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Una Mullally: A woman failing often enables a retreat to the male status quo

A woman ‘given a shot’ but failing often enables a retreat to the male status quo

British prime minister Theresa May’s resilience will be tested again this week. Photograph: AFP/Images

We’ve all thought it, surely. You’re watching British prime minister Theresa May on the news, speaking in parliament, or sheepishly meeting other heads of state with a stiff upper lip as the UK implodes around her, and you think it.

I know I have: “You have to hand it to her all the same. She’s still there. How does she do it?” May’s resilience will be tested again this week, but as of today, she’s hanging on in there.

Theresa May and the Glass Cliff might sound like a forgotten Enid Blyton book, but she is perhaps the most acute contemporary example of a phenomenon that plagues female leaders. Once the glass ceiling is broken, another invisible but pronounced hurdle appears.

At the University of Exeter, Dr Michelle Ryan and Prof Alex Haslam coined "the glass cliff" as a phase in 2003. Their 2005 paper, The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions, stated in its abstract, "There has been much research and conjecture concerning the barriers women face in trying to climb the corporate ladder, with evidence suggesting that they typically confront a 'glass ceiling' while men are more likely to benefit from a 'glass escalator'.


Female leadership is a way for organisations to signal change. And the need for change is often instigated by things not going well

“But what happens when women do achieve leadership roles? And what sorts of positions are they given? This paper argues that while women are now achieving more high profile positions, they are more likely than men to find themselves on a ‘glass cliff’, such that their positions are risky or precarious.”

An archival study which examined the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of a male or female board member, revealed that during a period of overall stock-market decline, “those companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men”.

There are high-profile examples of this in the corporate and media worlds; Melissa Mayer ascending at Yahoo at a time when Google was rollicking ahead, Jill Abramson at The New York Times when media revenues were in turmoil, and Dee Forbes at RTÉ who has been tasked with turning the financial fortunes of the broadcaster around and "save" an organisation that never thought to appoint a female director-general during the good times. Funny that.

Why might women be preferred for leadership roles in times of crisis? Female leadership is a way for organisations to signal change. And the need for change is often instigated by things not going well.

Of course, it’s far more difficult to steer a course in a storm, and so failure becomes a much more likely outcome. Chucked over the glass cliff, male leadership then often returns from its brief pause. That woman thing didn’t work.

Opportunities for women to achieve leadership roles have been more limited, and crisis creates opportunity. If crisis is the moment where a leadership role may become available, it may create a “now or never” moment for a woman to achieve a leadership role that felt previously distant. “This is my only shot,” a woman might think and go for it.

Tanaiste and Labour leader Joan Burton: ‘Yes I feel passionate about politics. I don’t regard that as a fault’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The male instigators of crisis tend to evaporate, like that gif of Homer Simpson disappearing backwards into a bush.

Former British prime minister David Cameron is the perfect example, a politician whose absence was articulated by an irate Danny Dyer on Good Evening Britain last year: “He called all this on. Where is he? He’s in Europe, in Nice, with his trotters up, yeah, where is the geezer?”

A very particular glass cliff was carved out for Joan Burton to teeter upon. After being elected Labour leader in July 2014, she was to preside over a party that had just lost more than half of its local authority seats in the 2014 election, a disastrous performance, which along with the loss all of their three European seats, including a Dublin seat which it had held for 25 years, prompted Eamon Gilmore’s resignation.

'A woman "given a shot" but failing in a leadership role, often then allows for a retreat to the status quo of male leadership'

It’s in this context that Burton stepped up as leader, a hospital pass if there ever was one. Worse was yet to come and Burton failed to stabilise a party in electoral crisis. It’s doubtful anyone could have, but she was denigrated with a strange ferocity.

When people think of Labour’s collapse, they don’t think of the party’s patriarchs who hung around for far too long, it’s Burton who was vilified, whether that was justified or not.

Perhaps Sinn Féin, with its two female leaders North and South, might be the exception, but no one could call the job of replacing Gerry Adams easy. The question remains, do we call upon female leaders to step up to the challenge, or to the failure?

There is something insidious about setting women up to fail. Sure, you can have the gig, but we’re only going to give it to you when it’s in its worst possible state. Enjoy the view on the way down.

A woman “given a shot” but failing in a leadership role, often then allows for a retreat to the status quo of male leadership.

So while we may think “you have to hand it to her” about Theresa May, we should also consider what kind of situations are actually handed to female leaders in the first place.