Journalist, Author, Broadcaster
Mary Ann Sieghart is the author of the best-selling book, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About it.
She spent 20 years as Assistant Editor and columnist at The Times and won a large following for her columns on politics, economics, feminism, parenthood and life in general. She has presented many programmes on BBC Radio 4, such as Start the Week, Profile, Analysis, Fallout and One to One. She chaired the revival of The Brains Trust on BBC2 and recently spent a year as a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. She has chaired the Social Market Foundation think tank, is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London, and sits on numerous boards. She was Chair of the judges for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.
Great to have you all with us. This is an episode that Karen and I both have been really excited about. For obvious reasons, this is a podcast that one of our main focus is equality. And we talk about gender, we talk about race, we talk about everything across the board. But Mary Ann Seegart, first of all, thank you for being with us. She wrote a phenomenal book. I recently read it. Actually, I listened to it. So... I will give you that credit. You held my interest throughout called the authority gap. And I'll be honest, having gone through some of this, Karen's been through it as a woman. We understand it, especially living in the sports world. My first thought was I cannot imagine the backlash that she got from writing this book, the doubters, you're a man hater. I can't imagine in the social media world that we live in. First of all, I just wanna commend you for writing it and what prompted you to do so.
Oh, well, thanks, Lisa, very much. What prompted me, I guess, was just many decades of experience of both being patronized and underestimated and ignored and challenged and watching other women go through this too. And finally, I thought I've got to an age and a stage in life and a level of success in life in which I can really call this out on behalf of womankind. and men will really have to take notice. Now, of course there has been some pushback, but what really makes me laugh is that a lot of the pushback actually proves my case. So when a man argues with me from a position of complete ignorance that my thesis is completely wrong, when I've been researching it and proving it for three or four years now, I can say to him, well, QED, you know, you are displaying the exact behavior that I'm talking about in the book. which is women's expertise being challenged by men unnecessarily disproportionately. And that pretty much shuts them up actually.
I loved what she said in the pages that this is not a man bashing book, it's a consciousness raising book and it sounds like maybe there are many minds that still need to be illuminated and enlightened. There was a review you did where you told a hilarious anecdote about sitting next to a banker at an event. and he asked you what you did and you're listing off your accomplishments and when you finish he says, my you've been a busy little girl and you're 50 at the time. Is that what you're talking about when you speak of patronizing things that prompted you to take this on?
That was exactly it. I was older than the then Prime Minister and he called me a busy little girl. And I thought, I haven't been called a little girl since I was about six and I remember it annoying me even then. Can you imagine him saying to the man, you're a busy little boy? No way.
Well, I love the introduction. I love the I love everything about the book. But for the for those folks and I hope that a lot of people will listen to this entire podcast because I kind of want to open it up for you to explain some of the different research and points that you hit throughout like Karen just mentioned, but I love the title of the introduction. Why Bart Simpson has more authority than Margaret Thatcher. I remember when I saw that as the introduction, I was confused, I was lost. I was like, where in the world is she going? Obviously I grew up in the era of Margaret Thatcher and remember how wonderful and strong and powerful she was. So was this really a Google search? Tell our listeners about how this came about.
Okay, so I did two Google searches. I had to give a lecture on this subject at Oxford at the university, so I thought, well, I better define my terms. So I literally just Googled authority definition. And the very first result that came up on Google was from the Oxford Dictionary Online. And guess what? Every single sentence that they used as an illustration of a different use of the word authority. began with the same pronoun. I think you can guess which it was. So there was, he has the natural authority of one who is used to being obeyed, and he hit the ball with authority, and he was an authority on the stock market. And I thought, well, hang on a minute, didn't Margaret Thatcher have the natural authority of one who is used to being obeyed, and doesn't Serena Williams hit the ball with authority? It just showed how readily we associate male with authority. And then for the same lecture, I was preparing some slides and I needed to illustrate one on expertise. And so I went into Google images and I typed expert. And in the first 20 slides, there wasn't a single woman, it was all men. Bart Simpson appeared before we saw the first woman on a slide in a group of men. And finally there was a big photo of a woman and I thought great I can use that so I clicked on it. Guess what? It was a woman having something explained to her by a male expert. So I just thought these just illustrate how much more readily we associate men with authority rather than women.
