What might Margaret Thatcher’s legacy be for future female leaders?

Margaret Thatcher

The passing of Margaret Thatcher evokes all types of emotions especially amongst those of us who were teenage girls in the 80s.   Absorbing all of the TV and radio coverage of her tenure as PM raises a mixture of memories – responses to the music, fashions, events and a reminder of the wonder we experienced at having our first female Prime Minister.  No longer could we repeat our infant school dream of being the UK’s first female PM.  We had been pipped to the post.

Her death and the subsequent review of her legacy is particularly poignant when we consider all of the recent coverage of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” and Marissa Mayer’s ruling about home working for Yahoo workers.  Both women became the subject of intense media scrutiny which centred on their gender and ability to fight their ground and publicly make unpopular statements fromLean in executive positions.  Now for those teenage girls of the 80’s, Sandberg and Mayer are our contemporaries.  These are women at the top of their game working in the still predominantly male environments of the business board room.  And yet the times of Mayer and Sandberg feel like a world away from those of Baroness Thatcher.

So from the 1979 to 2013 what has changed?  Lady Virginia Bottomley is quoted in Guardian online as saying Margaret Thatcher “transformed opportunities for women simply through her personal example, splendidly undertaking a hugely demanding role that no female had previously secured.”  But we recently blogged the view of Hilary Thomas on the subject of women in public office (partner KPMG and former First Women Awards winner).  In her opinion quite the reverse has happened over the last 20 years.

Condoleezza Rice

Now of course we cannot blame Lady Thatcher for the lack of follow-up by career minded and ambitious women.   But why when women have held the top roles in business and public life is gender still a discussion point so many years later?  Is it simply that some women at the top are embracing their role but not acting as role models or paving the way for others to follow?  Broadcaster Jenni Murray says that Margaret Thatcher did absolutely nothing for women.  Diane Abbott MP highlights that Margaret Thatcher promoted fewer women MPs than her male predecessors.    Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean in” makes it clear that successful female leaders are rarely liked.  The website for the book includes a number of blogs from successful women such as Alicia Keyes and Jennifer Aaker.  One of these women is a politician who we might imagine Mrs Thatcher would have rather admired – Condoleezza Rice.   She says that “If you spend all of your time thinking about how you are viewed, you will lose your ability to be effective. Walk in, embrace your job and do what you’re supposed to do”.

I imagine this is something that women with an eye on the top jobs will need to consider.  Would they be happy to work successfully without being liked?  Does this choice really need to be made?  Media and commentator discussion of Baroness Thatcher’s working life would indicate that Sheryl Sandberg’s view is correct.  Is Thatcher’s legacy therefore that women today have a better insight to the lonely place that leadership might take you to and a clearer understanding of whether they are willing to pay the price of likeability?  Ironically one of the prominent female leaders who might have asked herself this very question is Cristina Kirchner, President of Argentina.

Take a look at our gender differences whitepaper – The differences between men and women as leaders

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