In 2009, Marissa Mayer found herself at the centre of a very odd furore. Having joined the company in 1999 as their 20th employee and first female engineer, Mayer was now responsible for maintaining Google’s iconic search page. But the Google home page used a different shade of blue to that used by Gmail and, rather than let a designer choose, Mayer decided to user-test 41 different shades to see which one got the best response. Mayer was portrayed as a cold, unfeeling person who prioritised numbers over gut instinct.
As Mayer’s profile grew, so did the stories about long hours, her ‘legendary work ethic’, her ‘ball-busting’ management style. Mayer was no longer a person, with all the complexity and contradiction that being human involves, she was a robot: over-analytical and obsessed with data.
The media, reflecting society in general, frequently turn influential women into caricatures. Carol Bartz, the ex-CEO of Yahoo!, was criticised for her propensity for swearing on earnings calls, at conferences, or in interviews and her “salty language” became a focus of analysis when she was fired. The implication was often that she was overwrought and unable to control her emotions. Would a sweary male exec be subject to such criticism? Would it even be noted? And would it be written about in such prissy language as “salty” or “blue”?
Turning women into tropes
“While male leaders are allowed to have complex personalities, powerful women are often summed up by hackneyed stereotypes that undermine them and their power,” said Jenna Goudreau in 2011. She asked powerful women, as well as career and gender experts, to give her their “least favorite stereotype about powerful women” and boiled them down to a top ten: Ice Queen, Single & Lonely, Tough, Weak, Masculine, Conniving, Emotional, Angry, Token, Cheerleader. But you could easily pick other words: Matriarch, Femme Fatale, Hysteric, Bitch, Sister, Saint. Pick your poison, the results are the same.
This use of stereotypes isn’t accidental, of course. By putting women in boxes, the media (and society) seeks to rob them of their power and minimise their influence. Each stereotype is accompanied by a standard narrative that cleaves to familiar tropes and bleeds away all threat. The Ice Queen may be successful, but at what cost to her emotional well being, her family, her friends, and her future? She will obviously need to be rescued by a good man, or children, who will show her the importance of empathy, sacrifice and submission. It’s the plot of a high-concept Hollywood movie, except these are real people being shoe-horned into fake narratives and they are the ones who pay the price.
False impressions of equality
This propensity for using stereotypes to marginalise women is exacerbated by men’s inability to fairly judge when gender parity in a group has been reached. According to Geena Davis, recent research has shown that when the number of women in a group reaches 17 percent, the men in the group believe that the gender split is 50:50. When women make up 33 percent of the group, the men believe that women are overrepresented.
It’s the same with speech. Despite numerous folk criticising how chatty women are, women in actual fact speak less than men, except for when they are in private, informal situations. Yet men still believe that women talk more, a belief that starts at school, according to PBS:
“[A] male science teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 per cent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils. They complained vociferously that the girls were getting too much talking time.”
This puts powerful women in a tricky spot: Men think they are over-represented even when they are in a minority, which they most certainly are in the higher echelons of business and government, and most of the world thinks that they talk too much even though discussions are actually dominated by men. And then come the stereotypes to diminish and marginalise them. What is a woman to do?
Fleshing out the fictions
For Michelle Obama, one of the most powerful woman in the world, ‘angry’ was the media’s epithet of choice back in 2008. Seen as too opinionated and too brash, not just by her political enemies but by her supporters as well, she had to consciously tone herself down. Wrote the New York Times in June of that year:
Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, a close ally of the Obama campaign, says Mrs. Obama must stop sounding like a lawyer trying to win an argument. The trick, she said, is “not pushing so hard to persuade people that Barack is the right one.”
“All she has to do is be likable,” Mrs. McCaskill said.
Mrs. Obama has already had to check her brutally honest approach to talking about race.
So in order to be more acceptable to the media and society, Michelle Obama has had to back off from her own training as a lawyer and be less honest about her opinions on race, as well as other topics. How can this be right? To fit in, she must deny her very self.
Very few powerful women can either defy the stereotypes or resist the push to change their self-presentation in order to satisfy those who feel uncomfortable with their intelligence, power and influence. Even JK Rowling, who faced one of the worst possible stereotypes in the UK today, that of Single Mother on Benefits, has been only partly successful. Stories about her attitudes towards tax and donations to charity have ensured that she has transformed now into Saint Rowling. Heaven forfend she ever turn out to be human after all.
The best way to combat this nonsense, in my opinion, is to talk about women in terms of their achievements, not their ability to cook beef stroganoff. What have they created or discovered? What challenges have they overcome? What are their greatest successes? It doesn’t matter whether they bake cookies every Sunday, have children or love cats. What matters are their actions.