Grazia's political editor at large Gaby Hinsliff on what we can expect from tonight's televised leaders' debate, when for the first time three female party leaders - the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett of the Greens – will line up alongside David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage...
Does life change when the boss is a woman? The good news is we’re that much closer to finding out: Vince Cable, the outgoing Business Secretary, recently announced that by the end of this year one in four boardroom jobs in the top FTSE100 companies should be filled by a female. Meanwhile, Women on Boards UK are campaigning for mandatory targets for women on all public sector boards and committees by 2020. No one could argue with the fact that there are smart women out there who could be running top companies and aren’t. What’s harder to work out is whether these new directors are ‘golden skirts’ – women who make it by behaving pretty much as men in corporate life do – or whether they’ll shake things up a bit.
Which is the exact same question we’regrappling with this week in politics. For the first time, three female party leaders – the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett of the Greens – will line up alongside David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage for a televised leaders’ debate on 2 April.
In 2010 the Liberal Democrat leader was the unexpected star of the show, sparking the catchphrase ‘I agree with Nick’ and a brief nationwide outbreak of Cleggmania. But this time all eyes are on the women. They’re the ones who, like Clegg five years ago, don’t normally get much airtime outside an election and so could come across as fresher and more interesting. And what all the main party leaders have been grappling with in their rehearsals for the debates (and yes, they’ve all been practising for weeks) is how these new women might change the dynamics.
"They're teetering on what in corporate circles is called the glass cliff"
If the male leaders don’t treat their female rivals as their equals they’ll infuriate any woman who’s ever sat fuming silently while the men in a meeting patronisingly talked down to – or over – her. But if they bend over backwards not to ‘manterrupt’, they might let the minor parties off too easily.
And it’s not much easier for the women. If they give as good as they get, the danger is they may be dismissed as shrill or strident by a certain kind of male viewer; if they play it less aggressively, some may read that as weakness. Then there’s the double whammy that an averagely good woman can be judged more harshly than an averagely good man, just because of the sheer weight of expectation: the fact that we all want them to be extraordinary. They’re teetering on what in corporate circles is called the glass cliff – those high-profile but risky jobs, where everybody’s watching and it’s as easy to fall publicly over the edge as it is to shine. So no pressure, then. But could this be the week the election gets interesting?