But what happens to those, who like Julia, have been able to overcome this obstacle? Sometimes, the shards left behind are so jagged that they draw the blood of women who manage to scrape through. In her case, the broken glass left her in a far more precarious and hostile environment, facing a new hurdle altogether: the glass cliff.
What do Julia Gillard, Theresa May and Jacinda Ardern have in common? They’ve all been victim to the glass cliff – a relative of the glass ceiling – and a phenomenon that suggests women are more likely to achieve leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn. In politics, it’s evident that women are preferentially selected to contest hard-to-win seats. Put simply, appointing a woman to salvage the unsalvageable is common practice. Whether organisations deliberately employ this strategy to undermine the success of women is another question all together. But it works in several parts, because sexism is insidious! And clever!
Firstly, because people look to be nurtured and reassured during periods of crisis, and because these qualities are stereotypically seen as feminine, it makes sense for a woman to be put forward to diffuse the situation at hand. (I know that when I think of a helper, I automatically picture a woman. See? There’s that slippery gendered bias seeping in!) On this, Joyce Banda, the first and only woman to serve as President of Malawi, suggests that women are inherently assiduous because they feel they have something to prove. She believes “women work harder because they don’t want to let their fellow women down, and they also don’t want to appear weak” (a stereotype we try so hard to dispel).
Secondly, it’s been proven that a female candidate is more likely to accept high-risk positions in a time of disaster than her male counterpart is. Why? Because she intuitively knows that if she doesn’t seize the challenge, it’s unlikely she’ll be offered another opportunity at that level. Whereas for a man with more options (read: privilege) the smart answer may be to say no until a more favorable situation presents itself. Women don’t always have the pleasure of avoiding the firing line. It’s either initiation by fire or no initiation at all.
Thirdly, if she fails the impossible task she will act as the scapegoat, or better yet, the sacrificial lamb whose blood is used to satiate the stakeholders, constituents or the public looking to place blame. The consequence? Kick the quote-unquote incompetent bitch out! Or “ditch the bitch” as rally-goers so eloquently put it during Julia’s time serving as prime minister.
Not only does this custom threaten the confidence of women in power, it also creates mistrust among organisations when considering other women for future roles. A precedent is set which allows businesses or political parties to draw upon a single, flawed example and say, ‘Look, we tried it and it didn’t work. Women just don’t have what it takes to be leaders! Maybe we can reassess next century.’
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first and only woman to be elected as President in Liberia (and another woman subjected to the glass cliff when managing the Ebola outbreak in 2014) expresses that “people are always looking for someplace where they can say you messed up and then use that to say women should not meddle in [men’s business]”. Hillary Clinton also speaks from experience in saying the reason “you don’t get the benefit of the doubt [is because] you don’t get any assumption of trust”.
Once you start looking, you’ll notice that the glass cliff is evident in the careers of many women. In 2010, Julia Gillard was presented with an impossible task: inheriting the public’s distrust from an unreliable Rudd Government, in which she’d been a key figure, while emerging from the biggest financial crisis the world had faced since the Great Depression, and advocating for the wildly criticised carbon tax. Of this time, Julia says “I went on to be the prime minister for three years and three days, leading a government that, despite its minority status, was the most productive in enacting new legislation in Australia’s history. We delivered nation-changing reforms, many of which continue to make the country stronger and fairer”.
Theresa May also became prime minister while facing the same obstacle. She inherited a sharply divided political party and a job that nobody wanted: the diabolically complex task of carrying out Brexit – a referendum she herself voted against. She resigned in 2019 after her withdrawal agreement was rejected by Parliament for the third time. In their book, Women And Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, Julia and co-author Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala point out that Jacinda Ardern’s appointment as leader in 2017, so close to an election, can also be considered as a glass cliff. “Being thrust into a campaign without preparation, and with the former leader having resigned because of poor opinion polls, is a horrible start.” And while experts would’ve expected that “becoming leader of a political party polling at 24 per cent just eight weeks before an election was the ultimate poisoned chalice, Jacinda won through”.
So, while the treatment of leaders like Julia and Theresa are disillusioning and in some instances, despicable, Jacinda proves that being subjected to the threat of the glass cliff is survivable.
The point of this is neither to discourage or encourage you when faced with your own glass cliff moment, but, when the time comes, to have you ask: is this fair? Or is this a set up? Is being handed a poisoned chalice better than being handed nothing at all? I think that, despite our better judgement, most of us would still like to take our chances. As for me? I know I’d rather say ‘oh well’ than ask ‘what if?’
On this, Julia says “My message to you is please do not be dissuaded. There is a joy in leadership, in getting to put your values into action and the more women who come forward, the easier it will ultimately become.”
There is no denying that women will be treated differently and to be judged harshly when assuming leadership roles (especially evident in Australian politics at present), but know that it is worth it. Know that there is no greater gift than using your position to pay back the women who have gone before and made space for you.