Why aren’t there more women in the board room?

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I wish this video were as untrue as it seems.  But in fact when it comes to talking in public and being taken seriously, it is right on the money. There whole books written on this subject and I will cite some of the many studies, but what I am going to do in this blog is point out obvious gender discrimination.

Let us begin with pondering on why there is such opposition from both sexes when it comes to women vicars, never mind women bishops.  After all, the church is about caring for parishioners, and which is the more caring gender?  Yet the person pontificating in the pulpit should, it seems, be a man.  So what is more important for the church to do – preach at us about hellfire and damnation or care for our spirituality in good times and bad?  This is the point of this blog – a vicar is seen as having authority and people in authority are usually men.

To pick up the theme of professions changing gender.  From time to time it is pointed out that teaching is now predominantly female, particularly in the early years, and as such is down graded.  There was a time when to be a teacher gave you high social status.1  And, from time to time, it is remarked that there are more and more female doctors, with the comment that this will downgrade this profession too2

In the classic book by Deborah Tannen You just don’t understand, she draws on research by Harriet Wall and Anita Barry of college students expectations of male and female professors.  The students were given identical information about prospective professors – academic backgrounds, publications and so on – and were asked to predict how well the candidates would do if they got the job, including their chances of winning a distinguished award.

Some who read the materials under a woman’s name predicted that she would not win the award because, as one writer put it, ‘Too much business, not enough personality.’  No one made inferences like this when exactly the  same ‘file’ was read under a man’s name.

Wall and Barry also found that the students judged the women more harshly than the men.  The students expect more of a female professor – she is expected to be more caring, giving more time out side class than a male counterpart.

Women are just not taken as seriously as men.  There is an American doctor called Duanne Graveline.  This is the doctor that suffered appalling amnesia when prescribed statin drugs.  This doctor is now running a campaign to keep herbs and vitamins available; the drug companies would love for this stuff to just disappear so we only take drugs for our ‘health’.  I found out about this campaign and contacted Dr Graveline.  I have subsequently received many e-mails from the campaigning group.  The e-mails are, I thought, hysterical in tone.  I thought Duanne a female name.  Then I found out that Dr Graveline is actually a man.  I felt like a car screeching to a halt.  My instant thought was, I should take these e-mails much more seriously – this is a man being hysterical.  Oh, I cannot tell you how depressing I found this whole instantaneous thought process.  My second depressing confession concerns a course I attended taken by Dr Anne Moir.  Dr Moir is a female female.  I walked in and felt distinct disappointment that this soft female was lecturing us.  Now, as the course went on, she was just fabulous and her gender, if anything, became an asset.  But when it comes to interviews/selection processes, ie routes to to the top, how long does a candidate get to make the right impression?  We do tend to make instantaneous judgements.

And so we come to politics.  The huge majority of politicians are men.  Or business, the huge majority of the people at the top of the professions – those on the board – are men.  We can put this down to women having babies, so taking a career break. 3 But if we think more carefully, the reasons for this are more invidious.  During her rise to power, Mrs Thatcher was twitted for her high voice, and so she had voice lessons and learnt to speak using her bass resonance, giving her voice more authority.  I really do not remember Tony Blair being so twitted for his voice, which I always thought of as rather high.  And here I have unwittingly fallen into one of the many linguistic give aways inherent in our language; I naturally wrote Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair.  I nearly went back and corrected it to Margaret Thatcher – but decided to leave it there for us to ponder on.  Does the term Mrs, with the connotation of ‘the wife of’ weaken Mrs T?  Or, since politicians are generally known by their whole name as in Tony Blair, is ‘Mrs Thatcher’ a mark of respect?    Is Mrs Thatcher the exception that proves the rule?

Women face real difficulties when it comes to being authoritative and aggressive.  Speaking with authority or aggression is male, as the video clip above still demonstrates.  Being caring is female, so if a women speaks with authority she becomes harder and less female.  If she speaks with authority but in a female way, she is seen as unfeminine.  To quote again from Deborah Tannen:

Indeed, a woman need not be particularly aggressive to be criticized.  A professor who invited a prominent woman researcher to speak to his students was shocked to hear some his students – both female and male – comment later that they had found her arrogant.  He had seen nothing arrogant about her at all. She simply hadn’t engaged in any of the womanly behaviour they had come to expect, such as continually smiling, qualifying her statements, or cocking her head in a charming way.

To combine politics, authority and aggression, I think the criticism of Hilary Clinton during the last Democrat selection process typifies the problem that women face when trying to climb to the top.


Finally I want to touch on the invidious use of language when it comes to men and women.  Deborah Tannen gives another beautiful example ‘After giving the acceptance speech, the candidate fainted’.  Guess the gender.  ‘After giving the acceptance speech, the candidate passed out.’  Above I talked about finding Dr Graveline’s petitions hysterical.  Had I known that she was actually a he, I almost certainly would have found the petitions rather over-the-top, hysterical being a far stronger, pertaining to females screaming and yelling, over-the-top is much weaker and more suitable for a man.  Yes, this is a mixture of both language and how we view women as more emotional.  We can think about how we feel about a man crying as opposed to a female.  This all goes on and on.

Why there aren’t more women in the board room is clearly a huge subject, reflecting on the very real and deep lying gender expectations.  When it comes to leaders, it is still very much a man’s world and will require a change in society of enormous magnitude to be different.



  1. Indian Government Dept Education. Compilation on 50 years of Indian education: 1947-1997.  Erosion of the social status of teachers. []
  2. Domenico DM, Jones KH. Career Aspirations of women in the twentieth century.  scolar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals 2006 []
  3. Another reason for men being at the top is they are naturally competitive whereas women co-operate with each other.  But research shows that in a mixed group, women revert to male behaviour, but are still female so are either seen as soft or overbearing.  It seems we just can’t win. []

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