The Authority Gap

Posted by on January 17, 2022 in Book review, Education, feminism, Human rights, Living today, Politics, society, Women's equality issues | 0 comments

Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously than Men, and What We Can Do About It

Mary Ann Sieghart, Doubleday, 2021

There is no disputing that The Authority Gap is itself authoritative. Mary Ann Sieghart has taken what women have always sensed and seen with their own eyes, and given it chapter and verse. She has done her homework – and how! The bibliography runs to thirty pages.

But this is no dry, academic tome. For all that reading it will make you weep, you will also want to laugh at the wry humour coming off every page. And her opening chapter, setting the scene with personal testimonies, is compellingly anecdotal.

What more persuasive reportage could you have than despatches from the transgender front? Putting aside terf wars, J K Rowling, etc. for a moment, we can hear what it’s really like for those who have crossed the divide. One woman who transitioned to male described the effect: ‘The first time I spoke up in a meeting in my new low, quiet voice and noticed that sudden, focused attention, I was so uncomfortable that I found myself unable to finish my sentence.’ Conversely, one male academic who started living as a woman realised that meetings were going to be completely different from then on: ‘You get interrupted, you need to find a male to support what you said, and not get offended if a male says the same thing and gets the credit for it.’

Perhaps the most important point that Sieghart makes is about the invisibility of male privilege. Just as Grayson Perry has pointed out that the default human being is a while male in a suit (despite this figure being in a minority globally), Sieghart notes that the favoured position for men is so taken for granted, unspoken and unidentified, that it passes us (both men and women) by unnoticed, hidden in plain sight. Men, for example, do not realise that they interrupt women three times as often as they interrupt men, according to one study. Even women interrupt other women more often than they interrupt men! Similarly, teachers call on boys to speak in class, or allow them to do so, more frequently than they do girls.

Unsurprisingly, not being listened to is a recurrent theme in the book. Women, it seems, have a mountain to climb before they can get their message across, not least because men are unwilling to engage with the content of the message: they are too busy focusing on the way it is being delivered – it’s too shrill, too assertive, too emotional – or on the appearance of the woman delivering it. Let us pray that we have at least put behind us the disgraceful behaviour of some Tory MPs towards the massively increased intake of female Labour MPs at the 1997 election: whenever any of the new MPs got up to speak, their Tory counterparts were in the habit of ‘putting out their hands in front of them as if they were weighing melons.’

This attitude is not only offensive; it can also be dangerous. History is littered with the examples of the disasters that can happen when those in authority are not prepared to accept any input form those they consider inferiors. The most egregious example in the book in fact occurs in the chapter on intersectionality, where a black female medic who volunteers to help a passenger taken ill on a flight gets the following response from the flight attendant: ‘’Oh, no, sweetie, put your hand down; we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.’

And as for meetings… well, you can’t help but agree with Bernadine Evaristo, who remarks ruefully ‘they’re just hardwired not to want to hear what we have to say…’

Thankfully, Sieghart has not just given us a catalogue of grievances. Her last chapter focuses on practical action that we can all take in a number of different settings to initiate and accelerate change. Here are a few of the dozens of useful ideas:

  • We can affirm what female colleagues say in meetings
  • If we can’t find enough children’s books with interesting female characters, we can change the gender as we read to them.
  • We can stop mistaking confidence for competence (If indeed anybody is still doing this after seeing how disastrously the last few years have panned out for us)

The Authority Gap makes a heavyweight – and incontrovertible – argument, but with wit and humour; it’s a rallying call for dames everywhere.

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