Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I'm happy to wear the trousers...

Lately I've been thinking about the role of women in business and politics, partly inspired by the ongoing battle for the Democrat Presidential Candidacy (I feel it needs capitalisation) and also because I've been encouraged to read "business literature". If any of the latter is aimed at women - which, judging from the amount of bullshit these smug men are spouting about how selling business is like seducing a woman, is not a lot - it generally encourages them to become more like men. Similarly, Hillary Clinton attracts quite a lot of sniping because she is too "man-like" and not "feminine" enough - it is clear that she has felt the need to develop quite a strong (and perhaps more war-mongering) brand of politics in order to get over the disadvantage of being female.

Is this the way things have to be? If we want to get ahead, in any sphere, do we have to conform to a certain level of expectation? Research quoted in the Harvard Review of Business (come to your own conclusions about how reliable *that* makes it) suggest that employees are less likely to take a female boss seriously. Being a woman is associated with softness, vulnerability and maternal instincts, no matter how ridiculous that assumption is (how many women like that do you come across every day... er, none).

Perhaps then, we have to overcompensate for this. Women have to network like men, swagger like men, be aggressive and stereotypically masculine (even though those stereotypes are often just as unrealistic as those about women) in order to get what they want and be taken seriously. Yet this also backfires - employers are more likely to judge a woman harshly when she is angry than they are to judge a man. Some women high up in organisations get a bad reputation amongst female staff because they are not seen to help other women reach the same heights. I could go on - but I won't; there's not that much time.

I don't have an easy solution to the problem, which ends up boiling down to "damned if you do, damned if you don't". Is the answer to develop a different notion of what is feminine? To change work cultures and try to correct prejudices? To ignore all of this and soldier grimly on? Obviously, a bit of all these things wouldn't hurt, it's a question of how productive they are.

I also think we need to stop criticising women who don't meet our standards of how they ought to be behaving so harshly. Yes, Clinton's not perfect and she might not be our ideal of a first woman President (for various reasons, if I were an American, I would not be voting for her atr this stage). However, let's criticise her policies as policies rather than bitch because she's acting too male, or she cried and so on. Let's also recognise that she faces some of the same problems the rest of us do - and that honestly, for many of us, our own reactions to these problems are also far from perfect.

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