Women are elected when a crisis exists but most are looking down the glass cliff

New British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband. (Reuters)

New British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband. (Reuters)


By the time you read this, Britain will have had a female prime minister for a few days. Not for the first time, of course. Margaret Thatcher took that claim to fame, which is why it is now compulsory for every other female leader in the world to be compared with her.

“Who’ll be the new Maggie?” the Daily Mail asked last weekend, referring to the ruling Conservative Party’s leadership race.
A pretty weird question, when you think about it, considering that Thatcher left office 26 years ago.

The article went on to talk about “the two women battling to fill her shoes”. I would have thought it might be more sensible to refer to the leadership contenders as battling to fill outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron’s shoes, but we all know that women aren’t allowed to wear men’s shoes.

There are more female heads of state than ever before. In the past year alone, England joins the likes of Taiwan, Mauritius, Nepal and Lithuania in seeing a woman rise to the most powerful political position in the country. If sense prevails, the leader of the so-called free world will soon be a woman, in the form of Hillary Clinton. It is also possible that South Africa’s next head of state will be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

But let’s have a bit of context here, lest we start to think that distilled oestrogen now wafts down the corridors of power and bowls of tampons now serve as paperweights on presidential desks. Most countries in the world have still never had a female leader. Let’s also not count our chicks before they’ve hatched: among those countries are the United States and South Africa.

Even assuming that the female candidate is highly capable, is it intrinsically a good thing when a woman gets a shot at the top post? Not always, no. Because sometimes – as is almost certainly the case with Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May – women only get to join the big boys’ table when things are irredeemably screwed.

This is known as the glass cliff phenomenon. The glass ceiling is well known; it refers to the invisible barriers that members of marginalised groups tend to face when attempting to advance their careers. The glass cliff is quite different and it’s a relatively recent term. It was coined by psychologists whose research determined, to cite Forbes, that “women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions that are associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure”.

Is your company failing? Is your nation ailing? Get in a woman. They’ll take the job because they know it’s their only chance to lead, and then when they don’t manage to undo the catastrophic errors of their male forebears, everyone can blame it on them being a woman and a man can take over again.

That’s a cynical view of what happens, but it’s not divorced from reality. Research shows that in the corporate world women are more likely to be promoted to leadership positions when the company is facing a downturn. Here’s what happens next, according to researcher Christy   Glass, quoted in the Guardian: “When a leader comes in when a company is struggling, their term typically is shorter and these leaders are then typically replaced by white males, especially if the firm doesn’t improve under their leadership.”

It is deeply telling that, at this chaotic point in Britain’s history, the leaders of the two major political parties – Labour and Conservative – look set to be women at the same time. Is it the case that everyone’s suddenly realised that men are fallible leaders and women should be given the same opportunities? Unlikely. May faces one of the least enviable tasks in contemporary geopolitics. She has to try to pull together a country facing, post-Brexit referendum, its biggest crisis in decades. It is a poisoned chalice. Tasked with cleaning up the mess of a cohort of egotistical men – work that women have been undertaking in silence for centuries – she is almost certain to fall off the glass cliff.

It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes women brought in during a crisis do manage to steady the ship. There are more examples of this in the corporate world than in politics, simply because there have been more female chief executives than there have been female heads of states. But, more often than not, people set up to fail will fail. Forbes reports that in the US a higher share of women chief executives than men have been forced out over the past decade.

Given all this, should we celebrate when women attain leadership positions where they’ve previously been in short supply? Sure, because we also can’t overlook the symbolic importance of female figureheads. But we should also look at the circumstances in which they’ve taken power. A woman handed a mop after the shit’s hit the fan may end up getting the nasty stuff all over her.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis

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