We’re all far too familiar with the ‘glass ceiling’ by now, but how many of you are as clued up on its riskier sister, the ‘glass cliff’?
Coined by academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in 2005, the term refers to “a phenomenon whereby women and other minority group members are over-represented in leadership roles that are risky and precarious”.
Following Boris Johnson’s recent hasty retreat into the cosy warmth of resignation during a crucial time for the Brexit that he campaigned for; are we seeing Theresa May teetering ever closer to the cliff edge that she was placed on the minute she assumed the position of Prime Minister? And what are the consequences of the glass cliff in the ongoing fight for gender parity?
Firstly, we must consider where the existence of the glass cliff originates from. Even in 2018, we are more than aware that the world is still run by men. In business and politics, the relatively few female faces peppering the male-pale-and-stale line-up are a rare and sorry sight. Inevitably, in these businesses, sometimes things go wrong. Subsequently, when the man in charge takes the blame, someone new must be tasked with turning things around.
So why are women the answer? According to the Harvard Business Review: “when a company is doing well, people prefer leaders with stereotypically male strengths, but when a company is in crisis, they think stereotypically female skills are needed to turn things around”. This can certainly be supported by the unhelpful and dangerously stereotypical post-Brexit suggestions made that a woman was needed to “clean up the mess the boys made”. So, is positive discrimination the only explanation?
Alternatively, does it refer to women only having access to men’s sloppy seconds? As the unlikely voice of the nation Danny Dyer so eloquently put it, “Where is he? He’s in Europe, in Nice, with his trotters up?”, referring to former PM David Cameron’s retreat from the frontline when times got tough. Was the opportunity to step forward only afforded to Theresa May because the boys washed their hands of the situation? Is it only when disaster strikes that women are able to wriggle through the cracks in the glass ceiling and pounce on the smouldering wreckage to claim it as her own? And what are the implications if she does?
Due to a catastrophic lack of representation, women who do rise to the top often have an extraordinary amount of pressure on their shoulders to not only reverse the car crash they are faced with, but to set an example for all women’s success, and simultaneously become the dictionary definition of ‘a female leader’. If she should fail, the exact opposite is true, and a ‘failed Prime Minister’ very quickly becomes ‘a failed female Prime Minister’, setting our paltry progress even further back.
If women are only able to prove themselves in times of crisis, is there a way to flip the script and create a positive, non-stereotyped version of why we should put on the captain’s hat? Maybe we’re not needed as an alternative to men, or because softness and gentleness and a kind, fluffy approach is worth a shot, or because we already look good in rubber gloves. But because we’re equipped. We’re ready. We’re battle-scarred and brave.
All we can hope for is that eventually we’ll be judged on our actions, not our gender, and that something almost doomed to fail from the start won’t be used as a knife in our backs when the next opportunity comes along.
Whatever your views on Theresa May, unlike Boris Johnson and David Davis, she’s still stood on the edge of that cliff, and maybe two firm feet are exactly what we need right now.