Congratulations, Theresa May. Now mind that ‘glass cliff’

British Prime Minister Theresa May and husband Philip May outside 10 Downing Street.
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

Just three weeks ago, Theresa May was a low-profile member of David Cameron’s Cabinet, regarded as a professional and reliable leader in the Conservative Party ably holding a position that’s been called a “graveyard for political careers.”

Less than a month later, Britain has voted to leave the European Union. Cameron has resigned. The man considered the front-runner in the race to replace him decided not to run. And now May has become only the second female prime minister in Britain’s history, at a time when her country is facing a historically tumultuous period on both the political and economic fronts.

Researchers say that leaves her standing on a classic “glass cliff,” a phenomenon studied by academics that shows a disproportionate number of women and minorities reaching positions of leadership at particularly precarious times.

Sometimes, the reasoning is that women are set up to fail, pushed into a position of leadership when a fall guy – or gal – is needed. At other times, the thinking is the electorate – whether stockholders or voters – simply want change, and women and minorities represent that.


Either way, the overall dynamic that’s been shown in the research, says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, is that women don’t just get fewer leadership opportunities. “They also get different kinds of leadership opportunities,” she said. “When you look at opportunities for leadership that one might describe as high-risk, women are more likely to be selected into that kind of role.”

Yet because women so rarely get the opportunity to step into key leadership roles, Ryan said, they don’t have the luxury of choosing which jobs they want and which they don’t.

The “glass cliff” phenomenon has often been shown in a business context, and is often raised when a woman is placed into a particularly thorny chief executive job, such as after Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors or Marissa Mayer took over at Yahoo.

Authors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam first revealed that companies that put women on their boards were more likely to be coming off of a consistently poor performance in the five months prior than those that appointed men. A 2013 study found that among Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities were more likely to be promoted to CEO at companies with weak performance.

And in an experimental study, researchers found a “status quo bias,” where people saw little need for a company to change its pattern of male leadership if the company was performing well; only if the firm was in trouble did more people prefer a female leader.

Of course, the research doesn’t mean that every time a woman gets a tough job she’s being made a scapegoat, or that men don’t take on the hard jobs. Hardly. And some research has shown contrary evidence, putting the “glass cliff” in question. Yet the dynamic shows up in fields as varied as politics, sports and business.

Cooper thinks that it fits well with other research that has shown that selecting women signals change, and that qualities typically associated with female leaders – things like collaboration, listening, working in the background, managing people – are particularly attractive in a crisis.

“There’s this expression – think crisis, think female,” Cooper says.


But while there’s been lots of research exploring the phenomenon of why women might get a disproportionate number of opportunities in a crisis, there’s little showing how the most successful ones have handled it.

“I don’t know that there’s specific research on how you navigate a particularly sucky leadership opportunity,” Cooper says.

Jena McGregor writes for the Washington Post.