Photo of US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson bumping elbows at the G7 summit, as their wives look on from the sidelines.
Photo of US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson bumping elbows at the G7 summit, as their wives look on from the sidelines.

Imagine two professional women, one with a doctorate in education, the other a senior communications executive. What are you envisaging them doing? Discussing strategy at a conference? Giving a presentation at a meeting? Sorry, I should have warned you. They’re appendages, of course, so their only roles are to hold their husbands’ hands and be pictured cooing over a baby.

Yes, this may be 2021, but it doesn’t always feel like it. The images from the G7 summit of Carrie Johnson and Dr Jill Biden paddling in the surf in incongruously smart dresses while Wilf looks on in his nappy played into tired old stereotypes that many of us hoped would have vanished by now. I noticed that Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, a professor emeritus of physical and theoretical chemistry, wasn’t expected to join in.

Surprisingly little has changed since Cherie Booth, a senior QC who came top in her Bar exams, found herself the Prime Minister’s wife after her husband, Tony Blair, won power in 1997. “That was a bit of a shock!” she admitted to me in an interview for my book, The Authority Gap. “Because suddenly I found I wasn’t supposed to have a voice or opinions, or indeed to do anything apart from look after the Prime Minister.”

In her first couple of years at No 10, Britain hosted a handful of summits, and she found herself in a tussle with senior officials. “First of all, they insisted that I had to be called Cherie Blair because right up until then, I’d been Cherie Booth. We had the European Council in 1998 and they still had a spouses’ programme. Having done the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in which we had a fashion show and cooking, I thought that’s insulting, I’m not presiding over that programme again. So I got NSPCC and Barnardo’s to talk to us about different attitudes towards disciplining children. But the question was, what was I going to be called? And I said, ‘Cherie Booth QC’, and they said, ‘No, no, no, if you say that, none of the women will know who you are. You’ve got to be Blair.’ When they all turned up, the Spanish Prime Minister’s wife used her maiden name, and so did the Scandinavians. So the Foreign Office had basically lied to me.”

As an experienced barrister, she was used to public speaking and refused to be silenced the way previous Prime Ministers’ wives had. But she had to choose her subjects with great care, safe issues because they were seen as female: the role of women, work/life balance, stuff about kids. “Still,” she told me, “You’d turn up and say something and all they’d want to talk about was what you were wearing, which is a bit insulting if you’re an intelligent woman, because you don’t expect to be judged by your clothes.”

We accept that the royal family will be several decades behind the rest of us, but why should the world of politics be too? Why do political wives (but not generally husbands) have to suffer the humiliation of the cringey photoshoot? Why do we dissect what they wear and how they do their hair, while our own Prime Minister can get away with disgracefully ill-fitting suits, a belly hanging over his waistband and hair that hasn’t been brushed since he was a schoolboy (if then)?

It’s all because, however much lip service we pay to gender equality these days, we still instinctively find it easier to accord authority to men than to women. And we still instinctively find it easier to associate women with bringing up children and being an attractive clothes horse. There is still what I call an authority gap between women and men.

And that’s why, when the Prime Ministers of India, Australia, South Africa and South Korea joined the G7 and EU leaders in Cornwall, there were 11 men and just two women. In these supposedly representative democracies, only 15 per cent of people in charge are female. 

Many of us have an unconscious bias against powerful women. In fact, studies show that the idea of a ‘power-seeking’ woman (which all politicians have to be if they are running for office) fills people with feelings of moral outrage, revulsion and disgust.

When the Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo talked to a male interviewer recently about her ambition, he was shocked. She told me the story. “He said, ‘Oh my

God, you’re power mad!’ He was joking. But he wasn’t really,” she explained.

“What does ‘power mad’ mean?” she asked. “And why are we as women accused of being power mad when we’re just being strong and powerful? There’s nothing mad about it: we want to have agency, don’t we? We want to have a say in how the society is run. We want to be a voice and to be heard, and to make things happen. And in order for that to happen, we have to be powerful. So it’s something to aim for. And it’s positive and it’s good and it’s great. It’s only if you abuse your power that that’s a negative thing.”

We have to find a way of admiring and cheering on powerful women so that they can do good in the world. We have to stop recoiling at the idea, preferring to see them as appendages of their partners. We need to celebrate capable, competent, confident women. For while we continue to feel queasy about them wielding authority, the authority gap will never close.

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart is published by Doubleday on July 1, £16.99

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Images: Getty

  • The Authority Gap


    'A brilliant manifesto explaining why women are still so underestimated and overlooked in today's world, but how we can also be hopeful for change' - Philippa Perry

    'An impassioned, meticulously argued and optimistic call to arms for anyone who cares about creating a fairer society' - Observer

    Imagine living in a world in which you were routinely patronised by women.

    Imagine having your views ignored or your expertise frequently challenged by them.

    Imagine people always addressing the woman you are with before you.

    Now imagine a world in which the reverse of this is true.

    The Authority Gap provides a startling perspective on the unseen bias at work in our everyday lives, to reveal the scale of the gap that still persists between men and women. Would you believe that US Supreme Court Justices are interrupted four times more often than male ones... 96% of the time by men? Or that British parents, when asked to estimate their child's IQ will place their son at 115 and their daughter at 107?

    Marshalling a wealth of data with precision and insight, and including interviews with pioneering women such as Baroness Hale, Mary Beard and Bernadine Evaristo, Mary Ann exposes unconscious bias in this fresh feminist take on how to address and counteract systemic sexism in ways that benefit us all.

    Includes interviews with pioneering women such as:

    Baroness Hale
    Mary Beard
    Bernadine Evaristo
    Mary McAleese
    Julia Gillard
    Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes
    Cherie Blair
    Liz Truss
    Amber Rudd
    Frances Morris
    Laura Bates

    'Hugely exciting' - Emily Maitlis

    'Deeply researched, profoundly thoughtful and a book very much for the here and now: Mary Ann Sieghart's The Authority Gap is the book she was probably born to write' - Andrew Marr

    'At last here is a credible roadmap that is capable of taking women from the margins to the centre by bridging the authority gap that holds back even the best and most talented of women. - Mary McAleese, Former President of Ireland

  • Buy the book

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