LeadingWoman: Should George Eliot have acted less like a man?

I was all ready to give in to Catherine Fox when I read her well-argued book, 7 Myths about women and work. I am referring to the chapter in Fox’s book entitled: “Myth 6: Women should act more like men (and they are their own worst enemies).”

Fox reminds us, in examining this myth, that woman are often blamed for the problems they face.

In the case of gender inequality at work, women are told that they would be more successful if they asked for more money, and went for more promotions, if they cried less and were not so quiet, were less bitchy, stopped being so nice … the list goes on.

Fox identifies, rightly, that there is an avalanche of advice for women, often conflicting, about how to act more like men and dress for success. Fox ridicules the idea that being more “professional” will magically make the barriers facing women in the workplace disappear.

There is no doubt that women face double standards. Adopting the same strategies at work as men will not necessarily get them their way. While a man asking frequently for a pay rise might be seen as assertive, a woman doing the same might well be seen as aggressive.

In other words, social conditioning not only influences the way we behave but the way our behaviour is judged.

Then I went to a dinner to promote closer relationships between journalists and senior business women. It is an attempt, and valuable one, to make sure more senior women get quoted in the business press.

These women seemed surprised and horrified to hear that their male counterparts (chairman, directors and chief executives) give out confidential information in off-the-record briefings to journalists. The participants thought such behaviour was unethical and out of bounds. Well, of course, it is. But the media lives and dies on the information that whistleblowers and rule-breakers leak for their own reasons.

And so, these women are left out of the media conversation. That’s it.

This kind of conundrum begs the question: Should the famous writer George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, have adopted a male nom de plume? Without her male persona, she almost certainly would never have been published.

In other words, do women participate in their own oppression? It was a question most powerfully posed in that most famous (and unread) feminist tract, The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer.

She wanted us to throw off the shackles. We could not. It is all much more complicated than that.

And so, I am not ready to give into Fox just yet.

The problem that women face this: how much do we adjust our behaviour (compromise) in order to participate in the (so far) male-dominated world of work?

Actually, no. I suspect that is not the problem. Compromise is a “fait accompli”.

The problem we all face is how much we are aware of our compromises, or adjustments, and how we live with and laugh at them.

Fox critiques one of my favourite authors, Lois P Frankel, author of Nice girls don’t get the corner office. Frankel’s subtitle is “Unconscious mistakes women make that sabotage their careers.”

This is the point of the matter, and here Fox and I have enough in common with Greer and Frankel.

We need to raise our awareness of the areas in which we are being asked to compromise, to be honest with ourselves and, if possible, others about what is going on, and then make a decision if this particular issue is a deal-breaker for us. If it is, we can make a much clearer statement in our work situation, such as: “I am quite happy to wear a skirt to work as part of my executive role, but I will not accept that this company does not have equal numbers of women on its board.”

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