The authority gap: why women are taken less seriously than men

Jun 08, 2022 - updated Aug 09, 2022

8 mins

The authority gap: why women are taken less seriously than men
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

BOOK CLUB Staying up to date with all the best books dealing with the theme of work isn’t easy. That’s why we asked the author and lecturer on the future of work, our Lab Welcome expert Laëtitia Vitaud for help. This month, she read The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it, by political journalist Mary Ann Sieghart.

Why aren’t women taken as seriously as men when it comes to power and professional expertise? Why aren’t their ideas heard more? Why do so many people get irritated when a woman speaks out strongly? I have often wondered why their opinions seem to carry less weight than those of their male counterparts. I myself have often felt like I was swimming against the tide, that it was harder to go the same distance. For example, did you know that women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men? In other words, putting ourselves out there is comparably much riskier.

Mary Ann Sieghart, a British political journalist who has had a successful career in a male-dominated world, blames it on the “authority gap.” In a compelling book entitled The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it, she explains that “however much we claim to believe in equality, we are still, in practice, more reluctant to accord authority to women than to men, even when they are leaders or experts. Every woman has stories to tell about being underestimated, ignored, patronized and generally not taken as seriously as a man.” For her, the authority gap is “the mother of all gender inequalities” as it explains the pay and power gap.

We all have biases against female authority. In fact, we all tend to evaluate a man’s accomplishments as better than a woman’s – even when they’re identical. We all keep giving men more space to express their ideas – in corporate meetings, the media, scientific symposiums and professional forums – and to assume that a man knows what he’s talking about until proven otherwise, while it is too often the opposite for a woman.”

As Sieghart writes: “In the developed world, thankfully, women are usually allowed to make decisions about their own lives. They can and do speak out for their rights without having to fear for their lives. But that doesn’t mean the problem has been solved, for covert sexism is very hard to fight. It is far easier for perpetrators to deny or dismiss. Women who complain about instances of it can be caricatured as chippy, oversensitive or humorless, or told they are being hysterical and making it up.”

There is a deep imbalance in our perception of things

When Sieghart talked to people about her plan to write a book about the “authority gap,” she noticed a profound imbalance in people’s reactions: all the women she talked to were enthusiastic and knew exactly what she meant (“Great topic! Can’t wait to read it!”), while most (but not all) of the men were skeptical (“Really? Is that still pertinent?”). For her, this gap was itself a perfect snapshot of the topic. So this authority gap is also coupled with a perception gap.

Many women feel like they’re swimming against the tide at work – only to have some men swim with the current, congratulate the women for swimming so fast and tell them they should be more confident and assertive. But, she writes, you don’t notice how easy it is to swim with the tide until you’ve had to swim against it. (It’s the same problem with people who have never experienced racism: they don’t know how easy it is for them). Privilege is invisible.

The perception gap can be demonstrated when it comes to the amount of time men and women speak at work (and elsewhere): even when a woman speaks for only 30% of the time, those present may feel that she’s dominating the discussion. Another example of the authority gap is the fact that most women feel like they have to constantly prove their skills, which are still called into question. Even after proving their skill level, they are interrupted and criticized much more than their male counterparts are, and their work is more often called into question.

At work, we spend more time justifying our decisions, explaining the reasoning or methods for them, and defending them against criticism. Even in emails, women are more often criticized and get less respect. People who have experimented with signing their emails with a name identified as belonging to the male gender have noticed a difference. Some women entrepreneurs have even created a fake male associate to communicate via email and found it much easier: they received responses much more quickly and the emails were more polite and respectful.

Several studies have shown that this imbalance begins at school, where girls are considered “studious” and “conscientious,” while boys who achieve the same results are seens as “brilliant.” Girls owe their success to hard work and boys owe theirs to talent – or so the story goes. Both teachers and parents don’t assess boys’ and girls’ intelligence the same way. This is largely due to unconscious bias, of course. But the harmful effects of these biases will last a lifetime. If you grow up with the idea that you’re not as smart as the rest, you can’t be as confident. Sadly, confidence is still too often conflated with competence.

Sieghart continues: “We absorb this idea of male superiority from such an early age. British parents, when asked to estimate their children’s IQ, will put their son, on average, at 115 (which in itself is hilarious, as the average ought to be 100) and their daughter at 107, a huge statistical difference . . . boys, on average, grow up thinking they are cleverer than girls.”

On the other side of the fence

The people who understand this imbalance best are those who’ve lived on both sides of the gender barrier. When a woman feels that she is not taken as seriously as a male rival, it’s often very difficult for her to prove that she is being discriminated against. She may be accused of crying wolf or using sexism to mask her own incompetence. Unconscious bias is particularly difficult to prove. The culprits tend to take offense and insist that you’re just imagining things.

