Revealed: Women are people too

Successful women cannot be reduced to a set of qualities that can then be used like a recipe
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The Independent Culture
FROM A survey this week, I learn that successful career women, like Indian mystics of yore, are able to "pass through the glass ceiling without noticing that it is there". I have never in fact seen this feat performed, at least not without some struggle with the resulting shards.

But Peter York, the report's compiler, sounded pretty sure of his facts after studying female bosses. These miracle women have learnt not to be too intense and ambitious. Hell no. "Gentleness with the male ego and determination not to use sexual weapons to unfair advantage are natural female behaviour for the intelligent, well-adjusted woman," chirped Mr York.

These placid and undemanding women struck me as vaguely familiar. Then I remembered Margaret Atwood's scary vision of a fundamentalist dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale, in which women are freed of the messy burdens and sordid pleasures of the modern world, are centrally selected for breeding without much fun along the way, wear long red robes and bow modestly to the good of the collective, stopping only to lynch apostates.

Mr York has managed to cross two repressive instincts and produce a hybrid of ghastly conformity. The first is the time-honoured male instinct, according to which women are to be seen and not heard. The second is the dreary North American corporatism of the Fifties which demanded that human beings behave like well trained robots.

Perhaps he could be forgiven all this, had he not outlawed dressing up when we have a mind to, the one residual bit of fun in office life. I'll give that up when the executive men around me shed their Richard James ties and the creative ones trade in their black crew necks.

The word "natural", lurking in the undergrowth of the argument, is a sure sign that something is amiss. From Mary Wollstonecraft onwards, awkward women have been complaining about having a view of naturalness foisted upon them which suits the describers, not the described. As Marilyn French pointed out in her acerbic essay on Lady Macbeth, the demonic power of her story rests on relentless imagery that instils into us the view that her behaviour is not only morally wrong, but also unnatural, since she is a woman and has no business breaking rules, trivial or serious..

Still, I thought, Mr York is a famous spotter of trends. Perhaps the man is right. Out with the red Versace, in with the fawn Laura Ashley. My new year's resolution was to spread a little calm, hold that barbed riposte and, when in doubt, murmur "You're so right."

Imagine my horror when this newspaper reported yesterday on a paper given to the British Psychological Society. It maintained that women who wish to become senior executives need to exhibit "macho kick-ass characteristics" in order to prosper. In five years of interviewing managers, the compiler had found that the best female ones did not mind being disliked, "because they had to take tough decisions".

What is the point of all this? The pseudo-science of studying pushy broads must be nicely profitable for those concerned. I can't see what use it is to the companies who pay for it. For a discreet but vast sum, I will give any bidder the benefit of my 10-year analysis of women in the workplace, summarised as follows:

1. Successful women cannot be reduced to a set of qualities that can then be used like a recipe: "take one part aptitude to two parts attitude and leaven with self-deprecation".

Fashions change. Companies that are going through insecure times like bossy women as bosses because it suggests confidence, even when the balance sheet does not support this view. In less turbulent periods, however, they tend to play safe.

2. The female of the species is more like the male than the male would like to think - she is neither more nor less altruistic. On the whole, ambitious women are not aiming for the top as part of a feminist crusade, but because it is nicer at the top than in the middle. Do not, therefore, expect female bosses to be particularly nice to other women. You would not expect such selflessness from men.

3. Ambitious women still strike men as rather odd, because male- dominated cultures prize uniformity. They see brutal self-advancement in the most innocuous gestures. "Are you networking furiously?" a colleague asked me at a party recently. At the time I was leaning against a wall, drinking wine and chatting to a friend.

4. (This is the revelatory bit). Women are people. There are different kinds of them. Some are loud and bouncy, others are quiet and mousy. A lot are in between. They all have their uses. The important thing is to remember that they are there.