Did Theresa May Really Ascend the Glass-Cliff? Perhaps… But the Glass-Ceiling is Thinning

With the appointment of Theresa May as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the number of women currently serving in the top executive position worldwide increased to nineteen. Should Hillary Clinton attain the US presidency, women will be at the helm of three of the most powerful countries in the West. Yet many have criticized (or at least warned) that May’s appointment could indicate a glass-cliff effect.

The glass-cliff [gated] in business and political research reflects a phenomenon whereby women are most likely to be appointed to top leadership positions during moments of crisis and/or where the risk of failure is the greatest. This draws on the widespread notion of a glass-ceiling which prevents greater numbers of women from entering leadership posts.

The evidence that May has ascended a glass-cliff is more than apparent. She attained her position in the wake of the Brexit debacle at a time when many Conservative leaders scattered seeking shelter from the impending political storm.

On the other hand, long term data on parliamentary elections in the U.K. suggests that the 2015 elections produced an influx of women MPs. The line graph below plots trends in female candidature for and election to the House of Commons over the past 100 years.


The plot reveals that women’s representation in the U.K. was relatively static up until the mid-1970s, after which we see increased candidature and representation of women. This trend could be tied to two separate phenomenon. Firstly, 1976-1985 marked the United Nations Decade for Women. This period is really the genesis of transnational women’s networks and the third wave of feminism. Secondly, in 1979, the U.K. produced its first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s tenure could have had important role modeling effects, encouraging female aspirants to step forward and parties to support them.

In the mid-1990s, we see another precipitous jump in female candidature and representation. This thinning of the glass-ceiling could be tied to the 1995 Beijing Conference, which expressly encouraged countries to implement protocols to increase women’s representation. However, it is also most proximately linked to the adoption of positive measures for women by the British Labour Party starting in 1992. This led to a significant increase of female candidature in the 1992 elections.

The introduction of all-women-shortlists and the landslide victory for the Labour Party in 1997 doubled the female percentage of MPs (from 9% to 18%).  The all-women-shortlist procedure prioritizes women as candidates for marginal or most winnable seats. By 2010, at least partly as a result of this practice, rates of female representation outpace female candidature.

The 2015 general elections in the U.K. mark a second major fracture of the glass-ceiling within the past two decades. Female candidature increased from 21% in the 2010 elections to over 26%. Likewise, the female percentage of elected MPs rose from 22% in the 2010 elections to over 29%. Overall, more women ran and were elected in the 2015 elections than could be expected given the trend over the past twenty years.

What explains the performance of women during the 2015 elections? These results cannot be the work of a generalized glass-cliff effect within the U.K., given that the current political crisis evolved after the elections. Labour’s policy of all-women-shortlists could again have something to do with the boost women received in the most recent election. There have been persistent upward trends in the percentage of female candidates across the three major historical parties (Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrats), but Labour continues to field the most female candidates by raw value (214) and percentage (34%). In addition, because of the all-women-shortlists, women contested for over half (53%) of the Labour Party marginal seats. As a result, majority of the women in the House of Commons are Labour MPs, despite the party accounting for less than 36% of the chamber.

So while Theresa May might be staring down the side of a glass-cliff, the current British Parliament is nearing a historic moment. Women are poised achieve a 30% threshold of seats in the House of Commons. At present, Labour Party is driving this charge, but other parties are certainly following suit, lest they be left behind by half the population.



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