Inevitably, in every article about gender inequality which analyses why men keep getting the top job, one of the conclusions drawn is that women don’t push themselves forward enough. That women are just too cautious and can’t bluff their way into roles they have no idea about the way men supposedly can.
I must admit, until quite recently, I thought this reason was a load of bollocks really (which on read through is an unintentionally interesting use of the male genitalia as an insult, calling someone a dick or a cock doesn’t mutually exclude him being intelligent and successful, saying something is bollocks implies a lack of success). I have absolutely no problem telling my boyfriend exactly what I want for my birthday, pushing myself past hordes of people for that free piece of pretzel Mr Pretzel workers always taunt the public with on trays or indeed wisely nodding at friends/family that they should take my advice on something/let me organise something because of course I know best.
However, I have increasingly noticed that especially in a work environment, I am infinitely more cautious about expressing myself. I’m reluctant to word my emails as direct commands or questions: they tend to start with “I was just wondering”. I also tend to assume the worst of my work as well and have in the past emailed over work with a jokey-but-not-quite-covering-the-panic-comment like “hope it’s not too bad!”. A habit I’ve hopefully kicked by repeatedly telling myself that if David Cameron can think to himself that his Coalition Government is smoking hot, I can probably think that something I’ve written is moderately pleasing, given that it is unlikely to affect the economy and encourage mass unemployment.
I’ve even noticed in meetings and conferences that unconsciously I expect the middle aged, suited men to have the answers, and to be the authority on the subject under discussion. I know, I am being traitorous to the sisterhood by admitting that, but believe me I wish my sub-conscious wasn’t making those assumptions.
Why do I assume the men have the answers? Partly because they are louder and can sound more confident. It’s also partly an inherited thing I suspect. On one level, it’s an assumption inherited within my family as my father was the figurehead who dealt with banks, schools, the tax man and handled negotiations between family members and all other social interactions my hermit-like mother didn’t want to deal with. On a more society-wide level, we are so used to seeing men in charge that it’s hard to not imagine men being in charge. The day I walk through the City of London in rush hour and am not overwhelmed by the hordes of grey suited men blocking my path, will be the day I know we’ve hit a balance between the genders.
Of course men being more visibly in a position of power does not them an expert make. (I have no idea why my mother ever let my father deal with the banks, that woman hordes money better than a Scrooge-dragon hybrid). But it has affected the way we think about the gender power balance. Those generations of male visibility are going to be hard to dispel from our psyche no matter our best feminist intentions and it’s going to need some serious exorcising to break that glass ceiling.