Marvellous Superwomen: the myths of women's leadership

There’s been a lot of talk this week about how women are stepping up to save the very strange universe we seem to be inhabiting right now.  And there’s no doubt it was a good week for women in the US midterms.  But even after their success, women make up only around 22% of the House and 23% of the Senate.  Even if they act together across Party lines, their power to implement change seems limited.  But expectations of them remain high.  In the Washington Post the female Chair of Pave It Blue described how women were stepping up and “changing the face of politics”.  That coverage reflects the mood more generally as well as a broader trend: when the going gets tough we look to women to step up.


Which brings me to Theresa May, who obligingly (and probably keenly) launched herself into the void after just about every other (male) player in the Brexit fiasco had deserted the stage back in 2016.  There was an interesting discussion on BBC Radio 4 this morning about whether she had, in her keenness for mountain climbing, smashed through the glass ceiling and upwards only to find herself at the edge of a “glass cliff”.  Professor Michelle Ryan certainly thought this might be the case, even if she had very much wanted the role herself.  The rationale is that May sub-consciously realised that, despite being handed a hospital pass of gargantuan proportions, this would probably be her only chance of the lead role. She did not have the luxury of some of her male counterparts (you know who they are) who could skip off into the Brexit sunset and nurse their leadership ambitions until sunnier skies reappear.  Research suggests that women are regularly set up (consciously or otherwise) to fail in this way, although infrequently with such spectacular consequences. I’m not sure it’s reassuring to know that the debacle we are witnessing is a “thing” in research terms.  We are likely to find out soon whether or not May’s gamble will pay off, in the knowledge that if it doesn’t we are all likely to go tumbling off the cliff with her as it shatters.  If only Stan Lee hadn’t shuffled off this mortal coil, I’m sure he could have done something with it…


 Perhaps we conflate two different perceptions in our treatment of women. It is one thing to celebrate women taking a more active part in public life and at the top of businesses, but it is quite another to expect them, and them alone, to wave their magic empathetic fairy wands over the complicated messes that we find ourselves in.  Given women’s minority stake in global power, they cannot really be held responsible for creating the problems in the first place - unless of course we want to blame Merkel for everything, which some in the UK do, somehow mistaking her for the whole of the European Union. So, it seems inconsistent at the very least to expect us (or them) to put everything right.  And yet we do – and not even just those women that are in power. If we are to believe some of the press, Trump’s victory results entirely from the voting habits of white women, which ignores all those blokes in their red caps and suggests that we need the same white women to desert Trump in order to save everyone from the excesses of unabashed white men.  Even after several drinks that argument doesn’t make any sense.


My son has introduced me to the pleasures of Stan Lee’s amazing Marvel characters. But we are not living in la la land where a band of consensus-seeking women will turn up at the 23rd hour to save the day and give us all a group hug. Despite what the latest self-report data on gender difference might purport to tell us (my views on today’s Cambridge study on empathy in men and women could fill an entire post), women and men are not so different – neither from Mars nor Venus, we are all on planet Earth together and should be equally responsible for what takes places on it. If we keep expecting women to fill the when-all-hope-is-gone miracle saviour role, then we are likely to be continuously disappointed and that not only might stall women’s advancement toward equality, it also detracts from the other many achievements and benefits of diversity that they bring to public and business life.