Yes. I was telling Lisa before you joined our chat that what I found so empowering about the pages was there were so many anecdotes you told where I found myself nodding and saying, my goodness, I actually thought I was the only one that experienced this in the workplace. I even showed a few to my husband because there honestly have been times where he's said to me, And he's very supportive, but he said, are you sure you're not being a little paranoid? And the truth is it's not paranoia if they are out to ignore you. And what I found just an example of this was when you talked about the Twitter sphere and how in the political punditry, you have. all these male pundits who are following other men and they don't follow the women who are doing the exact same work that they are, the same reporting, covering the same stories and issues. And that really resonated for me because in my years as a sports writer, I would tweet out my stories, I would tweet out my opinions and it just felt like they were going into some black hole. And there were so many men in the business who weren't even following me. But then they would say, Oh, I saw that tweet you sent, but they weren't following me. It was like, what is going on here? Um, if, if you could speak to that, like, what is the rationalization or reasoning behind this kind of behavior?
Well, you know, a lot of these men just don't rate women's opinions as highly as they rate men's opinions, even if those women are just as expert on their subject. And I found this really frustrating too. I used to be a political columnist for the Times in London. And, you know, I've got a reasonable Twitter following, but nothing like my male colleagues. And the reason was that men were following other men. and not women, even in the same fields. And the same is true with the Beltway journalists in the US, actually even more true there. And so if they're not even following you, you're not even going to enter their newsfeed. Whatever you say, however brilliant it is, they're not even going to see it. And there was a survey done here in the UK. It was a couple of general elections ago of who was the most influential political journalist during the general election campaign. So who was most retweeted and commented on. And given that at the time the BBC's political editor was a woman, I thought well there's going to be at least one woman in the top 10, probably two or three. Big fat zero. So not even the BBC's political editor made it into the top 10 most influential political journalists. Why? Because the men weren't following the female political journalists. And even if they did follow them, they were much less likely to either retweet them or comment on their tweets and create a conversation than they were another man.
I can give a real life example of this. In 2018, Patrick Reed won the Masters. In 2019, he comes back to defend. I spend a year reporting a feature on him. He's a very complicated person. And my story is published online right before his press conference ahead of his defense. And in it, I wrote about this, he's estranged from his parents, his parents, father and sister were stalking him at some tournaments. I talked about many really newsworthy things. The editor said to me, we've got to get this online before his news conference. It's going to direct the news, the questions asked. And I said, oh, no, it won't. I'm telling you, there won't be a single question asked based on this story. And guess which one of us was correct.
Along those same lines and I'm interested because you're talking about Twitter and I've certainly experienced this. It's almost like it gives you credibility. So if they go, if they follow you, they're giving you credibility and I'll give you a good example. And I will say most men aren't like this, but there are a small group of men and it's very apparent from the get go. So when I worked at Golf Channel, I grew up playing playing golf and I was a pretty successful amateur golfer, played collegiately, know the game very well. And so after all my years working in sports broadcast television, I think that's redundant, but anyway, I start this job at Golf Channel and I think, okay, with my history, with my resume, I'm immediately going to have credibility. I don't have to fight for it like I did at other sports jobs because this is my sport, this is where I've excelled on a national level. And what I found was that it was actually the opposite. It was worse because there was an intimidation factor because here comes this female who all of a sudden has this, this resume that, that should be respected, but we're going to have more pushback. I think the problem is you see a lot of these people who have sort of that attitude. And I don't know if it's just a coincidence, but they seem to a lot of times be very influential in their jobs. So, you know, when you're writing a book like this and you come across issues like this in your research, how is it counteracted? How do we make it better? Because like I said, there's so many supportive men, but it seems like this small group of people are still able to bring everyone else down in that regard.
