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“Why the glass cliff is a good thing” Lucy Mangan on the rise of women at times of uncertainty and crisis


It’s a funny old thing, life, isn’t it? And by “funny” I mean “tragic, interspersed with occasional infinitesimally lighter moments that enable us all to go on”. I’m having one of those lighter moments now, because I’ve realised that we’re all perched on top of a glass cliff.

Life is quite a knotty old thing too, so let me unpick.

The phrase “glass cliff” was coined by psychologists back in the dim and distant days of 2004 and is used to describe the phenomenon – observable now outside every bedroom window in England and Scotland and soon, hopefully, in the US – whereby women are propelled to unusually high office in unusually high numbers at times of uncertainty and crisis.

And here we are – with Theresa May as Prime Minister, in charge of tumultuous post-Brexit life. She can tap First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon (who rose swiftly through the ranks in the wake of her country’s independence referendum in 2014) for advice if she fancies. Across the pond there’s Hillary Clinton – another possible beneficiary of crazy times (and even crazier, orange-skinned alternative options). Christine Lagarde, appointed to head the IMF at a time of economic turbelence, can keep a coolly appraising eye on them all.

On the downside, the theory is that women are appointed to these cliff edge positions because they are seen as expendable. The company (“glass cliff” was originally intended as a business term) or institution or political party gets into trouble and appoints a woman because if everything goes tits-up it can all be blamed on her tits. The boys get a pat on the back for trying to be progressive and can revert with a clean slate to business as usual.

On the upside, however, is the fact that things don’t always turn out the way that the people who planned them expect. And so I don’t particularly care how all these women came, or are (hopefully) about to come to power. I only care that they are there. Finally, we get a chance to do things differently. I feel like Chandler Bing when presented with the choice between lying to get a woman into bed and not: “Pure evil,” he says, pretending to weigh his options in his hands, “Horny and alone…” He drops the latter hand. “I’ve done this.”

I too feel our choices are not great. Theresa May is not my idea of good times. But let’s weigh in our hands remaking a world with as many women as possible in charge, versus a ceaseless slew of men in politics… well, we’ve done this. Very much have we done this. And it has, to my untutored but – over the last few weeks especially – experienced eye, it has not gone well. I’m willing to try something different, even though it is still very far from my ideal.

Put at its very, very lowest – it’s going to be interesting to see if gender makes a difference. It didn’t to Thatcher – unless you accept the theory that as a woman alone she felt she had to out-butch the men. But what might happen with a critical mass in communication at the top?

After any cataclysm, there is a chance to rebuild things and I am currently trying to rebuild my hope and optimism. So here’s my hope – that a world with more women in charge of more things will do things differently. Not very, probably. But maybe differently enough. Just enough to suggest that… yes… yes, we could try this.

Photography: Ellis Parrinder, Rex Features



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