those FTSE 100 companies in the UK that had appointed women to positions on their boards had since suffered from ‘poor stock-market performance’, losing both money and value. Judge particularly noted that those businesses which performed best in the Female FTSE Index performed especially poorly on the stock market. And so concluded that women on the board were, in fact, bad for business.

However, in every important way, Judge’s reporting of the findings misses the mark, something that researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam – who would later go on to coin the term the Glass Cliff – would discover.

What they found is that when we take that slightly more zoomed-out view, when we pull back the curtain just enough to peep at what’s actually going on behind the scenes, is just how poorly these businesses were performing before the appointment of their new female leaders and board members – and just what circumstances are likely to be at play before women are given the opportunity to show their professional leadership capabilities.

Women are put in charge of failing

Ryan and Haslam found that when businesses are looking to appoint a new leader, those which opt to appoint a woman to the position are likely to be in the midst of a very different set of circumstances than those which appoint a male leader – a difference which shows us that, while talent, aptitude and ability are genderless, access to opportunity seems to be less so.

In times of general financial downturn, the companies that appointed female senior leaders had already ‘experienced consistently poor performance in the months preceding the appointment.’ Meaning that ‘women were more likely than men to be placed in positions already associated with poor company performance.’

Or, to put it a different way, they found that women were more likely to achieve leadership positions in businesses that were already known to be in a period of difficulty – when there was a greater degree of risk – making their chances of success less likely, and more difficult to achieve, and associating them with a perception of failure before they’d even begun.

Extracted from The Glass Cliff by Sophie Williams (Macmillan, £20)

About the author

Sophie Williams is an ex Global Leader at Netflix, and has held the titles of COO and CFO in London advertising agencies. She is a TED Speaker (The Glass Cliff – Why Some Leaders Aren’t Set Up ForSuccess, 1.5 million+ views), and the voice of Instagram’s @OfficialMilliennialBlack.

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