Francesca Verge is a first year International Relations student at KCL. She loves music, her dog and is interested in languages, having grown up in a multicultural family. She hopes to help the empowerment of women around the world, and was inspired by a high school anthropology class on gender theory.
[Featured Image: A person in a brown suit and matching heels clutching a rope, dangling from a cliff made from glass.]
The recent election of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has been written in the news as a progressive step forward. In itself this is great news, as elections of women into government is good for women everywhere. Yet when digging deeper and taken into a larger context, this is just another example of a repeating pattern rather than a breakthrough for women.
Think about female leaders such as former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, current Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and of course the newly elected Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin. What unites their leadership experiences? They have all found themselves on ‘the glass cliff’, a pattern that sees women more likely to be chosen for leadership roles when the task at hand is considered risky.
Each of them were elected into office during or directly succeeding a time of crisis. The most recent example is Sanna Marin, following the controversy surrounding Antti Rinne who was forced to step down. He faced either resignation or a no confidence vote after being widely criticized for his handling of Finland’s state-owned postal service, where workers went on strike in November for nine weeks. This is not exclusive to the political sphere either. The biggest example in the private sector is the promotion of Mary Barra as the CEO of General Motors in 2014 during a large recall related to the design of their ignition switch and Congressional investigations. Put simply, women are most commonly elected to manage a crisis and face far more scrutiny than men do in those same positions. Thus the progress of having women in positions of power is completely undermined as they are set up to fail, inheriting messes that are difficult to navigate and even more challenging to fix.
So why is this the case? Several reasons come to mind. First, it is based on and perpetuates outdated narratives of women as more docile, compromising, understanding than men, leadership traits desired by government officials or boardrooms who seek to escape their crisis. It could also be the projection of domestic roles onto the work sphere, where women maintain order and clean up while men get to do the productive work that gets the credit. Another argument is that women are seen as more expendable, therefore promoted to risky roles and then used as scapegoats. I think the one that carries the most weight, and is in some way true for all of the examples mentioned, is that for women leadership positions are hard to come by already, so when an opportunity presents itself they take it, as this might be one of their very few chances at a leadership role. Theresa May was against Brexit, yet she still took the opportunity and tried to navigate the UK through negotiations.
What often plays out is a narrative that is all too familiar; the woman gets ousted, or the crisis is contained and subdued enough that a man can step back in and pick up the reigns, without having to start at a deficit as the woman did. The hard, scrutinizing work is endured by the woman, and the male successor is credited with the positive developments.
Women aren’t always doomed to fail, many manage to turn their circumstances around with their determination and hard work. The Icelandic PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir was appointed right after a financial crisis and still managed to succeed, and Margaret Thatcher was the longest serving British Prime Minister of her century, reversing the high unemployment and recession at the time. Nonetheless, the propping up of women under the guise of equality and progressiveness for difficult jobs passed off by men worried about their reputation and careers, remains unjust. The amount of female leaders in today’s political landscape gives us hope, but it still doesn’t break this cycle. We have to be equally wary as we are excited with news like these, giving these powerful women credit and leeway in climbing the glass cliff.
In 2012, after Yahoo lost significant market share to Google, Marissa Mayer was conveniently appointed as the CEO, a risky position in the midst of a tricky situation.