Lack passion? Bloody difficult? – Women leaders know this language all too well

Back in December 2014 I first wrote a blog entitled “What I am learning about sexism” and was surprised at how many hits it received.  I talked about how draining sexism is, and how it had taken me 50 years to see its patterns, particularly in the way women are talked about, and realise just how bloody boring and draining it is.

This week has not been good for the competent professional woman. The language used to describe Theresa May, Conservative leadership candidate, and Amanda Spielman, the proposed new chief of Ofsted, brings back personal experiences and frustrations.  The biggest problem in calling out unfair language used about women is that we get accused of ‘playing the sexist card’.  Well, I am going to call it out for what I think it is this week because, quite frankly, I have had enough.

This week I heard the frontrunner for the Tory leadership called a ‘bloody difficult woman’.  What does that mean?  Actually, it means she knows what she wants and is successful.  Someone who is too difficult to work with doesn’t end up being the longest serving Home Secretary since the war.

I am quite sure Theresa May and I have very little in common – certainly not politics – but we are both successful women in our fifties who don’t pretend otherwise.  The problem I have when I hear this sort of ‘difficult woman’ comment is that I remember the truly appalling things that have been said about me that would never, ever have been said about a man in the same way.  Men ‘know their own minds’; they ‘are clear about what works’, they ‘demonstrate a determination to succeed’.  Men ‘get results’.  Women, well, if successful we are a ‘bit like marmite’; it’s not that we know what works, it’s that ‘it’s her way or the highway’.  Women, you see, can be ‘bloody difficult’.

I also heard one of the most intelligent women I’ve had the privilege to get to know – a woman who has been deeply committed to raising standards in schools, and who managed one of the most difficult and controversial jobs in education – accused of ‘lacking passion’ and not understanding the ‘complex role’ for which she had been selected. I don’t always agree with Spielman but this I know – she understands the complexities of her new role and, arguably, of those judging her, more than they do.

The problem successful women encounter is this: if we are clever, and reasoned, and tell the truth, people often don’t like it.  We are meant to hide our lights under a bushel, allow those questioning us to show off their ability and be a little thrown by them; it really isn’t nice to be so damn competent and it is certainly unfeminine.  Clever, competent men make panels feel safe – ‘he was able to see straight through to the salient points and knew far more about this than we did’; he ‘wouldn’t get overly emotionally involved in the problems’.  All too often, in my experience, a woman who acts similarly is ‘a little disengaged and cold’; ‘we couldn’t warm to her and we’re not sure she’d fit in’.   I remember a long time ago, when looking for my first headship, being told (admittedly apologetically) that ‘the governors felt that there was a bit too much coming at them and they weren’t sure children would warm to you’.  On another occasion I was actually told I was ‘too clever by half for these governors’.

The essential problem is we cannot win: passionate women aren’t labelled as ‘driven’ – they are said to be ‘overly emotional’. (Oh yes, I’ve had that too!)

Actually we can win, we demonstrably do win and there are many, many successful women who are working hard to make sure the world views the generation of women coming up behind us in a more sensible way.  But it was hard for women in my age group to become successful and we still hear it over and over again – we are ‘bloody difficult’ and we ‘lack passion’.  Well, I can translate those phrases for you from the contexts in which they were used this week:

‘Bloody difficult’ = successful and determined

‘Lacking passion’ = calm, measured and clever when dealing with complexity

It is a shame anyone thinks of these characteristics as negative things to have.

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One comment

  1. Hilary

    I love your translations!
    I have recently heard quite a few people I know (men) say thoughtfully, “It’s time we had another female Prime Minister. We need one to handle this crisis.”
    I find that most interesting, considering who was the only other female PM we have had…