Pilita Clark: ‘Women must insist on right to be as useless as men’

Constantly being urged to celebrate an inspiring or spectacular woman is exhausting

With an International Crap Women’s Day we could celebrate the likes of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the self-styled face of lean-in feminism whose brand came a cropper after she was caught up in the string of controversies surrounding the company. Photograph: Pascal Lauener/Reuters

With an International Crap Women’s Day we could celebrate the likes of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the self-styled face of lean-in feminism whose brand came a cropper after she was caught up in the string of controversies surrounding the company. Photograph: Pascal Lauener/Reuters

 

There is still more than a week to go before International Women’s Day and already I am gripped by a familiar sense of exhaustion.

Each day brings another email or notice urging me to celebrate an inspiring, unstoppable or generally spectacular woman.

In London alone, I have been alerted to an Everest-conquering physicist, a visionary doctor entrepreneur and a quadrilingual vegan who floated a business in her twenties and works in refugee camps in her spare time.

There is no doubting the prowess of these women. Nor is there any question that the drive for female equality remains a dismally slow work in progress.

It was breathtaking to read a BBC analysis of a new crop of UK gender pay gap figures last week that showed four out of 10 private companies reporting a wider gap than they had last year.

Those figures are a jolting reminder that celebrating extraordinary women is no guarantee that the legions of less-than-stellar females are headed for relentless advancement.

In fact, the numbers raise a question about why we dwell on dazzling outliers at all. For one thing, we cannot all be brilliant. It is also tiring to think we should be. Yet this is the message we are often sent, at times by the brilliant themselves.

Orna Ní Chionna is one of Britain’s most experienced female directors. An ex-McKinsey partner with a Harvard MBA, she has been on the boards of everything from the Bupa healthcare group to the Burberry fashion house and, less happily, Royal Mail, where she was embroiled in the recent shareholder revolt over executive pay.

‘Twice as good’

Not that long ago, she wrote a thoughtful blog on the dearth of female chairs at large companies that included this eye-catching advice to women: “At interview, we need to be twice as good as the men, to overcome the gaps in our CVs and the perceived risk in being different. I don’t think we quite realise that.”

This is doubtless true but in 2019, it is also intensely irksome. How much longer will women need to prove they are twice as good as men to get ahead? What might it take to change things?

Put another way, why do so many incompetent men become leaders?

That question is the title of a new book by a professor of business psychology named Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic who thinks inept men benefit from our tendency to confuse confidence with leadership ability.

He says overbearing narcissists, who are statistically more likely to be men, find it easier to vault into top jobs at the expense of more able, considerate and humble people, who are often female, and we should rethink the way we judge sound leadership.

He has a point. I can think of plenty of quiet, modest people, male and female, who are beaten to top jobs by arrogant unfit loudmouths. Yet the belief that women are intrinsically nicer or better than men is fraught. It is just a slippery step away from the biological determinism that has long held women back in the first place. It is also uncomfortably close to that annoying urge to lionise the best and brightest on International Women’s Day.

All of which reminds me why I have always harboured an urge to see an International Crap Women’s Day. At one end of the spectrum, this would be a time to remember Parise Leandra Marciano Gale, the aspiring model who got so drunk on a plane last year that when she got off at Gatwick she thought she was still in Morocco.

In business, we would think of Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, the self-styled face of lean-in feminism whose brand came a cropper after she was caught up in the string of controversies surrounding the company.

Defrauded investors

We would never forget Elizabeth Holmes, the 35-year-old once hailed as a female Steve Jobs now facing charges she defrauded investors in her blood-testing start-up, Theranos.

I joke of course. Yet there is a serious case to be made against the wearying expectation for women to be always more able, more ethical, more generous and more inspiring. We must demand the right to be as incompetent, lazy and useless as any man. That is where true equality lies.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.