Change the system not the women

16 07 2013

“For a woman to get half as much credit as a man she has to work twice as hard and be twice as smart. Fortunately this isn’t difficult.”

We’ll have all heard that saying, and probably most women had a smug smile or snigger of recognition when they first heard it.

Many successful women have even been heard to use it to imply that they must be much better than their male colleagues to be in a similar position of power and influence.

But put the quotation another way, that if a woman and a man are equally smart and work equally hard then the man will enjoy four times the success, it isn’t quite so funny.

And here is a problem with the hero entrepreneur, or the “shero”, a term that is gaining currency amongst this type of entrepreneur; it encourages us to focus on what women need to do and how they need to be to succeed in the current system when what we should be doing is focussing on structural inequalities. Focussing on women who have achieved great things fortifies the illusion that all women could succeed if only they tried harder, stayed later in the office, were more confident.

Last year I was on a discussion panel which followed a presentation of the book, “Beyond The Boys Club” by it’s author. I had agreed to sit on the panel as the meeting was to discuss the vexed question of increasing the numbers of women on corporate boards. I have to confess that I only read the book on the day of the event or I probably would have declined the invitation. That said, the panel debate was excellent but the book itself promulgates the very worst aspects of the current system. It perports to teaching women how to beat the men at their own game when we should be changing the game. The rules of this particular game, enforced by the boys club, led to the near total collapse of the western economy. We need new rules not just a different gender to play the same game.  Maybe we even need a different game altogether.

There is a parallel here with the very worthwhile aim of keeping women safe. It focusses on how to dress, where it is safe to go and places to avoid, times to be on the streets and times to be tucked up in bed.I would hope that the vast majority of people would want women to be unharmed but my point is that we need to focus on creating safe societies, making structural changes,  not just keeping women safe by restricting freedoms. Far better to teach men not to rape than to teach women how to avoid being raped.

We all want to believe that we are living in a fair world, one in which everyone is able to succeed solely on their own merits but we are not.

When women like Sheryl Sandberg stand up and talk about how women can achieve the kind of success she has had she enjoyed she is not addressing all women. She is talking to the very few women who can chose where, and for how long, they work each day. Most women, indeed most men, do not have this luxury. Her experience, as shared in talks and now in her book, may help with tricks and tips to succeed and may smooth the path of a very, very small number of women who wish to follow in her footsteps. But hers is a particular, priveledged journey that very few women, or men, are able to take.

By encouraging the, “if she can do it then I can do it” attitude we fail to address the deficiencies of the system.  Accepting that because one person can do something must somehow demonstrate that the system is OK is wrong.

We are not living in a fair world. Helping a few more women, or men, to struggle to the top of mountain is not the answer. Doing something to change the landscape is.

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