Denise Kingsmill: 'Running for office holds a particular form of hell for a woman'

It's not surprising that there are so few female leaders when women in the public eye are subjected to a constant stream of sexist comments.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2016

'Denise should be less of a prima donna and must be content to illuminate rather than to dazzle.' So read my school report at age 14. The message is fairly clear...'don't try to be a star, sit quietly and be a good girl'.

While boys are encouraged to win, to get to the top, and to reach for the stars, too often girls are encouraged to work hard, be good and help others. When it comes to work, women get stuck in support roles or in service departments. They are often seen as excellent deputies but are passed over for the top job because they lack so called 'leadership potential'. Of course, this is a generalisation and there are outstanding exceptions, but that's the point - women have to be exceptional to succeed, while even the average man can expect to earn at least 18% more and occupy at least 70% more of the leadership roles in business and politics.

Although it is changing, the figures speak for themselves. Fewer than 10% of executive directors of FTSE 100 companies are women. Only 29% of MPs are women. The paradigm of leadership is male and the resistance to changing this is huge despite all the initiatives, commissions and reports (including my own). Nothing illustrates this resistance better than the struggle of female political leaders.

Running for office holds a particular form of hell for a woman. Hillary Clinton is the most qualified, the most experienced and the most credible potential president of all the candidates on offer. Not only has she spent two terms in the White House as a very active First Lady and, in particular, a tenacious supporter of healthcare reform, she has had a distinguished political career as the first female senator for New York, and has served her country with distinction as secretary of state, itself an office only three heartbeats from the presidency.

Nevertheless, she has come in for an unprecedented amount of criticism and outright hostility, most of it of an intensely personal nature. Her hair, her clothes, her marriage and her voice have all come under vicious attack. Commentators have described her as 'shrill', a word only ever used to describe a woman's voice. Bob Woodward, the Watergate journalist, criticised her for shouting, while her similarly loud male rival Bernie Sanders is seen as forceful or enthusiastic - a highly gendered distinction. Donald Trump said she was 'disgusting' because of the time she spent in the loo during a break in one of the televised debates. Others have commented on her 'rainbow of pantsuits' for which she has been accused by homophobic critics of dressing like a lesbian, whatever that may mean.

This kind of sexist condemnation will be familiar to British female politicians too.Theresa May, one of the longest survivors in the notoriously difficult role of home secretary, is often attacked for her dress sense, or lack of it and, in particular, her choice of shoes. Labour MP Stella Creasy was aggressively trolled for daring to suggest that the new banknotes should display a woman for a change after centuries of males. The prime minister is well known for his patronising attitude to women MPs, telling Angela Eagle to 'calm down, dear' in a debate.

These are just some examples of the persistent and malignant sexism in Westminster. Much of the day-to-day discriminatory behaviour is reluctantly tolerated by the women who work there. It is recognised that the dominant culture of the House of Commons is loud-mouthed laddishness. No wonder there is a dearth of women prepared to choose a political career.

Even those women who do reach the top after running the gauntlet of sexism during their careers still face unpleasant personal comments. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany and widely regarded as the leader of Europe, was once said by Andrew Marr to be too unattractive to be elected to lead the UK. We should be so lucky to have such an effective leader.

Perhaps the most powerful evidence of the nasty sexist treatment meted out to a woman politician was given by Julia Gillard, one-time prime minister of Australia in her speech on 9 October 2012. She eviscerated the then leader of the opposition Tony Abbott for his misogynistic behaviour, receiving overwhelming national and international support. But she had endured cruel personal attacks during her premiership before being driven to respond in such a way.

The constant negative comments about the wardrobes and personal styles of female politicians may seem trivial, but they show that this is how women are to be judged. The sexism of the debating chamber is replicated in boardrooms, offices, factories and schools. It is a significant factor in discouraging young women from participating in public life. The message is do not lift your head above the parapet, stay in the background and let the men do the leading...or else.

Well, there is a new generation of potential women leaders out there who are more than willing to challenge the stereotypes and who have the will and the resilience to metaphorically raise two fingers to the criticism and who will do it their own way. Let's hope Hillary Clinton shows them the way by becoming the first woman president of the United States.

Baroness Kingsmill is a Labour peer and non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. Follow her on Twitter: @denisekingsmill

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