The Authority Gap
Why are women taken less seriously than men when it comes to professional accomplishment, expertise, the expression of opinions and manifestation of power? Why are so many people irritated or bothered when a woman expresses herself forcefully? I’ve often wondered why my opinions seem to be challenged more and carry less weight than those of male counterparts. I’ve often had that feeling that I was swimming against the current and it was harder for me to go the same distance. For example, did you know women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online?
Mary Ann Sieghart, a British journalist, puts it down to the Authority Gap. In a well-documented eponymous book she explains that “however much we claim to believe in equality, we are still, in practice, more reluctant to accord authority to women than to men, even when they are leaders or experts. Every woman has a tale to tell about being underestimated, talked over, ignored, patronised and generally not taken as seriously as a man”. For her, the authority gap is “the mother of all gender gaps” because it accounts for the pay and power gaps.
We’re all (men and women alike) biased against female authority. In fact we all rate a man’s achievement higher than a woman’s… even when they’re exactly the same. We all continue to give men more space to express their ideas and to assume that “a man knows what he’s talking about until he proves otherwise, while for a woman it’s all too often the other way around”.
In the developed world, thankfully, women are usually allowed to make decisions about their own lives. They can and do speak out for their rights without having to fear for their lives. But that doesn’t mean that the problem has been solved, for covert sexism is very hard to fight. It is far easier for perpetrators to deny or dismiss. Women who complain about instances of it can be caricatured as chippy, over-sensitive or humourless, or told they are being hysterical and making it up.
In this week’s newsletter I’ll share some thoughts on the authority gap and why you should read Sieghart’s book.👇💡
A deep asymmetry
When Mary Ann Sieghart talked to other people about her project to write a book about the authority gap, she noticed a deep asymmetry in people’s reactions: all the women she talked to were supportive and enthusiastic (“Great subject! I look forward to reading it!”) while most men (though not all) were quite sceptical (“Really? Is that still relevant?”). The discrepancy was a perfect mise en abyme of her subject. Indeed the authority gap also comes with a wide gap in perception.
At work, a lot of women feel as if they are swimming against the current… only to see some men swim with the current, congratulate themselves for swimming so fast and tell them they should “lean in” more. But, she writes, you don’t notice how easy it is to swim with the current when you’ve never had to swim against it (it’s the same issue with people who’ve never experienced racism: they just don’t know how easy they have had it). Privilege is invisible.
The gap in perception illustrates itself in the relative speaking times of men and women at work (and elsewhere): even when a woman talks only 30% of the time, the people present may feel as if she is dominating the discussion. Another example is how much women feel they must prove their competence all the time only to see it challenged anyway. Even with evidence of their competence, they will be interrupted and criticised significantly more than their male colleagues. Their ideas and work will be challenged and put to the test constantly.
At work we spend more time justifying our decisions, explaining the thinking behind them and defending them before critics. Even in emails it’s been shown that women are challenged more and respected less. The people who’ve made the experience of signing their emails with a name identified as belonging to the other gender have noticed the difference. Some female entrepreneurs created a fake male partner to communicate in emails and found that things are so much easier: they received answers more quickly and the emails they received were more polite and respectful.
Many studies show this asymmetry starts at school where girls are seen as “hard working” while boys who obtain the same results are believed to be “brilliant”. Girls owe their success to effort and boys to talent. Teachers as well as parents do not rate intelligence the same way in boys and girls. It’s largely due to unconscious bias, of course. But the harmful effects of these biases last a lifetime. If you’re raised with the belief that you’re not as intelligent, you can’t be as confident. Alas confidence is still too often mistaken for competence.
We absorb the notion of male superiority from such an early age. British parents, when asked to estimate their children’s IQ, will put their son, on average, at 115 (which in itself is hilarious, as the average ought to be 100) and their daughter at 107, a huge statistical difference (...) boys, on average, grow up thinking that they are cleverer than girls.
Through the looking-glass
The people who best understand the asymmetry are those who’ve lived as both male and female. When a woman believes she’s not taken as seriously as a male rival, it’s often very hard for her to prove that she’s the victim of discrimination. She may be accused of crying wolf or citing sexism to mask her own incompetence. Unconscious bias is particularly hard to call out. The culprits have a tendency to get on their high horse and swear you're delusional…
However when you talk to trans people, they often have interesting stories to tell to illustrate the authority gap in action. They’ve experienced the different treatment first hand and find it impossible to ignore and deny it. One of the transgender professors interviewed by Sieghart concluded:
Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise (…) Trans men see a big improvement in the way that people respect them after transitioning; trans women see the reverse.
