Why smart women will bin their copies of Smart Woman magazine

"Inner confidence" and "fearing success".

I’m not quite sure how I feel about a small glossy magazine that arrived on my desk today. On the one hand, it’s one of the most patronising reads I’ve experienced in a long time — perhaps all the more so because it’s so well intentioned. On the other, it’s really quite funny in parts, although this was most definitely unintentional.

Smart Woman is a new pamphlet published by Barclays, with the tagline "Take control of your financial future" and a very pouty Emma Hill (CEO of Mulberry) in tiger-stripe heels as the cover girl.

I had to think a while to be able to describe what makes the name Smart Woman so excruciatingly embarrassing, but it’s partly the idea that potential readers will require this kind of affirmation of their own intelligence. It feels like a schoolgirl commendation.

Many women (and men) would undoubtedly benefit from advice on managing their finances and furthering their career, but this isn’t the right way to present it.

Barbara-Ann King, head of female client group at Barclays, wrote the introduction: "For many women… self-doubt seems apparent in the realm of financial decision-making. We see women in many studies revealed as cautious, risk-averse and taking longer to move from thought to action. Not necessarily bad traits, but ones that perhaps hold a woman back from realising her true potential."

For a start, I would suggest that being "cautious" and "risk-averse" doesn’t necessarily imply self-doubt: it could equally imply a greater awareness of, or sensitivity to, what financial risk-taking can mean for themselves or their families, for instance.

Secondly, a strong argument can be made for wanting more cautious, risk-averse individuals in finance. Finally, the producers of Smart Woman would probably have benefited from "taking longer to move from thought to action": the thought behind the magazine is great — it’s the execution that’s so jarring.

One of the
features in this issue of Smart Woman (doesn’t the name grate?) is about why so few women are on boards, a topic I’ve written about before and one that interests me a great deal.

It piqued my interest, and then contained one of the least sensitive discussions of women giving up work to have children I’ve ever come across. It cites the example of Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management and a campaigner for more women board members, who has nine children, to illustrate that it’s not 2having kids per se that’s the problem" when it comes to women reaching the top of the career ladder.

Helena Morrissey has spoken at Spear’s events, and I have a strong feeling that she wouldn’t want her example used to illustrate a point made by Gwen Rhys, founder of Women in the City and Networking Culture, that "if women negotiate their way out of that [gender pay] gap, they have enough money to pay for the childcare and get rid of the guilt."

Morrissey may be a fantastic example of a woman able to juggle work and family life — but not all women can, or would even want to, follow suit. Not all women find that an expensive nanny will help them "get rid of the guilt" after consistently missing bedtime — and few high-flying jobs are OK with women clocking off by 6pm.

If the Daily Mail likes to paint working mothers as bad mothers, Smart Woman implies that stay-at-home mothers are simply under-ambitious — I’d expect a more intelligent discussion from a rag aimed at female executives. 

It doesn't stop there. Rhys then asserts that not only are women to "blame" for their low representation in the boardroom, but also that women "fear success". "It’s controversial," she says (and she’s not wrong there), "but for women, the fear of success is greater than the fear of failure. Because if you do leap across the precipice to the boardroom, you have to keep proving yourself."

I would like to see some evidence for this notion that women are scared of having to "prove themselves". It’s shocking that a magazine aimed at "smart women" could be so dismissive.

The piece goes on to argue that women don’t do enough to promote themselves, and need to be more pro-active, which may well be true to a degree, but doesn’t reflect the whole picture.

Perhaps this, ultimately, is my real problem with the magazine: King’s introduction may talk about the need for women to overcome their self-doubt, but the rest of the magazine seems mainly concerned with pointing out what women don’t do well enough, or need to do better: women must stop giving up work to have children. They need to stop fearing success. They need to play politics the way men do, raise their own profiles, and change the way they speak in boardroom their views get heard.

We’re not doing well enough, and it is all our fault, is the central theme, and the conspiratorial tone and patronising title don’t help.

"This issue of Smart Woman puts the spotlight back on what women can do when they allow their creative minds to partner with their inner confidence," King writes in her introduction.

When my creative mind partnered with my inner confidence my feelings about Smart Woman suddenly became clear and I had only one thought: bin this thing (but blog about it first).

Women are apparently "taking longer to move from thought to action": Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.