Annual Lecture 2021 – The Authority Gap

For this year’s NU Women Annual Lecture, we were delighted to welcome guest speaker Mary Ann Sieghart, who discussed her book, The Authority Gap.

Mary Ann talked about how women are taken less seriously than men, and the effect this can have on a woman’s confidence. Drawing upon interviews and studies, Mary Ann worked through a plethora of evidence which shows that women are repeatedly deemed inferior to their male colleagues.

“Indeed, if women aren’t taken as seriously as men, they are going to be paid less, promoted less, and held back in their careers.”

As Mary Ann explained, these inbuilt, gendered assumptions mean that for every 100 men promoted to manager, a position of authority, only 85 women are promoted, and this is even worse for women of colour.

These sorts of authority gaps do not just happen in the workplace either: they are also found in everyday life, and they happen even to the most senior of women. Mary Ann spoke about authoritative women such as Amber Rudd and Michelle Bachelet, who gave their own personal examples of when they were underestimated, or “manderstimated”.

“Being ignored, having your expertise challenged, being underestimated and patronised, being interrupted and talked over – these are all manifestations of the authority gap.”

Mary Ann discussed where these issues start. Gender inequality can be found in the school playground, as girls are taught to be modest and self-deprecating, whereas boys tend to involve themselves in boastful competitiveness. Girls, because of old-fashioned stereotypes, are punished for displaying the same confident behaviour as boys, and this continues into adult life. Women, in short, are expected to show communality, such as kindness and concern for others, whereas men are expected to show agency through the forms of assertiveness and dominance.

As explained by Mary Ann, the only way that women can be assertive is by covering it up with warmth: smiling, joking, and being emotionally aware of the male egos around them.

“So there is a real double bind for women: if a woman isn’t confident or assertive enough, she’ll never get anywhere. People won’t take her seriously. But if a woman is confident and assertive, many of us will resist her and dislike her.”

Mary Ann warned of gender bias, and the way that women can also judge other women, but also discussed the intersection of biases, such as race, class, sexuality and disability.

Mary Ann ultimately gave some solutions (her book lists 140) as to how we can narrow the authority gap:

  • We can accept that, however liberal and intelligent – and even female – we are, we probably suffer from unconscious bias.
  • We can’t stop this unconscious bias or put a lid on it. We don’t need to feel ashamed of it. But we can recognise that it is based on incorrect assumptions and outdated stereotypes and then correct for it.
  • We can notice if, when walking up to a man and woman together, we address the man first.

These were just a few – to learn more – do read her book, available to purchase on her website:

Thank you to Mary Ann for giving such a wonderful talk – and as evident in the questions and feedback – it was well received by all attendees. For the recording, please see below.