Tall order: Paula Schneider, the first woman chief executive at US retailer American Apparel, on the shop floor

Sushma Rajagopalan was work­ing in the US when she was offered the opportunity to become the first female chief executive of ITC Infotech in Bangalore, India. She did not hesitate. It meant a long-distance relationship with her husband, but she wanted a leadership role.

“I’m also the first chief executive from outside the group,” she says, adding that her brief at the IT services company, since joining in August 2014, is to turn it into a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of headlines beginning “The first woman to . . .” Last year alone, stories along these lines featured Tsakani Ratsela as South Africa’s first deputy auditor-general, Paula Schneider as the first to take control of US retailer American Apparel and Patrice Merrin as the first woman director of Glencore, which was the last FTSE 100 company to have an all-male board.

Furthermore, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, promised high-profile roles to women once he was appointed, and he promptly made Sweden’s Cecilia Malmström trade commissioner and appointed Margrethe Vestager, from Denmark, competition commissioner.

But the benefit of these leadership roles to women is open to debate. For many, each milestone is a step towards gender equality and something to celebrate. Some argue it provides evidence that women are better crisis managers. Others, however, see cause for concern.

Jean Stephens, chief of RSM International, a professional services firm, says: “Women have natural skills of collaboration and consensus building that could fit into the corporate environment in times of difficulty.”

As RSM’s first female chief executive, Ms Stephens mentors women worldwide. “The role of women in senior positions is evolving,” she says. “In every country, the journey is the same. In China, for example, women are at the table, taking decisions.”

One high profile woman is Ana Botín. She became head of Banco Santander within 24 hours of her father’s death and inside two months had engineered a decisive change of leadership, promoting the finance director to chief executive.

Alex Haslam, by contrast, a professor who with a colleague coined the term “glass cliff” to describe the precariousness of women currently being given roles at the top, believes it could amount to a form of gender discrimination.

“The first wave [of gender discrimination] was about quantity. The second wave is about quality,” he says. Initially, women were not getting any leadership positions at all, now they are but “it is not the cushy jobs that are plain sailing, they are [subject to] a lot of pressure, stress and criticism”.

Their tenure, he adds, also tends to be briefer than for men, and he cites a 2005 study that suggests male chief executives in the US hold their jobs for approximately twice as long as their female counterparts.

One leader currently under significant pressure is Elvira Nabiullina, Russia’s central bank governor. While trying to facilitate growth in an economy badly hurt by geopolitical tension and a sliding oil price, she is faced with criticism from all directions.

The fact that Ms Nabiullina and others are able to ride out this pressure is beside the point, says Prof Haslam. They should not be put under such pressure to begin with.

Mireia Giné, professor of financial management at Iese Business School in Spain, agrees with this view. “When we talk about women who reach the top, this is a subsample that may not share the characteristics of the general population,” she says.

It is true that women at the top are still very isolated. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, there are only 26 female chief executives in this year’s Fortune 500 companies and only 54 in the top 1,000.

Allyson Zimmermann, executive director of Catalyst Europe, a non-profit group, says the best way forward — now that opportunities for women leaders are increasing — is talent management.

“If not managed well, diversity can be a disaster,” says Ms Zimmermann. “Tokenism doesn’t work [and] you can’t blame it for failure.”

She points to research produced by her organisation that reveals a positive return on equity occurs when boards consist of about 30 per cent women. “This is when critical mass is achieved.”

Ms Rajagopalan is even more direct. She recommends four things to every leader: “clarity of thought, courage to act, charisma to influence, and character — always”.

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