Rather than more “successful” women, can’t we just have fewer “successful” people?

Maria Miller is proposing that parents of girls receive “info packs” to help broaden their daughters’ career aspirations. In the face of falling numbers of women in executive positions, what could be more beneficial for both equality and economic growth?

According to Miller, “making sure women can be successful at work and in business is essential if we want a strong economy”:

A vital part of future career success is the aspirations that girls have early in their lives, and the choices they make about subjects and qualifications. Parents are vital in helping girls make these choices, and we know that many parents want help with that. This campaign will give parents the knowledge and confidence they need to make sure that their daughters make choices which will help them realise their ambitions

Way-hey! Get influencing, mums and dads! Because that’s a major thing that’s holding this country back, quite possibly the whole reason why we’re in this sorry mess today – women and their stupid, girlie choices.

It’s not that I don’t think parents can play a significant role in destroying a child’s aspirations. They can and this really matters. All the same, it’s worth asking why they do it. Is it because they’re in need of enlightenment through info packs? Certainly, ignorance and prejudice can motivate a parent to create needless barriers in the mind of his or her offspring. Often, though, parents just want what’s best for their child. They don’t want their son or daughter to suffer the disappointment of finding that opportunities they believed in don’t exist. What’s the point of saying you, too, princess, shall go to the boardroom when it’s all so terribly unlikely? And what’s the value in pretending that even if your little princess should get there, the rewards will be the same for her as they are for her male counterparts? They aren’t, not just in financial terms, but in terms of respect, esteem and expectations of personal sacrifice.

According to a group of senior businesswomen “women are not blameless” for their lack of presence in high-end positions.

If the economic answer to developing better performing businesses is skilled and capable women working alongside equally talented men, then it is time that these women stand up and be counted; that they take some responsibility for the issue of the under-representation of women at the top of corporate Britain.

Everyone has been looking to chairmen, chief executives, politicians and head hunters to ensure that more talented women reach the top levels. Until now, there has been no push on what we, the women, can do to support and address this serious issue.

Hmm. Is it just me or is there a rather simplistic understanding of “responsibility” and “blame” going on here? If women don’t “stand up and be counted”, is it because they can’t be arsed? Or – particularly if we’re assuming that these women are so skilled, capable and talented – could they be making a perfectly rational decision in response to the world as it is today?

Sexism in the workplace is insidious. The various ways in which the goalposts are shifted in favour of men might have been demonstrated in sociological experiments, but these are often invisible in real life. And even when sexism is direct and obvious, victims are unlikely to protest. Complaining – “playing the woman card” –  isn’t seen as very “professional” and every employee knows what side her bread’s buttered. Furthermore, even if we are talking not about sexism, but about the choices women make, it’s simply not true that if women make the same career choices as men, they get the same benefits. For a woman, faced with lower pay, more negative interpretations of her management style and inescapable speculation over her fertility, it might not actually be worth the bother to try and “aim for the top”. If she’s that desperate for the glittering prizes, it might still be more effective for her to think “fuck this” and marry the boss. The chances of success are possibly higher.

This isn’t, however, the thing that really pisses me off about these arguments. What really gets to me is that they’re meant to be about equality but they’re not at all. This isn’t naïve feminism, it’s not feminism at all. What these drives to get women into the boardroom ultimately do is feed the myth of the “wealth creator”, the “striver” versus the “skiver”. The Women’s Business Council, who have been advising Miller,  “was set up in 2012 to advise government on what more can be done to maximise women’s contribution to economic growth, focusing on areas with the greatest potential economic impact”. Because obviously, those who contribute most and have the greatest impact will be the “skilled and capable” boardroom leaders. There’s no chance that such people will be merely increasing inequality and serving themselves ever-larger slices of a diminishing pie. This really smacks of trickle-down economic bullshit. And yes, I’m not a sodding economist, but the WBC’s claim that “if women were setting up and running businesses at the same rate as men there could be 1 million more women entrepreneurs” seems a bit, well, simplistic. Wouldn’t the women entrpreneurs have an impact on the men entrepreneurs (mentrepreneurs??)? Is the number of self-appointed entrepreneurs really a marker of growth? And whom does it benefit? Why should the rest of us care? Feminism is about fairness and it is about supporting women. It is not a tool through which you sell your free market, striver-vs-skiver, wealth creator crap. Or at least, that’s not any feminism I ever want to know.

