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8 January 1999

Women are pushy, men ambitious

A survey claims that for women at the top success "just happened". Wrong, says Nicci Gerard

By Nicci Gerard

I was always told that horses sweat, men perspire and women gently glow. There is an unspoken rule that a woman shouldn’t show the effort that goes into her life – she should be attractive without trying, a good mother without learning, slim without dieting, successful without showing the strain. This emphasis on female discretion belongs to the myth of femininity – a myth that emphasises the serene and nurturing side of women, and erases their struggles, difficulties, conflicts and desires.

The headline over the lead story of last week’s Sunday Times proclaimed: “Cool it: pushy women don’t make it to the top.” A study of Britain’s most successful female chief executives and top professionals, carried out by the style guru Peter York, finds that “nice” women succeed, not nastily ambitious ones. Apparently, it doesn’t help to be ruthless or bullying or intense. You simply do well when you believe in yourself and are good at what you do. The women whom York interviewed (all aged between 45 and 60 and anonymous; most middle class and privileged by birth, and therefore with their own head start) said that they passed through the glass ceiling without even realising that it was there. They didn’t plan their careers but “concentrated on the job in hand”; they didn’t belong to women’s movements, and brushed aside sexism with gentle humour. How nice it all sounds, how civilised: just being good at your job is enough, after all. The fight is over, sisters.

A jaundiced first response might be that York drew a blank, that he didn’t get his subjects to say enough that was revealing, and that he is trying to soup up his findings. He comments that: “There is a growing acknowledgement that in return for equality with men it is incumbent on women to behave with gallantry towards them. Gentleness with the male ego, a determination not to use sexual weaponry to unfair advantage . . . are natural female behaviours for thinking, well-adjusted women.”

Let’s take it slowly, Peter: there’s a “growing acknowledgement” among whom? Not among any of the struggling, weary, stubborn women I know. What does it mean, “in return for equality” – are men in charge of the workplace, then, and kindly letting women have some of it just because they think it’s the right thing to do? Are men so frail that women, who’ve been bullied by them for centuries, must be “gentle with their egos”, as if they’re fragile china in a packing case? And what on earth are “natural female behaviours”? I know a lot of women, including myself, who are naturally furious and who would often like to bite the hand that thinks it’s feeding them.

The secret to success is the desire for success. You don’t just float upwards on a warm breeze, waving at people as you pass. To drift generally means to drift down. You climb there, step by step. You pass other people on your way and you have to get past them. Friends become employees, then ex-employees. You have to make, as Blair keeps saying, “hard choices”. And for a woman it has been as if she is climbing up a down-escalator, running twice as fast to move at the same speed. It’s the authentic double whammy: women have had to do better than men to do as well, and yet this also involves a heroic and sometimes heartbreaking juggling of domestic and professional lives (many of York’s women apparently had to sacrifice a family life to their careers in a way that subsequent generations are unwilling to do).

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When York’s anonymous women say that success “just happened” to them, it is a bit like all those married men who say that the affairs they have with younger women “just happened”, as if they were landslides or forest fires. Success doesn’t just happen. It’s effortful and sweaty – and so is regarded as a man’s business, after all. Maybe these high-achieving women want their rise to the top to have been easy because ambition has always been a difficult word for women. It summons up Demi Moore in Disclosure (a man’s version of female power, that turns the successful career woman into an evil whore); the hard-hearted, money-grabbing eighties; shoulder pads.

“Pushy” is a word rarely used about men – they are single-minded, focused or determined. Only women push. And it’s never used non-judgementally. It’s a tarty, aggressive, sharp-elbowed adjective: pushy women shove people out of their path, shoulder them aside, have no scruples. They have pebbly eyes and a harsh-painted mouth and they don’t like other females at all. Of course York’s interviewees wouldn’t describe themselves as pushy; nobody would, just as nobody would describe themselves as insensitive or lacking a sense of humour. But to push means, simply, to press against, to exert pressure, to drive forward, to urge. You must push to advance. You must push when there is resistance.

The tide has turned for women. Girls are doing better than boys at school. Women are catching up with men at work (over half the people becoming solicitors, for example, are now women). Boys are wobbly and men insecure, stripped of their old defining roles. They are scared of the assertive women who have emasculated them. Some women are worried by assertive women too – or wary of being called assertive themselves. Yet the dramatic changes of the workplace will continue, with much pain and injustice and conflict.

The real problem with the Peter York report is its dullness. Women know that, for better or worse, the workplace is like a Gothic novel and a revenge tragedy, the Borgias and I, Claudius, but they weren’t going to tell Peter York that.

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