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The UK Prime Minister has, since she was elevated to the top job following the Brexit vote, became the prime example of the ‘Glass Cliff’ theory: the idea that woman ascend to leadership positions when the risk of failure is high.
And never has the full risk of failure looked more apparent then in the past few days. Some commentators put May’s chances of getting Parliamentary sign-off on her 545-page Brexit plan as being hopelessly slim.
Even keeping the top job is proving very difficult at this point.
Following a five-hour Cabinet meeting on her Brexit plan midway through last week that May described to reporters as being “impassioned”, she saw some of her top MPs resigning and an internal rebellion of conservatives building as they sought to secure 48 no-confidence letters in order to trigger a leadership spill.
Still, May has come this far. She’s more than two years into the job. She survived the initial period of uncertainty and confusion following the Brexit vote, as well as a poor election campaign and subsequent catastrophic election results in 2017 that significantly reduced her mandate to lead.
Very few politicians or anybody would envy the job May has been trying to get done, especially any who voted to ‘remain’ during the 2016 referendum, as May did. And very few again would have put themselves in such a position to even try.
One of the key authors of the Glass Cliff term, Professor Michelle Ryan, recently reported on her 15-year research into the theory at the Royal Society’s annual Diversity Conference.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence that Theresa May is leading us through this crisis, and it is noteworthy how many men stepped away from the leadership role – including David Cameron and Boris Johnson,” she said.
“Such glass cliff positions in times of crisis run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes that women aren’t suited for leadership.”
Ryan kickstarted her research on the phenomenon following a 2003 Times article stating that “the triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has … wreaked havoc on company performance.” Fifteen years later, such commentary is eerily familiar in Australia, especially following Catherine Brenner’s resignation from AMP earlier this year.
When Ryan tested the theory suggested in the Times piece, she found that poor company performance didn’t follow the appointment of women, but rather that such poor performance was in occurring before the women got such jobs.
May is negotiating on multiple fronts and fighting insurrections within her own party. If she is somehow successful, she will achieve something a large portion of those she governs simply do not want to happen. Then there are those who did vote to leave, saying May hasn’t gone far enough.
The task is one that’s almost impossible to achieve, and yet success is unlikely to please anyone.
So has she been tempted to resign? Asked the question by Sky News this morning, May replied “No, I haven’t.”
We recently spoke more about the ‘Glass Cliff’ theory on the Women’s Agenda podcast.