How can I close the authority gap?

Article in Harper’s Bazaar

“You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver!” A chaotic Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting turned into an internet sensation earlier this year, raising our spirits in the dankest of lockdowns as we watched shouty men being shut down at the click of a mouse by a preternaturally calm middle-aged woman.

If only it were always so easy to close the authority gap, the difference between how seriously we take women compared to men. You know when you come up with a good idea and nobody takes any notice, only for a man to repeat it ten minutes later and it’s treated like the second coming? Or when you’re in full flow, and a male colleague interrupts and starts talking over you? Or when you’re an expert in a subject, but every fact you assert is challenged or disputed by a man who clearly knows less than you?

What do we do about the authority gap?

Article for Noon website

I once sat next to a man at a dinner (remember those?) who asked me not a single question about myself. I learned all about his current job, his former career, his family, his holiday preferences, his milkman’s daughter’s dalmatian’s new puppies (well, maybe not them). After listening to him bang on about himself for 45 minutes, I was hyperventilating with impatience.

We were both staying with mutual friends, and the next day another fellow guest asked me, “What’s it like presenting Start the Week?” My dinner companion immediately leant forward, excited. “Do you present Start the Week?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied curtly and returned to the conversation, thinking that just four syllables from him – What do you do? – would have elicited that information the previous night.

Why do so few men read books by women?

Article in the Guardian Review section

The byline at the top of this piece reads MA Sieghart, not Mary Ann. Why? Because I really want men to read it too. Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.

The New Battle for Equality

Article in Good Housekeeping

We’re well into the second decade of the 21st century, so why did it feel as if someone pressed a time-shift button when the Covid-19 pandemic struck? Within a matter of weeks of the first lockdown in 2020, we seemed to lurch back about 70 years. Lots of women lamented that it felt like being a 1950s housewife, except worse, if you had the added responsibility of holding down a job, too. Suddenly, many women were expected to produce three meals a day, as well as bearing most of the burden of home-schooling. While male partners were often working from home almost undisturbed, women were doing the vast majority of the unpaid work. 

Read the rest of the article here:

The real reason why women are still paid less than men

Article in Sunday Telegraph

Picture this. I’m at a conference, talking to two fellow (male) attendees: a former head of the Foreign Office and a BBC foreign correspondent. They know far more about foreign affairs than I do, but I probably have the edge in UK politics, having spent 30 years as a political columnist. Up comes another attendee who knows none of us. He ignores me and asks the men: ‘Could Tony Blair ever make a comeback?’

‘Not a chance,’ I reply, and go on to explain why. He refuses even to look at me while I’m talking, half-turning his back, and asks a follow-up question of the two men.

‘Look,’ I say, touching him on the arm so that he has to turn my way. ‘I’m the British political columnist here. I do actually know what I’m talking about.’ 

Why men just need to listen

Review in The Sunday Times

By James McConnachie

At one arresting moment in this punchy and incisive book Mary Ann Sieghart thanks her male readers. “You are unusual in picking up a book written by a woman,” she says, “and even more unusual in being prepared to read a book primarily about women.”

I hope she is wrong. Because her book tackles what you might call the covert killer: not old-fashioned, overt prejudice, but unconscious or “implicit” bias. How, even when we think we are being fair, we disproportionately attribute authority — by which Sieghart means both expertise and power — to men.

Women know all about the “authority gap”. Men still want evidence. And Sieghart offers a barrage of it.

A high-flying journalist, she was assistant editor of The Times for almost 20 years, and even had a Private Eye parody dedicated to her. (It had the byline “Mary Ann Bighead” — which, as she says, might as well have been subtitled “Woman, Know Your Place”.)

She draws here on extensive academic research and her own interviews with some 100 successful women. They include Brenda Hale (the former president of the UK Supreme Court), Major General Sharon Nesmith (the most senior woman in the British Army), Amber Rudd, Liz Truss and the former leaders of Australia, Chile and Croatia. And Hillary Clinton.

You could say these women do not seem to have been held back — but they all have a story of being slighted or downgraded. And if anecdote does not persuade, there is statistical evidence.

Take the fact that in the media only 19 per cent of quoted experts are women. In UK secondary schools women make up 64 per cent of teachers but 39 per cent of head teachers. Among the UK’s 100 biggest listed companies, six are led by women. In government, Boris Johnson was praised for promoting women when 25 out of 33 ministers in his first cabinet were men.

And so it goes on, even as men claim it is now men who are discriminated against — a common trope among Donald Trump’s supporters. One of Sieghart’s former editors told her that her book was out of date because only women were getting appointed to boards these days. “The next day, I sent him the figures for the previous month: there had been 20 male board appointments and 19 female ones.”

You get a good sense of what Sieghart must be like from that anecdote. And a good sense of what men can be like. They do not want to hear about the problem because they do not want to suffer the consequences of fixing it — so-called solution aversion.

One study found that men thought that women were dominating a conversation when they spoke for 30 per cent of the time. Even preschool boys interrupt girls twice as often as girls interrupt them, and parents interrupt daughters more than sons.

The cumulative effect of being “manderestimated” and “mandermined”, as Sieghart calls it, is as damaging as explicit discrimination. She dislikes the “glass ceiling” metaphor because the problem is not a patriarchal closed shop but “an accumulation of small disadvantages”. She likens the effect to compound interest, creating “a gaping difference in opportunity and achievement” over a lifetime.

Women are sometimes told to be more assertive — to “lean in”. But this does not work when women are judged by different standards. Perhaps David Cameron did prefer employing women because they “work harder”, as Samantha Cameron claimed on Tuesday. But in general, research shows that men hiring staff dislike women who negotiate, but not men who do so. Successful women are called “bossy” or “pushy”. “Ambitious” is only a negative term for a woman.

All these adjectives were deployed against Clinton in the election she lost to Trump. Many voters simply said they disliked her. Male politicians are not typically judged according to their warmth or likeability, research shows. Women always are.

The most persuasive parts of the book are the most disturbing ones. Take the 30 words most commonly used about female economists on the “Economics Job Market Rumors” website. Many are unprintable, but I will say that they include “lesbian” (second most common), “slut” and “prostitute”. The words used to describe men mostly relate to economics.

Women in public life receive terrifying volumes of rape and death threats. This, Sieghart says, is men “trying to impose a steep tax on entering the public sphere”. The intentions are betrayed from the threats’ pathological focus on mouths, on cutting out tongues, choking and oral rape.

Undeterred, Sieghart offers pages of solutions, from treating sexism in schools as seriously as racism (it is not) to learning in the workplace about affinity bias (our human tendency to prefer people who are like us). We should also “stop mistaking confidence for competence”. It might help to avoid dismally performing male political leaders.

Above all, she says, we need to notice our biases “and make sure that we correct for them in all our interactions”. If that sounds forced and exhausting, it is surely less so than putting up with a lifetime’s condescension.

I was paid to read this book, so I hardly deserve Sieghart’s thanks. But I would warmly recommend it to men who, as Sieghart puts it, “see the [river] banks racing past them and congratulate themselves for swimming so powerfully. They look at the women struggling to make headway against the current and think, ‘Why can’t they swim as fast as me?’ ” Those are the very men who probably will not buy this book. Still, maybe they will read this review. I am, after all, a man. I must know what I am talking about.