While some cracks have been made in the political glass ceiling—most notably in Scotland, where the three largest parties in the Scottish parliament are all led by women—women party leaders have been few and far between at Westminster. This reflects wider comparative trends, where the general rule has been ‘the higher, the fewer’—in other words, the more powerful the position, the less likely it is to be filled by a woman. Having women in the top jobs at Westminster, then, would send a powerful symbolic message about who is fit to lead and may also encourage more women to stand for office.
Yet, research on women leaders around the world also points to more troubling trends—women often only get a chance to lead in times of crisis, usually when parties are out of power or losing favor with voters. In other words, women are usually left to clean up the mess—they are more likely to come to power when the jobs at the top are undesirable. Women leaders thus often find themselves on the edge of a ‘glass cliff’—they are more likely to be elected to leadership posts when there is a high chance of failure. They are also more likely than men to be thrown out—and thrown out more quickly—if the party continues to lose seats. Even if elected, May’s and Eagle’s tenure might potentially be short-lived, given they both face significant challenges in governing and/or winning elections.
Simply having women at the top is not enough—it also matters who they are, what ideas they have and what they (and their governments) do once they are in office. This is particularly crucial in the aftermath of Brexit, given the EU’s important role as a gender equality actor(particularly in protecting women’s employment rights). The equal treatment of men and women has been a fundamental tenet of the EU since its inception, and all EU policies are designed and implemented through a gender lens (known as gender mainstreaming). Yet, women’s voices and issues of gender equality were largely ignored in the run-up to the EU referendum. Indeed, in a campaign dominated by white Conservative party men, women politicians and campaigners featured in only 17.5% of print and broadcast media coverage. There has also been little substantive discussion of the consequences of Brexit for women and for gender equality.