Episode 143: True Equality: When It's OK to be Mediocre

Show transcript:

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

 This time…we all love a bit of inspiration in the form of successful women. After all you can’t be what you can’t see, right? But maybe all that lionizing reveals an unpleasant truth…

“…that women need to be just utterly brilliant, utterly wonderful to get recognition…actually real equality boils down to not having to do that.”

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The last episode I did on caring for a parent was pretty serious…and this week’s show is quite the change of tone. To give you a bit of context, for several years now I’ve received a lot of emails at my Broad Experience address often written by a PR person, asking me to interview some amazing sounding woman – she is often a coach, sometimes a startup CEO or a corporate executive – words like ‘empowering’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘killing it’ are sprinkled throughout the email. But instead of being inspired…I just feel tired.

So when I read a column by Pilita Clark in the Financial Times last month it hit home. The title? Women Must Demand the Right to be as Useless as Men. I knew I wanted to talk to her about the ideas in that piece, and she I spoke the other week.

Pilita is Australian by birth but she’s lived in the UK for 17 years. These days she writes about modern corporate life; she’s also covered aviation and the environment for the FT.  

And in the runup to International Women’s Day in March her inbox is flooded with emails singing the praises of high achieving females. Pilita has been urged to write about a woman who among other achievements has climbed Everest…

“…a visionary doctor/entrepreneur, this extraordinary woman who is a quadri-lingual vegan who floated a business in her 20s and she works in refugee camps with the UN in her spare time…is completely unstoppable, she was reading share prices to her father at the age of 4 and is a really extraordinary woman. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this at one level, and I am always pleased to see women doing brilliantly…there’s also no question obviously that there’s a long, long way to go, that we have not achieved equality by most measures…but I guess what I find this year is something that is increasingly annoying – it’s that tiring sense that women need to be utterly brilliant, utterly wonderful to get recognition, and that is actually something I’ve thought for a long time, that actually real equality boils down to not having to do that, to just being ordinary and just doing your job and in fact you could even be potentially quite mediocre.”

And just bumbling along and not worrying about your career too much. She says she began thinking about this topic intently when she came across a blog post by a senior woman in the UK…

“She’s a really experienced female director, an ex-McKinsey partner, Harvard MBA, she works, has served on a lot of boards. And she literally in a blog based on a speech she did about the dearth of female chairs…said, ‘at interview we need to be twice as good as the men to overcome the gaps in our CVs and the perceived risk in being different, and I don’t think we quite realize that.’ And I thought, ugh, OK, that’s reasonable, I’m sure that’s a sensible thing to be thinking about, but you know what? It’s really, really irritating in 2019 that we have to keep thinking about this.”

It got her thinking about those notes she gets encouraging her to write about various wonder women. Similar to the ones I get.

AM-T: “One of the things I have found that your article crystallized for me, it was hard for me to put my finger on it, was this thing of, why do I cringe a bit when I get these emails? Then I feel mean, I feel like a bad person that I’m cringing slightly at all this wondrous achievement.”

“I know, I completely sympathize with you on that one…I feel very much the same way. Part of the reason for me anyway is the thought that I have to be ultra-brilliant and incredibly wonderful and supremely generous and fair and terrific and spectacular. Really it makes me feel like having a drink and a lie down. I mean it’s just, it’s wearying – implicitly I think the suggestion lies there that in order to be taken seriously and to really achieve is just that you have to be an extraordinary woman.”

I agree – I think the reason my eyes glaze over is partly because the emails all sound the same now, but it’s also because I’m never going to be like that myself and I wonder how many other women can manage it. I resist the implication that achievement means firing on all cylinders and sleeping 4 hours a night.

