Women on Top: TMay

Women on Top: TMay

This week Theresa May is stepping down as Prime Minister of the UK. By all accounts, her brief time in the position has largely been unsuccessful: her party, the British public and the wider political family (Trump et al.) and the EU do not rate her favourably. However, May’s leadership (after the baggage around her terms has cleared) might benefit from a feminist analytical approach. 

To begin with, female politicians are more likely to be selected to run for a seat that is harder to win or unwinnable that their male counterparts. The PM seat, still warm after Cameroon’s quick departure, was perhaps the most unwinnable seat. Like most women selected for aglass cliffposition, she was set up to fail. The role was set up to fail, that’s why Cameron left. It’s interesting when we compare who made up the leadership contenders for the PM seat in 2016 (when May won) and more recently. In the former, two women (of the five contestants) were part of the final two: May and (Andrea) Leadson. This time as the situation becomes more ‘manageable’ and understood, of the ten nominees, only two were women and they were rejected far earlier in the race. 

In the earlier race, at the peak of the Brexit panic: a female leader would have been more favourable. Ryan et al. (2011), best summed this up with the snappy phrases — “think manager-think men” and “think-crisis-think women”. May’s campaign slogans of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Strong and Stable’ played into this narrative of the caring soothing female leader to a shell-shocked British public. However, it’s unlikely she was fully aware of the secondary reason for her success: she was there to accept blame. Ryan et al’s study found women were often selected into these turbulent roles simply to “take the blame for… failure”, in this case, an almost inevitable one. And though she leaves in 2019, May who never called the referendum and stayed a remainer will be blamed for this calamity well-past her departure from Downing Street. 

During the 2016 nominations, another interesting incident occurred. May has received a subtle attack based on her inability to ‘act out’ her sex role. Leadson made a sexist comment questioning May’s ability to properly care for the country as a childless woman. Leadson later withdrew her nomination. For this, she was considered principled (Chris Grayling, the former Home Secretary) and a “good civil servant”  for putting the country before her ambitions. Leadson’s departure plays into the empathetic nature we demand of our female leaders.  

Even in power female leaders face another challenge: aggressive outsiders. Recent research has suggested that female-led firms are more likely to be targeted by activist investors with the intent to direct management decisions. Within May’s political tenure as Prime Minister, she faced several activist factions within her party digging at her side to leave. It’s therefore ironic, that one of the most tiresome of instigators, viewed as ruthlessly ambitious and, some say, most incompetent, will replace her. May was not good as a Prime Minister managing these Brexit negotiations, but we also cannot forget the wider context surrounding her election as it reflects the difficulties many other female face.

About the Author
Anna Pierz