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

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.