By the end of this week, Britain will once again be led by a woman. Once David Cameron resigns his post, Home Secretary Theresa May will succeed him as British Conservative party leader, becoming Britain’s first female prime minister since Margaret Thatcher was defeated in a party leadership challenge in 1990.
It’s no accident that a woman came to the fore now. Research on party leadership suggests that, as has happened in Britain, women generally get the opportunity to lead during times of loss, decline and crisis.
Women often come to power in times of crisis
Of course, the fallout from the Brexit referendum is unprecedented. Nevertheless, the Conservatives aren’t alone in choosing a woman as leader during moments of crisis or defeat. Thatcher was selected as leader in 1974, after the party had lost two elections in a row. After their incumbent prime ministers died or left office because of illness, the Labour Parties in both Israel and Norway put women in charge: Golda Meir in 1969 and Gro Brundtland in 1981. After her predecessor was tainted by a corruption scandal, in 2000, Angela Merkel took the helm of the German Christian Democratic Party, which had lost power in 1998. More recently, Denmark’s Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Finland’s Jutta Urpilainen came to power when their parties were out of office and losing support.
Why? Male candidates are often senior and well-networked, and usually favored for leader. Diana O’Brien’s cross-national study shows that parties keep men in charge when they are in power and expect to stay there, as was the case with the Conservative Party and David Cameron in 2015. They are significantly more likely to first select female leaders, in contrast, when they are out of power and losing seats. In other words, women are picked for leadership when there’s a high risk of organizational disaster or failure, which O’Brien calls the “glass cliff” effect.
May’s rise is a perfect example of how male defeat creates opportunities for female candidates
A recent article by Karen Beckwith finds that women are more likely to become party leaders when (1) a male party leader and his team are removed because of a scandal or major electoral loss; and (2) conditions are so uncertain that the most prominent male challengers decline to be candidates.
May’s rise is a textbook example of this. The recent Brexit vote split the Conservative Party elite. Cameron’s failure to persuade his compatriots to support the Remain campaign prompted his resignation and harmed his second-in-command, George Osborne. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, two prominent Conservative men who had campaigned for Brexit, were exposed as unprepared and damaged one another. By the time the internal fight among members of the male party elite was over, four male cabinet ministers and two parliamentarians were out of contention. No other men in the party were willing to run for the leadership.
The field was clear for two women, Home Secretary May and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom, who recently withdrew from the contest.
Being qualified usually isn’t enough for women to become leaders. Crisis provides the opportunity.
More women have entered politics in recent decades, giving parties many well-qualified and ambitious prospective female leaders. May is a good example. She has been carefully managing her political career and preparing for the post.
But being qualified isn’t usually enough. Brexit cleared away May’s male challengers, giving her a unique opportunity. That, too, makes her a good example of the fact that, generally, for women merit is necessary but not sufficient. To become leaders, female politicians need the right set of circumstances.
Will a female prime minister clean up the Brexit mess?
Media reports sometimes claim that women become national leaders after a scandal or an electoral disaster because voters expect women to “clean up” national politics. But that’s beside the point in party leadership contests like this one. Voters may think women are honest, thoughtful and cautious, but they’re not the ones who picked the next British chief executive. The Conservative Party, not the general electorate, has chosen its leader and Britain’s new prime minister.
But of course, May’s position as leader will depend on how well she manages Brexit. O’Brien’s work shows that when parties do well at the ballot box, female leaders are more likely than men to stay in their post. And when parties begin to struggle, women are especially likely to step down.
Very few women hold the most powerful party and national leadership positions. The West is experiencing an exceptional moment, with the prospect of female leaders in three of the most powerful countries in the world. Germany’s chancellor is a woman, the United Kingdom will soon have a female prime minister and the United States may soon have a woman as president.
We look forward to the time when women in party elites will no longer have to wait for a disaster like Brexit to take charge.
Karen Beckwith is the Flora Stone Mather Professor in the Department of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Her research interests include gender and political movements, women and cabinet appointments, and women’s access to party leadership.
Diana Z. O’Brien is an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of women’s access to political power.