Wasn’t it great? All those lunches! All those parties! All those speeches, saying how great we are and how far we’ve come!
Perhaps it was for you. I spent International Women’s Day in the way I spend most days: sitting at home, in front of my computer, looking forward to the odd trip to the kettle. I saw the tweets, and read the articles, but it all felt a bit like bring-your-daughter-to-work day. It felt like dress-up-as-Hermione for World Book Day. It felt like Crufts.
It’s always a bit odd when a day set up to celebrate half the world’s population makes you feel as if you’re watching Greenpeace try to save a whale. Here, as always, were some prime specimens, making pronouncements about the dangers we face. Here’s Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, reminding us that the gender pay gap even among the rich country members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — a think-tank for developed nations — is 16 per cent. Here’s Charlotte Valeur, chair of the Institute of Directors, telling us that big companies don’t have more women on their boards because the companies lie.
And here’s Caroline Criado Perez saying — well, where do you start? It isn’t just, according to her new book, Invisible Women, that we’re less likely to make it on to bank notes or plinths. If we’re in a car crash, we’re less likely to make it, full stop. Women, she says, are 47 per cent more likely to die in a car crash than men. This, she explains, is because cars are designed for men. Oh, and so is the rest of the world.
Pass the hemlock, with those canapes. “The male experience, the male perspective,” she says, “has come to be seen as universal.” This has been true throughout history, and it’s true now. Quite a mountain to climb, then. The whole of world culture to change. Childbirth to be eliminated or reformed.
It’s all so big. It’s all so exhausting. Yes, of course we should have more women in power. Of course we should have more women on boards. Business leaders say we should be braver. They are, they claim, crying out for good women. They are scraping barrels for good women! All those brilliant white men on boards are sending out search parties for good women, but unfortunately the ones they find just aren’t good enough.
This is, of course, to use the technical term that our own attorney general used in a tweet earlier this week, absolute bollocks. If you go anywhere near an organisation such as Women on Boards UK, you’ll meet plenty of brilliant women. You’ll meet women who have had glittering careers in a range of sectors who are knocking on doors and being told that their face doesn’t fit.
It’s a cliche that women aren’t brave enough. It’s also a lie. According to new research by the Women’s Satnav to Success, which undertakes annual surveys to understand the challenges women face in their careers, women are just as brave as men. More than 70 per cent of the women surveyed said that they “always” or “usually” took on situations that took them “out of their comfort zone”. The problem was that their courage didn’t pay off. The problem, in other words, is what the report’s author, Diana Parkes, calls “the contribution-to-value gap”. The men in the survey said that they generally felt that their contributions at work were valued and heard. Only half of the women who said they consistently made contributions at work said the same. This leads, according to the report, to loss of engagement, lack of motivation, lower confidence — and sometimes the decision to leave. Women, in fact, are pitching for career advancement opportunities, but getting a bit sick of being kicked in the teeth.
Parkes’s view is echoed by Christine Lagarde. “Whenever a woman takes the floor,” she said in that interview, “there is a general reduction in the attention of men around the table”. Yup, you heard that right. One of the most powerful women in the world thinks men aren’t interested in what women have to say.
Pass the hemlock again, if there’s any left. And you thought the problem was childcare! You thought the problem was structural! The real problem, it seems, is that when women speak, men are bored.
There is a structural problem, of course. There is a problem with childcare. There’s unconscious bias running from the top to the bottom of pretty much every institution in the world. There are masses of huge problems, with complex solutions. But there’s also a simple one, and it’s cheap.
Companies can learn to listen. Men can learn to listen. We can all learn to listen to people who have different voices, and different sex, and different views. We can even learn to do this without making a song and a dance of it. Let’s start a revolution. We’ll stop the fuss if men will just occasionally keep quiet.
Christina Patterson is a trustee of the Shaw Trust and author of The Art of Not Falling Apart