Why the Glass Cliff Persists


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the researchers, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, documented a phenomenon they called the glass cliff. This tendency for women CEOs and other top leaders to only break through the glass ceiling and get those most senior roles, when the organization is underperforming or there’s some other big crisis to solve, which of course, makes it more difficult for them to succeed.

One would think that we could have corrected for this problem over the past two decades, but from the corporate world, to government, to academia, it seems we haven’t. Consider Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Ellen Powell at Reddit, Roz Brewer at Walgreens Boots. Theresa May becoming UK prime minister right after Brexit. The ousting of Liz Magill at the University of Pennsylvania and Claudine Gay at Harvard.

To be sure there are female CEOs, politicians and college presidents that haven’t found themselves on glass cliffs or who figured out how to survive and thrive on them, but the phenomenon is weirdly persistent. And it has a broader impact on women’s careers, business and society.

Sophie Williams has spent the past several years studying the glass cliff: why it happens and what to do about it. Previously, she was an advertising COO and CFO and a global leader at Netflix. Her new book is The Glass Cliff: Why Women in Power Are Undermined – and How to Fight Back. Sophie, welcome to the show.

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

ALISON BEARD: So let’s start with the basics. How is the glass cliff still playing out for women today?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: It’s something that we see playing out time and time again in lots of countries around the world. So there’s research from the University of Utah looking at Fortune 500 companies. There’s research in the UK from University of Exeter looking at the FTSE 100 here. There’s research about how it impacts academia, how it impacts even coaches of sports teams.

One of the things that I really hoped for when I was researching around the glass cliff, was to find evidence of it slowing down. Instead, it shows us that we’re continuing to set women up in these difficult to win, difficult to be successful in opportunities, if opportunities is what we can really call them.

I think an example that we’re likely to see playing out soon is at X, previously Twitter. If you remember, when Elon Musk was the CEO there, he tweeted, “I’m going to step down from being the CEO of Twitter, as soon as I find someone who is stupid enough to take on that role.” A couple of weeks later, Linda Yaccarino is appointed as the first female CEO of the business.

And so research or lived experience, we still see the glass cliff playing out to a shocking degree, for a phenomenon that was named and identified 20 years ago at this point.

ALISON BEARD: And we’ve referenced this, but is the glass cliff a phenomenon that affects only women or is it really any underrepresented group?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: So the initial research into the glass cliff did just look at women. But research subsequent to that, has identified that it’s actually an experience that is shared, has the potential to be shared, by all women and all racially marginalized men. So that is to say, anyone who doesn’t fit the white male image of a leader that we’ve all become so accustomed to.

ALISON BEARD: Does this filter down into lower levels of the organization when women are being considered for business unit head roles, or other senior management jobs in organizations where that’s not the norm?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: Yeah, absolutely. So the initial research again, that looked very much at board-level and CEO appointments, but further research has shown that it’s actually applicable to any level of leadership that you step into. So that could be that first level of people management. It really just relies on you not being the traditionally expected leader at whatever level that is at, and this idea of visibility and novelty. So if you are stepping into a role where you are leading someone or leading something, you are not the demographic that people expect to be there. Then we find the glass cliff playing out at all of those different levels.

ALISON BEARD: So let’s tease out some of the reasons why this still happens. Why are women and other underrepresented groups seen as people who might be able to step in when there’s a crisis and fix it?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: Well, I think that there’s a couple of reasons really. So the research looks a lot at soft skills and not necessarily women’s possession of soft skills, but more about people’s expectations of the possession of those soft skills. When a business has gone through a hard time, when they’re in some kind of moment of crisis, whether that’s reputational, whether that’s financial, whether that’s a hit to stock price or performance.

We see businesses being more likely to turn to women for leadership for the first time. That is likely to be because there’s a perception that when a team has gone through a hard time, what we are looking for suddenly becomes someone to make us feel better. Someone to play office mum, someone to soothe those experiences and those team members. And not necessarily make transformational change, as they say, but to just make people feel better in that experience.

