Are women party leaders set up to fail? What business tells us about the ‘glass cliff’

A win for feminism? EPA/Andy Rain

It’s an interesting time for feminists following politics. The post-Brexit political landscape in the UK looks a bit different to the norm. With Theresa May set to become the next prime minister, and MP Angela Eagle challenging Jeremy Corbyn to be leader of the Labour Party, you might be forgiven for thinking that this generation of female politicians has finally cracked Westminster’s gender imbalance.

But research from the business world tells a different story, and rather than this being a sign that the feminist battle has been won, the idea of the “glass cliff” could explain how these female party leaders are being set up to fail.

The UK was an early adopter as far as female political leaders are concerned, with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, but she proved a divisive figure for feminism. Many argued that she did little to support the career progression of those women beneath her, and had no obvious legacy of high level female political success for decades afterwards.

But now, look around, and all of a sudden there are women competing and winning in the political arena at all levels. Across the UK, there has been compelling leadership from key players in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and now in Westminster too, you can barely move without bumping in to a female leadership challenger of one persuasion or other.

Margaret Thatcher, a divisive leader. Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, CC BY-SA

We are hearing different responses to this – many cheering the rise of such positive female role models, seeing this as a sign that the glass ceiling has finally been smashed. Others, such as Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, are frustrated at the focus on the gender of the candidates rather than their policies.

But there is another explanation to throw into the mix.

The glass cliff

In 2003 The Times published the results of a survey which appeared to show that having women on executive boards was detrimental to the success of the companies they served. It seemed that following the appointment of a women CEO, the share price and performance of the company declined.

Research published two years later told a different story. Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam decided to probe the data and looked at the direction of travel of share prices before the appointment of new CEOs. They found that female CEOs were more likely to be appointed to organisations whose share prices were already falling.

So failing companies were not the result of female CEOs; female CEOs were the result of failing companies. And this of course meant that the female leaders had an uphill struggle in trying to make their organisations successful, and ultimately were more likely to fail. The called the phenomenon the “glass cliff”.

It’s a complicated story with a number of different strands, but the key explanation put forward by the authors lies in the notion that in times of crisis we are more likely to take risks. If all the usual plans and ideas have failed, the organisation is likely to look around, desperate to try anything which might work. Even a woman.

This glass cliff effect has been seen in a range of other arenas in the private and public sectors, including politics. Examining data from the 2005 UK election, one study of Conservative MPs showed that, while female MPs tended to have won fewer votes than male MPs, this was entirely explained by the fact that they were standing in seats which were less safe.

Labour leadership contender Angela Eagle. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

Female Conservative candidates were put forward in unwinnable Labour strongholds, needing to secure on average an “almost impossible swing” of over 26% of the vote. Again, it’s not that women candidates lead to unwinnable seats but that unwinnable seats lead to women candidates. And before you ask – yes, this finding was replicated in an experiment which controlled for factors such as experience and qualifications: the women were selected for risky seats because they were women.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going. The political arena in the UK right now is the messiest it’s been for a long time. Westminster is in shock that the Vote Leave campaign won, and no-one has really thought through where exactly the UK is heading and how on earth it is going to get there.

The two main parties have been split, leaderless and confused. It is the most challenging of times and, as we see from Ryan and Haslem’s study of the business world, 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”.

So back to the female Westminster leadership hopefuls. Are these unprecedented opportunities a sign of a feminist breakthrough? Maybe. Or might the situation lead to further “evidence” that women aren’t up to the top jobs as Theresa May and Angela Eagle edge out over a glass cliff, appointed in impossible circumstances and almost destined to fail?