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Karen Bradley already teeters on the edge of a Glass Cliff

Karen Bradley already teeters on the edge of a Glass Cliff

What do Kellyanne Conway, Theresa May and Vice Admiral Holdo have in common with our new Secretary of State? Karen Bradley’s appointment fits a pattern for women in times of crisis, expected to take on jobs with a high risk of failure in order to clean up after men.

(Spoilers for The Last Jedi, and for the Conservative cabinet reshuffle of 2018, follow - so look away if you haven’t caught up)

Women are often left to clean up the mess of crises left behind by men.

Enter Karen Bradley, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It’s safe to say she must be bricking it.

Bradley is taking over from James Brokenshire, who lasted a year and a half in the role before resigning due to health reasons before Monday’s cabinet reshuffle.

This week marked a year since the collapse of Stormont following the RHI scandal, and the ongoing Brexit negotiations are exerting an extra pressure on our own talks. Getting the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree on a deal to restore devolution is more difficult than ever.

The news of Bradley’s appointment may come as quite a surprise to some observers, as before accepting the job she’d never even been to Northern Ireland.

However, her appointment fits a pattern for women in times of crisis. When the chances of failure are high, women are shoved into leadership roles and expected to sort everything out. This phenomenon is known as the Glass Cliff.

The Glass Cliff

The idea of the Glass Cliff rose to prominence with a paper published by Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam in 2004.

Its name is a riff on the more famous idea of the Glass Ceiling, insinuating that once women break through that there are still unseen dangers waiting for them after they do make it into power.  

Ryan and Haslam originally looked at FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of new board members, and found that “companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men.”

However, they, and others, have since found the Glass Cliff also applies to other industries and areas of public life. In law firms, female lawyers are often given more difficult cases than their male colleagues. In politics, male candidates run in safe seats while women are selected for campaigns they’re not expected to win.

There have been numerous explanations put forward for the Cliff, and the research is ongoing.

Some suggest a status quo bias, in which male-led companies do not feel the need to change until they become financially troubled; only then are women are considered for leadership positions.

Women are also more likely to take an unstable leadership position in the first place. This has been explained as women (and minorities) generally having less opportunities than men and basically taking what they can get.

Women can be used as scapegoats, whether explicitly or subconsciously. This is a win-win, as if a company does fare badly it means the woman can be blamed while the organisation still reaps in praise for having promoted a woman at all.

Another explanation could be that when crisis occurs, we look for traits seen as traditionally ‘feminine’ in leadership such as patience, diplomacy, and empathy as opposed to the risk taking associated with men. These patient women are then more likely to stay in their jobs during the crises.

It is important to note that it is not enough for there simply to be a female leader in a time of crisis to qualify. We must look at the criteria for their selection, and the particular context in which they took office.


There are examples of the Glass Cliff to be found everywhere, at home and abroad.

Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, emerged after one of Australian politics’ many leadership “spills” in 2010. The Incumbent Kevin Rudd’s popularity nosedived and all other (male) Labour party challengers fell away. She ended up losing her position to Rudd again in yet another spill, three years later.

Kellyanne Conway was brought onto the Trump campaign late in the day to clean up after Lewandowski, Manafort, Bannon and co. Indeed, it was her immense skill at avoiding questions that served the campaign well, not the macho brashness of her colleagues. (Nevermind the Republican predilection for blondes.)

Theresa May only got the top job in the UK by default, after her own party fucked up the referendum on membership of the European Union. It was left to a straight fight between her and Andrea Leadsom (who later stepped aside), after all the other male candidates, including big-Brexiteers such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, collectively self destructed.

This phenomenon even unexpectedly showed up in December’s The Last Jedi, when Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo takes over as leader of the Resistance fleet after most of its high command, including fan-favourite Admiral Ackbar, are killed in an attack by The First Order. The good guys are in crisis mode, and it is down to women like Holdo and General Leia Organa, to save the day. This is in stark contrast to the hotheaded risk taking associated with male characters such as “fly-boy” Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren.

Of course, Arlene Foster appears to be the exception that proves the rule. She didn’t inherit the crisis caused by the RHI scandal, but rather caused it herself during her time at the old Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Of course, the case could be made that she simply inherited a scandal ridden DUP from Ian Paisley Sr. and Peter Robinson, but that’s another story.

One Northern Irish politician who does fit into the Glass Cliff theory Is Michelle O’Neill, who took over after the Martin McGuinness stepped down over RHI. We’ll wait and see who will take over from Gerry Adams next year as President of the party.

Across the border, it could even be applied to Leo Varadkar. While male, he is both gay and the son of an Indian immigrant and other minorities than women can fall into the trap of the Glass Cliff. He came to power after Enda Kenny stepped down in the summer, right in the midst of the Brexit negotiations. He has since had to weather a number of crises himself, and it remains to be seen how long he'll last.

But with high risk comes high reward, as Angela Merkel's long stint as German Chancellor would attest.

Karen Bradley

So then, on to Karen Bradley.

Bradley only visited Belfast for the first time today. It may seem weird that a new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had never set foot in Northern Ireland, but having a particular expertise about a brief has never been a prerequisite for serving in the cabinet.

Indeed, becoming Northern Ireland Secretary has always been seen as a bit of a joke, with shows like The Thick of It relying on threatening characters with the position for easy laughs. Even Tony Blair got in on it, punking Ed Balls in 2006:

Found by  @SiobhanFenton

And yeah, what MP would actually want to take this job on? Not only do you somehow have to mediate between two sides that simply fundamentally see the world differently from one another, but you also have to add the regular trip to Belfast on top of commuting back and forth between London and your comfortable house in the ‘shires.

Like Ben Swain on The Thick Of It, men generally feel entitled to the prestige jobs, be it Foreign Secretary or Defense Minister. The Northern Ireland Office is beneath most of them. Bradley's appointment was indeed met with derision and mock sympathy online, with the prevailing sentiment being "Welcome To Hell."

So good on her for taking the job then, as it will be for the good of all of us if she treats the job with the respect it deserves. It’s not glamorous, and the risk of failure is indeed high.

However, she does just seem to be (in the vein of Brokenshire) another Theresa May loyalist who served under her in the Home Office. It’d be a shame to think that May has dispatched a relative nobody off to the province as a sign of her disdain for devolution.

Bradley would do well to remember the example of Mo Mowlam, NI Secretary under Tony Blair’s Labour government. With the peace talks at breaking point, it was Mowlam who successfully avoided the cliff-edge and helped broker the Good Friday Agreement.

Coincidentally, today marks the 20 year anniversary of the day Mowlam personally visited the Maze prison. However, Bradley supposedly has a close relationship with Ian Paisley Jr., so it’s unlikely that she’ll take Mowlam’s lead, who once told Paisley's dad to “fuck off.

In any case, let’s hope that the appointment of Bradley is exactly what the stale talks need. And hope that the cliff is further away than she fears.

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