Theresa May: bloody difficult woman or new role model?

Written by
Mark Learmonth

21 Jul 2016

21 Jul 2016 • by Mark Learmonth

The glass cliff

Therefore, it’s hardly news that positions of power – particularly those at the very top – are still overwhelmingly occupied by men, whether in politics or in the corporate world. But even when women do manage to get to such elevated positions, there is a tendency for them to do so under particularly precarious circumstances – when the chances of failure are highest. Indeed, this tendency has been so pronounced over the years that it has attracted a term of its own: the glass cliff.

It remains to be seen whether Theresa May will be victim to such a metaphorical fall. But even without the perilous circumstances May arguably now finds herself in, many women who head up corporations or public sector bodies still face the kinds of obstacles men simply don’t even have to think about. May herself has already (infamously) been labelled a “bloody difficult woman” by Ken Clarke. The implication of his phrase, presumably, is that it’s not a woman’s place to be difficult – that women should be all nice and fluffy – even when they are the Prime Minister. Whatever he meant, it’s hard to imagine the phrase “bloody difficult man” ever being uttered in a similar context. When talking about men, it’s generally taken for granted that they have to be bloody difficult to do their job – so it’s hardly worth mentioning. Even if we did want to point out how especially difficult some particular man might be, we’d probably use a less pejorative term (“tough” maybe). Most importantly, we’d generally not need to draw attention to the fact this senior person was a man – that simply goes without saying.

Stereotypes are still rife in society

In other words, the cultural expectations surrounding proper behaviour for people in power still assume a man’s world. Men can, therefore, simply be men in positions of power. There are, as yet, no equivalent role models for how women can be women in positions of power; at least none that are well-embedded within our collective unconsciousness. I think this may be one of the reasons why women in senior roles often seem to be walking a tightrope. They don’t want to be written off as weak – so they need to be seen to be complying with the “tough” masculine behaviour expected of someone who does a top job. On the other hand, many are aware that, unlike men, women also need to be seen as appropriately feminine – or risk getting dismissed as the archetypal “bloody difficult woman”.

Perhaps then,the opportunity Theresa May presents to us as our new Prime Minister is to embed ways in which women might be able to be women (and not merely honorary men) while still succeeding in positions of power. If she can do this, it will be helpful to men too – many of whom want to escape the need to play the macho games typically played at the top of politics and corporations. Of course, whatever happens, May’s contribution will only be part of a slow process – to which many others have, and will continue to contribute. But at least it is a reason to hope that she survives as Prime Minister long enough to make a positive contribution to empowering women.