When the Glass Ceiling Breaks

Maggie Thatcher has a lot to answer for.

The former (and first female) Prime Minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990 was also the longest-serving PM in modern times. Revered and reviled for her tough stance and unbending will, she epitomised what people did not like about women in power. Tough. Arrogant. Unsympathetic. And yet, she was unquestionably successful.

meryl streep, maggie thatcher, glass ceiling

What most people do not consider is that Mrs Thatcher (it’s doubtful she would have been happy with “Ms”) had only a male construct of leadership and power on which to model herself.

You could name on one hand the number of women who were leaders of their country (without being born into the position) before Thatcher. The only real model of how to lead a country was written by males over enturies.

And men are different to women.

Yes, Maggie was a forerunner. She broke through “the glass ceiling”, that metaphorical barrier that tantalised women and kept them from positions of real power. Dubbed “The Iron Lady”, Margaret challenged the public’s (unrealistic?) expectation that a woman in power would have a heart. There has never been a question that a man should have a heart in the same circumstances.

Thatcher was tough and unwavering … just like the majority of male political leaders around the world and through history.

In the 21st century we have a growing body of female role models in leadership roles who are redefining the very concept of leadership. Precisely because we have more women in powerful positions than ever before. As a consequence, we are able to explore the ‘rules’ of what it is to be a leader. Margaret Thatcher did not have that luxury. She was a trailblazer and there was enormous pressure to perform … because she was a woman.

Those women have got to that position because other women, like Maggie Thatcher, have gone before to blaze the trail.

As with any other trailblazer, it is expected that others who come after will improve and do things differently. Yet, if it were not for those who go before, the rest of us would take longer to move ahead.

It has to be remembered that women have only been in the workforce in large numbers since the late 1940’s. In the 1950’s we were encouraged to step out of the workforce and go back to be dutiful wives, mothers, daughters.

We all know how hard it is to put something back in its box after we’ve taken it out.

And so in the 1960’s women were ‘liberated’ and the concept of a working life for women, even a career, was made achievable. (There are notable exceptions such as when one had to resign if one became married, and certainly pregnant).

So, bear in mind that women have only 50 years of serious workforce participation and the growth had been rapid to the point where few, if any, occupations are definitely out-of-bounds. Women have raced up the leadership ladder over the past twenty years and now we have increased participation at the top echelons of organisations and politics although Board roles are still under-represented by women.

Much of this is thanks to women like Maggie Thatcher,

Politics aside, lover her or loath her, she was a feminist by her very exemplar. She, and others like her, made it possible for women today to ignorantly say, “I’m not a feminist and I don’t believe in feminism”.  The only reason they have the freedom to think that their role as a fire-fighter or a senior manager is “the norm” and totally on merit is because women like Thatcher went through the hard yards and stood against the tide to normalise women’s experiences today.

Maggie broke the glass ceiling.