Last week, I moved to Oxford, which involved a lot of driving in the car with my mother, which in turn meant a lot of listening to the radio. I love Irish radio. We are a nation of excellent talkers.
However, last week on Irish radio, there was a moment of epic genderfail and I said several words that I would never normally say in front of my mother.
Don’t get me wrong, I hear a lot of genderfail from mainstream media outlets on a regular basis. As I have previously discussed, living on Feminist Internet can be an insulated experience and I am frequently startled by the levels of stupidity I encounter outside it. On Feminist Internet, even in the heat of disagreement, people understand the basics; for example, vague stereotypes are not a good starting point for productive debate.
This incident of genderfail was particularly infuriating because it came from a successful businesswoman who was trying to advocate for other businesswomen. To do so, she resorted to ridiculous generalisations about Women: The Monolith that would have been shouted down on any reputable feminist blog or forum within seconds.
Nicola Byrne, founder of 11890 and one of Ireland’s most prominent female entrepreneurs, was on-air discussing the EU’s proposal to introduce gender quotas on company boards. Under the proposed sanction, 40% of “non-executive director board seats” would be reserved for women, with fines in case of non-compliance.
I don’t really know what “non-executive director board seats” are and I have mixed feelings on gender quotas. I have heard compelling arguments for and against. Nicola Byrne came on to argue for them. Her first point was convincing; change is not going to come if we sit back and gently nudge it in the right direction with minimal fuss or disruption. Quotas are necessary for balance because balance is not just going to happen by itself.
Surely if someone is good enough at their job, they’ll be on the board no matter their gender, right? Wrong, because this completely ignores the existence of institutionalized sexism and corporate structures that privilege the white male as authority figure. Pretending sexism does not exist will not make it go away. “If she’s good enough, we’ll hire her” is the neat but ultimately fallacious argument of men who couldn’t possibly be sexist, because, you know, sexism isn’t a thing anymore. Their position of extreme privilege and historical dominance over women could not possibly be a factor in their decision-making process. It places all the responsibility on the woman to be Good Enough. It places absolutely none on the powerful men who make decisions about who sits on boards, who can continue trundling along with their gender biases completely undisturbed by silly things like equality.
Nicola Byrne did not say all this, I am extrapolating. But in conclusion: change needs to be forced, not coaxed = good insight, Nicola.
Then the inevitable question: Why do women deserve 40% of non-executive director board seats?
It was then Nicola lost the plot completely.
Europe is hurting, you guys. Europe is in pain. Europe needs the soft healing influence of ladies in the boardroom so it can recover its economic feet.
Nicola Byrne used the words “softer perspective” at least twice when talking about what women would bring to a boardroom. When the host suggested (tentatively and without actually using the word “sexist”) that this might be a bit sexist and that women, surely, can also be tough and forceful, Nicola insisted that yes, yes, of course! Women can do both! But ultimately, we are also softer. Not like all those men, who only have one boardroom gear and that gear is TOUGH. She also opined that Women: The Monolith are better with people than men. That’s right, ladies. Even the most introverted and misanthropic among us are better with people than our lumbering male counterparts! I’m glad we cleared that up. Now we can get on to the important business of healing Europe. Just like Florence Nightingale. Except instead of bandages and medicine, we have diagrams and flowcharts surrounded by little hearts and comforting reports written with our pretty lady pens.
Women do not deserve seats in boardrooms because we have special lady powers that are suddenly relevant to the business world in this specific economic climate. Women deserve seats in boardrooms because women are people. Diverse and complicated people with a wealth of perspectives and values and ideas, none of which are “soft” by definition.
I’m going to say it again.
WOMEN ARE PEOPLE.
Not soft people. Not healing people. Not different-from-men people. Just people. People who have historically been voiceless in the world of big business and could probably use some affirmative action to level the playing field a bit. People who should be able to prove themselves on the merits of their track record and personal qualities, not on some essentialist bullshit about how different and magical and soft they are.
So thanks, Nicola. I know you were trying to help, but selling (driven, competent, successful) businesswomen as “Like Men, Only Softer!” is not helping the gender equality cause. Not one tiny little bit. Especially since any woman who is eligible to sit on the board of a major corporation probably worked damn hard to get where she is and got there in spite of sexism that says she is a soft people-pleaser and not cut out for the tough stressful world of executive boardrooms.
This post originally ran on my old blog, deathofthenewgods.tumblr.com, and has been backdated to reflect this.