I began The Broad Experience exactly seven years ago…and back then I rarely got pitches talking up professional women. So in a way it’s a sign of progress just being made aware that so many stellar women are out there, with publicists – starting businesses, writing books, overcoming obstacles…helping people. It was after one very famous book was published back in 2013 that I began getting all these emails… The book of course was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Before it came out I felt like I was here in my little corner talking about all these experiences women had at work, but no one was really listening. Then Sandberg came along and suddenly everyone was listening and talking and the amount of coverage on women at work exploded…to the extent that for me at least, it all began to run together…

“Mmm, interesting, well I think you’re absolutely right that Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, did have a huge impact, it stirred a lot of debate, but it divided a lot of people, and I’m one of the people who think why don’t men lean out, why is it always women who need to do the changing? Why can’t we just do what we feel like doing, and not having to be constantly thinking about our behavior and the impression we’re giving, if you think what life must be like if you don’t have to think about this all the time, it’s a very different way of viewing the world. That’s why I think this book, ‘Why do so Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?’, I’m not sure if a woman had written it that it would have had quite the same attention.”

And it would have attracted a whole bunch of haters. Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders is of course a provocative title. The author originally wrote a piece along the same lines in the Harvard Business Review back in 2013 – in fact it was partly in response to Lean In being published. In that article he said he was surprised to see Lean In encouraging women to adopt what he called dysfunctional leadership traits…

“I do think he puts his finger on a really important point that applies to women and men really, and that is that we have this annoying tendency to confuse confidence with leadership capacity, and his point is that very confident people who are often narcissistic…walk into a room, own the room, basically they have a huge amount of swagger and sway – they are statistically he says more likely to be men. But they find it a lot easier to get into top jobs. And that means they squeeze out equally or perhaps more able, more considerate, humble people and that includes men as well as women. So his point is that we need to think again about our ideas of what good leadership entails, and I think that’s absolutely right. It would undoubtedly help a lot of women but it would also help a lot of extremely pleasant and able men I can think of who are overlooked for jobs on a fairly regular basis, and really they’re the jobs that are often taken by – not entirely arrogant, loudmouth men, but I wouldn’t say I’ve not seen that either. It can be a fairly common occurrence in some offices.”

In fact, author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says, we might want to see swagger as something to avoid…

“We need to try to not be swayed, not to automatically think that just because someone is very loud and very confident and seems to be completely on top of things – these actually sometimes can be warning signs that this person is not necessarily going to be a great leader.”

And Pilita says he goes further. He says women should get first consideration for leadership roles.

“For whatever reason it may well be correct to say, as he says, that we should be giving preferential treatment to women…we should actively be discriminating in favor of female leaders.”

Then again…

“I dunno, I can’t help feeling a little uneasy about that, actually. There’s something I find a bit annoying about that – because again it’s kind of suggesting there is an intrinsic quality based on gender, which is not what feminism is about essentially. So I think no matter what one’s gender, if one can lead well then one should be rewarded for that.”

One much maligned leader who happens to be female is British Prime Minister Theresa May – or at least she was still prime minister when I recorded this. Pilita says until there are more women in top roles the urge to celebrate superwomen will persist…

“In many ways it’s just a numbers game, I think the more women go into places where they’re not necessarily in the minority then I think essentially things will change quite dramatically and women won’t feel they’re standing out, they won’t feel they have to be anything very special. They’ll just be there and people won’t notice – and in a way you kind of see that happening already here in the UK with a female prime minister, and quite a number of female cabinet ministers. Really it’s quite interesting at a time when people are paying more attention than ever to politics, because of the Brexit debate. I’m not saying there’s no sexism whatsoever being attached to the portrayal of various women in the spotlight at the moment but really it does feel as though there are so many now, people’s gender is not really coming into it in this debate as it might have done 10, 15, 20 years ago.”

AMT: “That’s interesting, and actually that makes me want to ask because I am removed from it over here, has there been any commentary on Theresa May’s sex going along with all the Brexit coverage…are people trying to interpret any of her actions through the lens of gender?”