And it tends to be a symptom of insecure masculinity. So it's the ones who feel they have most to prove as men who feel most threatened by successful, competent, confident women. And so they want to keep us down because it makes them feel insecure. Whereas the men who are much more comfortable in their skin are great and they don't mind it at all. I think all we can really do is show to these men that actually they can gain. from the authority gap being narrowed. They think that it's a zero sum game and that the more women rise, the more men will fall. So they find it very threatening. But actually the cheering thing I discovered in my research is that the opposite is true. I mean, first of all, just in personal terms, if we meet a man who treats us with respect and listens to us just as attentively as he does to other men, we notice immediately. We love it. We love men like that. We really appreciate it. So we're going to engage with them much better as friends, as colleagues, as lovers, as partners, you know. So they're going to have much more success both socially and amorously if they behave in a respectful way towards women. But also what all the academic research shows is that both in more egalitarian societies and in more egalitarian American states. by the way, so in northern and coastal states more than the south. And also in more egalitarian relationships in which, straight relationships that is, in which the man and the woman share the chores and the childcare pretty equally. So in these situations not only are the women happier and healthier, which you would expect. and the children are happier and healthier and they do better at school and they get on better with their dads and they have fewer behavioural problems. But actually the men themselves are happier and healthier. So they are twice as likely to say they're satisfied with their lives. Twice as likely, that's a lot. They're half as likely to be depressed. They tend to drink less, smoke less, take fewer drugs, they get better sleep at night. But here is the absolute clincher for your sexist dinosaurs. they get more frequent and better sex. So guys, this is really in your interest, right? I wanted to say to my publisher, can I put this on the cover please to get men to read this book, you know, how to get more frequent and better sex. Ha ha ha.
I think we just found our best clip to promote your book.
I was going to write a whole chapter about what men can gain from this, because I thought otherwise, you know, why would they read the book if they think it's not in their interests? And I was going to have it towards the end, and I thought, no, actually, because if they stop reading Halfway Through, they'll never discover this. So I pulled it right up to about chapter four, you know, to make them realize this really is in their interest too.
You mention in the book about unconscious bias, and I think that really, we see that all the time. I remember one of our columnists at the New York Times, Charles Blow, writing something that I wrote down because I thought it was so impactful. He said, it is not sufficient to simply not be a sexist yourself if you're a man. You must also recognize that you benefit from the system of sexism in ways in which you may not even be aware. And I have so many occasions to think about that. There was an event, an LPGA women's golf event in Jersey City over the weekend where a 20 year old who had just turned pro, Rose Zhang, won. She won in her debut. It hadn't been done since the second year of the LPGA's existence. And a PGA Tour pro, Michael Kim, don't mean to call him out, but he said, I don't remember the last time I turned on the golf channel to watch the LPGA. The Rose effect is real. And I thought, wow, way to tell us that you're sexist without telling us you're sexist. And if I, I'm sure Michael Kim would be mortified to learn that is how his words could be taken. But how else do you look at it when you have a male playing the game at the highest level saying he never even turns on the TV to watch the women playing at the highest level?
That's extraordinary, because they're just as skilled as the men, aren't they? I mean, there's no difference.
Yeah, I mean, and you know, you could argue that for the, the person watching at home, the women are more relatable because they aren't driving the ball 350 yards and you know, the distances to the male viewer perhaps are more relatable. Lisa could speak to that much better than I.
Well, yeah, everybody has their own opinions. Mary Ann,, there were so many interesting stories that you tell in the book, and I want to focus on a couple that really hit home for me. So I thought that it was fascinating when you talked about the transgender folks who you talk to and their experiences, both positive and negatively. And it really sort of opens your eyes to the fact that your experience as a woman versus a man, and we all don't get to live through it. They actually did. and we're able to talk about it and say, yes, this is real. But the one that really hit home is the author, Katherine Nichols, and she wrote the manuscript and she wrote the cover letter, and you tell this story really well. And if this doesn't open people's eyes to why you had to write the authority gap, I don't know what would. But just in a nutshell, to explain to folks, she writes this cover letter, she sends out a portion of her chapter and she sends it to 50 agents, gets no response. And basically the response was thanks, but no thanks. Then she changed her name to where it looked like a man, had a man's email and sent the same thing out. And all of a sudden she started getting all of this response. If you would please share what stood out to you most with that story.
