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Mary Beard – Women & Power

Review of Mary Beard – Women & Power: A Manifesto (updated) 2018: Profile Books Limited, London

But is she strong enough to be a leader?

Whilst this book is a print of two of Mary’s lectures and you have to be into ancient history to enjoy much of the first half of the book; for me it’s the second half where it really ramps up into some interesting postulations. Three points which struck me I’d like to share:

Symbols

Early in the book Mary talks about Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May using items which are traditionally feminine (handbags and high heels) as symbols indicating they are not letting go of some aspects of their femininity despite the pressure to look/act/think like a man as a powerful leader.

Of course Thatcher’s handbag was twisted into a weapon and ‘handbagging’ became a new word in our urban dictionary. Which brings me onto my second point…

Androgeny

Mary explores a very interesting angle, throughout much of the book, about how women feel the need to be ‘less of a women’ as a leader. It’s a bit of a catch 22 point, is it acting/thinking/feeling less like a women which helps a woman become a leader, or is it once she is a leader she feels the pressure to be like a man?

Margaret Thatcher famously had voice coaching to lower her voice so she would be taken more seriously. And how come this still goes on? Why do we feel the pressure to power dress in order to be taken seriously?

Apparently the popular choice for women in politics is the trouser suit. Why can’t a woman with a high squeaky voice, dressed in a floral floaty summer dress and gorgeous espadrilles be seen as a strong leader? What would it take for us as a society to break the strong stereotype link we have between leader=male.

Power=politics/male/leader

It is really interesting how Mary challenges our interpretation of the word power. Claiming that we have the word connected to Politics, Maleness and Leaders. I am not completely convinced on her statement here as that feels like a media rather than corporate perspective. I know many senior leaders who would not associate it quite in that way. However – she is right in the association between power and male.

Time and again I see the same qualities interpreted in different ways because of gender. In my personality profiling I am very mindful writing “He is self-confident and has a strong sense of his self-worth; likely to be a visible, impactful, strategic leader” could be interpreted quite differently if I wrote “She is self-confident and has a strong sense of her self-worth; likely to be a visible, impactful, strategic leader”.

Think about our social upbringing – “she” might have been told off for being a bossy boots, “he” might have been praised for standing up for himself. So it’s natural we take these childhood messages into our adulthood and into the workplace.

My conclusions?

This book is worth a read, even if it’s just to shock you how long women and power have been disassociated and why it’s so embedded in our cultural norms.

Read this book to galvanize you into taking action and looking at how senior women leaders in your organisation are role-modelling the image of a leader for the younger women entering the workplace.

And whatever you do – don’t give up on the cause, just because the pace of change is slow, just means we have to be more tenacious, and frankly, I know a lot of men who support this change too and want to see the change in the workplace too.