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‘May is not the first woman, and probably won’t be the last, to be invited to take on a leadership role in perilous circumstances.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Like many women before her, Theresa May was set up to fail

While men like Chris Grayling manage to keep their jobs, the prime minister’s failure will confirm to macho Westminster that women just can’t cut it

Stefan Stern

You can have sympathy for the person even while you are reading out a lengthy charge sheet. This is not a plea in mitigation for the departing prime minister. Theresa May was handed a difficult task and she botched it. By her own admission, she failed. But then there is no such thing as a good Brexit, and no one can achieve one.

In a pattern familiar from senior appointments made in business and elsewhere, the step up to the top job proved a stretch too far. The qualities which seemed to have served May pretty well in her career to that pointproved a weakness and a vulnerability in the highest office. Sadly, she (or her advisers) believed her own hype. May appeared to relish being labelled “a bloody difficult woman”, and saw obstinacy as a virtue – fatal at a time when flexibility and imagination were required.

But May is not the first woman, and probably won’t be the last, to be invited to take on a leadership role in perilous circumstances. This is the classic “glass cliff” scenario. A glass ceiling may have been (temporarily) removed; but in a situation where the odds against success are high, there are suddenly fewer men available to take on ultimate responsibility. Time to let a plucky woman inch her way to the cliff edge.

The term glass cliff was coined in 2005 by the academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter. They found that women, and members of ethnic minority groups, are frequently offered promotions to top jobs when an organisation is struggling or facing a crisis. A misleading correlation between female leaders and business failure in fact reveals that men can be thin on the ground and slow to put themselves forward when the going gets tough.

Men can fail and fail again in business and yet their careers may flourish. The former chief executive of HBOS, Andy Hornby, in charge at the time of its near collapse in 2008, has just been appointed CEO of The Restaurant Group(the Wagamama, Frankie & Benny’s and Chiquito businesses, among others).

For female business leaders it is more often one strike and you’re out. Carly Fiorina, former CEO at Hewlett Packard, did not get another big business to run, and instead had a try at politics. Similarly, Carol Bartz, a successful business leader, was ousted at Yahoo in 2011 and has not worked as a CEO since. Younger female managers see this and draw their own conclusions.

In politics, you would have to try really hard to match the failure rate of Chris Grayling – botched part-privatisation of probation, rail timetable chaos, shipless ferry companies – who nonetheless is still, apparently, secretary of state for transport. Perhaps his glorious leadership bid is only hours away from being declared?

But May’s decline and fall will only confirm in certain men’s eyes the thought that women just can’t cut it at the top. Of course she failed. Frailty, thy name is woman. Her experience may well put off other talented women from putting themselves forward – an irony, given May’s important work in the Conservative Women to Win network.

May’s limitations had little to do with her sex and more with her outlook, experience and personality. In her resignation speech she extolled the value of compromise – not the sort of behaviour she displayed very often. She recalled the horrors of Grenfell but failed to admit how slow the government was to react and how little it has done subsequently. She declared that we have “so much to be optimistic about”, but the claim had broken free from reality’s gravitational pull.

“I have done my best,” she said, and “I have done everything I can.” This was perhaps true. Unable or unwilling to countenance a permanent Tory split, she misleadingly claimed to be working “in the national interest” while actually making matters worse for us all.

But how bad it looks – this pursuit of an isolated woman by the aggressive and merciless “gentlemen” of Westminster. When asked for his reaction to her resignation, the backbench MP Mark Francois smirked that “the Dancing Queen has met her Waterloo”. There is nothing like generosity and class at a time of crisis, and that was nothing like it. A senior Conservative admitted to the Sun that colleagues wanted “to avoid the optics of a pack of men picking on a woman”. Too late. The mood spread to newspaper front pages, with some claiming to spot parallels with images of a tearful Margaret Thatcher being driven away from Downing Street almost 30 years ago. The Metro newspaper believed there was a crucial role for May’s husband, Philip, to play in getting the prime minister to see sense: “Just tell her Phil,” its front page advised.

This image of the apparently broken, tearful female prime minister seemed to be demanded by the macho Westminster village, and now it has been granted. The thought was clearly in May’s head too. She said proudly in her closing remarks that she was, “the second female prime minister, but certainly not the last”. But that last note of defiance, delivered with a smile, subsided into her lachrymose final sentence. Jan Ravens, who has mastered a remarkably convincing impression of May, provided some telling commentary the other morning when she described her subject as being “held”. May had held herself in check all along, constrained by her own limitations. At last, on the most public stage, she broke.

She should not regret her tears, nor feel discomfort at this show of raw emotion. Westminster can be an unhealthy, brutal environment at times, where harmful prejudices live on. A moment of humanity makes a refreshing change. We could learn something from this. At Ophelia’s graveside, her brother Laertes apologises for shedding what he sees as shameful, embarrassing tears. “When these [tears] are gone, the woman will be out,” he says.

Well, she’s out now.

• Stefan Stern is co-author of Myths of Management


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