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Three things feminists need to stop talking about

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

New Statesman
Sheryl Sandberg. Photograph: Getty Images

"For a woman to get half as much credit as a man, she has to work twice as hard, and be twice as smart. Fortunately, that isn’t difficult.”

This old saying still gets wheeled out quite a lot, as there's a bit of inspiration at work there, a bit of flattery. "Right", it invites women to think, indignantly: "let's bloody roll our sleeves up then! How hard can it be?"

But there’s more than one way of putting that thought. Here's another: “If a woman and a man are equally smart and work equally hard, the man will go four times as far.”

Slightly more galling now, isn’t it? That’s because the focus is off what the woman can do, and the point is clearer. Phrasing does matter, and there's a problem with the post "Lean In" feminist chat: it is far too focused on what women should be doing. How can they adapt to get ahead? Where are they going wrong? How can they avoid falling into the traps that keep women down?

But feminism is at its best when pointing out things that are unfair, and talking about women's behaviour is not only a distraction, but also harmful. Put someone in the spotlight, and you just end up seeing their flaws, and if you’re looking for reasons a group isn’t succeeding, you will find them. Maybe, you start to think, women just aren't confident enough. Or maybe they just don't put themselves forward, or maybe there simply aren't enough qualified women around.  Suddenly it almost seems as if women don't deserve an equal chance with the men. Turn the spotlight on those men though, and you see an equally human range of flaws. And if the men were placed the bottom of the pile, you can bet they’d start showing those defensive, unconfident, nervous traits too. The truth is that everyone’s a bit rubbish. The men just tend to be paid more.

Here’s a third way of putting that phrase. “Men not smart or hardworking enough to make it into positions of power will nevertheless find themselves working alongside women of four times their intelligence and work ethic.”

You may well be able to push your way to the top, but there’ll be a man out there just as pushy and bright as you, and things will be working out even better for him. Yes, it’s important that women are given good advice, but what is helpful to individuals often takes national debate in a very bad direction.

Take conversations around rape, for example. Knowing not to go home in the dark on your own is, I’m afraid, still useful, but equally, making this tip dominate the rape debate is not. The muddle around this point has caused many a screaming match between well meaning feminists who just want to keep women safe, and well meaning feminists who just want to discuss rape without blaming women.

And then there are conversations about work. Knowing pushiness is the way to succeed: useful. Muddying the equal pay debate with talk about pushiness: again, not so useful. And then there are conversations about attitude. Feminists tend to be unhappier than other women: a useful tip, perhaps, for living a life well. Letting this tip get anywhere near the national debate: not useful in the slightest.

It’s the difference between a quick fix and a big structural change. Sandberg's book is probably the perfect career bible for women right now, but they should use it, not talk about it. The splash it made is obscuring our line of sight.