WomenEd Bookclub: Hello. I am talking

by  Kerry Jordan-Daus @KerryJordanDaus

I have been reading Mary Ann Sieghart’s The Authority Gap (2021), the stories of expert, talented, successful women, occupying a wide range of powerful leadership roles, recounting their lived experiences of being treated as a ‘Miss Nobody’, silenced, ignored and disrespected despite their clear expertise, intelligence, brilliance.

The authority gap, that women are routinely not accepted as legitimate holders of positions of power and leadership, even those at the very top of their respective professional fields; is very bad news. If these evidently highly successful women are silenced, what about the rest of us?

Delighted to join my colleagues and friends at the @WomenEdBookClub, discussing and heard, as I shared some of my reflections on reading about the authority gap. This blog summarises some of the topics we explored.

Am I pushy, over confident, do I have too much to say for myself? I recall one male leader explicitly telling me to be quiet In a meeting, that I had said enough. I didn’t question his position to seek to silence me; rather I thought, as I’d I have thought many times, what authority do I have to speak, question or challenge in this space. Perhaps I had said too much?

My sense a lack of authority is a consequence of gendered and class conditioning, that self-doubt continues to be a voice in my shadow. Is it a shadow, or is the cultural template that I have grown up with, a normalisation of leadership and male gender and social class? Who am I?

In a recent Guardian piece on the working class woman author, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, the article reported that she told her daughter that she stopped writing because “she was worn out”. Working in a Lancashire textile factory at the age of 11, Ethel is believed to be the first working-class woman in Britain to have a novel published. Her first novel published in 1913, Miss Nobody ( she went in to publish nine more), has a certain poignancy in its title. Today, for too many, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth is unknown, a nobody. Who is she? Another woman silenced. I have been thinking a lot about how women are silenced.

Mary Ann Sieghart draws upon a wide range of data to highlight this authority gap, a world framed by men for men. Talking to women experts in their fields of politics, economics, business, judiciary, law, clergy, journalism, education and drawing upon research data, Sieghart shines a light on the phenomena which it is argued is the invisible consequence of internalised misogynistic values so deeply embedded in our cultural norms and our resulting implicit associations. When we think CEO of Board, do we see male, when we think ironing board, do we see female? She reflects upon her own journalist career, the vilification she faced when she sought to be heard in the cut and thrust newsrooms. Rather than rejoice in her successful career, others, the Private Eye, used a caricature of Mary Big Head, or, Mary ‘know your place’.

Being at the top of your profession as a woman brings with it a constant focus on your body-shape, clothes and hair, rather than ability to lead the World Bank, to be heard. The request to the woman parking to move her car because it’s reserved for the bishop, she is the bishop, the MP advising the black woman that cleaners should not use the lifts, she is an MP, the woman being challenged on a fact, she is a leading sports’ correspondent and wrote the autobiography on the sport personality being discussed; each example illustrating that women in a position of authority have to work harder to be accepted at the top table, work harder at being heard and constantly address bias that denies their legitimacy in that expert role.

How many women are worn out by this constant need to have to prove that we are somebody, not a nobody, that our voice ( not trained to sound lower and more masculine) has every right to be heard?

Cultural templates are set by people, wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we must make it our culture that women are taken as seriously as men, and challenge anyone who dares not to listen to me.

I will speak, because I have something very important to say.

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