Yeah, so she sent it out to 50 agents and was really excited, waiting for replies, waiting, waiting. She finally got only two positive replies and they didn't even say, yes, I want to represent you. They just said, well, you know, maybe send me more of the manuscript. So she had what she described to me as this nutty idea of doing what you just said, sending it out with a male name instead. Exactly the same, 50 more agents. Within two hours, she had 17 positive replies, which made her, she joked, an eight and a half times better writer as George than as Catherine. And she said, it's not just that she got these positive responses, but they were also incredibly helpful. They were sort of coaching her. They were saying, well, you know, here's how I think I would slightly change the plot if I were you or the characterization. And she said, I realized I was being coached as a man. in the way that I wasn't as a woman. And by the way, a lot of these agents were female. And the whole point I'm making in this book, which is why it's not a man bashing book, is that women do it too. We've all been conditioned, okay? And so these female agents were seeing her as a better writer when she was George than when she was Catherine. But I would love to, can I tell the story of the two transgender people? Because I think this is really interesting. Thank you. So... What I say is if you are a woman and suppose you are up for a promotion or for a job and you're against a male rival and he gets it and you don't, now you may suspect that bias was at play, but equally you might genuinely be better than you because you're different people, right? So it's always very hard to compare. And you may just think, as Karen was saying, that you're being a bit paranoid or oversensitive if you don't get it, and he does. But if you talk to trans people who have lived in both genders and they find they are treated completely differently after they've transitioned, then you're talking about the very same person, right? With the same ability and intelligence and personality and ambition and body of work and all that. And so if they are treated completely differently, then I think that is slam dunk proof of the existence of the authority gap. And sure enough, there were these two Stanford science professors who happened to transition in opposite directions at the same time by coincidence. And they used to meet up and compare notes at lunch. And Ben Barres, who was a neuroscientist, he said, Once he started living as a man, he said, I've had the thought a million times, I'm just taking more seriously now. He said, my work is taken more seriously. The same damned work, as he put it, is taken so much more seriously now that people see me as a man. And someone who didn't know his history was overheard at the end of one of his seminars saying, oh, Ben Barres gave a great seminar today. But then his work so much better than his sister's. i.e. his own work when he was living as a woman, right? And meanwhile, the other one was Joan Grofgarden, who is an evolutionary biologist. And she said when she was living as a young man, before she transitioned, she said life was just so easy. She said, I felt like I was on this conveyor belt to success. And I kept getting promoted, I kept getting pay rises, I was asked to sit on the University Senate Committee. She said all that changed once I started living as a woman. And she started coming up against all the authority gap behavior that I write about in the book. So people patronized her, they underestimated her, they challenged her authority. She said, I couldn't make a point at a meeting until a man confirmed it later. And, you know, no one listened to it until the man repeated it later. She said people were really personally aggressive to her. So they would say things like, they would jab their fingers and say things like, well, you clearly haven't read the literature or you don't understand the statistics. She said that never happened to me when I was living as a man. And she said to start with, I thought, well, if I'm going to live as a woman, I'm damn well going to be discriminated against like a woman. And then she said, well, the thrill of that is worn off, I can tell you. And her conclusion was,
men are assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise, women are assumed to be incompetent until they prove otherwise. Now it may sound anecdotal, but actually much, much bigger studies of trans people have been done by sociologists and have found exactly the same phenomena, that trans men say, oh my god this is amazing, I'm so much more respected now, I'm taken so much more seriously, I can get away with so much more, they say. And trans women say, I had no idea of the extent of sexism until suddenly I was the butt of it. Because they've been living as men before.
