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Congratulations, Theresa May. Now mind that ‘glass cliff.’

What you need to know about Britain's new PM, Theresa May, in 60 seconds (Video: Karla Adam, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
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It's hard to imagine what Theresa May must be thinking right now.

Just three weeks ago, she was a low-profile member of David Cameron's cabinet, regarded as a professional and reliable leader in the Conservative Party ably holding a position that's been called a "graveyard for political careers." Less than a month later, Britain has voted to leave the European Union. Cameron has resigned. The man considered the front-runner in the race to replace him decided not to run. The leader of the party that championed Britan's exit from the E.U. has quit.

And now May is poised to become only the second female prime minister in Britain's history on Wednesday, nearly two months earlier than initially expected and at a time when her country is facing a historically tumultuous period on both the political and economic fronts.

Researchers say that leaves her standing on a classic "glass cliff," a phenomenon studied by academics that shows a disproportionate number of women and minorities reaching positions of leadership at particularly precarious times.

Sometimes, the reasoning is that women are set up to fail, pushed into a position of leadership when a fall guy -- or gal -- is needed. At other times, the thinking is the electorate -- whether stockholders or voters -- simply want change, and women and minorities represent that.

Either way, the overall dynamic that's been shown in the research, says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, is that women don't just get fewer leadership opportunities. "They also get different kinds of leadership opportunities," she said. "When you look at opportunities for leadership that one might describe as high-risk, women are more likely to be selected into that kind of role." 

In the case of Brexit, says Michelle Ryan, the University of Exeter researcher who coined the term with her co-author, Alex Haslam, "what you see is all the men going 'why would we want to stick around for that'? We see Cameron walking away. We see [former London Mayor Boris] Johnson walking away. ... It's not that they want women to fail. It's that they themselves don't want to fail."

Yet because women so rarely get the opportunity to step into key leadership roles, Ryan said, they don't have the luxury of choosing which jobs they want and which they don't. "If they want to have opportunities, they often have to take them when there's some leadership vacuum." 

The "glass cliff" phenomenon has often been shown in a business context, and is often raised when a woman is placed into a particularly thorny CEO job, such as after Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors or Marissa Mayer took over at Yahoo. Ryan and Haslam first revealed that companies that put women on their boards were more likely to be coming off of consistently poor performance in the five months prior than those that appointed men. A 2013 study found that among Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities were more likely to be promoted to CEO at companies with weak performance.

And in an experimental study, researchers found a "status quo bias," where people saw little need for a company to change its pattern of male leadership if the company was performing well; only if the firm was in trouble did more people prefer a female leader.

The phenomenon has also been shown in a political context. One study examined the link between female leaders and higher GDP growth in countries with high levels of ethnic strife. Ryan's research has also shown that black and ethnic minorities were more likely to run for parliamentary seats that are "essentially un-winnable or held by the opposition party by a much higher margin," she said.

Of course, the research doesn't mean every time a woman gets a tough job she's being made a scapegoat, or that men don't take on the hard jobs. Hardly. And some research has shown contrary evidence, putting the "glass cliff" in question. Yet the dynamic shows up in fields ranging from politics to sports to business. "When you start to see patterns like that, there is some reality," Cooper says. "It doesn't mean every time a woman gets put up for the job it's the glass cliff. There is always nuance and complexity."

She also thinks it fits well with other research that has shown that selecting women signals change, and that qualities typically associated with female leaders -- things like collaboration, listening, working in the background, managing people -- are particularly attractive in a crisis. "There's this expression -- think crisis, think female," Cooper says.

But while there's been lots of research exploring the phenomenon of why women might get a disproportionate number of opportunities in a crisis, there's little showing how the most successful ones have handled it. "I don’t know that there’s specific research on how you navigate a particularly sucky leadership opportunity," Cooper says.

Even if there were, the historically massive stakes in Britain right now mean any such precedent would likely pale in comparison. May will need to do all the usual things leaders should do in a crisis: Set expectations appropriately low, make it extremely clear what she's inheriting, and surround herself with a great team, something that seems especially hard amid the country's leadership vacuum. "A whole lot of people want to distance themselves," Ryan says. "Who wants to be on the Brexit team?"

Even then, the task ahead of her has few parallels. This is not the mere turnaround of a company or the management of a minor economic downturn, but the divorce of Britain from a 40-year partnership that will profoundly reshape the country's place in the world and could have significant effects on its economy. It's quite possible, even though Cameron called the referendum which created the current turmoil, that May will be remembered for it. Research indicates that when people are looking for someone to take the blame and operate in the background, Cooper notes, they often seek people with female leadership traits.

Years from now, she asks, will it be Cameron or May who we most associate with Brexit?: "Whose reputation is going to be permanently tied in the country's collective memory? He's exiting off stage pretty quickly. He may have caused it, but she has to fix it."

Read also:

How the ‘glass ceiling’ became such a powerful — and problematic — metaphor 

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