But because we are not bringing these women in with expectation of transformational changemaking, even when they are capable of it, it means that we don’t often give them either the tools or the time that are necessary to turn that perceived failure into a success before they’re exited. And so we see female leaders being 24% more likely to be fired than their male counterparts. We also see them having significantly shorter tenures in role once they are there.

ALISON BEARD: So that double-edged sword that you’re describing, you’re being asked to step into a more difficult situation. Then also given less time and support to manage it. Why does that play out?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: In studies, we saw that when businesses were presented as being successful, 62% of people pick a man to become the new leader. However, when a business is said to be struggling, that number massively shrinks to only 31% picking a man. We’ve all grown up with this early socialization of associating men with both leadership and power.

When a business is in a moment of crisis, what they’re doing in a lot of instances, is just signaling some kind of change to investors, to employees, to the world at large, “We are doing something different. We’re taking a chance and we’re bringing in someone who we haven’t tried before.”

They’re able to get some kudos from this novelty and from this open-mindedness that they’re able to show that they’re demonstrating. But however, because we have for so long associated leadership with maleness, those women are seen as less of a proven entity. They have to do more to get buy-in from that team.

We see that people are less likely to believe in their ability for success from the beginning. Which means that what we see actually is team members disinvesting from what seems to them to be a risky leader, which means that women have a much harder time getting that social capital that they need in jobs, in order to be successful.

The other thing about bringing women in when they’re seen to be a novelty, is that we often see them being used as either scapegoats or stop gaps. So what can happen is all of the blame for all of the trouble that the business is in, even things that happened before she arrived, can get put onto her shoulders and she can become this figurehead of failure.

That says to the business and to the shareholders and to everyone again, “We have this problem, we found out what it was and we’ve got rid of that.” What we see is more often than not, these women when they’re seen to fail, are replaced by white men. That’s a move that’s known as the savior effect, and that signals to everyone again, that we’re back to business as usual.

We’re back in a safe pair of hands. These opportunities for women are really often invisible poison chalices, because we don’t tell the story of this was a glass cliff appointment, because we instead view it in individualistic terms. Instead, we say, “This woman wasn’t good enough individually.” Rather than saying, “We need to look at the opportunities that we’re giving to different people, and how we do or don’t set those up for success.”

ALISON BEARD: You talk in the book about this hypervisibility when you’re the one example, and then also just this extra scrutiny. This idea that, “No, you need to do it faster, you need to do it better.” Why is that phenomena happening on this extra scrutiny?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: When we have two unusual things that happen at the same time, say for example, this high-profile business is failing and this high-profile business is run by a woman. We often, as people, don’t view those as two separate, unusual acts. Instead, what we tend to do as people, is to conflate those into one inextricably linked phenomenon.

I think anyone who’s been in a minoritized position knows this feeling of walking into a room and being expected to represent not just themselves, but all people like themselves. So I’m a Black woman and I’m very used to, in the world of advertising that I used to be in, in my more junior roles, when there would be a product or a show or whatever it was that we knew would skew towards a Black audience or a Black buyership, eyes would turn to me and people would expect me to be able to be the voice and the face and the opinion of all Black consumers.

And I think we all know that. We all know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. The only Black person in the room, the only queer person in the room, the only trans person in the room, sort of whatever that is. It’s also a huge amount of pressure to put on somebody, because when you know that you are being looked at as the voice or the face of all of female’s potential leadership, for example, then the pressure to succeed becomes so much bigger than you, right? It’s not really about you or how you feel. But just about how you interpret and internalize other people’s perceptions of you, of being more than just yourself. We don’t do that to groups who are in the majority.

I’ve never been in a room, in a pitch meeting, in a discussion where eyes have turned to a single white man and they’ve said, “Well, what’s the white male perspective?” Because that is understood to be varied, right? That’s understood to be nuanced and personal. But when you are in a marginalized group, you lose that individuality.

