Authority, like beauty, is often understood only in the eyes of the beholder. There are the Bob Dylans of the world, who write songs challenging authority, lauding “they who do not respect in any degree” the demands to “obey authority”. And then there are the Mary Ann Siegharts, who write books about how important it is to cap doff to the authority of others.
Sieghart’s new book, The Authority Gap: Why Women are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and what We Can Do about it is a 300-page complaint about the lack of respect given to women at the top. The opening quote on the dust jacket mimics what she describes as the prevalence of male interruption — “If you could just let me fini-”. Perhaps a more accurate subtitle would have been: “Don’t you know who I am?”
From businesswoman to TV presenters, politicians to CEOS, Seighart points to rich woman after rich woman complaining about the fact that no one gives them the respect they or their Armani suits require. The “backlash against women, their voices and their authority, is deeply depressing and in some cases very scary”, she writes. Her solution? We need to start giving bourgeois women the deference they demand.
The main thesis of The Authority Gap is that, no matter how well women do, men still think (consciously or unconsciously) that we’re rubbish, and so don’t respect our authority. This, Seighart argues, “damages women’s standing in the world”, and should be a central focus of contemporary feminism. Seighart didn’t invent this rather blinkered obsession with corporate feminism — Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, was criticised by many who felt queasy at the cosy girls’ club of female bosses (most notably by Dawn Foster whose book Lean Out proved how little difference cheerleading for glass-ceiling-smashers made to working-class women’s quality of life and political aspirations).
Perhaps the eight years since Sandberg’s limited contribution is enough for Seighart to have another crack at the whip. Perhaps feminism has simply degraded to such a level that concerning ourselves with how many women are on the FTSE100 and how often board members let women speak in meetings has become the norm.
There’s little doubt a hangover from the sexist and gender-segregated sphere of work that my parents’ generation inhabited in the 1980s still exists — particularly in the world of media and journalism that Seighart and I inhabit. We can all name dinosaurs we have encountered and win flutters of applause on Twitter for recounting their insults. The question is, what should women do when faced with a rude or reactionary man (or woman)? More importantly, what will more authority given to wealthy or career women do for the rest of us mere mortals?
For an accomplished journalist, Seighart fails to recognise the naivety of some of her testimonials
The Authority Gap is loaded with winks and nods to the target audience — “enlightened” readers are even told to skip over an initial chapter on “irrefutable” evidence that the authority gap exists. This is mirrored by lazy assertions that are almost laughable — like the bombshell revelation that “venture capitalism is a famously cliquey male field” in chapter four. For such an accomplished and authoritative journalist, Seighart fails to challenge or recognise the naivety of some of her testimonials. If Ireland’s former president Mary McAleese didn’t clock that the catholic church is a bit behind the times when it comes to women’s freedom, why did she support the punitive eighth amendment outlawing abortion for so long? It’s rather sickening to read her complain about the “resentment” she felt from snooty bishops for her position in politics, as if having a few more McAleese’s praised at the pulpit would do anything material for women’s freedom in Ireland, Poland or other places where religion has been used as an excuse to hold back women’s bodily autonomy.
What Seighart and the women she quotes in The Authority Gap seem to suggest is that their authority be granted without question — that having “Dr” in your Twitter handle means you are above debate, or that running Xerox means you should be offered the bread rolls first at a fancy dinner. This is contemporary feminism — a call for middle and upper-class women to stick together, to get what they deserve, and to see women’s liberation as merely a vehicle through which to voice their own desire to create a girls’ club to rival the boys’. Like fawning acolytes, those of us at the bottom will be inspired to reach the heady heights of our authoritative sisters in arms.
For most women, the main barrier to fame and fortune will be their class status
Perhaps the clearest indicator of this class blindness is in Seighart’s use of Labour MP Dawn Butler’s anecdote in chapter three. When she first entered the House of Commons, Butler was mistaken for a cleaner when she got into a lift — an oversight that she has described as evidence of racism and sexism in parliament. But it is Seighart’s analysis which is most illuminating. “To assume that she was a manual worker, uneducated and therefore not qualified to represent her constituents in the nation’s legislature,” Seighart writes, “shows how far we still have to go as a society”. In her rush to weaponize the alleged prejudice of the staff in the House of Commons, Seighart reveals the Achilles heel in her argument against the sexist treatment of women — her own class prejudice. That professional feminists like Seighart world believe cleaners to be uneducated, unqualified, and unsuitable to be trusted with political power shows how few they’ve actually interacted with — apart from reminding them to fold the laundry. Seighart even seems blissfully unaware of the irony in her holier-than-thou proclamation in chapter 10 of the problems of journalists being “drawn from such a narrow pool” that they “are never going to understand the full breadth and depth of the country”.
In the — wait for it — two paragraphs dedicated to class in the “intersection of prejudice” chapter, Seighart quotes Bel Mooney and Cherie Blair before moving swiftly on to talk about how penalised lesbians are (this following a chapter on how trans women can really teach us ladies what it’s like to suffer prejudice — another tone-deaf intervention given the current toxic debate between gender-critical lesbian feminists and trans activists). For most women (and men), the main barrier to fame and fortune will be their class status.
Far more backs have been turned on me for growing up on an estate than they have for my gender
The idea that women — even the most ardent and showy contemporary feminists — stick together has always bemused me. I was recently rather embarrassingly asked to join a group of highly esteemed journalists to take part in a well-known gameshow, for which my mother and I had picked out a particularly glamorous and fun one-shouldered red dress (it’s not every day that you get a chance to show off on prime-time telly). When we gathered before taking to the stage, one particularly seasoned female presenter laughed to the rest of the group that Ella had come dressed for a cocktail party. It was an attempt to squash my confidence, to remind me that I was the novice in the room and lacked class in my attempt at glamour. Far more backs have been turned on me for growing up on an estate than they have for my gender — even more doors have been shut in my face because I’m a woman who dares to have a different opinion to most of my sisters in the media. As usual, authority — and solidarity — is only afforded to those who tick the right boxes and say the right things when it comes to contemporary feminism.
The Authority Gap will take its place alongside the tomes of recent political chick-lit, aimed at stoking grievances of a small section of women (and obsequious men) who believe that politics should revolve around such radical calls as gender quotas for big business. But part of the reason why it’s important to call out the insufferable snobbery of such a narrow view of women’s freedom is that an elitist view of what women want and need in terms of political change is blocking progress. In her bullet-point list of suggestions, Seighart suggests we might think about how we “talk” about women differently — but concrete suggestions about liberalising abortion law or upping the pay of working women are an afterthought.
Forgive me if I refuse to grant this corporate feminism the power it so desperately craves
Childcare — the single biggest challenge to giving women the freedom and choice to shape their own lives — is reduced to a sentence. In a thoroughly researched and evidence-heavy book, she notably fails to mention the history of women like Jayaben Desai who took a lead in asserting authority and fighting for women’s equal treatment in the workplace with material — not symbolic — demands. Perhaps the 8,000 workers (mostly women) who went on strike in Glasgow and, in 2019, won millions of pounds in backpay after a dispute over work evaluations aren’t worth mentioning in a book centred around evoking sympathy for CEOs.
The truth is, changing the authority gap is a convenient way to change very little at all, except the clothes, hairstyle, and heel height of the bosses. Forgive me if I refuse to grant this corporate feminism the power it so desperately craves.
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