Challenging the ‘authority gap’


12th May 2022

Closing or narrowing the 'authority gap' could help you and your organisation succeed. Studies have shown that it would certainly help women and men be happier and healthier, which can only be a positive thing.

A big thank you to Mary Ann Sieghart who highlighted the ‘authority gap’ in our latest Investing in Success webinar on 10 May. Our special guest spoke eloquently about unconscious gender bias and gave some shocking statistics.

The Blake Morgan Investing in Success business forum has been set up to help you and your business succeed and the ‘authority gap’  is a significant issue that is impacting many of us in the home and workplace. We want to encourage change in this area, to drive a more inclusive society for us and future generations.

What is the 'authority gap'?

The ‘authority gap’ is the pervasive underestimation of women’s competence where women are often taken less seriously than men in their public and professional lives.

Mary Ann is an authority on the subject as the author of The Authority Gap: Why We Still Take Women Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It. She makes programmes for Radio 4, spent nearly 20 years as Assistant Editor of The Times and has written a weekly column in The Independent.

Despite fighting for equality, women are still held back by the ‘authority gap’. Mary Ann explained it as…

A measure of how less seriously we still take women than men. We assume a man knows what he is talking about until he proves otherwise but for a women, it is all too often the other way round.

One statistic that she highlighted was that women are twice as likely as men to say that they have had to provide evidence of their competence and are much more likely than men to say people are surprised by their abilities. Kath Shimmin, Blake Morgan Chair, who was hosting the event, was shocked.

How does the 'authority gap' work?

We start with a default assumption of a woman that she is going to be less competent than a man. As a result we underestimate women, patronise them, interrupt them or talk over them, and are reluctant to give them credit for ideas. We tend to challenge their expertise much more than we do men and are reluctant to recognise their authority.

Mary Ann was going to give a lecture at Oxford University on the subject and searched ‘authority definition’ on Google. Her top result was one from the Oxford online dictionary and all examples only used one pronoun to demonstrate authority: ‘He’ had the natural authority of one who was used to being obeyed. ‘He’ was an authority on the stock market. ‘He’ hit the ball with authority.

She commented: “Sometimes your subject just comes up and hits you smack in the face. I thought, didn’t Margaret Thatcher have the authority of someone who was used to be being obeyed? Doesn’t Serena Williams hit the ball with authority? This is what we are up against.”

Why is this still going on in 2022 in our work and social lives?

The belief is that our unconscious bias is so deeply ingrained and is based on traditional stereotypes of what men and women should be like. If you look at children really early on they assume that boys are superior to girls.

One study was done on five, six and seven year olds who were asked to choose playmates for a game which required smart kids. From the age of five, girls predominantly chose female playmates and boys chose male ones. By the ages of six and seven, the girls were also choosing boys so they were associating boys with being smart. This is despite the fact that studies have shown girls do better at school, develop faster and have a bigger vocabulary than boys. Even by the age of six, girls think that they are inferior and boys think they are superior.

Why is it important to engage men in the topic?

Mary Ann stressed that her book is not about how we need to fix women. It is about how the rest of us need to perceive, react to, and interact with women. It is as important for men as it is women.

She said: “One of the most cheering pieces of research I came across showed that men gain from  gender equality as well as women, which sounds a bit counterintuitive. You might think it was like a seesaw where women will rise, men will fall, but there is an enormous amount of research which says that it is a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game (where one gains at the expense of the other).

“In equal societies and in more gender equal relationships in which the man and the woman share the unpaid work pretty evenly and the child care work equally, not only are the women happier and healthier, the children are happier and healthier, they do better at school, the girls are more ambitious themselves, but the men are also happier and healthier. They are twice as likely to say they are satisfied with their lives, half as likely to be depressed, much less likely to get divorced.”

The pros for men did not stop there – watch a recording of the webinar to find out more reasons for men to get on board.

Transgender individuals provide more truth

In any individual circumstance as a woman, it is very hard to prove that bias is at play. Mary Ann spoke about two Stamford University professors who had transitioned and witnessed the ‘authority gap’. After transitioning to a man, Ben Barres believed he was taken more seriously. Someone was even overheard at his seminar saying that his work is so much better than his sister’s, i.e. his own work before transitioning!

Whereas Joan Roughgarden experienced the opposite having transitioned to a female. Having been on a conveyor belt to success – pay rises and promotions – she then hit the problems that are highlighted in the Mary Ann’s book as her expertise was challenged in a personal way, being patronised and interrupted more.

How does confidence play into this?

As a woman, if you come against these incidents of authority gap behaviour – constantly being interrupted, ignored and patronised – having the confidence to combat this is essential. However, an issue is that if a woman starts acting confidently, we often recoil and don’t like her. We start using adjectives such as ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘overbearing’ and ‘scary’. These are adjectives not used for men displaying the same traits.

For women there is a very narrow path to navigate between not being confident enough and therefore being disrespected or over confident and therefore disliked. It is a very difficult path to navigate, it can be done but it is not easy. Mary Ann said: “As a woman, if you want to be confident and seen as very competent, you have to overlay an enormous amount of warmth on to your personality to mitigate any sort of hostility that you might otherwise incur.”

Underestimating women comes from both men and women

A British study of parents estimating the IQ of their sons and daughters showed that the average for boys was 115, compared to 107 for girls. Even parents are underestimating females.

What can be done?

The Queen Bee syndrome was touched upon although this is less prominent now and it was also stressed how important it is to have female role models. The discussion around female leaders and the qualities that they often display was fascinating, highlighting listening to others and humility as key traits to being successful. The difficulties that women of colour faced, which was a wider ‘authority gap’ than white woman, was raised. Mary Ann also discussed how to deal with being interrupted and what parents can do to help ensure that certain ways of thinking are not ingrained from an early age.

However, there was also hope. Hope that little things we can all do will make a difference as well as actions that organisations do can bring change, and with it, a happier society, not just happier women.

There are so many small incidences of interruptions and underestimating, they build up to widen the gap over time. But that does mean that doing small things over time, which can also build up, will reduce the gap.

  • When you walk up to a man and a woman, don’t automatically address the man first.
  • Notice if you interrupt women more than men, and if so, stop it.
  • Notice if you surreptitiously check your phone in a meeting when a woman starts talking having listened intently to the man.

What is important is that we recognise the ‘authority gap’ and act on it.

Organisations using blind CVs when looking at job candidates can make an enormous difference. Businesses can start with an audit on where they are now. Take findings to senior management, change needs to come from the top. Everyone needs to be held accountable.

Mary Ann concluded by recommending looking at bullet points in the back of the book and acting on them, perhaps just five at a time.

You can listen to the webinar recording here and sign up for our Investing in Success forum here to ensure you receive mailings, including invitations to future events.

As Mary Ann is also chairing the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, which Blake Morgan proudly support, she stressed the importance of both men and women reading books written by women. The Women’s Prize is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award celebrating & honouring fiction written by women. Follow this year’s judges on their reading journey, find out key dates and discover the books in the running to be the winner on the Women’s Prize website.

For more information on the authority gap, you can purchase Mary Ann’s book, available from selected stockists.

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