New book reveals how, even today, women are belittled and patronised

A woman’s favourite position? C.E.O! A passionate new book reveals how, even today, women are belittled and patronised – and some of the world’s most successful reveal how they beat men at their own game…

  • British author Mary Ann Sieghart’s new book is about the ‘authority gap’
  • She says ‘we’re still more reluctant to accord authority to women than to men’
  • The English journalist gives plenty of evidence that the issue still matters 

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart, pictured

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The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart (Doubleday £16.99, 384pp) 

The female founders of Witchsy, a website where artists can sell their work, noticed that whenever they corresponded with men online, they were treated badly.

So they hit on a clever solution: they invented a male co-founder called Keith Mann. ‘It was like night and day,’ said one of them, Kate Dwyer. ‘It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response . . . but also be asked if he wanted anything else.’

It’s one of many such tales in Mary Ann Sieghart’s book about the ‘authority gap’, the fact that ‘however much we claim to believe in equality, we are still, in practice, more reluctant to accord authority to women than to men, even when they are leaders or experts’.

You might wonder — more than 40 years after Britain got its first female prime minister, and in an age when women regularly present TV programmes and run their own companies — whether Sieghart has a case. Actually, she gives plenty of evidence that the issue still matters.

Repeated studies, from all over the world, show a definite bias. Male lawyers in the Australian high court interrupt female judges twice as often as they interrupt male ones.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former Danish prime minister, says that when she first arrived at the European Parliament as an MEP, ‘everyone mistook me for the secretary’.

Search on Google Images for ‘expertise’, and the first 20 pictures are of men. You see Bart Simpson before you get to the first woman.

The curious thing (and one of the reasons Sieghart achieves her aim of this not being a ‘man-bashing book’) is that the bias against women is even shown by women.

When American science professors were choosing a new laboratory assistant, they favoured CVs with men’s names attached to them — the female professors as well as the male ones. When asked to pick teammates for a game aimed at ‘really, really smart children’, kids of both genders were more likely to choose boys than girls.

Sieghart herself admits that ‘sometimes I’ll hear a young woman being interviewed on the radio, who maybe has a high voice and sounds a bit childish in a way that men never do because their voices break, and I’ll find myself thinking, “I wonder if she knows what she’s talking about?” ’

Why should this tendency persist? Thorning-Schmidt believes it’s a hangover from the era when cavemen went out to hunt and cavewomen reared the young: ‘We are people who walk around with a brain that is wired to be extremely prejudiced against female leaders because it just goes against the grain of what our Stone Age brain can capture.’

British author Mary Ann Sieghart’s new book is about the ‘authority gap’, the fact that ‘however much we claim to believe in equality, we are still, in practice, more reluctant to accord authority to women than to men, even when they are leaders or experts’ (stock photo)

There’s also the phenomenon of ‘queen bees’, ‘women who relish being the only woman at their level and are not inclined to help others along’.

But a large part of the problem, thinks Sieghart, is that men are simply better at appearing confident, which means other people take them at face value.

The trait starts early. A study of 15-year-olds in nine countries gave a list of mathematical concepts, and asked the students which ones they understood. Unbeknown to the teenagers, three of the concepts were fake. In all nine countries, boys were much more likely than girls to claim that they understood them.

This habit of bluffing might explain why men are better at dealing with ‘impostor syndrome’, the feeling that you’re out of your depth and might be rumbled at any minute.

Even Janet Yellen, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and ex-chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, admits to self-doubt. ‘I’ve certainly questioned, “What am I doing here?”. . . I’ve felt like, “I can’t do this”.’

Women suffer from the syndrome more than twice as often as men. Or, asks Sieghart, is it only that they confess to it more? I think the answer to that is yes. Personally, I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t admit to impostor syndrome.

Obviously the book talks about the ways that men can change their behaviour, but also asks how women can respond.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt (pictured in 2012), the former Danish prime minister, says that when she first arrived at the European Parliament as an MEP, ‘everyone mistook me for the secretary’

Some women lean forward in meetings to show they’re engaged — but this can have the opposite effect, as men often think that sitting back and filling your chair shows authority.

Similarly, Margaret Thatcher’s decision to lower her voice backfired with the journalist Keith Waterhouse, who disliked her ‘speak(ing) to me as though my dog has just died’.

Should women try and beat men at their own game? Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright certainly thinks so, advising them to interrupt during meetings like men do, ‘because if you raise your hand . . . you usually don’t get called on until your point is no longer germane’.

The female members of Barack Obama’s top team, on the other hand, went for an ‘amplification strategy’. When one of them made a good point, another would repeat it, acknowledging her colleague. ‘This made the men in the room pay more attention, and prevented them taking credit later for the same idea.’

Books like this need to keep you on side, persuading rather than hectoring. Sieghart is careful to stop it being a ‘women good/men bad’ lecture, reminding us that ‘the fact that some men behave very well doesn’t diminish the problems caused by the people who don’t (and that includes some women too)’.

I was reminded of the politician Alan Clark, writing about his 1983 equal pay bill: ‘In my view, in most instances, women deserve not less but more than the loutish, leering, cigaretting males who control most organisations at most levels.’

Apart from anything else, argues Sieghart, it isn’t a zero-sum game — gains for women don’t have to mean losses for men. Employers can benefit: for instance, houses listed by female estate agents sell for higher prices than those listed by men.

Some of the advantages she mentions are rather more exciting. ‘A friend of mine’s son came back from university once and exclaimed to his father, “I’ve discovered the secret of pulling girls, Dad.”

“What is it?” asked my friend.

“It’s easy,” said Tom. “All you have to do is listen to what they say!” 

To buy any book reviewed here, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 

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