THE BLOG

Why Do Women Hold Each Other Back?

17/01/2017 17:17 GMT | Updated 17/01/2017 17:17 GMT
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This week a new president of the USA will be sworn in and like so many people across the world, I find myself thinking that as a global civilisation, having another white male in the role seems like a backward step. Is the failure of Hillary Clinton to secure the vote for president a reflection on her, or attitudes to women in general? If the latter, it's depressing and we have to ask what we can do about it.

Recently I heard Emma Gray, Executive Women's Editor of The Huffington Post talking about internalised misogyny. She was asked to explain the reason why 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump's presidency, despite having a woman as the alternative and evidence that he's pretty dismissive of women, based on the language that he's used against them and the claims that he's behaved inappropriately towards them. Admittedly there's a caveat on this which is that he clearly adores and rates his daughter. Even Clinton praised his relationship with his family when asked what she admired about him. But given that most of his administration is male, and given the comments he's made in the lead up to the election, she seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Emma Gray's point was that the environment in which one lives, and is brought up, produces a set of ingrained responses which come out even when you don't publicly espouse them. We might think that we stand up for women's rights - equality in the workplace, a girl's right to education, the horrors of the one child policy in China which was so detrimental to girls. But when it comes to truly believing that a woman could run probably the most powerful nation on the planet, they baulked. Whether or not people liked Hillary, you would have thought that women would support her. But apparently not. Maybe it's still baked in to the older generation that a woman's place is in the home (unless of course she's a single mum, or her husband doesn't have a job and she ends up having to be the breadwinner). Maybe in all of us there's a bit of a difference between our outward attitude and inner beliefs.

I only have daughters, and I'm proud of all of them, two of whom are already in the workplace and succeeding in their own careers. I'd like to think that I'm fully non-chauvinist. But I recently had a eureka moment when I realised that I still hold in my mind the idea that in order for my daughters to be happy, they should have a man in tow. When I admitted this to my 17-year-old she howled with laughter. I'm ashamed to admit it now it's out in the open, but the fact is that I'm a product of my upbringing, which is that success for women is being a wife and mother. If you managed to add a career to that, it was icing on the cake, not the cake itself. My father pushed my sisters and I into the idea of careers early on. He wanted us to be doctors, lawyers, accountants. Very progressive. But when asked why, he revealed that the reason he wanted us to have careers is so that we would be financially self-supporting 'if we got divorced'. It was a means to justify an end, just not quite the end I'd have liked him to have.

Luckily attitudes change. Many years ago I worked in a highly fashionable London advertising agency. I distinctly remember the first meeting I attended that didn't have any men in it. I looked around the room, with four women in it and to my shame, I thought - who is going to have the ideas? It didn't take me long to realise that a room full of women is just as capable of having ideas and shaping them into something valuable to take to the client as a room of men is. But it shows how my own psyche had been shaped by my upbringing. If that's what women of my age inherently think, no wonder so many women voted for Trump.

As those of you who have read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In know, it's hard to throw off old moulds of behaviour. Sandberg admitted that she'd innately favoured men who put their hand up to say something in meetings, rather than the more reticent women who waited to give their points of view. It's ingrained in all of us, like it or not. But, as the coaching expert, Myles Downey says, 'awareness is curative'. Now I know that my bias is there, and why, I can do something about it. And help other people become aware of the strangely loaded judgements we carry forward from our childhoods.

At my company we have women in every department, women shareholders, women on the board, women in leadership positions. I know we are an equal opportunities employer. I like to think that we evaluate everyone for promotion based on their abilities, not their gender. I wonder if we are working at it hard enough at grass roots however. Am I working hard enough at encouraging the many talented women below me to succeed in the very top jobs? The truth is not. It's partly because I am reluctant to bang the feminist drum in a company which is incredibly egalitarian. Somehow focusing on women seems unfair on the talented young men we have in the company. I'll have to work that one out. If anyone has any good thoughts to share, I'd be glad to hear them.

But it's where my efforts are going to focus in 2017 - trying to equalise our judgement and treatment of men and women until it becomes a no brainer for women as well as men to elect a woman as president.