The authority gap

Mary Ann Sieghart told a recent Forward Ladies event about her new book on how women can bridge the authority gap that is keeping them back at work.

Demonstrating the gender pay gap with men on the higher ledge than women


We are in a transitional phase where women still lack authority and voice because of outdated stereotypes, but until they gain more power it will be hard to change systemic bias, according to author Mary Ann Sieghart.

Speaking at an event last week about her new book The Authority Gap, Sieghart,  former assistant editor of The Times, told Griselda Tobogo, CEO of Forward Ladies, that men are seen as having more authority because they are more confident while women face constant challenges to their sense of self confidence – with women who are from ethnic minorities, who have disabilities or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds facing more challenges than white middle class women.

Sieghart said confidence tends to get mistaken for competence and that overconfident leaders are often not the best ones because they are less likely to listen to others. “We need humble people with integrity and they are more likely to be women,” she said, citing the psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

Sieghart said studies show that women make very good leaders and, in fact, are more likely to be the kind of transformational leaders that the world currently needs.

Her book draws on a range of research studies. For instance, studies show parents consistently rate their sons’ IQ higher than their daughters even when in reality they have the same IQ. This gives men the subliminal message that they are superior, she said.

Similarly, boys are encouraged to speak up from a young age – one study found they are eight times more likely to be encouraged to speak up in class – while girls are rewarded for  being quiet and well behaved.  “Girls are trained to believe that boys are entitled to take up disproportionate time,” said Sieghart, adding that women who are deemed to talk too much are penalised for it. Studies also show that if women and men talk for the same amount of time, people think that the woman is more dominating. Similarly, studies show women are less listened to.

Sieghart said the problem is systemic and complex.  It’s not enough to be assertive because a woman being assertive tends to be viewed in a negative way by society. Girls are encouraged to be self-deprecating and to socialise in small groups, whereas boys tend to go around in larger groups where competition and self-promotion are encouraged. Managers often promote based on ‘confidence’. However, if women are more self-promoting they get punished for it.

Ways forward

So how do we tackle it? Through greater awareness and calling out, for instance, occasions when women are spoken over in meetings. If a woman can’t call it out, she could speak to the chair or recruit allies, ideally men because they are more listened to, and stand up for other women.

Women have tried to negotiate this tricky terrain for years through smiling a lot and reading the room carefully, being emotionally intelligent and not treading on egos, but it is exhausting, said Sieghart, adding that all these stereotypes damage men too. Everyone should be treated as an individual, she said, and when more women get into senior leadership positions they can be themselves more.

When it comes to promotion she said that bias could be difficult to prove, but her book covers some interesting studies of transgender people who have experience of living both as men and as women. That includes two Stanford professors, one of whom transitioned to being a woman and the other to being a man.  The professor who transition from male to female said that they found themselves being interrupted and talked over whereas as a young male lecturer they were listened to. The reverse happened with the professor who transitioned to being a man. He was taken much more seriously and someone in his lecture even referred to his work being ‘better than his sister’s’, ie than his own work when he was a woman.

“Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise,” said Sieghart, adding that women are assumed not to be competent until proven otherwise. Other studies of trans people support this. “Trans men say they are much more respected and can get away with much more. Men are allowed to fail,” she stated.

*The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it is published by Doubleday, price 8.79 pounds.

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