Season 2 - Ep. 11 | Doubling Down on Double Standards: British Journalist Mary Ann Sieghart on closing The Authority Gap

Redefiners Podcast
Hosted By:
June 22, 2022 | 36 min
Our guest
Mary Ann Sieghart - Journalist, author, non-executive director, broadcaster

“So it's not really for the woman to change the way she is, it's for the rest of us to change how we behave towards women.”

Gender bias is everywhere, impacting how we view authority and power around the world. In fact, it’s so pervasive—and potentially damaging to organizations—that our guest Mary Ann Sieghart wrote a book about it titled Authority Gap, which explores the critical issue of why women are often taken less seriously than men. This unconscious, double standard behavior affects the C Suite, boardrooms, and conference rooms alike—even the US Supreme Court and UK Parliament. We talk with Mary Ann – journalist, author, non-executive director, and television broadcaster – about why organizations and boards need to change gender bias culture and how to make the critical shift from the top down. It’s a thought-provoking conversation well worth the listen for leaders of any gender.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll hear from Mary Ann in this episode, in her words (edited for length and clarity):

Mary Ann’s Redefiner Moment: On being an ambitious women

Why was I ambitious? I think because my parents, but particularly my father, really believed in me. There was never any question that I wouldn't try to have a high-achieving career. I interviewed a lot of very successful and powerful women for this book—former presidents and prime ministers and Supreme Court justices and bishops and movie directors—and when I asked them all about their childhood, almost to a woman, they said, "My father really believed in me." I thought, how fascinating. What that did was to give us license to compete and ideally to succeed in a world of men. It made us feel like we had as much right to be in the room as they did.

On the authority gap

The authority gap is the extent to which we're still much more prepared to accord authority to men than to women. And when I say authority, I mean both in terms of expertise and in terms of power and leadership.

All sorts of behavior that is incredibly frustrating for women results from this authority gap: being underestimated, undermined, interrupted or talked over, having their expertise disproportionately challenged, finding it much harder to influence a group, and having their power or authority resisted. And there are also academic studies to prove that this is the case.

One is a study of influence. I found this one fascinating because I'm sure every woman listening to this has had the experience of making a point at a meeting. No one takes a blind bit of notice. Ten minutes later, a man makes exactly the same point, and it's treated like the second coming. We tend to beat ourselves up about it. We think, "Oh, maybe I wasn't confident enough, or maybe I wasn't articulate or eloquent enough." No, you were probably just too female.

On creating diverse boards

When I became chair of the Social Market Foundation think tank, I inherited a board that was entirely male. Within two or three years, I got it up to 50/50 and 20% black and ethnic minority. So I made it a diverse board, and I think it became a much better board as a result.

I think boards then need to ask for data. Data is very important in this respect. It's important to do exit interviews. If it's the culture of the organization, then that's a real problem. The board should see that information and then hold the executive to account for what they're going to do about it. And make sure also that all the hiring practices, promotional practices, and employment practices are as female friendly as possible.

Using blind CVs helps a lot. There was a study done of applications for time on the Hubble Space Telescope. Before the applications were anonymized, men were given more time than women, supposedly based on scientific merit of their proposals. Once they anonymized them, women got more time than men.

On closing the authority gap in the workplace

I also think it's very important to get female employees into a room together without any men, guarantee them anonymity, and then ask them to tell their stories about the way that they've been treated by their bosses, by their colleagues, sometimes even by their subordinates. Compile their stories and take them to senior management, who are as likely as not to be predominantly male, and then say, "This is the culture we've got in this organization at the moment. Surely we want it to change."

When people at the top say, "We're going to have zero tolerance of this. If men start interrupting women in meetings, they're going to be punished for it. It's going to be noted. It's going to be held against them." I think that's probably the only way in which we can start to change this culture.



Mary Ann Sieghart
Journalist, author, non-executive director, broadcaster

Mary Ann Sieghart leads a portfolio life. She makes programmes for BBC Radio 4 and is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. She spent 2018-19 as a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where she researched her book, The Authority Gap, on why women are taken less seriously than men. She is Chair of the judges for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Mary Ann is a Non-Executive Director of the Guardian Media Group and Chair of the Investment Committee of The Scott Trust (owner of The Guardian and The Observer), Senior Independent Director of Pantheon International, Non-Executive Director of The Merchants Trust and Senior Independent Trustee of the Kennedy Memorial Trust. Until recently, she was Chair of the Social Market Foundation, a non-party-political think tank, Senior Independent Director of Henderson Smaller Companies Investment Trust and sat on the Content Board of Ofcom and the Council of Tate Modern.

She spent 19 years as Assistant Editor of The Times, including as Acting Editor of the Monday edition, Op-Ed Editor, Arts Editor, Chief Political Leader-Writer and political and social affairs columnist both on the Op-Ed page and in Times2. She has also written a weekly column in The Independent about politics, economics and social affairs, and presented Newshour, the BBC World Service’s flagship news and current affairs programme.

Mary Ann has extensive TV and radio experience, including presenting Start the Week, Analysis, Profile, One to One, Fallout, The Inquiry, Beyond Westminster, Newshour, Powerhouse, The Brains Trust, The Week in Westminster, Taking Issue, The Big Picture, No Illusions and The World This Week. She has regularly appeared as a guest on Question Time, Any Questions, Today, Newsnight, The World Tonight, Channel 4 News, PM, The Andrew Marr Show, The World at One, Woman’s Hour and The Daily Politics. Before joining The Times, Mary Ann was political correspondent of The Economist, City Editor of Today newspaper and a Lex columnist and Eurobond correspondent at the Financial Times.

She has also sat on numerous boards, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the North Fulham New Deal for Communities, New Europe, the No Campaign, the Radcliffe Trust, the Social Studies Faculty of Oxford University, Women in Journalism and the National Council for One-Parent Families. She won the Laurence Stern Fellowship to work on The Washington Post. She also captained The Times’s University Challenge: The Professionals team, which reached the semi-final.


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