Last year Theresa May was hardly a household name outside Britain. She was a longtime Tory minister but right up until the moment she was catapulted into Number 10 Downing Street, after the shock Brexit decision that led the then-PM David Cameron to exit stage left, she was hardly expected to take the leadership reins.
And yet, the preceding political turmoil meant that is exactly what she did. She became the second woman in the UK’s history to occupy the position of Prime Minister. And the circumstances were nothing short of dire.
She was charged with leading the party, and the nation, during a time of immense uncertainty and confusion. She was to steer the UK towards an historic arrangement she hadn’t voted for.
In sport, it would be described as a hospital pass.
In business it is called a “glass cliff”. It describes the proven phenomenon of a woman receiving a notable promotion during a time of crisis.
Mary Barra, for example, was appointed CEO General Motors in less than ideal circumstances. It was the first time the company had been led by a woman and the business was far from cruising. Marissa Mayer’s appointment at the head of Yahoo was similarly vexed.
— Exeter Uni News (@ExeterUniNews) June 9, 2017
A 2013 study found that among Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities were more likely to be promoted to CEO at companies with weak performance.
In a seminal piece of research, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam found that female CEOs were more likely to be appointed to organisations whose share prices were already falling.
Ryan and Haslem’s study shows women are selected for leadership positions ahead of equally qualified men “when (and only when) there is a high risk of organisational and leader failure”.
A sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, Marianne Cooper, says women don’t just get fewer leadership opportunities. “They also get different kinds of leadership opportunities,” she said. “When you look at opportunities for leadership that one might describe as high-risk, women are more likely to be selected into that kind of role.”
A broad explanation is that in a time of crisis, people are willing to take more risks. When the chips are down trying something different becomes attractive, which is why the “glass cliff” exists.
It doesn’t, of course, explain the success or failure of any female leader in any setting. There are many exceptions.
But when a woman assumes a leadership position on the precipice of failure, she is undermined before she begins.
There is no doubt that Theresa May occupied the position of Prime Minister on a glass cliff. Anyone who took the position would have. Which is why David Cameron, and the pro-Brexit London Mayor Boris Johnson, for example, stepped out of the fray.
Friday’s election result was nothing short of catastrophic for May. It substantially reduced her mandate to lead, frustrated the electorate and heightened the level of political uncertainty in the UK.
Some of that is on her. For calling the election early, for running a dismal campaign, for misreading the sentiment among voters. But some of it was pre-ordained.
Was it ever going to be possible for May to lead effectively? Some would say her leadership prospects were doomed before she even began.
That is worth remembering if – and when – the temptation to write female leadership off as a failed experiment arises.