I have a quick story that speaks to that. When I got the job at the New York Times, it was to cover a football team. And at the first event that I covered, I was in the press box and a man who had seen me go up every level, who had seen me pay my dues throughout the years said, Karen, congratulations on your job. I had no idea they were looking for a woman to fill that position. And it speaks to a certain segment of the population, a woman will never have earned her position. And I just don't know how we change that. Lisa and I wanted to ask you about how the authority gap actually also informs women's relationships with other women. She has an amazing anecdote to share with you, but we have found in general that sometimes women are the nastiest toward other women, as if that piece of the pie that you were talking about, there's only one piece for women, so you're all competing for that one piece instead of realizing that the pie is big enough for everyone.
Yeah, so Karen mentioned this anecdote and it's actually perfect timing. Okay. Perfect timing. Because I can't tell you when I first spoke out about golf channel and what I faced in terms of, um, you know, I was, I was very much, uh, pro woman, pro fairness, pro treat people, right? It wasn't just women. It was just be, be good to everybody. So when I would see unfairness or things happening at work, I would speak about it. And I wrote about several different issues. I can't tell you when I first spoke out and I went public on Twitter and got great response. A couple of months after that, the Washington Post did an investigative piece on Golf Channel and exposed the culture for what it is. 20 women came forward in the article, they spoke about it, and probably two times as many as that came to me privately about their own encounters of mistreatment and things that had happened. So I write this book and I've had a lot of support from... from women who've been through it, but I have had some private, and not private to me, but private in other ways, pushback from other women. So two things to this story, just for you to speak to. First of all, my boss was a woman and allowed all of this to happen to all of us. And so that was a big portion of my book. But today I get on Goodreads and I look at the reviews and there's a woman who I used to work with at Golf Channel. She works in production at Golf Channel and purposely went on there and gave me a one-star review. Now, I've worked with Abby. I've always gotten along with her, never had an issue. Another woman spoke out in my book, and actually the other woman in the book who told her story got Abby her job. But we still have women who do so much to hurt women. And I guess when I look at this, you know, people say that... your book's a man bashing book or my book's a man bashing. It's not. We're still facing these battles with other women. How in the world do we get past it, Mary Ann? Because I don't see this problem getting better without that.
I think it is gradually getting better. I think women of a generation before mine were much more likely to be queen bees. What you're describing is known as the queen bee syndrome. You know, the woman who doesn't want any other women threatening her, any other women at her level will keep other women down, right? And this was a more common for not, it still exists, but it was worse in the generation above mine when there genuinely often was room for any one woman at any level. And therefore if a woman had made it, had been promoted to that level, she knew that if any other woman was coming up, she would be taking her job. So it was much more rational to be a Queen Bee and to sort of pull, to mix my metaphors, to pull the ladder up behind her, you know. It's, it's, there's less of an excuse for that now, but they do still exist. And, you know, a special place in hell should be reserved for them, as I think has been said before.
But I think what slightly cheered me was a study I came across which looked at tens of thousands of companies, I think in the US and in Europe. And the researcher's thesis was that if this Queen Bee phenomenon were still very widespread, then companies run by women, so companies with a female CEO, would not have other women in the C-suite alongside her, right? She'd want to be the only woman there. And actually what they found was that companies with female CEOs were twice as likely to have a female CFO, Chief Finance Officer or Chief Operating Officer. In other words, women are more likely, on average, to bring on other women. But there are still the queen bees around and, you know, I have them in my sights just as much as I have sexist men.
Exactly. Real quickly, before we forget for our viewers, the authority gap, please, please pick it up and read it. It's fantastic. The opening anecdote, Marianne, just blew me away. So you have the president of the Republic of Ireland, who happens to be a woman. She has this audience with Pope John Paul II, who has the nerve to ask her husband Wouldn't you rather be the president of the Republic of Ireland than the husband of the president of the Republic of Ireland? Somehow I'm thinking that if the roles had been reversed, he would not have asked that question.
