June 23, 2021

Women over 50 become “invisible”. I see that assertion confidently stated all the time now, in magazines and websites, as if it were indisputable fact. It’s often followed by the crucial steps one must apparently take to fight off this encroaching disappearance. But what sort of visibility are we talking about?

It’s partly sexual, of course: a woman aged 50, however stylish or attractive, is unlikely to get the same level of male attention as a woman in her 20s. For many, this is a blow to self-esteem, but the consequences aren’t confined to personal feeling. Youth and sexual attractiveness remain an undeniable form of currency in the world, and in certain professional settings they are disproportionately valued — even more in women than in men. We are all familiar with the long-preferred pairing of the grizzled male newsreader with the younger, highly-groomed female counterpart. Not that younger women aren’t competent. But the professional qualities that accrue with age as palpable advantages in men — knowledge, contacts, experience — count for less in women. Instead, ageing often renders them professionally “invisible”.

It’s not only a question of age. The broader erasure of women, both young and old — along with everything associated with them — has become something of a publishing phenomenon. Caroline Criado Perez kicked it off with her best-selling Invisible Women: Exploring Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, in which she used a wealth of research to illustrate how big “data gaps” around women and their needs has led to a world predominantly designed around a “default man”. Everything from car and seatbelt design to the inadequate floor-space allocated for women’s toilets lead to worse outcomes for women: we wait in a much longer queue for public lavatories and, if unlucky enough to be involved in a car crash, are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 17% more likely to die.

Following Criado Perez, and featuring a quote from her on the cover, is a new book by the London-based Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal: Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Men (out tomorrow). It expands on the hot topic of women being ignored, but delves into its own territory: how technological innovation has traditionally been seen as a male pursuit, resulting in female inventors being written out of history and new proposals being downgraded.

Marçal has a knack for pulling out sharp insights and illustrative stories. She tells the tale of Bertha Benz, who — without informing her husband Karl — manoeuvred the early automobile, or “horseless carriage,” he had built out of the factory — and took it on a trip to a town 90km away. Along the way she used a hatpin to clear a fuel pipe blockage and a garter to insulate an exposed ignition wire; and invented the world’s first brake linings by getting a shoemaker to cover the troublesome brake blocks with leather. But then, Bertha had a personal interest in proving that the “horseless carriage” worked: she had invested her entire dowry in the enterprise.

What repeatedly emerges in Mother of Invention is the complex collaboration, often between traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ skills, that permits technological innovation to happen. Expert seamstresses, for instance, worked with NASA to make the soft, 21-layer space suits that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wore for the first moon-landing. ILC, the company that made the suits, understood “that sewing was a technology, and that soft things can perform hard functions.” Yet while an emergent technology may rely on women as a work force, once it becomes successfully established, a new narrative often emerges — one in which the work becomes higher status, better paid, and increasingly designated as “instinctively” suited to men.

The first “computers”, Marçal writes, were women: banks of relatively low-paid female employees who sat for hours at a time doing calculation work. By the 1900s, the industry was female-dominated: the University of Pennsylvania alone employed more than 200 women as “computers”. In the war years, women made up 75% of the workforce at Bletchley Park, where they worked on cracking the Enigma code. Indeed, when the engineers there built the “world’s first electronic, programmable computer,” it was operated by female volunteers from the Women’s Royal Naval Service: in essence the first programmers.

At some point in the 1960s, however, the tide turned. As computers became increasingly central to industries and government, a campaign drive was launched to recruit “promising young men from the right social class.” The women who knew how to program were now “tasked with training up the young men to effectively become their own bosses.” With little prospect of promotion, women began to leave computing in droves, and a wealth of experience was lost.

It was not the first sea-change in sex and status within an industry — the historical shift in “secretaries” from male to predominantly female was another — and Marçal also makes an interesting point about what might be waiting in the future. The growing sophistication of AI and the looming “second machine age”, she says, could redistribute work status in a fundamental way. Robots — like Deep Blue, the computer that beat Garry Kasparov at chess — are good at “thinking” but bad at anything that requires complex physical movement, emotional intelligence or unpredictable situations. Work such as caring for children and the elderly, or cleaning houses, is therefore the least likely to be replaceable by a robot. Could it be that so-called “soft skills” will rise in prestige, and see male competition for entry?

Nothing can happen without this work. Those in jobs which offer the highest prestige, top earnings and longest hours are dependent on a raft of others: a compliant (usually female) partner who is willing to either perform or outsource a greater proportion of the domestic burden; a nanny, to help with the children; a carer, to look after elderly parents; a secretary, to manage appointments; restaurant staff, to make work-related entertaining possible, and so it goes on. Yet these essential jobs — disproportionately done by women — are relatively low-status.

The disparity of professional status between men and women, and why it might exist, is the central concern of Mary Ann Sieghart’s new book The Authority Gap (out 1st July). It opens with an uncomfortable moment between Mary McAleese, then President of the Republic of Ireland, and Pope John Paul II. As McAleese was on the point of introduction to the pontiff, he walked past her to introduce himself instead to her husband, and asked him, “Would you not prefer to be President of Ireland rather than married to the President of Ireland?’ The “joke” went down understandably badly with President McAleese (it can’t have felt great for her husband either). It’s an example, Sieghart argues, of the way in which women are “underestimated, talked over, ignored, patronized and generally not taken as seriously as a man”.