Still, I admit to being curious to see what the info pack contains. I’m hoping there’s at least one bright pink, glittery “How To Be Queen of the Boardroom” sticker book to hand down to your eager daughter. Seeing as no one in government seems to be that bothered about challenging sexism on its own terms, crass essentialism has to be the way forward. Indeed, further recommendations might include “pinking and shrinking” executive suites and offering shoes and chocolates as an alternative to share options. Don’t thank me, Women’s Business Council. As one of the non-talented masses, I’d rather just keep my head down and fail to make the world turn.


3 thoughts on “Rather than more “successful” women, can’t we just have fewer “successful” people?

  1. Thanks for your post – you know I love your content. However I strongly disagree with your message here.

    I can’t speak for whoever thinks info packs are going to solve discrimination against women in business, and you certainly are correct that women (indeed anyone who challenges patriarchal privilege) face untold harassment and discrimination. It is quite insulting for anyone to say that women just don’t want to succeed in business and need info packets to help steer them in the right direction.

    Women have been fighting for financial independence and a level playing field for hundreds of years. It is only in VERY recent history that women have been legally able to own property or work for their own financial interests. Even fifty years ago, it was unheard of to have women in all but a few career fields (teaching children, nursing, and sometimes social work and administrative tasks, for the most part). Women’s economic freedom is perhaps one of the most important parts of the Western feminist movement (not particularly versed in feminist movements in other parts of the world, pardon my Western-centered analysis, please).

    So for someone to say, girls shouldn’t be encouraged to be leaders in business, sounds mind-numbingly anti-feminist to me.

    The Guardian article you linked to, written by a white man who enjoys the privilege of living in the first world, possibly takes the prize for the worst logical reasoning I’ve read in weeks (outside of religious drivel, which hardly counts for much). I’m curious how George Monbiot would maintain his quality of life without working for a company with revenue of well over half a billion pounds, benefitting from a marketplace of advertising firms, software manufacturers, and everyone else that makes writing his accusatory opinions a viable, even comfortable, career. I guess he’d have to do without those “psychopaths” daring to start and lead huge companies that make our lives better – maybe he’d consider Oprah Winfrey a psychopath too? (Honestly anyone who takes seriously the labels used by the mental health industry, let alone deems it wise to use them as a premise for poor research, needs some basic education on how mental health really works:
    http://tiffany267.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/the-real-problems-with-psychiatry-hope-reese-the-atlantic and

    Anyway, as a fellow blogger has pointed out, http://dannesrepossessions.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/what-wealth-is , wealth is precisely what we enjoy by means of participating in trade, production, innovation – business. Without business leaders and consumers who support them, where would wealth come from? There is no “myth of the wealth creator”. Jobs, consumer products, housing, all the things people take for granted, are the product of people who put everything on the line to start and lead a company. A great many of these leaders are women, as I occasionally post on my blog:

    Yes, there is still terrible sexism in business. I am very thankful we have had women who have fought to make a place for themselves and for the rest of us. Considering where women have come from, when it was long unthinkable for a woman to start her own corporation, there has never been a more agreeable climate for women in business than today, and it is getting better every day.

    It honestly bewilders me how anyone could say “women in boardrooms”, especially as entrepreneurs, could be anything but positive. Smashing gender barriers? Giving women a voice all around the world through a marketplace that includes them as leaders? Offering women a path to the resources to make whatever decisions they like with their lives? This is precisely what feminism is! Women have been fighting for these opportunities for hundreds of years, and we finally get to this kind of progress and what do we say, gee there’s still men who are richer, screw it. It makes no sense to me. I do believe that feminism is and ought to be a diverse multiplicity of movements where we respect differences of opinion and tactics, but discouraging women from pursuing business to me doesn’t look like feminism at all.

    The only explanation I can see in your post is that you have somehow linked encouraging women to go into business to “selling wealth creator crap”. I have to say, I don’t see how economic and financial growth is “crap”, so I guess I’ll never figure out what you meant by this. Anyway, when you say that this isn’t a feminism you “want to know about”, it doesn’t compute for me, because that’s precisely the feminist movement that has allowed you and me to be here, independent financial actors/actresses who can get a loan in our own name, can keep our own money (other than what we are taxed), can work for a living in more fields than ever before, etc. Yes, we still have a long way to go. And we will certainly never get there if we discourage women and girls from succeeding.

