Bonus episode: Femininity and Power

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…

“What is always interesting to me is the difference culturally in how different cultures view femininity…and I think Anglo-Saxon cultures do not like, embrace, or value femininity.”

That’s Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, who starred in the last show, Does Your Partner Support Your Success? And I told you at the end I was gonna feature her again in an extra episode this week because we got into an exchange at the end of our interview about cultural differences around masculinity and femininity. And if you spend most of your time in the US like I do, it can be easy to forget attitudes can be quite different in other parts of the world. 

And just for some context, at one point you’ll hear me refer to this New York Times article about French actress Catherine Deneuve – she and many other prominent Frenchwoman wrote an open letter earlier this year saying the #MeToo movement had gone too far, that it threatened sexual freedom. 

So with this first question to Avivah I’m kind of continuing from where I left off at the end of the last episode, where we were talking about relationships between 2-career couples.

AM-T: “You’re of European lineage, you grew up in Canada, but you’ve lived in Europe for decades, still do. Do you notice any difference in heterosexual couples say in Europe and North America or is it pretty much across the board, everything you said [in the last episode]?”

“Well it is quite different, I think I’m partly influenced by the 3 decades I spent in France where women have a very different style, especially in their personal lives, they stay much more feminine. And I think the Anglo-Saxon world, which is very masculine in culture, tends to also masculinize its women…and particularly at work. We are encouraged to become as much like men as we can without a sex change. And that colors our personal relationships, right? It’s not such a healthy thing at home. And I do find Latin women with all their charms and wiles and elegance and clothing and prioritizing of coupling, of the couple, it is an education in how to keep these – a different approach to this. Maybe that’ll be a future book…not just ‘Bringing up Bebe´, but keeping your couple hot at home is something the French devote much more attention to.”

AM-T: “That’s so interesting. I’m thinking about it in particular because there’s been some controversy here about some writing in the New York Times about the #MeToo movement. Catherine Deneuve and some others wrote this piece…we don’t want to get too much in that but there was some focus in several pieces on the feminine French woman… but I also know quite a few women in France seem be quite fed up with the sexual harassment they have to put up with…and I have to say in Latin America in particular there’s so much domestic violence, so I think there’s a really ugly side to this.”

“Yeah, and I’m not… there’s always an ugly side, it’s not like there’s no domestic violence in Anglo-Saxon countries right, I’m not sure the statistics are so dramatically different between countries. I think what is always interesting to me is the difference culturally in how different cultures view femininity as a whole…and I think Anglo-Saxon cultures do not like, embrace, or value femininity – and both men and women are raised to discount it, underplay it and not embrace it. Men in Anglo-Saxon cultures are hugely shut down, any feminine side to them, any emotional side…they’re not supposed to cry, they’re supposed to become big and muscly and strong…they even walk I think in a particular way. I don’t think men in Latin countries, even ones we think of as very macho, are educated in the same way, right? There’s a different level of emotionality allowed among men in some of these cultures. And the way they enjoy and embrace and adore women in all their forms, I think there’s a much wider spectrum of what femininity can look like. And you can get some very powerful women and they’re not turned off by the power, even when it’s enveloped in a very feminine…those are not contradictory terms in a lot of Latin cultures. Whereas I think when you get powerful women in Anglo-Saxon countries they tend to sound a lot like their male colleagues – it’s much more similar, so we lose something of our human spectrum. I tend to like men and women who are allowed the full spectrum of what being human looks like, whether it’s intensely masculine or intensely feminine, I think it’s the spectrum that’s delightful.”

AM-T: “Does that mean in France, I’m curious, that there is less derision for – there was this ad here a couple of years ago that asked all these kids what it looked like to run like a girl. And it was playing off this idea that doing something like a girl is just bad and pathetic. And boys and girls internalize that very early…I’m curious, is that any different in France or not really? You’re talking about French men having more of a feminine sensibility, being allowed to have one. Does that mean there’s less dismissal and derision of all things feminine and being a woman?”

“I think so, and when you see the countries that have been run by women, they’re not necessarily the Anglo-Saxon countries, right? So this notion of women in power, you can see in recent elections just how uncomfortable it makes people. When will it come? It’s not there yet. All those debates, remember, are women powerful enough to be president? Do they cry?  Women are too emotional…all that stuff is such BS and yet it’s ever present in everyone’s minds, and yes I do think Latin countries have a different attitude to women in power…you see it in a lot of countries, right, in Africa, in unexpected places – that doesn’t mean those cultures don’t have terrible histories of how they treat women, the world over there’s still a horrendous abuse of women but I think there’s also an upside to different cultural approaches to the masculine feminine issues.”

AM-T: “There hasn’t been a French premier who’s female thus far, has there? And we did have Mrs. Thatcher in the UK for quite a long time…though you might argue she was quite masculine, I don’t know.”

“Well, she was certainly an adaptive female who took on a lot of masculine traits in order to be seen as competent and prime ministerial… so, and if you look at the governments, the French have had more gender-balanced governments than some of our Anglo-Saxon countries right, except Canada, Canada has been shifting recently, and it’s not always a direct line between these things – but yeah, the cultural norms are very deep, and I certainly learned a lot about femininity and power from living 3 decades in France, it’s a very different model.”

I know I have some listeners in France and also in Central and South America. Do you agree with Avivah? Can women more easily be powerful and feminine at the same time? Do look at the Anglo-Saxon countries and think our women leaders look and act like men? I’d love to hear from you.

And poor Theresa May didn’t even get a mention did she? The current female PM of a very Anglo-Saxon country. Although for how much longer?

I’ll also post some information about levels of violence against women in Latin America on the website – it does make for pretty grim reading.

That’s the end of this mini-show. To support The Broad Experience please donate any amount you like at Thanks so much to all of you who have already done this, especially if you’re a monthly sustainer of the show. I so appreciate it.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.