“I’m sure there have been isolated instances of it, but I struggle to recall a prominent one. Late last year and early this year, when things were getting quite intense, there was a huge amount of commentary where people were describing her as resilient, she was so resilient, she was plowing on, she was very stubborn, she was refusing to be knocked over despite the adversity she was facing. And this word resilient kept being used again and again. At first I thought the unsaid words here were, she’s doing really well for a woman. But actually colleagues who were covering John Major when he was struggling with Euro-skeptics in his party said the same sorts of words and descriptions were being used about him. I don’t know, my sense is actually that really there’s been quite a lack of focus on whatever she’s wearing, what she looks like. Maybe because the issue, Brexit, is so enormous, and so important, and so all encompassing…”

That there’s no time or appetite for petty coverage around gender.

And finally to the last part of Pilita’s column asking why women can’t be allowed be as useless as men…

AM-T: “To sort of round out your piece you said you’ve always harbored an urge to see an International Crap Women’s Day. Why?”

“Alright, so this is basically a joke, but a semi-serious joke. So I just used to wonder what would it be like, if you had an International Crap Women’s Day where you were literally celebrating the right of women to be as rubbish as any man. At one end there’s a lot to choose from and you could have a lot of fun with it. There was a fantastic story here last year about a model here in the UK who went to Morocco, and she got so drunk on her way back, when she landed at Gatwick, she thought she was still in Morocco. And Elizabeth Holmes is just – she would be a complete pinup…”

Elizabeth Holmes in case you haven’t heard of her was a star of Silicon Valley – she quit Stanford University at 19 to start her blood testing company, Theranos. Over the next decade or so it raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. She was touted as the next Steve Jobs. Today, she stands accused of massive fraud. I just finished listening to the podcast The Dropout, which all about her rise and fall.

“…you know, having managed to persuade all of these enormously successful investors to put their money into her Theranos company, her blood-testing startup…she is now facing a series of fraud charges and the idea she’s the new female Steve jobs has taken a tumble recently. There is any number of women we could lionize in this way. The idea is to say we’re not perfect, or great, we can be just as bad, evil, hopeless and ridiculous as men, but so what? The point would be we need the freedom to be just people, really.”

On the other hand, many women want and need inspiration. They don’t necessarily want to see a former icon disparaged. I read a snarky piece about Holmes in Refinery29 earlier this year…

AM-T: “And it was very interesting to read the comments…and a couple of women had a good point. Because the writer had focused specifically on her hair color and the fact that she dyes her hair, and under that sleek blonde was a mousy-haired brunette…and it did actually come across as very sexist. And a couple of women commenters took the writer to task on that. But at least one other said, you know why are you focusing on this one bad apple, there are all these amazing women in Silicon Valley, why can’t you focus on them? Which brings you and I back to where we started.”

“Yeah, well, OK – the difficulty with all of this is as we know, when women go to get money from venture capital firms they really struggle, there’s that great case of those women who changed their names on letters and emails to male or ambiguous names, and suddenly started getting all these meetings with VC companies in Silicon Valley. On the one hand you can see why there is an urge to celebrate and publicize and promote these brilliant women. Because there’s an urge to say, look, stop thinking we are useless…but that trouble is I guess that in itself feeds into this idea that we’re gonna have to be twice or three or four times as good, constantly.”

The bar she says is just too high.

“…growing up in Australia in particular, when there were very few female leaders in politics, business, anywhere, and when one of them stumbled or did something shocking or got into trouble you felt it was a black mark, a problem for you, even though it had nothing to do with you, and you thought…why shouldn’t she stumble? It comes back to numbers and about the fact there were very few women in these positions. And the more we become very used to having female prime ministers the way we do in the UK now, the less we’re going to be thinking much about the fact that they’re female. That’s the point I am trying to make here, but anyway…if anybody does feel like setting up International Crap Women’s Day I am just a phone call away.”

Pilita Clark.

 I will post a few show notes under this episode at The Broad Experience.com, including Pilita’s original column. And as ever I’d love to hear from you – I’m sure she and I are not the only ones with opinions on this topic. Post a comment on the website, tweet me or email me or post to the Facebook page.

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