The women standing on a glass cliff

8:48 pm on 18 July 2016

Opinion - Is the world about to tip on its axis with the appointment of women to the most powerful positions on earth?

Theresa May Helen Clark and Hillary Clinton

From left, Theresa May, Helen Clark and Hillary Clinton may look to be shattering glass ceilings, but are they really standing on a glass cliff? Photo: AFP

That's certainly the way global politics currently appears.

Theresa May in the UK, Hillary Clinton (probably) in the US, Helen Clark (potentially) at the UN, and Angela Merkel in Germany represent to many the shattering of the world's glass ceiling, even if they are vastly different creatures linked only by the possession of a uterus and steely determination.

To view them as agents of revolution in and of themselves is of course, flawed.

Mrs May is a classic conservative, eager to exert military might and rather less keen to tend to the more unfortunate in society, if her voting history is any guide. Mrs Clinton has strong hawkish tendencies. Miss Clark and Mrs Merkel are firmly centrist politicians, operating deftly in the political structures that have been largely built and maintained by men.

Miss Clark and Mrs Merkel do, in my opinion, hew more closely to the idea of being "vectors for peace and stability", which is how Miss Clark described female leaders to the Guardian. But this is possibly less in their case about being women, and more about being empathetic people with a keen eye on their historical legacies.

The media still inhibit all women leaders by openly judging them on whether they have utilised their uteri or not; whether they have sanctified heterosexual relationships or not, or whether they wear appropriately 'feminine' clothing. (Male leaders such as David Cameron must simply have wives that fulfil these criteria).

Anyone with eyes and ears knows this is exactly the kind of metric that is still applied to women in the 'real world' as well, so it's not a surprise.

How refreshing, then, that when Andrea Leadsom pointed out rival Theresa May had leadership deficiencies because she didn't have children she was given short shrift in the UK (even if Theresa May then turned around and gave that twerp a role in her cabinet).

To the question of whether these women are shattering the glass ceiling, I would argue instead they're standing on a glass cliff.

A study published in the British Journal of Management in 2005, which looked at the performance of Britain's top 100 stock market-listed companies before and after the appointment of male or female board members, found that women were much more likely to be appointed when the company's fortunes were headed south.

Forget the glass ceilings, said the study's authors - these women tended to be placed on a 'glass cliff', where inevitably their leadership appointments are made in crisis, where organisations are ready to take more risks. They turn to anything that might provide a solution - even a woman!

Mrs May is of course the most obvious example of this. She's heading up Britain at a time of enormous upheaval, not only with Brexit, but also in terms of an already precarious economic situation that was threatening to upend that country's stability.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel is at the helm of the tempestous European Union. Photo: AFP

Same with Miss Clark: the UN faces seemingly insurmountable problems with a Middle East on fire, Russia and China thumbing their nose at UN regulation, and the scourge of climate change upon us.

Mrs Clinton will inherit a superpower bitterly divided and riven with violence, and Mrs Merkel is no less than the de facto head of the tempestuous European Union.

Will these problems be more likely fixed with the appointment of these hard-working, serious women to their cause, as opposed to the usual male candidates? Perhaps not.

But the fact they are there may mean the problems are even more intractable than first thought, with even the very best female leaders destined to fail in one way or another.

*Dita de Boni is an Auckland journalist and regular TVNZ opinion writer.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs