Show caption The busy intersection of prejudice … MP Dawn Butler was mistaken for a cleaner on her first day in Westminster. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Book of the day The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart review – why men are still on top A thorough and sometimes enraging book shows how women are stripped of authority, why that’s bad news for everyone and what we can all do about it Nesrine Malik Fri 16 Jul 2021 07.30 BST Share on Facebook
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The only thing worse than not being aware enough of gender inequality is experiencing it too much. The Authority Gap, by Mary Ann Sieghart, is one of those books that takes something ubiquitous, something that perhaps many have become desensitised to, and slowly exposes its far-reaching implications. Underestimation of capability is something women have to live with from childhood, but, as Sieghart rightly says at the start of her manifesto, “this underestimation is so commonplace that most women bat it away as if it were a fly buzzing around their head. But it’s just as irritating.” By the end of the book, I found that weariness give way to resolve.
Sieghart’s study offers a breakdown of all the ways in which an “authority gap” is manifested between men and women, and how its cumulative results amount to de facto informal laws prohibiting women from taking certain jobs. Despite the progress society has made there are still many ways in which women are prevented from achieving equality.
The strength of the work is in its data collection. Sieghart has interviewed more than 100 women and grounded their anecdotal accounts with research. A few high-profile interviewees remain with us throughout, a cast of characters who bring in their experience to support Sieghart’s point that no matter how powerful a woman is, no matter how outwardly high achieving, she will still not be vested with the same authority as a man of similar – and often lower – status. These are real players: heads of state, CEOs of large companies, holders of high political office and Booker prize winners. The openness with which they speak about the challenges they still face is both humbling and appalling. If Christine Lagarde feels sometimes like she has to psyche herself up to speak publicly, then surely what any other woman goes through is normal, but also inescapable.
The evidence for the size and persistence of the authority gap isn’t just in theunsurprising, for example that when men exert authority they are seen as taking control, but when women do it they are dismissed as “bossy”, “abrasive”, and “bitchy”. Sieghart also brings in more subtle evidence that shows how women’s learned impulse to render themselves as unobtrusive as possible begins to dictate entire national characteristics. In one remarkable section, she explains how the very register of a woman’s voice is dictated by the need to appear unthreatening to men – the higher it is, the more women are demonstrating “feminine” traits such as “submissiveness, deference and subservience”. In Japan, women use markedly higher ranges than in western countries, peaking when they are trying to be polite. In another section, she mentions an app called Woman Interrupted, which detects when a male voice speaks over a woman. In the UK, this happens 1.67 times a minute, while in Pakistan it’s 8.28 times. Such detail seems less damning than the conditions that powerful women still face, but in its subtlety much more devastating.
The first few chapters of the book are the strongest: Sieghart explains not only that there is an authority gap that has serious consequences, but that closing it is good for everyone, men included. In a fascinating chapter about the experiences of trans men and women she illustrates a world hardwired to benefit men. Men reported losing authority once they transitioned, and women gained it.
It is harder to keep track once Sieghart starts to break down the authority gap into its parts. Chapters are divided into texts that do not seem that distinct from each other. Headings such as “The confidence trick: confidence is not the same as competence”, “Conversational manspreading: how men hog the floor”, and “Changing our minds: how hard it is for women to exert influence” all start to blend into one. The reader starts to lose the very specific thread of authority, and stray into the realm of general patriarchy and misogyny. Of course, the authority gap exists because of these structural gender imbalances, but the distinct contours of the gap begin to blur a little as the thesis progresses.
I also wished, as the voices of powerful women punctuated the book with their accounts of being undermined and underestimated (or “mandermined” and “manderestimated”, as Sieghart puts it), that the authority gap could have been demonstrated more through a less elite cohort. It makes sense to refer to those women with the most authority to show that the gap is so huge it applies even to them, but I found myself searching for more details of everyday challenges that don’t involve boardrooms or high office.
That said, Sieghart is fastidious in trying to cover the experiences of all women across the spectrum. In the chapter “Bias entangled: The busy intersection of prejudice”, the multiplicity of complications that arise for women who are not middle class, white, straight or able bodied is earnestly and diligently tackled. Despite this effort there is surprisingly little political contextualisation in the analysis. In one anecdote that recurs a few times, black people in senior roles are assumed to be the help. MP Dawn Butler is told in her first days in Westminster that the lift she is in “isn’t really for cleaners”. It would have been helpful to take another beat here to explain that the authority gap is also maintained in western countries by harsh immigration systems that trap some people of colour in low-paid, insecure jobs. In the UK, those systems have been enforced most strictly, in recent years, by women.
But it is through the empowering of women at the top that Sieghart believes we have the best chance to close the authority gap. Most of the solutions she proposes, she writes, “are aimed at getting more women into leadership positions. This will eventually transform our attitudes towards authoritative women.” Whether that would be transformative for our politics in ways that give women across the hierarchy the same respect is another question.
• The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.