Women of the Moment

A pattern is emerging post-Brexit: it’s the women who are stepping forward, as male political leaders resign from the enormous task of taking Britain out of the EU. Prof Susan Murphy says that such a development should come as no surprise.
 
"Leadership required for G7 nation in crisis; will the women please step in?"
 
This is not an advert that you’re likely to see in the job pages of The Economist, but at the rate that unlikely scenarios are taking hold of real British politics, one is left to wonder. 
 
As we enter week three of the post-Brexit referendum, a pattern is emerging: it’s the women who are stepping forward, amongst a number of high profile male political leaders resigning from the enormous task of taking Britain out of the European Union.
 
But this isn’t a strategy without risks, as researchers have been showing over the past decade. At times of crisis women are often called on to lead challenging circumstances; perhaps because of their attention to detail, teamwork, creativity, intuition and nurturance. But sometimes being placed in such extreme circumstances can be a poisoned chalice too – and one where failure is more likely.
 
Let’s take a look at some of the leadership exerted by women politicians over the last month. 
 
It started with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The morning after the referendum, she emerged from Bute House to spell out a step-by-step approach to honour the Scottish electorate’s vote, in which the majority voted pro-European Union. And on top of having an eye for detail, she offered nurturing words too; speaking directly to the European Union citizens residing in Scotland, and to the Scots who imagine a European future for their nation. 
 
Compare that to the behaviour of David Cameron who emerged from Downing Street, just a few minutes before, to say he was not the right man to command this unexpected new route for the country. Or consider Boris Johnson, the leading Conservative mastermind behind the Leave campaign, who came on shortly after to deliver an emotive speech about the value of democracy and the right of the people to decide on their future. Days later he jumped ship altogether, saying he was not the one to lead the historic change he himself had pushed for. 
 
Even though Johnson and Cameron had been on opposing sides of the referendum, it became apparent they’d become united in one idea. Neither had an answer to the question ‘what happens next?’ 
 
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon continues to demonstrate statesmanship. In London, Theresa May is taking over as Prime Minister; the only conservative senior figure to present a coherent and clear plan for the next few months. And the Labour Party is now facing the prospect of seeing its leader Jeremy Corbyn replaced, as MP Angela Eagle launches her bid for the top job. 
 
It is no surprise this is so.
 
Researchers have shown that when a crisis hits voters look for strong leadership, which is often delivered by women. In 2004, Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam from the University of Exeter coined the term ‘Glass Cliff’, a phrase which plays on the idea of the glass ceiling (the barrier that prevents women to ascend to a higher level in hierarchy). What Ryan and Haslam argue here though, is that women are assigned into precarious positions, where the challenge is intense and the risk of failure considerable. 
 
The world of global corporate organisations is rich in examples. Take General Motors, who appointed Mary Barra as it was about to be investigated for a failed ignition system. Under her watch the company was forced to issue 84 safety recalls involving 30 million vehicles. Or Yahoo, who saw seven CEOs at the helm in five years before they appointed Marissa Mayer, who came from Google to sort out issues with search technology and social media. At Reddit, Ellen Pao was brought in to steer the company out of trouble. In 2008, as the global financial system went into meltdown, Iceland looked at women to step in as CEOs of financial organisations, to assist with the country’s bankruptcy. 
 
It seems that when it comes to rolling up sleeves and getting on with a difficult job at hand, women are well placed to take charge. 
 
The question is: when will they start breaking through the glass ceiling in fairer seas? 

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Susan Elaine Murphy's picture
The University of Edinburgh Business School
15th July 2016
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