ALISON BEARD: And it might seem totally obvious, but why does this matter for business and society?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: The first reason it matters is just the truth. When we have these stories of women coming into these really hard-to-win positions. What happens when they leave, when they get fired, when they step out of those roles, is it becomes framed as this story of women not being good enough. Women individually just not having the skills or the tools or the capabilities needed to be successful in leadership.

That not only affects that woman as an individual, that then goes on to impact who we think of when we think of leaders, and who we open up opportunities to. The stories that we tell about who is capable to do this work, are really impacted by what we believe are the case studies that we see of who is successful. So if we’re setting women up in situations where it’s so much harder for them to have an opportunity to be successful, then we just keep telling the same untrue story about women’s abilities for leadership. We know that the more diversity that we have of people who are able to speak up and make decisions, we know that better decisions on average get made.

tALISON BEARD: There is also research showing that when female CEOs aren’t falling off or pushed off a glass cliff, those companies actually outperform, right?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: Absolutely. So in preparation for International Women’s Day last year, Personal Finance Club looked at the S&P 500 and how those businesses that were headed by women had performed. Of those 500 businesses that make up the index, only 32 of those had female CEOs.

But if we looked at those female-led companies during that 10-year period up to 2023, we see that despite being a tiny minority, they had in fact outperformed the male-led businesses in that index. The researchers on that were very careful to say and to point out that not all of those businesses had had female CEOs for the entirety of that 10-year period. But if we isolate just the times within that 10 years when they did have female CEOs, they still outperformed both the male-led businesses in the index and the overall market.

ALISON BEARD: So I want to turn to solutions. I like the fact that you are focusing not on necessarily this high-level view of how business as a whole or society as a whole can get rid of the glass cliff, though we should. But what women leaders should do knowing that it’s still there as a risk. As a female leader, how do you recognize that you’re being offered a glass cliff opportunity?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: So I think the idea of recognizing it is a really important starting point. Because for so long, we’ve viewed these successes or failures of women as individual successes or failures, especially in individualistic societies like the U.S. or the U.K. We haven’t zoomed out to see this, not as a story of personal failings. But as a shared story of structural inequity that impacts women and racially marginalized men.

We haven’t given people the opportunity to assess leadership roles that come to them and make a choice. That choice is really important because it could be that you recognize that you are likely to fall foul of the glass cliff. But also feel that you’re not likely to be given a similar opportunity in a business that’s thriving, and so you decide to go for it.

So it’s really important that we don’t say the glass cliff means that women should never look at taking on even risky senior leadership roles. But instead what I want to do, is give them the tools needed to identify them. So the first thing that you should look for if you’re considering a role like this, is a moment of crisis. You should look for reputational scandals that are likely to be passed over to a new leader.

You should also look at the last six to 12 months of profitability and share performance, because if either of those is seriously on the rocks, then you could be facing a glass cliff kind of scenario. The next thing that makes a glass cliff much more likely to play out is the availability of internal support. Because I think we need to remember when we talk about leaders, even the greatest leader isn’t turning things around single-handedly, right?

She needs her team and she particularly needs her senior team. If we can be mindful about what that senior team looks like, what their makeup is, and how likely we are to be able to rely on them for support once we’re in role, that’s another really good indicator.

And the last thing is just the history of leadership. If the history of leadership within that business has been all male until this opportunity comes your way, then the chances of the glass cliff again are heightened. Because we have this idea of novelty and we have this idea of someone potentially coming in, not as a respected and protected leader who is likely to get all of the tools and time that we need. But as someone who’s likely to be seen to be a disposable, expendable stop gap while we continue our search for the right man for the role.

ALISON BEARD: How do you evaluate whether the risks are worth the potential rewards?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: I think that is incredibly personal for each individual. So it could be that you know that you are in an industry, where you have got this great reputation and that opportunities come your way often. In that set of circumstances, a glass cliff opportunity might look really different if you are a woman in a more male-dominated industry, where you’ve seen the opportunities for leadership are much harder to come by.

