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The female effect — why do women leaders take the poison chalice?

Rachel Ryan
Feb 5, 2018 · 10 min read

Collab by Vic Pye and Rachel Ryan

We’ve all seen it. There’s an accident and it’s a woman’s job to clean it up. Whether it’s politics, business or at home, women carry the mop and broom, baby wipes and tissues at the ready to take on anything from snotty noses and spilled coffee grounds to fixing the broken banking system of Iceland.

It’s uncertain whether women take on the job to clean up because they are perceived to have the skills to turn around the failing fortunes of a business or political party or merely that they are willing to take the fall when the thing that needs fixing does not get fixed. Bring out the smiles, but be tough. And whatever happens, don’t cry in public.

Disproportionately to men, women who rise to positions of power often do so when inheriting a poisoned chalice. Political power though a position of leadership is consistently handed to women when that political power has been eroded and an election loss near inevitable. When no one else wants the job, it seems then, it is time to consider a woman.

How and why women get into positions of power in business and politics is confusing and scary and makes us want to curl up into a little ball and hug our mummies, because mummies make it allllll better.

The Keneally Effect

It is probably not comforting to know that in terms of female representation in Parliament, Australia is ranked 50th globally, wedged between the Philippines and South Sudan.

In Australia, 11 of the 13 candidates preselected to safe Liberal seats since 2015 were male. According to an article from 2013 in the Sydney Morning Herald, women are overwhelmingly more likely to be selected for the positioned chalice — the most unwinnable marginal seats.

Australia’s oldest state of New South Wales has only had two female Premiers. The most recent, the current serving Premier Gladys Berejiklian, was appointed following the resignation of her predecessor Premier Mike Baird. He stepped down in January 2017 after three years in the job where he went from political superhero, like, just-try-rubbing-off-that-titanium-veneer, to widely panned catastrophic failure. This was the result of a string of deeply unpopular political backflips that included: banning greyhound racing and then unbanning greyhound racing, forcing local government amalgamations (which have since Baird’s departure, been halted) and overseeing the enforcement of state-based ‘lock out’ laws that prevented most venues from opening past midnight excluding casinos, which led to his rebranding as ‘Casino Mike’. The state was a political mess, the Liberal party on the nose, and Gladys has been put up to clean up.

Let’s rewind to December 2009 when the very first female Premier of NSW Kristina Keneally was appointed internally as leader of the Labor party. She served for a mere one year and four months. But that wasn’t the end of her career, when in December 2017 she was put forward to smile (a lot) by the Labor Party as a candidate in the by-election for the safe Liberal federal seat of Bennelong. She lost to the Liberal party candidate, a sporting personality, because Bennelong was not even close to being a marginal seat. She is now likely to become a federal senator, parachuted into a vacant seat.

When Keneally was appointed internally by the Labor party to become Premier, the NSW Government was a horrible mess. Rife with corruption that was about to be blown open by the NSW Independent Commission Against Crime (ICAC), a number of NSW Government Ministers and Labor Party apparatchiks, namely, Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, who were found to have participated in corrupt behaviour, became her responsibility. Obeid is now in prison. It’s impossible to say how much Keneally knew about the corrupt behaviour of the Government she led, but there is no doubt she was parachuted in and expected to either fix the problems or take the fall.

Sometimes a cupboard, or Cabinet, just can’t be cleaned without throwing everything away — except for canned goods, which can survive a nuclear blast.

Across the border, Queensland’s current — and second ever — female Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was handed a similarly poisoned chalice. When she took over the reigns as leader of Queensland Labor, the party had taken a mighty walloping at the 2012 State election, being whittled down from a Governing party of 51 MPs to a team of just seven. Palaszczuk was billed as a good placeholder, someone who could keep the opposition benches warm until the ‘adults’ (i.e. men) could return to Parliament in the following term. She inherited a Labor Party that had experienced the worst defeat of a sitting Government in Queensland history, and one of the worst in the country. Instead, Palaszczuk took that poisoned chalice and ran with it. She won the “unwinnable” election in 2015 by regaining an insane 26 seats and defeated the sitting Liberal Party Premier Campbell Newman, who served only one term. She was re-elected in 2017 for a second term. In an interesting side note, she sits in the safest Labor seat in all of Queensland and is the daughter of a veteran Labor MP, which shows that a bit of nepotism is always helpful for men and women too.

Are women really complete losers?

Jacinda Ardern might disagree that women are complete losers since she’s the Prime Minister of New Zealand AND a soon to be mother, but then again, her rise to power was a very strange and noteworthy one. After being foisted into a federal election just seven weeks before polling day after the previous candidate David Shearer resigned, we can safely say that this wasn’t exactly a straightforward male-like entrée into running a Government.

It’s true that there are now more female head honchos than ever before, but overall, the numbers are still miniscule, sitting at 10 per cent of the total 183 UN member states.

Across the world, however, women have disproportionately lost ‘winnable’ races, maybe because they’re bigger losers, maybe they are less likely to win. Hillary Clinton is one of the most noteworthy examples of losing to a loser. After a degrading loss to President ‘rancid-mandarin’ Trump in the 2016 United States election, she then suffered a humiliating post-election beat down for her ‘competitive performance’ against him. Some might say she didn’t do well enough but it wasn’t really a fair fight against one of the most dangerous and ill-prepared creatures from the human swamp. We now know from investigations by the CIA, FBI and United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that there is evidence of Russian cyber attacks and election interference with the goal of getting Trump elected, meddling by private interests and general cultural misogyny that all worked against Clinton.

