Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

The Misogynist Elephant: Why Women Are Reluctant to Label Themselves ‘Experts’

Jane Thomas

The under-representation of women in news reporting has come into the spotlight once again this week, courtesy of a series of high profile debates and discussions about women’s issues, which fail to involve women’s voices. The concern isn’t new;  the Guardian have run commentary and analysis on the ridiculously low levels of female participation in shows like the ‘Today Programme’ for some time, and continue to highlight how skewed the print media is against women’s voices.

Attention has rightly been focused on research and editorial decisions which silence women through poor representation, with a cyclical and oversimplified response of ‘we looked and couldn’t find any’ being neatly disposed of by Week Woman founder and journalist Caroline. Just a few days after the launch of the new ‘Women’s Room’ directory – a voluntary register for women to list their experience/expertise to help find these elusive ‘skilled women’ – many women have willingly signed up.

At the same time an uncomfortable theme has been emerging of women who are clearly experts feeling reluctant to say so. I’m not talking about those who say they just don’t want to be listed (which is fine – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea) but those who genuinely question whether they are good enough. In some cases, the challenge has not been locating women with expertise, but finding them confident enough to want to speak or write about it.

Yet these are not women afraid to speak. Tweeps, bloggers, women with careers, women who fight day-in and day-out as carers… i.e. people who have to use their voice to assert themselves in regular life, seemingly receiving the same message that they aren’t quite important enough to comment on anything in the news. It’s a worrying reality, because this most likely reflects the trend of low-confidence that seems to affect so many women, frequently to our own detriment as well as to others’.

There is an inherent risk (and arguably a culture) of jumping the gun and asserting that this justifies women’s absence in the media and other positions in society. But we mustn’t conflate observation with causation here.  That women feel less worthy to promote their expertise in a culture that repeatedly sends the message that women’s expertise is not worthy, is no more a surprise than it is the fault of the women involved.

I would even go as far as to say that we are not comfortable in Britain with female success. There’s a mind-set of enjoying seeing someone publicly brought down a peg or two; women may occupy some positions of authority, but heaven help them if they ‘know it’. Take for example Dragon’s Den, where the ‘dragons’ have become symbolic of the shrewd businessman – and contrast it with the huge attention and critique of the (until recently) sole female dragon Deborah Meaden, whether on her judgement, wardrobe, communications style – you name it she is scrutinised and picked up on by comedians more than the others put together. Or Samantha Brick, a case of such multi-level irony which had even seasoned feminist commentators tangling themselves in knots, which was perfectly laid out by the Daily Mail to faux-challenge and ruthlessly hammer home the message that a confident woman is to be ridiculed. Let alone the unending both subtle and blatant scrutiny of female politicians, not least the recent treatment of Harriet Harman for the supporting the campaign to end Page 3.

There’s a big grey area between the legislative rights women have to equality and the respect of those rights shown culturally in the UK, which to me is the misogynist elephant in the room at any discussion which blames women for why women are so frequently excluded. Arguably most of the focus of Thirdwave feminism has been directed at this grey area, which makes it so tricky to easily define. It’s not unusual to find the sheer scope of the difficulties in overcoming this persistent cultural sexism outright daunting. On any given issue, critics can merely point to all the other parts of the grey area and say ‘why aren’t you questioning these?!’   In many ways, recent legislatures (not the current one) have matured more quickly on equal rights in principle through the human rights model, than UK culture can keep up with.

Until high-profile women can be respected unconditionally for their achievements without always being judged, picked apart, patronised on looks, questioned on integrity or subject to the barrage of irrelevant negativity that seems to fly past many successful men… all the equality legislation in the world and tick-box representation won’t address the cultural sexism which is so pervasive in the UK.

And that is one very good reason why women putting their hands up and giving their voices and expertise is so important.

Jane Thomas is a blogger, feminist activist and full time mother of three. She holds a BA in Politics (First Class), an MSC in Gender from the LSE, and worked as an Equality and Diversity specialist in the public and private sector for ten years.  Her blog is at inadifferentvoice.wordpress.com

4 comments on “The Misogynist Elephant: Why Women Are Reluctant to Label Themselves ‘Experts’

  1. Pingback: The Misogynist Elephant: Why Women Are Reluctant to Label Themselves ‘Experts’ | feimineach.com

  2. Pingback: [link] The Misogynist Elephant: Why Women Are Reluctant to Label Themselves ‘Experts’ « slendermeans

  3. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect (not obviously gender specific) “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. [...] Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “

  4. Sonya Cisco
    November 8, 2012

    I am not an expert in a particular field so would not register for that reason alone. Is it not considered a national trait that we British are not good at blowing our own trumpets- so maybe there are many people of both sexes with expert knowledge they don’t wish to be seen to ‘brag’ about. Who defines what level of knowledge is required to be deemed an ‘expert’ anyway? I have three kids, I haven’t broken any of them yet, does that qualify me as a parenting ‘expert’ or do I need a certificate of some kind. I agree that we do need a more balanced level of participation, but I would be amazed if a tiny bit of research couldn’t unearth women perfectly able to speak with authority on their given areas- perhaps 5 extra minutes by the researchers would lead them to the right people?

    But then what do I know? I am no expert in these things…

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This entry was posted on November 7, 2012 by in Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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