We see that women, as I said, are 14% less likely to be promoted year-on-year, even when they score highly for both performance and potential. It could be that you feel that your opportunities for leadership, your opportunities for progression are limited, and so you understand the risks of the glass cliff but decide to go for it anyway. I think it’s incredibly personal about what stage of your career you’re at, what opportunities you feel like you’re likely to be given going forwards or not. But I think once we know that the risk exists and we know how to spot it, then we can use that to all make our own decisions about what next steps are right for us.

Women are not a monolith. I think something that might not be attractive to me might be incredibly attractive to you or to a different person. I just advocate for people understanding the scenario, understanding the situation, and going in with their eyes open. Hopefully, they can make it a success.

ALISON BEARD: When you see the danger signs, when you’ve evaluated the risks but decided to do it anyway. What can you do to derisk, to make sure that you are given the space and time to solve the crisis that’s being thrown at you?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: It can vary from appointment to appointment. So one of the things that we can see that can really reduce the risk is if you’re promoted into a role, rather than being parachuted in as an outsider, because you already have those internal support systems hopefully that you can rely on. But when you’re external, when you’re coming in externally, it can be really hard to assess whether those support systems are likely to be there or not.

So one thing that we can see that makes a significant difference for female and Black and global majority men, is the external system that they can bring in. So if I have a job or I have an offer that I have, and I just say to my community, to my external support system, “Okay, I’m going to give this a go, but there’s a really high chance of failure here. If that happens, I need your support to strategize, to make success.” Or if we choose to step off the glass cliff, if we choose to exit, then they can help you manage that step down. They can help you soften your landing.

ALISON BEARD: Do you also advise people sort of negotiating some ground rules in terms of the support that they’ll receive from the board, from their leadership team, the money they’ll get, the time they’ll have?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: I really went into writing this book thinking that that is what I was going to recommend. I start each chapter with a case study of a woman, who in my opinion, has faced the glass cliff. We see that a lot of them actually were really canny, they were really smart and they did have those initial negotiations.

So we see lots of women set up minimum terms of how long they will need to be able to make the transformational change that will see them being successful in that role. But what we see time and time again in these stories, is despite these agreements and these contracts being in place, women are still let go before the end of those terms.

I would say yes, absolutely, always, always bring these things to light. I would absolutely say the sooner, the better. If you can bring these things to light during the interview phase, then absolutely. I’d always say, get the protections that you can. Get them written down, make it so if they do decide to exit you before the agreed timeframe, they have to pay you, they have to buy you out of that contract.

ALISON BEARD: So talk about some of the women who have navigated these challenges really well. Maybe Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand or Mary Barra of General Motors.

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: Yeah. So Mary Barra of GM is an example that I use in the book, and I think she is similar to Linda Yaccarino in several ways. Because Linda Yaccarino has taken on this role with us all knowing culturally that Twitter is in trouble, right? We all know that they’ve lost a lot of their ad revenue. We all know that they’ve had a real reputational hit since being taken over by Elon Musk.

When Mary Barra went on to take on the CEO role at GM, a company that she’d been in for most of her adult life, they suddenly found themselves in a moment of ultimate crisis. Their cars had really significant safety flaws, which killed people and injured others. But because Mary Barra was so new in that role when that happened, she was able to lead with a lot of empathy.

She was able to really bring those soft skills that we see women being expected to have to the fore. She was able to take responsibility as a business for these issues. She was able to very publicly make changes, change staff and put in place public plans to not allow a disaster like this to happen again.

ALISON BEARD: We’ve talked a lot about what women themselves can do to recognize the glass cliff, set them up for a greater likelihood of success. What would you like to see organizations start to do?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: What I really want to see businesses start to do or organizations or governments, because we do see the glass cliff playing out in all of these different scenarios. We have to diversify the business at all levels. Businesses have often spent time in bringing people who are underrepresented in at these entry-level, junior roles, where they’re not paid very well. They’re not invested in the same way as the rest of their team. We see this what Lean In Foundation calls the broken rung. So that rung is using the analogy of a career ladder, and we climb these different rungs to get higher and higher.

