As part of our Women's History Month celebrations, Venable partner and WAVe chair Jen Bruton hosted a conversation with journalist and author Mary Ann Sieghart to discuss her bestselling book, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It. The wide-ranging discussion covered a variety of scientific studies that illustrate an enduring propensity across society to underestimate, interrupt, or patronize women, and to take women less seriously than men. Sieghart shared several anecdotes that support these studies and that reveal a failure in many sectors to treat women – even those who occupy the most senior positions – with the same respect as afforded to their male counterparts.
Among the anecdotes the author discussed was an incident involving Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, who in that role led an official delegation to the Vatican to meet the pope. When the pope entered the room flanked by cardinals, he walked straight past President McAleese, shook hands with her husband, and reportedly asked him, "Wouldn't you prefer to be the president of Ireland rather than be married to the president of Ireland?" Although stunned by such a blatant breach of protocol, the president grabbed the pope's hand, which had been hovering in midair next to her, and said, "Let me introduce myself. I am the president of Ireland, elected by the people of Ireland, whether you like it or whether you don't."
Sieghart noted that this tendency to dismiss or disrespect women, including those at the highest echelons of society, is depressingly common and manifests in even more disturbing ways toward women of color. She related another anecdote involving a Black female Labor member of Parliament (MP) in the United Kingdom, who got onto an elevator (lift) in the House of Commons with a white male Conservative MP, only to be told by him that "this lift isn't for cleaners."
Aside from frequently having their right to hold a position of authority called into question, studies have demonstrated that women have to work significantly harder than men to influence a group or to have their views acknowledged or addressed. Sieghart referenced a study that illustrated this phenomenon, which involved a mixed-gender group that had ostensibly been brought together to discuss a child custody case. While the entire group was given background information about the case, a couple of individuals were given significant information that the rest of the group did not have. The study revealed that when this significant information was introduced by a male member of the group, it was six times more likely to be used in the deliberations than if the same information was introduced by a woman.
Sieghart also discussed what she calls "conversational man spreaders," meaning certain men with a tendency to take up disproportionate time in a conversation or in a meeting, often at the expense of women. She noted having interviewed both British and American female politicians who claimed that their male counterparts take up far more speaking time in cabinet than they do and that women are "obliged" to be more concise. Sieghart noted also that the women she interviewed were very aware of the backlash that comes when they are perceived to talk too much and that studies have shown that when a woman and a man speak for exactly the same amount of time, the woman will be perceived as having dominated the conversation.
While women are encouraged to behave more like men or to "lean in," they often face penalties for doing so, Sieghart explained. "People recoil and start using words about us like 'she's quite abrasive, isn't she,' or 'she's strident, aggressive, bossy, overbearing, or controlling.'" This reaction arises from what social psychologists call "communal characteristics" that are applied to women and men. Many of us – both male and female – cling to old-fashioned stereotypes that say women ought to be gentle, warm, nurturing, and unassuming, whereas men are supposed to be dominant, confident, and assertive, and to show leadership. These societal biases place women in a double bind: They are dismissed as unlikeable if they behave too much like men and are not taken seriously if they display traditionally feminine characteristics.
Despite this conundrum, there are many steps we can take to help close the "authority gap." In her book, Sieghart proposes no fewer than 140 solutions to apply to different situations. Key among these is exercising "warm leadership" (which amounts to applying a high degree of emotional intelligence in all interactions with peers and subordinates); becoming more aware of our intrinsic biases; and encouraging more men to become allies. Sieghart noted that a growing number of men already treat women equally, respect women equally, and listen to women as attentively as they do to other men. "We love men like that," she said, "and we notice and appreciate the effort."
This program is part of Venable's 2022 DEI Speaker Series. To learn more about Venable's diversity initiatives, please click here. For more information about WAVe programming and events, please visit our resource page here.