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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.