However, when you speak to transgender people, they often have interesting stories to tell about the authority gap. They have experienced the difference in treatment firsthand and it’s impossible for them to ignore or deny it. One of the transgender professors Sieghart interviewed concludes, Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise . . . Trans men see a great improvement in the way people respect them after transitioning; trans women experience the reverse.”

One trans woman interviewed by the author noted how her research work is now systematically challenged by her peers. Everything she proposes is challenged and checked. And she gets obstructed from concluding her remarks in meetings. With the memory of her life as a man still fresh in her mind, this woman can’t help but see a stark contrast.

‘I’m sorry, I must have said too much’

I remember one of my teachers calling me a “chatterbox” as a child. I remember being quite offended because that word made me feel that what I was saying was inherently worthless and uninteresting. It was a judgment on my entire being. The myth of the chatterbox has taken its toll. Especially since, as Sieghart explains, the reality is that women speak much less than men in the media, in movies, in corporate meetings as well as in political settings. The few women who do exercise real authority are interrupted more often than their male counterparts. Studies show that male patients interrupt female doctors more often, and that male employees challenge their female bosses more often as well.

This is why it may be wise to institute a no-holds-barred rule in meetings and use strategies to reduce the stigma undermining women’s authority in the office. Often, when they do manage to get the floor, people won’t listen to what they say as carefully. Many women complain that their ideas are heard only when a man echoes what she’s said. Not being heard has a terrible impact on mental health too. Surprisingly, even powerful women have experienced going unheard by their audiences.

“When she was Chair of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde told a World Economic Forum panel, ‘When a board member who happens to be a woman speaks, guess what? A lot of the men on the board start to physically withdraw, they start to look at their papers, to look at the floor… and you need to disrupt that.’ She didn’t hesitate to call them out on it,” the author writes.

On average, women speak much less in public spaces. This is the equivalent of not taking up as much space physically. While men spread out and take up space, women make themselves very small. Many women have attended meetings and dinners where men are engaged in their favorite activity: conversational manspreading, that is to say, taking up conversational space at the expense of those around them. The author talks about the many dinners where she’s sat next to men who talked the entire time without ever asking her any questions in return.

Talent versus work

Much like Sieghart, I’ve found that women are less often described as “brilliant” but rather as “hardworking” or “conscientious.” On the one hand, there’s pure talent, and on the other, there’s work. But in fields that have built a whole mystique around genius and pure talent, such as mathematics, music, physics, philosophy and economics, to name a few, this only helps to discriminate against women more easily. It undermines their intellectual confidence.

“A recent survey by the American Economics Association found that half of the female economists interviewed said they had been treated unfairly because of their sex, compared with only 3 per cent of the men. A startling 70 per cent of the women said their colleagues’ work was taken more seriously than their own,” she writes.

On top of this, starting in school, boys are encouraged to brag about their accomplishments while girls are rewarded for their humility. In some ways, bluffing and arrogance are encouraged in boys, which adds to a gender gap in self-confidence. “Arrogance and overconfidence are inversely correlated with leadership talent.” The author believes that women shouldn’t be encouraged to copy the toxic behavior of bragging and showing off: “Instead of sending women on assertiveness training courses, we should be sending men on humility and bullshit-avoidance courses, and the authority gap might be better addressed.”

They’re not judged on the same criteria

Women are often criticized for not being assertive enough but when they are more assertive, they are often penalized for it. The author cites an Australian study that found that while women ask for pay raises as often as their male colleagues, they don’t get them. “Women are rewarded for being nice. They’re expected to demonstrate what psychologists call a sense of commonality: kindness, warmth, selflessness, and a sense of sacrifice, a whole lot of stereotypes associated with the female gender.”

In general, male recruiters do not like female candidates who negotiate but place a lot of emphasis on their achievements, which they also tend to underestimate. This puts female candidates in a delicate situation: they have to face the double challenge of trying to get their professional qualities recognized, but while remaining friendly and humble. If they don’t lean in, they don’t stand a chance. But if they come off as too assertive, they run the risk of not being liked and not getting hired.

It’s fundamentally too simplistic to tell women just to “step up” and “ask for more.” If it were that simple, they would have already done it and gotten what they wanted. The main problem is that they are not being judged by the same standards and have to walk a tightrope to be seen as competent, but not threatening.

It’s not a zero-sum game

Ultimately, Sieghart says, we should all understand that putting an end to the authority gap is not only within our power, but it’s in everyone’s best interest. She cites a 2019 McKinsey & Company report on the topic, which surveyed more than 1,000 large companies in 15 countries and showed that “the most gender-diverse companies are 25 per cent more likely to achieve above-average profits than those with very few women.”

There are two reasons why more diverse companies outperform others: firstly, they have access to a much larger talent pool, and secondly, more diverse teams make better decisions. This is not only true for companies, but also applies to countries: “Countries ranked in the bottom 50 per cent on gender inequality could increase their GDP by 35 per cent if they addressed these inequalities.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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