She collates an impressive bank of research to drive home the point, with some interesting social experiments: when social scientists sent out applications for a lab manager position to male and female science professors at top universities, identical save for the “randomly assigned” male or female names at the top, the professors — including the women — rated the “male” applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the “female” one. Students taking an online course rated their instructor more highly if they thought they were being taught by a man. And identical CVs with a man’s name at the top were more likely to lead to a job offer.

The experience of trans people strengthens her case. The trans men cited in the book found that their authority went up after transitioning, along with their pay: as men, people generally accorded them more respect and approval. The trans women had the opposite experience: post-transition, many were shocked suddenly to find themselves being talked over, queried and assumed to be incompetent. They had been used to different treatment.

Women in the very top jobs report that they are insulated from such negative behaviour by the authority that comes with the role itself. The book does succeed in demonstrating, however, that — below a certain professional level — many men and women have difficulty accepting female authority. Yet there are also men who are very supportive of female colleagues, and I did often find myself questioning whether it is valuable for professional women to nurse outrage over mildly insensitive comments, rather than simply ridicule or ignore them. The amplification of silly remarks, so that others might share performatively in the horror, has become fashionable. The author describes a dinner in which the older male banker beside her asks what she does, and she duly lists six impressive elements of her “portfolio career,” from sitting on the council of the Tate Modern to writing a political column. Perhaps stunned by this deluge of achievement, the banker replied, “Wow, you’re a busy little girl!” A bit patronising, yes. But the outraged Sieghart describes it as “probably the most egregious example of being (literally) belittled that I can recall” and ends up complaining about it on Twitter.

Status is inextricably linked to respect, pay and promotion, meaning the absence of it has material and psychological effects. It makes sense to want it. But there is a distinction between the professional authority that derives from seeking to do a job properly, and the egotistical authority that craves a particular reverence from those around you. The former is more admirable, but the latter is what often drives ambitious employees to ask for pay rises, apply for the top job, and treat not just the work itself but their own position with the greatest seriousness. Some people get to the top of hierarchies because it is the most effective way to have control over their work, others because they enjoy dominance over others. Although a dollop of ego is often a professional necessity, philosophically there is something faintly ludicrous about regarding a status achieved at work as a just reflection of one’s essential worth.

There’s sometimes a whiff of this tendency in “fifty of the world’s most powerful, successful and authoritative women,” whom Sieghart interviews for the book (invariably mentioning their startling intelligence). Frances Morris, the Director of Tate Modern, laments how, “As director of Tate Modern, I can spend all day as a powerful, articulate person who’s taken seriously, and I can leave this building and I am nobody. Because as a woman in the world out there, I’m not taken seriously.”

But isn’t that simply life? At home we have to unload the dishwasher and pay the bills. At parties we make conversation with people who have no idea what we do. We are all our context, to some extent. And the drug of workplace importance has a limited efficacy for men too: a month after retirement a male CEO will no doubt find himself in the garden centre, a silver-haired man in a baseball cap staring at a pair of garden shears, wondering where all the phone calls went. And if women are sometimes held back by bias, then strong social expectations of what a man should be, including successful and dominant in the workplace, also take their toll on the male psyche — something which may be reflected in the higher rate of male suicide.

The testimony in The Authority Gap is often interesting, and many of the social syndromes it identifies are recognisable. But it is mainly focused on the nuances of female status in the upper echelons of politics, business and the media. It eloquently describes the frustration of a higher-status woman being mistaken for a lower-status one, for example. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former Danish PM, was confused with a secretary when she was an MEP. Dawn Butler, a black Labour MP, was told by a fellow MP, in a comment compounded by racial bias: “This lift really isn’t for cleaners.”

That focus only takes us part-way. One step forward will indeed come when men stop making uninformed assumptions about the roles that women around them play. But the next step will come — as Marçal’s book suggests — when the gulf in status between MPs and the secretaries and cleaners who make their jobs possible itself starts to narrow.

But it’s just as possible to step backwards as forwards. These books, which emphasise the historical precariousness of female power, have been published at a time when a rapacious market is more alert than ever to the cash-generating properties of female bodies. A number of US states have already legalised commercial surrogacy, for example, while a multi-billion pound porn industry churns out increasingly violent sexual images which have consequences in real-life behaviour: impoverished women especially are seen as holes to be drilled and wombs to be filled.

At the same time a belligerent “progressive” agenda is performing its own reduction in the name of “inclusion”, pressing for resonant words such as  “woman” and “mother” to be removed from institutional language that emphasises functionality: “people who give birth” or “menstruators”. Should women choose to express the view that their biological sex is meaningful and immutable, they are publicly shamed and threatened online with rape and other violence, while men who make similar points are generally left alone. A number of organisations have been startlingly eager to join in the punitive enforcing of “acceptable speech” for women.

In just a few years, with little official acknowledgment, the treatment of women in society has transformed into something chilling, surreal and often poisonous. And I can’t help thinking that, as things stand, these thoughtful, data-driven and necessary books about nuance and bias are a little like talking about redesigning a forest park in the middle of a wildfire. In the current cultural climate, many women are, quite rationally, now deciding that to be an invisible woman is the safest option they have.