LAST week, I chaired a meeting at the House of Commons on the perennial topic of why there aren't enough women in politics. We were running through all the usual stuff - lousy working hours, sexist colleagues - when a woman in the audience asked a genuinely interesting question. Why, she said, were there women leaders in developing countries like Liberia, but vanishingly few in supposedly mature liberal democracies like ours?
I've been thinking about the answer the Labour MP Gisela Stuart gave her - basically that women often get their chance only when men have made a spectacular mess of it, as in wartorn Liberia - for days, because I think it goes much wider than politics.
Think of the two senior policewomen, Sue Akers and Cressida Dick, who have respectively taken over the phone hacking inquiry and the job of Met deputy commissioner following the weekend's mad flurry of resignations (it's rumoured the departing head of the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson, may also now be replaced by a woman). Think of Christine Lagarde, becoming head of the International Monetary Fund after her predecessor was accused (he says falsely) of raping a hotel maid. Like Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected after years of civil war and violent repression, these women are powerful symbols of a break with an old, tarnished male order. But why do they get called on only when it's time to clean up?
Perhaps it's partly explained by the so-called 'glass cliff' theory, which suggest women often get to run big companies only when the share price is crashing, male rivals steer clear, and boards become desperate enough to take the 'risk' of hiring a woman (imagine! ladies in charge!)
Or perhaps it's a variation on the classic Westminster reshuffle trick: stick a woman in a government job no woman has previously held, and hopefully the headlines will be more about shattering glass ceilings than why someone else got quietly fired. No doubt it also sends a useful signal, in industries that have clearly sailed too close to the wind, to hire a woman since women are seen as more cautious and conscientious than men (although as the arrest of News International executive Rebekah Brooks may or may not go on to prove, women have no monopoly on sainthood).
But I suspect the real reason women sometimes profit from a crisis is that they however high they climb, women often don't quite break into the inner circle: the lone senior woman in a clubbable, all-boys-together office is often not quite 'one of us'. That holds her back in good times. But when being 'one of us' suddenly means being tainted by association, nothing looks more desirable than an outsider: however briefly, everyone sees the point of having someone who thinks differently from the rest, who questions the way things have always been done, who isn't so much 'one of the lads' that they overlook the casual bending of the rules.
We saw it after the City crash of 2008, when there was much discussion of whether macho bank traders had developed 'groupthink' which blinded them to the risks involved in subprime mortgages, and we're seeing it now in the unravelling of the Met. But when the immediate crisis blows over, will anyone remember that it doesn't always pay to be one of the guys?