    PS – This doesn’t seem significant in the scope of my topic, but it really is an important issue for women and it’s one I care a lot about, so here we go. From my own experience, I have to add that I can’t give parents the same credit that you do. Though I’m sure you’re a responsible parent, it is my observation that most parents are not mentally or financially prepared to manage their own lives, let alone to devote themselves to the lives of another human being. I personally do not have a single friend who doesn’t resent their parents in some way. Some of them have faced horrible abuse and neglect by the very people who are supposed to be most dedicated to protecting and nurturing them. People don’t talk about what a wreck most parents are because we live a culture that idolizes “family values” and parenthood as sacred unquestionable social values. In places where children are most statistically and socially unlikely to succeed (Appalachia, inner-cities, etc.), even the best of parents tend to discourage their children from pursuing better grades or getting better jobs. I’ve watched this. Parents shame their daughters who dare to seek a higher education or a job that commands their intellect. Parents shame their daughters for not marrying off right out of high school and “giving them grandchildren”. They continue the cycle of poverty and failure. Quite frankly, I found it shocking that someone would excuse this attitude, basically saying that “well you probably won’t succeed, why bother, darling” is an empowering approach to sexism in the workplace. The fact that daughters face obstacles in business should be reason for parents to do exactly the opposite! In fact, as I discussed earlier, isn’t that what feminism is all about? Empowering women and girls?

    Wish you the best, and look forward to reading more. Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think you are correct that financial autonomy is vitally important for women’s equality. However, to confuse this with the promotion of excessive financial gains for a minority – gains which don’t support, but take from the majority – seems to me simply wrong. Moreover, to argue that equality in the workplace and in pay should be tackled from a genuinely feminist perspective – one that acknowledges and challenges sexism – rather than one which simply uses feminism to bolster a very specific, self-serving economic world-view, does not seem to me to be the same as saying that women shouldn’t be leaders in business. I don’t think the latter for a minute.
      George Monbiot may be a privileged male; so too is James Caan, who supports WBC. I don’t think playing off supporters of particular positions in this way is particularly useful.
      Believing in “economic and financial growth” is also entirely different from supporting a belief that there are hugely talented wealth creators who are worth hundreds of times more than the rest of society. This just isn’t true. Executive pay has multiplied at a shocking rate compared to average wages, which have stagnated. This stagnation disadvantages the very women who need financial independence most.
      I agree feminism should be about empowering women and girls to be able to make choices – if such choices are truly there to be made. But if they’re not, rather than glibly telling our children to go for it anyhow, surely we should get angry and demand real change?

      1. Thanks for engaging me in this discussion in a civil yet challenging way 🙂 It’s rather unusual to find anymore.

        It sounds like there may be a few things on which we disagree, but one thing on which we probably agree is that women still do have a long way to go (though I still maintain as I said earlier that tremendous progress has been made and they have more opportunities than ever before, at least in the Western world).

        We do still live in a world where a mother with 10-20 years of an astonishing variety of hands-on experience, including managing family budgets, teaching, nursing, housecleaning, driving young children, mediating conflict, counseling teens, and a lot more, cannot find meaningful work because “she’s not qualified”. (Of course if she mentions that she has kids, then she’s even more screwed because that’s seen as a liability).

        One other thing we might also agree on is the danger of cronyism. I can’t speak for the UK, but the U.S. has a pretty terrible record as far as CEOs and politicians scratching each others’ backs. I believe it is that practice, not business in its natural form, which has taken away our power to shape the world according to our values. In an unrestricted market, only consumers would dictate whether an industry succeeded or failed. In a fascist, cronyist state like the U.S., small businesses (especially small organic farmers) are punished by the feds while a few multinationals with plenty of lobbyists seem to be getting lots of unfair advantages (particularly if they contract with the Department of Murdering People Around the World, ahem I mean the Department of Defense). In those cronyist American industries, I might agree with you that business executives are overvalued.

        Thanks again – so glad we have a platform to connect over issues like these. I love this WordPress thing.

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