But not only that, it's not just he asked that question, but he asked that question before even being introduced to the President. So she was at the head of the delegation and he just walked straight past her and went straight for her husband first before her. At this very formal occasion, you know, a state visit to the Vatican and he just ignores the President because she's a woman. Unbelievable. And what's more, he then said afterwards, Oh, I'm so sorry, I heard you had a sense of humour, I was just making a joke. I mean, how often has someone said something really sexist to you and then just said, oh, I was only joking, you clearly haven't got a sense of humour, gaslighting you, right? That's exactly what the Pope did to the president.
You interviewed so many incredibly strong and powerful women for this book. The list goes on and on. Obviously, I'm partial to the Hillary Clinton interview because I don't think that anybody has been more mischaracterized in the history of politics than Hillary. You talk about the 2016 election. What stood out, and you don’t have to talk about Hillary. I'm just interested with all the women you spoke to and what they've experienced. Which interview stood out the most to you?
Oh, that is such a difficult one, because almost all of them had stories to tell about the authority gap. And in fact, the reason I interviewed them, apart from the fact that I thought they'd all be incredibly interesting women, was that if even they who've got right to the top, you know, being presidents and prime ministers and supreme court justices and, you know, Janet Yellen, Treasury Secretary, if even they have got stories to tell about being treated in this way, then that's pretty good proof that the whole of womankind experiences it too. There was one good one, so a British politician called Amber Rudd, who, so she was, you know, a senior cabinet minister when Theresa May was prime minister, and Theresa May was in trouble, and it looked like there was going to be a leadership contest, and one of Amber Rudd's colleagues came up to her and said, oh, just to say, Amber, if there's going to be a contest, I'd really like to support you, and she thought, oh great, fantastic, I'll put him on the list, and then he said, But I think we've had enough women for now. So if one woman fails in a job, that disqualifies 51% of the population automatically. I mean, no one would say after Donald Trump was president, oh, I think we've had enough men for now. Crazy.
Although an argument could have been made for having that conversation. Mary Ann, we don't want to keep you, but I kind of want to end on something that you quote Grace Paley saying in your book that how women are so good at reading women authors and male authors and how it just isn't always reciprocated. My hope is that many women and men will read your book, will read Lisa's book Troublemakers because they're both so informative and illuminating. I just cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the authority gap.
Oh, well, thanks so much. Yeah, sadly, you know, some of the research I commissioned for the book showed, as you say, that women will read roughly 50 male and female authors, whereas for men on average, the ratio is 80 20. So they're four times more likely to read a book by man than a book by woman. I mean, how sad is that?
Wasn't it Norman Mailer who said, oh, I just can't even think of a woman writer that I would recommend reading or that I've even read, which is, again, he thinks he's really telling us more about him than he is about the state of women's literature or women writers. So interesting. And it reminded me of this praise that Nick Hornby gave to Meg Wolitzer saying, you know, we all should read more unassuming works like those of Meg Wolitzer's and I would argue that there's nothing unassuming about her works. They're very big pieces of fiction that have something really significant to say.
Yeah, isn't it interesting how, you know, men write a novel and people say it's a state of the nation novel. You hardly ever get that about women's novels, even though they very often are. And also, if women write about domestic life, somehow it's just sort of mundane and banal and too small a canvas. Whereas when men write about domestic life, you know, John Updike wrote a lot about domestic life, and everyone thought he was a great American novelist.
And then a woman does and it's a relationship book.
Mary Ann Sieghart:
Yeah, or even chicklet, yes.
Yeah, don't get us started on that. That's a whole nother podcast
yeah, there was certainly nothing mundane about your book. I loved the read. In fact, I'm going to read it again and continue to take notes because I think it's something that every woman, every man needs to read. You did a lot of research. So this isn't just your opinion. This is, this is based on studies and facts. And, you know, that's why I want to go through it again, because there was so much relevant and just serious important information that you provided and I just want to commend you for the hard work that you did and For for what you do for women like us and younger women coming along the way we're gonna do what we can to promote this book because I do think that it will make society and corporate America and corporations around the world better because of the work that you've done Mary Ann.
Mary Ann Sieghart:
Oh, thank you, Lisa. I really hope it does.
Thank you so much. And again, the book is The Authority Gap. So we encourage everyone to get it. Marianne, thank you.