It’s going to be an all female Apprentice final. This should be something to celebrate. It is brilliant for many obvious reasons: visible role models who have been successful and who are intelligent, ambitious and not relying (primarily) on their looks etc. However, alongside this positive message finalist, Kate Walsh’s various comments give less cause for rejoicing. Her lack of empathy for other women and egocentric view of the bigger picture have left me indignant. I had warmed to Kate and quietly supported her but in this week’s show that changed. As I watched Kate coolly smile through her interviews it was revealed that on her application she had written that her biggest challenge would be working with an “all female team”. Why? Apparently, women bitch, moan and whine… in her experience. She does not like bitching, moaning or whining. She prefers to be a lone ranger amongst men. And with that injection of lazy, harmful stereotyping I watched my quiet liking plummet over a steep cliff to its squishy demise. I was cheered up by Karen Brady as she took Kate on a slow-burning dance up a cul-de-sac. Her route was carefully planned to cause Kate to moan and whine, then to come out in support of moaning and whining, before Karen calmly pointed out her hypocrisy. Yay for Karen Brady.
In commenting on this I am aware that I am entering some sort of headache-inducing vicious circle where I am moaning and bitching about Kate moaning and bitching about moaning and bitching. Phew. The words are heavily caked in cultural implications: moaning and bitching = bad, women talking = moaning and bitching… women talking = bad. Are they actually negative activities? For a long time now there have been many examples of feminists fighting attacks on female voices by reclaiming the word ‘bitch’ as positive. Furthermore moaning and bitching is not just a feminine trait- it is human. Men and women sometimes bitch and moan. Sometimes it is annoying and negative; sometimes it is vital and cathartic. But women, like men say and do much more than bitch and moan. They communicate in a fantastic variety of ways and, importantly, they actively do things.
Following Kate and Yasmina’s success in the semis, I came across a little Guardian piece hopefully titled, “Apprentice finalists fired with ambition for women”. Yasmina and Kate hope to ‘inspire’ other women. So apparently Kate does see herself as a role model. Whilst we really need more strong female role models, we really don’t need them to spout negative generalisations attacking women. It is Yasmina though who is quoted as hoping to “speak a lot of other girls” and “inspire”. Hopefully she will continue to be a more empathetic role model. Meanwhile Kate’s input was the killer assertion that the glass ceiling does not exist. The press association give more space for her comments. She appears to try back up her claim by pointing to Margaret Thatcher and Michelle Obama. Strong women, yes. Proof that glass ceiling has gone, no.
Kate, has done well in business. She has not experienced a ‘glass ceiling’. Surely though, common sense should dictate to her that not every woman’s experience is going to be the same as hers. Just because she has not encountered a glass ceiling (yet) does not mean that it does not exist. She wouldn’t have had to look far to find someone with a different experience. Semi-finalist Lorraine admitted she has found difficulties in trying to balance being a great mum with having a great career. The result: she felt her career had suffered, as had her self-esteem.
Kate’s opinion seems to be a scarily popular one at the moment. Only a few days earlier in his interview with the Observer’s Elizabeth Day, Marks and Spencer’s chairman Stuart Rose had smugly dismissed women’s “moaning” and the existence of any glass ceiling or indeed any gender inequality. What on earth was it that women wanted now he asked? Apparently he knows some women who have succeeded, he can even give a name, so obviously there’s not a problem, is there?
The facts do not support these assertions: only 9% of directors of the UK’s top 100 companies are female and the pay gap has increased so that women earn 17% less on average than men. Yes, women can break through the ‘glass ceiling’ and some do. Of course this should be celebrated and used to inspire people but other people still encounter direct and indirect discrimination. Even if we feel that employers are not discriminating in the way they pay and appoint, a system weighted against women impacts on what decisions we make. They are affected by a culture where, amongst other things, men cannot take parental leave for more than 2 weeks, flexible working is not always possible in higher paid roles, 30 000 women are fired for being pregnant every year and women who wear make up are like to be promoted. Some people do have genuine freedom to choose but for many it is any illusion.
Maybe Kate’s denial of the ‘glass ceiling’ is linked to fears about being seen as a moaning bitch or as a ‘victim’ if you state that there is a problem. Whilst we do need to take some responsibility and act as well as moan if we want to achieve in the work place, it is okay to admit that the system and culture should change. Change would not be a kind deed to women, tilting things in their favour. Change is needed to level the field; to give women and men the same opportunities. Recognising this does not make you less strong. Acting and campaigning for equality, as well as for our own individual careers, will make us even stronger.