The Glass Cliff – book review  

Book review glass cliff

Book: The Glass Cliff
Sophie Williams

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that a book about women in leadership being under-represented and undermined was released the day before International Women’s Day. The day where women and their contributions are celebrated is an annual reminder that there is still much to do around equity and inclusion, but nothing quite prepared me for the bleak reality provided by Sophie Williams in this book.  

I found myself looking forward to starting the next chapter so I could read more 

The Glass Cliff explores the phenomenon of women reaching very senior leadership positions where they are being set up to fail. Being brought in to turn around poor performing organisations, being surrounded by a leadership team who are actively working against them, and being given less time and fewer opportunities to turn things around than a male counterpart would have.  

Compelling evidence 

As a female leader, surrounded by many incredible women in leadership, I found myself a questioning if this could possibly be the current reality. How could something so obvious and insidious by happening in plain sight in 2024? On the surface it sounds like sour grapes – complaints from women who are unable to ‘keep up’ perhaps. Or maybe we can find data to back up any claim if we look hard enough.  

But the evidence presented by Williams is compelling and she provides not only research (and plenty of it!) but also an overview of the history of women in the workplace and various case examples that clearly highlight the patterns experienced by women over and over again. And rather than moving forward, as many of us had assumed, we are actually going backwards.   

“From women’s bodily autonomy, to digital safety, to access to education and medical care … we had spent so much time congratulating ourselves on making progress that we’d forgotten to make sure that we were, actually, still making the progress we were so proud of.” (p4)  

And while the statistics point to a sobering reality where women’s equity is reversing across countries such as the UK and US, and where opinions on female leaders is inherently biased by social conditioning, the author is optimistic about the future.  

Positive outlook 

She talks about a set of factors that can increase the risk of a leadership opportunity being a ‘glass cliff’ and encourages us to make informed decisions. She points out that, most female leaders most likely know what they are getting themselves into (they are smart women after all!), they just decide that the opportunity might be worth the risk – and therein lies their ability to take control of their own fate.   

My highlights 

As well as appreciating the optimistic outlook, there were a lot of other elements that I thought worked really well. Each chapter starts with a case example, which were a highlight of the book for me, and I found myself looking forward to starting the next chapter so I could read more.  

Some of the women I had heard of but had never really considered their position and how difficult and precarious it might have been. I would have loved to have heard some of their own thoughts on their story however, and I felt that it was a missed opportunity that the author did not interview a few of the women to include their take on their experience.  

I also really liked the summaries at the end of each chapter, humorously entitled TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) which helped to solidify the main points of the chapters, or provide a short version for skim readers.

And to counteract the sceptical reader (as I was at certain points in the book) the author provides the ‘But, what about..?’ counter argument, which recognises what people may be thinking and saying about the topic at hand, and answers their concerns with honesty.  

Is there a solution? 

Thinking of the future, Williams suggests ways that organisations can tackle the issue and provides some considerations for us as individuals and advocates. But I couldn’t help feeling that it was lacking advice for the female leader who finds themselves standing on the edge of a glass cliff.  

I was looking for more in terms of how to ‘fight back’, as the title suggests; ways to get back control or to recover from the reputational damage a glass cliff role has created. 

On reflection, though, we have to accept that the systemic and complex nature of the glass cliff makes it difficult to prescribe a way to tackle it, and so it’s no surprise that there isn’t a handy, step-by-step plan. Perhaps that is why the phenomenon persists.  

Natalie Savery is Head of Learning and Organisational Development Solutions at Leaderful Action  

Natalie Savery

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