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A Whole New (MATRIARCHAL) World

On ‘glass cliff’ and a woman’s place in times of crisis



Photo courtesy of Unsplash | Lindsey Lamont

Photo courtesy of Unsplash | Lindsey Lamont

I was one of the many who contributed to the “boffo” weekend debut of Disney’s live-action Aladdin remake, a satisfying musical film that appeals to the young and young at heart.

In an attempt to appeal to a more socially conscious generation, Disney announced that Princess Jasmine’s character would be developed to reflect stronger feminist sentiment. I was all for that, excited for Naomi Scott’s portrayal of a princess ready to step up to a position of leadership.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Scott's Instagram

Photo courtesy of Naomi Scott’s Instagram

I used to watch the animated film on the Disney Channel, and I dressed up as princesses during costume parties and on Halloween. Now, young girls are seeing princesses they can look up to when they dream of leading a country, and that is amazing.

But that is still just the world of Disney and, in the same week, one of the major news stories hit me with the harsh reality these young girls have to deal with: Women in power may be set up to fail at a time they are allowed to take one step forward and then to take two steps back.

Photo courtesy of Theresa May's Instagram

Photo courtesy of Theresa May’s Instagram

The resignation of Theresa May as head of the Conservative Party of the UK and effectively as prime minister was commented by many as too little, too late.

As the post-Brexit vote prime minister, she had a tough job ahead of her and, sadly, did not deliver. While all women should support other women, we should all still recognize when others fall short of success.

If tabloid headlines are an effective way to measure public opinion, this “bloody difficult woman” was reduced to an “emotional” one with her “tearful farewell.” She remarked that she was proud to have been the second, but definitely not the last, female prime minister.

As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night (I once played Olivia in a middle school production, but I digress): “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

But is it really “greatness” when it is “thrust” upon us? Or is it a compromise, a settlement, given a difficult situation?

Women who find themselves in power are not so much trusted as they are rather tested.

The term “glass cliff”—related to the more often used “glass ceiling”—was coined by professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter in their extensive 2004 study of FTSE 100 companies. Prompted by a The Times article that suggested women on the board negatively affected company performance, Ryan and Haslam found that women in corporate CEO positions were often promoted to leadership roles in periods of crisis when there was a high chance of failure.

It has since been applied to various fields beyond business, including, or especially, politics. I have written about the role of women in revolutions that changed the world, from the Women’s March on Versailles to the Russian Revolution to the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.

We can look to our own country, one of few to have had several female heads of state and government, as a case and point. I have also written before about how we should be proud to have had two female heads of states, attributing it to a slightly more matriarchal society than some of our counterparts. Both Cory Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were thrust into power after People Power Revolutions, in 1986 and 2001 respectively, in times of political turmoil. I recognize now that I may have gotten ahead of myself, been too optimistic by describing the glass as half full.

American President John F. Kennedy once said, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters: One representing danger, and the other, opportunity.” That may not be linguistically correct, but for the purposes of this article, we will work around that.

For many minorities, women included, a crisis may be one of the few opportunities to assume higher positions of leadership. These, of course, are times of greater risk when failure could reinforce the gender stereotype against women in power.

So where does that leave young girls in this non-Disney world?

Earlier in the article, I said all women should support other women, but that we should all still recognize when others fall short of success. To support other women, however, is not to blindly assert dominance (then we would be no better than men), but should involve recognizing and thanking women for all services (public and private), learning from their failures so that we can, together, find success moving forward.

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