On that very first rung, for every 100 men who are promoted to that first level of leadership, only 87 women take that same step forwards. So that means when it comes to look at the next level, when we hire for the next level of leadership, men are still disproportionately represented in that first layer of leadership. And so we’re more than likely to pick one for that next layer and again, and again and again.

That leads to a situation that we’re in now, white men at the entry level represent about 30% of entry-level jobs. But by the time we look to the C-suite, that representation has ballooned up to somewhere between 65% and 68% representation, according to the Lean in Foundation and McKinsey. So what that means is we could say that white men are the only group who don’t experience the glass ceiling in their careers.

Because instead of looking up at the start of their professional lives and not seeing themselves represented at those most senior levels, what they often do is look up and see on average nothing but themselves represented. Because we continue to have this expectation, which actually researchers call think manager, think male. That means we don’t give other people those opportunities to progress in their careers and to take on those most senior roles.

As long as we do that, women will continue to be seen as novelties. Men who are Black or global majority will also be seen as novelties, as risks in these most senior roles. What we need to focus on is not just diversifying those most junior, entry-level roles, but really diversifying every level of business so people get an equal opportunity. We build a workforce that is much more of the meritocracy that we’re told that we are working within.

So I just really need businesses to take investment, sponsorship and development seriously at every level for all of their staff. I think we need to be aware of these systemic biases and how they impact people from the very beginnings of their careers. Because obviously, if we’re not giving people the same starts, they’re not going to get to the same places in the end.

ALISON BEARD: And getting beyond tokenism, not saying, “Oh, well, we have one or two female board members. We had one female CEO in our history, so we don’t really need to do it again. We can go back to the white male leadership model.”

My worry too is just the vicious cycle, right? So when female leaders do make it to these positions of power and then you see them treated badly, unsupported, thrown off the glass cliff, in some cases. You, as an up-and-coming leader, think to yourself, “I don’t really want that. I don’t want my head to be depicted as lettuce withering on national television, until I’m forced out of the UK prime ministership.”

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: Yeah. I don’t want to be lettuce either, so yeah, I completely agree with that perspective.

ALISON BEARD: So it’s important that we break this phenomenon once and for all. If you could leave our listeners with one thing to think about, or one action to take in their work to try to stop this pattern, what would it be?

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: So the more and more I talk about this, the more and more I think my advice is understand the importance of support. So if we want to see more female and Black and global majority CEOs, not only being given opportunities but being successful in those opportunities. If we know that more often than not they cannot rely on what should be those primary support systems within their teams or within their roles, then we can try to be them.

When we hear stories about this person was a terrible leader, this person was bad, we can just be aware of the glass cliff and we can build that into our dialogue. It sounds such a cop out just to be like, “Oh, just be aware of it.” But I think the fact that this phenomenon has been named and identified as existing for 20 years, but most people still don’t know its name.

I think that really speaks to the importance of saying, “Are you aware of the wider pattern here? Are you aware that this is a thing that we do to underrepresented leaders?” Because when we can take away that narrative of this or that person is our only example of female leadership and she was terrible at it. If we can reframe and recontextualize that.

And we can tell a better version of the actual truth about what’s happening there as a shared experience, as a shared cultural phenomenon. Rather than as an individual failing of this or that woman, or by extrapolation of womankind overall, then I think we can have a good chance of breaking the cycle.

ALISON BEARD: Well, Sophie, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

SOPHIE WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for having me.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Sophie Williams, a former global leader at Netflix, and author of the book, The Glass Cliff: Why Women in Power Are Undermined – and How to Fight Back. We have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization and your career.

Find them at HBR.org/podcasts or search HBR on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Thanks to our team, Senior Producer Mary Dooe, Associate Producer Hannah Bates, Audio Product Manager Ian Fox and Senior Production Specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thanks to you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.



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