A Bit of Fluff?



iStock_000010842760SmallThe comments made by Harriet Harman, the Equalities Minister, accusing the BBC for the underrepresentation of older female newsreaders have recently caused a ripple of publicity. Whilst not a great admirer of Mrs Harman, I do think that she has a point. To illustrate her criticism, she cited the common pairing of an older, authoritative male newsreader with a younger, attractive female consort. This point and very illustration has been previously and eloquently observed by Naomi Wolf in her 1991 book, The Beauty Myth. In her polemic, Wolf posited that the implication of such a pairing conveyed than even in an ostensibly intellectual setting, the role of the younger female is primarily aesthetic, negating the possibility of any authority or expertise she possesses being taken seriously.

On the flipside of this, there are many media representations, particularly in the entertainment industry, of women ‘emancipated’ and ‘assertive’ in respect of expressing feminine sexuality. Whilst I have no doubt that some cases come from a genuine base, on the whole, these representations are generally one-dimensional and packaged in a way to manipulate an uneven manifestation of female power, suggesting that it lies in her ability to take on the attributes of a pole dancer. This particular aspect of female power is measurable in the display of exposed flesh, alongside any discernable talent, confusing sexual confidence with sexual availability, which are very different things. The predominance of this particular representation also confirms the original assertion of the lack of the value of female experience, by placing the focus on nubile, youthful beauty. While aging female entertainers frequently seek to preserve their youthful looks with various cosmetic procedures, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones continue to strut up and down the global stage, as craggy-faced as ever but valued – rightly so – as entertainers.

To a great extent, this dearth of visible female senior authority figures in the media is a reflection of the public domain in general. In the wider world of work, while it is the norm to see older men in senior positions, the same cannot be said for older women. The greater presence of women is inversely proportionate in the more auxiliary roles and the picture of an older woman, faithfully attending to the needs of her male CEO as his secretary for a number of years is a familiar one. This imbalance is emphasised in the 2009 Female FTSE Report from the Cranfield School of Management, which found that only 15 women held executive directorship positions in the top 100 companies in the UK – down from 16 in the previous year.

Older women who have achieved a degree of seniority in the workplace often fall foul of rigid stereotyping. Anna Wintour, the Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue (and the widely reputed inspiration of the impossible fashion editor in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’) is a good example of the prevailing extreme of the formidable ‘Power Bitch’. The spectre of this stereotype plagues women in senior positions, of all ages, in terms of how her management style is perceived. The pernicious implication of this stereotype is that the woman who resorts to this style is a poor imitator of masculine authority, who ends up misfiring due to her need to overcompensate for her lack of genuine authority. At the other end of the spectrum is the stereotype of the ‘Maternal’ authority figure which is based on the traditional view as women as primarily domestic creatures, inclined to nurture and placate; thus rendering her incapable of being taken seriously in a professional context.

Realistically, I don’t believe that women fall squarely into one camp or another. A great deal of women are highly capable at adapting the appropriate style to the appropriate work setting (and many styles in between). However there is a lot of room for women to consider not only how much authority we give ourselves but also, how much respect we accord to the experiences and wisdom of older women – within the workplace and beyond – for one is connected to the other.

Having been in the world of work for some years, I have had some pretty awful male managers and conversely, some very impressive female managers. The best manager by far was; fortunately for me; my first after graduating to work in a blue chip company. She was extremely knowledgeable, to the extent that her male and female peers sought advice from her. She effortlessly commanded the respect of her staff and encouraged career advancement among them. She was also highly intuitive to the relative capabilities of each member of staff which complemented her previous quality. Furthermore, she ran one of the most profitable flagship branches in the company.

And yes – she was a grey hair!


  1. by Alison B On January 27, 2010 at 16:37

    Great article!

    Just to pick up on the point in you second paragraph about “empowerment” – adhering to existing male fantasies about feminine sexuality, and arguing that in “choosing” to do so you are in some way “empowered,” is falling for the biggest confidence trick in history. If there was a real choice between pouting in your underwear and other models of sexuality, then yes, you might be able to argue that it is “empowering.” However, given that other models of femininity and feminine sexuality are routinely denigrated, under the rubric of either “bull dyke” or “ball-breaking bitch,” I’m not convinced that the rhetoric of “empowerment” has anything even remotely “empowering” about it.

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