June 2021

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 One of Sieghart’s former editors told her that her book was out of date because only women were getting appointed to boards these days.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.

About the author

Journalist, author, public speaker, consultant, non-executive director, broadcaster

Mary Ann Sieghart is author of the best-selling book, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About it. She spent 20 years as Assistant Editor and columnist at The Times and won a large following for her columns on politics, economics, feminism, parenthood and life in general. She has presented many programmes on BBC Radio 4, such as Start the Week, Profile, Analysis, Fallout and One to One. She chaired the revival of The Brains Trust on BBC2 and recently spent a year as a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. She has chaired the Social Market Foundation think tank, is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London, and sits on numerous boards. She was Chair of the judges for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

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Mary Ann Sieghart