On Friday I was on a panel at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global accounting and legal conglomerate, discussing immigration. Afterwards two smartly dressed young women said they thought I was an impressively powerful woman. Powerful? Me? The very thought was insufferable. I frantically tried to disabuse them of the impression. I was merely a commentator. Foolish, pointless modesty. This is a female thing. Even though we women argue and fight for it, power makes us uneasy.
Getting over this psychic hurdle is no simple task because throughout history, girls and women have learnt – through fairytales, family dynamics and cultural expectations – to hold back. We are taught to quietly manipulate and influence people and events, to seduce and entrap, not to be too forward, frank or strident.
Think of Shakespeare’s wily and irresistible Cleopatra, undoing Mark Anthony by taking over his body and mind. Plenty of ambitious modern women similarly use sexuality to command and control their male peers. Some even teach their daughters to do the same. How low can you get?
Females who are bold and brassy have to be acutely mindful of the lines not to cross. OK, so there are those such as Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Indira Gandhi, the journalist Ann Leslie and ex-Speaker Betty Boothroyd who could or can make strong men quiver and cry. But these are striking exceptions. The majority of women shrink away from mastery, fear the power of power and do not grasp it. If this is to be the century of and for women, these internalised behaviours will need to be confronted. If not now, then when?
The Labour Party leadership contest is underway and Yvette Cooper (whom I admire hugely) is finding her voice, her sense of outrage. She got a first in PPE at Oxford, was the first government minister ever to take maternity leave, and the first female chief treasury secretary. Yet she allowed herself to be overshadowed by her husband, Ed Balls. She now strongly attacks the way the two female candidates have been treated by the media and Labour MPs. Meanwhile, the Tories have no female on their shortlist for the London mayoral election. It beggars belief that they didn’t even think about how 50 per cent of the population would feel about this all-boys offering. Both parties come across as backward and hopelessly out of date.
The writer and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig recently launched The Women’s Equality Party, alongside the former Time journalist Catherine Mayer, and it has already become Britain’s fastest-growing political party, with members paying £4 to join up. That alone indicates how frustrated British female voters are with the existing options.
The broadcaster Laura Kuenssberg is to be the next BBC political editor, the first woman ever to get the position. I remember saying to her many years back that she was among the best political analysts in the country. Many men are furious that she got the job. Progress is always hounded by packs of the disgruntled. Sexism gets worse when women start shaking up the “natural” order, when they take charge and become authoritative.
Last week we learnt from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that one in ten pregnant women and new mothers is forced out of work by sexist UK bosses. In one Sunday magazine a woman wrote a heartfelt letter. She has a fertility disorder and thought she would never have a child – but is now pregnant. This “miracle” happened just as she started a new job, and she is terrified of telling her bosses. Millions of women will know exactly why she is in turmoil. This exposes her biological “weakness” in a man’s world.
Even though we now have some incredibly successful businesswomen and female entrepreneurs, it is still said without shame that women are too emotional to be good leaders, that they weep frequently (as Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt said “jokingly”), that they are not tough enough. One CEO I met recently shared some of his obnoxious views while spilling champagne all over himself (and me). Let’s call him Alan: “They are a mess, all those periods and the menopause. They miss the kids, really want to be home but keep trying to be like us blokes. Tell me honestly, did you not want a life of leisure with a successful man? If you say no, you are lying.” Later a colleague of his (male) apologised and said Alan was going through a hard time because his wife had left him. These ridiculous masters of the universe hold the keys to all organisations and institutions.
Less than 5 per cent of the CEOs in top US and UK companies are female; in academia women have less prestige and lower salaries than men of similar talent and qualifications. In 73 per cent of countries, the proportion of female politicians still lingers at around 20 per cent. Women in Journalism, a network which tries to push for equality, know all too well how the business favours men.
Then there are the women who work in low-paid jobs, single mothers and carers, all of whom are disgracefully devalued by society. Middle class feminists too often remain detached from these defeated lives. There is no point in women rising if they don’t care about at the sisters they leave behind.
My daughter graduated last week. She got a first in medical engineering, as did two of her female friends. Will they stick at or abandon their careers? Will their male colleagues become horrible bosses? Will they punish women for having children or being smarter than men? Even on that day of total joy, these questions kept pounding in my head. I hope the bright young women make it and take power without fear or apology. It won’t be easy, but no radical transformation ever is. Our day will come.