Three things feminists need to stop talking about

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

"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.

Sheryl Sandberg. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496