Theresa May is one of the best examples of a woman who has been given a horrible cross-continental diplomatic shit sandwich; Brexit. Those Tories couldn’t run any faster from taking responsibility for the disaster that David Cameron created by deciding to take a pretty stupid question, whether the UK should leave the European Union, to a popular vote. So now we know that Britain is still mostly white people, after all. After the governing Conservative party had to undertake two rounds of voting to decide who would replace Cameron, it came down to two women competing for the mop and bucket to clean up the Brexit mess.

Looking at another example of women losing to losers, but one closer to home, is Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Unlike Clinton, Gillard was not a beneficiary of nepotism via brand Clinton, but a beneficiary of the Labor Party’s mutiny of her predecessor, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd was elected in 2007 and lasted only two years before his own party voted him off the island of Canberra, for his deputy, Julia Gillard. Maybe if Gillard had waited until a less-treasonous opportunity to put herself forward for the top job, or had Kevin Rudd not started to implode in a white hot mess of indecision and poor judgement, the situation might have worked out differently. But she probably believed that pushing Rudd out was one of the only way to get become leader of the country, and she was probably correct in that belief. The two major political parties that run the Parliamentary duopoly, Labor and Liberal, have shown few signs that they were willing to appoint women to lead.

Regardless of the pathway to her success, and then demise, where she also lost catastrophically to another piece of detritus from the human swamp, Tony Abbott, it demonstrated that women probably believe that they need to take in a time of political weakness in order to reach leadership status.

Is this something we’ve just invented, or is it an actual thing?

Annabel Crabb laments in her book ‘The Wife Drought: Why women need wives and men need lives’ that women suffer from a wifelessness. That is, having a stay at-home-partner to take care of domestic needs, and a primary carer for children so the working half can focus on doing their job and doing it really well. The data that Crabb pulled together for her book shows that, in fact, even women who do take on managerial and leadership roles, also seem to maintain the same amount of domestic tasks than before their careers ramped up. Is it culturally-imposed guilt, or maybe some deep biological programming where women can’t let go of their maternal instincts?

In Australia, a woman’s role is traditionally as the caregiver of the family: the emotional, pants washing, head-patters who can make everything better. In a modern western cultural context there are much fewer women who have run businesses or governments; they have typically run households. So it naturally makes sense for those females who actually want to apply the professional skills they’ve been honing, the ambitions they’ve been swallowing for fear of looking too aggressive to enthusiastically jump on an opportunity that they have never been offered before: leading a government, even if that government is one degree shy of broken.

It should not come as a surprise that women take up these opportunities to ‘fail’ because it is all they have available. It’s actually a smart move, even though it’s not, because political parties have done so little to actually encourage and support women enter politics in the first place.

According to the Pew Research Centre, Fifty-six of the 146 nations (38 per cent) studied by the World Economic Forum in 2014 and 2016 have had a female head of government or state for at least one year in the past half-century. In 31 of these countries, women have led for five years or less; in 10 nations, they have led for only a year. Of these countries, Ecuador and Madagascar had women leaders for a total of just two days.

This tells us that their tenure is usually pretty short compared to men, and that this is likely the result of taking on reigns when the going is really, really not going good.


The Keneally effect isn’t confined to politics, women also take the opportunity to clean up the mess in the business world. We know that women only put themselves forward for new opportunities in the workplace when they meet every selection criteria and completely prepared for the role. Men on the other hand, will put themselves forward, even if they meet only a couple of the selection criteria, will bullishly seek out new opportunities and seemingly, have more confidence in their own abilities. So it’s not that surprising that women offered this high power roles might take the opportunity, regardless of the details of what they are walking into.

One of the biggest economic shit storms the world has ever seen, the global financial crisis hit the small nation of Iceland very hard. The whole country’s economy collapsed and nearly went bankrupt. All three of the country’s main banks needed to be nationalised. When this happened, two women, Elín Sigfúsdóttir and Birna Einarsdóttir, were appointed chief executive of New Landsbanki and New Glitnir banks, and took the reigns from a nearly all-male panel of banking chiefs who exited stage left when their country nearly died in the monies. The end of the story is a successful one, where Iceland has recovered, but the moral of the story still stands: it was only through catastrophic failure that women were asked to take over. If they had not succeeded, they would have most certainly taken the fall.

Research in the US has also showed that women (and men of colour) are more likely to be put in charge of companies when they are underperforming. They have termed this phenomenon the “glass cliff, a combination of the glass ceiling and getting pushed off a cliff, which sounds horrendous.

In the end…

It’s obvious that not only women clean up the mess in politics and business, but just like men are characterised as not being great at domestic work, there are also many women who slip through the cracks by creating well-earned success. That said, it should come as no surprised that women are happy to grab onto the proverbial poisoned chalice, often to their own detriment, making it difficult to attribute any failure to their women-ness and more to the shitty, unwinnable situation they find themselves in. This then leaves this remaining question: did they fail because they are female, or did they fail because only a woman would take it on an already failing fail?

Before writing this, we bemoaned women taking on a poisoned chalice, putting their hands up for something so unlikely to be positive. However, it’s probably (sadly) a good thing they do take up an opportunity, any opportunity they can because those opportunities are still so few and far between. As a tragically re-run trope can illuminate the pitiful situation women are faced with in accessing positions of power: only 11 of the top 200 companies on the ASX have a female CEO. No wonder women take what they are given.

Until there are more opportunities in politics and business where women candidates are proactively sought, and more family-friendly, female friendly workplaces and Parliaments are created, we will continue to see women entering into high risk positions, hoping to use the poisoned chalice as a means to break through the glass ceiling.

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