A trans woman interviewed by the author noticed how her work is challenged significantly more. Whatever fact she states will be double-checked. And she’ll be prevented from finishing her point.
I’m sorry, did I talk too much?
As a child I remember being called a chatterbox by one of my teachers. I also remember being offended because the word conveyed the message that the words I uttered were worthless and irrelevant. In fact women talk a lot less than men in public spaces, media, films, corporate and political meetings. Even the few women with actual authority are interrupted more than their male counterparts. There’s research that shows that male patients interrupt female doctors more and male employees challenge female bosses more.
In meetings it might be a good idea to instigate a no-interruption rule and use a host of strategies to mitigate the biases that undermine women’s authority in the office. Often when they do manage to get the floor, they won’t be listened to with as much attention. Many women complain that their ideas are only heard when a man takes them up. And not being listened to has terrible implications for a person’s mental health. When they feel they lack agency, it can lead to depression. Surprisingly even powerful women have experienced the relative deafness of their audience.
When she was Chair of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde told a World Economic Forum panel, ‘When a board member who happens to be a woman takes the floor, guess what? Many of the male board members start to withdraw physically, they start to look at their papers, to look at the floor… and you need to disrupt that.’ She didn’t hesitate to call them out on it.
On average, women talk a lot less in public settings. It’s the equivalent of not taking up as much physical space. Many women have attended meetings and dinners where men indulged in their favourite activity: conversational manspreading, i.e. “taking up too much conversational space at the expense of the people around you”. The author recounts the many dinners during which she had to sit next to men who talked all the time and never asked her any questions or let her reciprocate.
Brilliant vs hard-working
Like Sieghart I’ve found that women are rarely referred to as “brilliant”, but more often as “diligent” or “hard-working”. In the fields that are reputed to require “brilliance”, like maths, music, physics, philosophy and economics, this serves to discriminate against them. “That is bound to chip away at their intellectual confidence.”
A recent survey by the American Economics Association found that half the female economists interviewed said they had been treated unfairly because of their sex, compared with only 3 per cent of the men. A startling 70 per cent of the women said their colleagues’ work was taken more seriously than their own.
This opposition comes with another one. From school onwards, boys are encouraged to boast about their achievements while girls are rewarded for their humility. In a way, bullshitting and arrogance are more encouraged in boys/men, which contributes to a confidence gap. “Arrogance and overconfidence are inversely correlated to leadership talent”. This leads her to write that,
Instead of sending women on assertiveness training courses, we should send men on humility and bullshit-avoidance courses, and the authority gap might be better addressed.
📚 My new book En finir avec la productivité is to be released on April 13, in just a few days! 🍾
👉 You can pre-order it online📚
⛰️🚀 You can join me and my future of work buddy & documentary maker Samuel Durand on a special 2-day RANDO BOULOT DODO (hiking trips, workshops, talks about the future of work, exchanges with craftspeople…) in Annecy on May 26-27 🇫🇷
👩💻 Check out the new Welcome to the Jungle pieces on my profile: in 🇬🇧 and in 🇫🇷. Among the new articles in English is this second interview of Alison Taylor titled “Can you be ethical in an unethical business organization?”…
🩺 Covid and Diabetes, Colliding in a Public Health Train Wreck, Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times, April 2022: “Even as the pandemic’s hold on political leaders and the public begins to fade, researchers, clinicians and other experts in the field are hoping the disproportionate suffering and death among people with diabetes will bring renewed attention to the disease, which annually claims 100,000 lives and soaks up one in four health care dollars spent.”
🇨🇳 Sleep at work is the new work from home in China’s financial hub, Jane Li, Quartz, March 2022: “In recent years, both white-collar and blue-collar Chinese workers have protested over work hours. But these arrangements appear to come with generous overtime pay, at least for professionals such as investment managers, who are being offered $300 for weekday overnight stays, according to Bloomberg. The preparations that companies are undertaking now, with airbeds, sleeping bags, and cooked food for workers, are preferable to the situation some workers have faced, when they’ve been locked down at their office buildings at a moment’s notice.”
⛰️ This Is What Happens When There Are Too Many Meetings, Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, April 2022: “Last week, Microsoft published a study that offers an eerie reflection of my working life. Traditionally, the researchers said, white-collar workers—or “knowledge workers,” in the modern parlance—have had two productivity peaks in their workday: just before lunch and just after lunch. But since the pandemic, a third and smaller bump of work has emerged in the late evening. Microsoft’s researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “triple peak day.””
Enjoy your weekend. Do something about the authority gap. And buy my new book🤗