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.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.