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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.