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  • Sarah Bores

Gender and Power: Liz Truss and the Glass Cliff Theory

The fate of Liz Truss’s tenure as Prime Minister was sealed from the onset. She resigned just 6 weeks after her induction on September 6, 2022, marking the shortest tenure of a Prime Minister on record. When she began the position, she immediately faced speculation of removal and rumors of the writing of no-confidence letters already began to spread. The glass cliff theory studies the way in which women are placed in positions of power and serves as a lens through which the appointment and brief leadership of Liz Truss can be analyzed.

As she entered office, Truss was bound to deal with the raging cost of living crisis in the UK, the fallout of Brexit, conflicts in Northern Ireland, and the current war in Ukraine. Truss was set up for failure before she could even begin, facing harsh criticism and scrutiny every step of the way. Alongside Kwaasi Kwarteng, Truss planned to cut the lowest income tax rate from 20 to 19%, reduce the highest rate from 45 to 40%, cap energy bills —due to fears that Putin would limit the gas supply to Europe— and announced a plan to fix prices that would cost 60 billion pounds. Despite the intention to reduce concerns of a recession, the plan had the opposite effect as the pound hit a record low at $1.0350 against the US dollar on September 26. On the brink of economic collapse, the Bank of England bought $73 billion in UK government bonds to try and restore market conditions. Amid the unpredictable political and economic climate, Truss noted that she was forced to make controversial and difficult decisions due to the complexity and difficult conditions she faced from the beginning.

Former British P.M. Liz Truss

Through the glass cliff theory, a person from an under-represented community is promoted to a senior leadership position during a challenging time for that institution and when the risk of failure is extremely high. This theory relates to the concept of the glass ceiling, which is the theory that women struggle to break through to achieve positions of leadership in male dominated fields such as politics or business. The glass cliff theory explores a similar concept but concerns the manner in which people obtain higher positions and the variety of factors involved. One key example is how women are more often placed in leadership positions during times of crisis, which forces them to work harder to overcome seemingly impossible challenges with minimal support. The likely failure of women due to this lack of support amid tumultuous situations is used by institutions to reinforce damaging gender stereotypes and further reduce women’s equality and upward mobility in the workplace.

The foundation of the glass cliff theory is both cultural and societal as negative perceptions of female leadership is rooted in discriminatory and outdated assumptions. When men are predominantly in positions of power and the institution is performing well, no gender changes in leadership are perceived as being necessary. However, during troubling times, men often propose putting a female leader in charge as they do not want to deal with the risk involved in handling the situation.

On average, Women struggle to achieve higher positions in comparison to men: research has found that it takes at least a third longer for boards to choose a woman CEO. This often places women in positions where they feel forced to take the gamble and accept opportunities at higher positions though they might face inevitable failure. Men often replace women in upper level positions in a “savior effect.” This insinuates the idea that the institution is now back into the “safe hands” of male leaders and business can carry on as usual. As a result, the public can have doubts in any future female leadership and this can lead to a further lack of representation, as fewer females are elected to higher positions.

A UK Times article in 2003 claimed that female CEOs “wreaked havoc” on the performance and shared prices of companies, but it was discovered that female CEOs were not the cause of crises but were being appointed to positions of power as these crises were occuring. This research was conducted by Australian researcher Michelle Ryan and British academic Alexander Haslam who then coined the terminology “glass cliff” after researching 100 companies— those listed on the London Stock Exchange that made up the FTSE 100 index—to evaluate firms before and after male and female leadership. Their research proved that women were often brought into a position of power when the price performance was poor, the institution was facing scandal, or the role involved significant reputational risk.

Men have the privilege to decide not to step into the role during such a precarious time, where women and minorities often feel it is their only shot and must take it regardless. Regardless, research shows that risks taken by female leaders are not always met with rewards. In conducting research of the glass cliff theory, PwC reported that over a 10 year period, 38% of women were forced out of office compared to 27% of men, exemplifying how women are placed into more difficult positions to only then be judged harsher when they fail.

When considering the theory of the glass cliff and its application to the case of Liz Truss, it is also important to note the savior effect. Following Truss’ removal, the gender of Prime Minister switched back to male as Rishi Sunak came into power, illustrating the savior effect as men step back in after a crisis was handed off to a female leader who had to deal with the ramifications.

The theory not only applies to Liz Truss, but The UK’s other two female Prime Ministers as well, all of whom came into power during times of crisis. In the case of Theresa May, she obtained the position with little contest as no one else wanted to be Prime Minister during the tumultuous political climate that posed such an unpredictable future. May faced the Brexit political crisis in which she handled the controversial and high-profile divorce of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU). This decision for the UK to leave the EU was not even voted for by May, but she stepped in to manage the conduction of affairs following the resignation of David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the UK. Only five other contenders stepped forward for the position. As seen in the case of May, the application of the glass cliff theory to female political leaders has influenced phrases such as Think manager, think male,” and Think crisis, think female.” Catherine Mayer, founder of the UK Women’s Equality Party, explained that the rise and fall of Theresa May was a “classic example of the glass cliff syndrome.” She compares Truss to May, stating that her premiership was “bound to be disastrous and end in failure.”

A similar pattern of promoting women during times of crisis can be demonstrated in Scotland, as Alex Salmond passed off leadership to Nicola Sturgeon to handle the complex question of what to do next after leading the independence movement to a defeat in 2014, placing her in a vulnerable position where she was likely to face more extreme criticism, backlash, and poor public approval.

Beyond the sphere of politics, the glass cliff theory is also prominent in business. After posting losses quarter after quarter, closing dozens of stores, and regressing dramatically, J.C. Penney announced its first woman CEO, Jill Soltau. This position was an opportunity for Soltau to join the short list of women who serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, yet she came in when the company was in shambles and had no guarantees or indicators of success.

Similarly, Carol Bartz was appointed CEO of Yahoo in January of 2009 as the company faced significant challenges. Despite being hired on a four-year contract and during a time of crisis, Bartz was pushed out after just two and a half years and was fired before her plans for recovery even had the chance to come into fruition. This is yet another example of a woman being placed into a leadership position with the institution already in crisis, only to be left standing on the edge of a “glass cliff” with no support. Following Bartz’s removal, she was replaced with Scott Thomson as the next CEO, a white man, yet again demonstrating a return to business as usual and the “savior effect.”

In regards to addressing the glass cliff, structural changes on the part of corporate leaders, institutional approaches to diversity and inclusion, as well as societal awareness is necessary. It is critical that there be increased advocacy for additional resources and power to marginalized communities such as women and especially women of color in order to begin improving the inequalities women face in the workforce. Deepa Purushothaman, author of The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America, explains it is important that women appointed to senior leadership positions become comfortable asking for more and learn not to just be thankful for being included and accept the bare minimum, but to demand equal and adequate resources and support.


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