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Tough times call for the gentle touch...
Tough times call for the gentle touch

>> Women are more able to adapt to the challenge of leading an authority through a crisis

>> They are seen as more understanding, intuitive and creative, and signify a break with the male-led past

>> Once the problems have been overcome, men are happy to return and take over again

By Jennifer Taylor

At a time when change management skills are seen as the most important weapon in the chief executive armoury, the study by the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives on the different skills of men and women - real or perceived - makes intriguing reading.

Women are more likely than men to be appointed to turn round difficult councils, and the chances are a man will be brought in once the dust has settled (LGC, 14 April).

ALACE has yet to examine the history of its cases to quantify the trend it claims to have spotted.

A spokesman says women 'tend to be brought in for fire fighting'.

He adds: 'Women can be appointed to some of the most difficult boroughs, counties or unitaries. If a council has a history of having problems, and when they have tried everything else, they appoint a woman. But when the woman turns it around and perhaps the political control changes, they think they'd like someone else.'

Researchers at Exeter University have found the situation also holds true in the private sector.

Women are over-represented in 'precarious' leadership positions, a situation the researchers call the 'glass cliff'.

Dr Michelle Ryan, research fellow at Exeter University school of psychology, says she is 'not surprised at all' by the findings. There are positive and negative reasons to explain the trend, she believes.

On the plus side, councils may think women have skills that would be useful in a crisis. Women are often seen as more understanding, intuitive and creative.

And when faced with difficult times, councils which may have a history of male domination - and there are a few - might want to be seen to try something different, such as appointing a woman.

Councils may also be after a spokesperson that 'comes across in a gentler way in a time of crisis', according to Dr Ryan.

'You might need a softer face of the council if things are going badly.'

On the downside, taking on a difficult council might be seen as less desirable than going to a good one.

Dr Ryan makes the dubious assertion that men may not be interested in less desirable or more problematic positions. Women may then feel they have to take on the more difficult challenges because they have fewer opportunities.

Dr Ryan's research also supports ALACE's finding that councils may revert to a male chief executive after a woman has resolved the crisis.

When performance picks up, the woman is no longer needed and the organisation can go back to what is seen as normal - the top job is now more attractive and men are interested again.

'Women we speak to that are in these positions [in the private sector] often feel that if they do turn things around and if things do become better [as a result of their efforts], they just get moved on to another crisis position,' says Dr Ryan.

'Women who succeed in these positions can often be labelled as crisis managers and then moved on to the next crisis.'

Consultant Elisabeth Henderson says she and former Local Government Management Board chief executive Judith Hunt decided to run workshops for women in leadership positions because women can be asked by colleagues to 'grasp the nettle' to see how they get on with it.

'[There is a] real tendency for women to be put on the hot spot,' says Ms Henderson.

She believes there is a danger that women don't receive proper support and feel less able than men to ask for help.

According to Ms Henderson, one reason women end up in these situations is that, as they climb the leadership ladder, they 'have to translate themselves into a way of talking that fits with the establishment'.

This need to adapt then translates itself into an enhanced ability to adapt to the demands of leading a council in a crisis: 'By developing themselves to take these roles, women have become good at dealing with tricky situations,' she adds.

In a letter to LGC, Solihull MBC chief executive Katherine Kerswell says women have the management skills needed by organisations in decline.

These include taking a systemic approach to their turnaround and 'leading an organisation in a transformational sense'.

'Women have also learnt from our other dominant societal roles to juggle many issues at once and remain focused,' says Ms Kerswell. 'That too is a major advantage when dealing with a turnaround council and can be demonstrated on CVs.

'From the track record there has been of successful leadership by women in local government over many years, councils can now see the appointment of a woman as a positive move forward. It can be seen as a clear marker by members that they want to break with the past.'

The gender gap


According to Dr Michelle Ryan, research fellow at Exeter University school of psychology, women tend to be understanding, sympathetic, intuitive, creative and have a desire to avoid controversy.

They may feel they have fewer opportunities and have to take on difficult positions.


Men tend to be competitive, forceful, confident, self-reliant, emotionally stable, aggressive, have a high need for autonomy and a speedy recovery from emotional disturbance.

'We must recognise the position we are in and move forward'

George Krawiec, chief executive, NE Lincs Council

'In the first year, deal with the recovery plan'

Kim Ryley, chief executive, Kingston upon Hull City Council

'It is a credit to all involved that we are moving forward'

Jacquie Dean, chief executive, Waltham Forest

The sceptic - Anne Shepperd

Walsall MBC was dubbed the worst council in the country before Annie Shepperd joined as chief executive two years ago.

At the beginning of this month the council achieved a 'fair' rating from the Audit Commission.

Despite this success, Ms Shepperd is not complacent. She has said: 'People will see there is more to come from Walsall. We are not stopping at 'fair'.'

When Ms Shepperd was appointed, she was the only woman on an otherwise all-male shortlist. But she is sceptical of the idea of ascribing different skills to men and women, and argues that more research is needed to clarify why women are appointed to difficult councils.

'It is important not to label women and men as taking on certain roles. If we are going to keep the integrity of local government in the selection process, councils need to appoint the best person for the job,' she says.

'It is important not to stigmatise women, that they do these sorts of difficult jobs.'

What's your view?

Are you a female manager who recognises the perils of a 'glass cliff'? E-mail

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