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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.