Heavy lies the girlboss crown on Rain Newton-Smith, freshly appointed director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Brought in last week to rebuild the CBI’s reputation after a scandal involving her predecessor, commentators are already predicting her failure. Some are even doing it in the name of fighting the patriarchy: in The Observer, Newton-Smith was the occasion for an article by Martha Gill, anticipating a difficult time ahead for her that would, Gill argued, eventually inhibit other women from aspiring to equally high profile jobs.
For women with impressive careers, one legacy of mainstream feminism is that there’s almost nothing you can do that won’t incite people to think of the potential consequences for the rest of your sex. It’s just about the only area of public life left where your womanhood is reliably judged relevant to your fate. Perhaps you’ll get treated as an inspirational female role model, or perhaps — as Gill would have it — you’ll be a cautionary tale for other women. Either way, you won’t just get to be a person, birthing or otherwise.
Generally speaking though, Gill is right to be suspicious of the familiar trope of the “strong female role model”. For one thing, there’s rarely anything strong about it. It seems we can enjoy a thrillingly cut-throat, venal businesswoman as long as she is entirely imaginary — Shiv Roy from Succession comes to mind — but when it comes to the real thing, we apparently prefer them to present as boring, overtly worthy drips, madly hitting “like” on LinkedIn articles about the value of kindness in the workplace, when they are not otherwise busy saving the planet. (Newton-Smith herself says she is “passionate about… climate and biodiversity” in her Twitter bio.)
Meanwhile within the world of women’s magazines, websites and weekend supplements, a profitable sector devotes itself to imposing dewily soft-focused “inspiring” or “influential” role models upon the seething, sweaty mass of female wage slaves. Basic prerequisites include a photogenic bone structure, comparatively high levels of personal grooming and a willingness to comply with a vapid, generic narrative about your “positive impact” that will empty you of all individuality and spark, in the service of promoting various capitalism-friendly feminine ideals.
The two chief mechanisms of the Inspiration Industrial Complex are the awards ceremony and the list. Each is used to manipulate common enough female emotions such as competitiveness, anxiety and envy, but with a twist — it’s all in the name of sisterhood. Might you be a Woman of the Year; a Woman of the Future; a Woman of Vision; a Remarkable Woman; an Uplifting Woman; a Champion of Women or a Powerwoman? Lured in by the opportunities for networking and showing off, nominees dress up to the nines, neck free drinks, take selfies and rehearse heartfelt speeches about staying passionate about what you do, tackling imposter syndrome and paying it forward. Website editors will then make it all look as glamorous and enviable as possible, further demoralising poor saps sitting in canteens or office cubbyholes, scrolling through their half-hour lunch breaks.
The list, meanwhile, is another stiletto-like weapon of female socialisation, implicitly reminding the reader that she is only as good as her last assessment by faceless others. Whether you are a woman in cycling, hospitality, mining, tech, tourism, shipping, social enterprise, supply chain, finance, sustainability, cybersecurity, or Westminster, you’re never safe from being suddenly catapulted into the spotlight of some top 100 — or else cruelly denigrated by omission. Some lists will even rank you in relation to others in your field. The compilers at 100 Top Women in Shipping note that in their 2022 list, “some retained their previous places more or less”, which makes you wonder about the feelings of those who did not.
Why do women do this to themselves, and to each other? For, I’ll wager, it is mostly women who are organising the awards and making the lists, not men. In most cases the ostensible motive is positive representation of women in male-dominated fields, though this goal doesn’t seem relevant to already female-heavy sectors like social enterprise or tourism. “You can’t be what you can’t see” goes the hackneyed phrase — but equally, if all you see is women tottering about in spike heels and ASOS workwear, ranked like show ponies, mindlessly regurgitating Brené Brown quotes about being authentic and daring to lead, it’s unclear how onlookers are supposed to be inspired. It hardly screams Nietzschean Übermensch, does it?
Women from the past are not safe from list-makers either. Presented as educational tools, lists such as “100 of the most inspiring women from the last 100 years” retrospectively translate complex, difficult, multifaceted human beings into gift card messages. Rosalind Franklin becomes “We have to celebrate our achievements, even when others don’t”; Virginia Woolf becomes “Speak your truth and you could inspire generations of writers”; Hillary Clinton — admittedly, sounding a bit like Napoleon — becomes “Even in the jaws of the most galling defeat, we must learn from our mistakes and carry on fighting for what we think is right”.
The truth is, nobody involved in these efforts is seriously interested in presenting good role models for other women, either in terms of ethics or efficiency — as is plain from the number of times Nicola Sturgeon has appeared on Women of the Year lists. If the three main elements of being an effective role model are, first, inspiring others to desire some goal for themselves; second, demonstrating the possibility of achieving that goal; and third, modelling behavioural skills for how to get there, then awards and lists do none of these things particularly well. Your best hope, rather, is to model yourself on someone you work or otherwise collaborate with, and not a glamorous stranger intoning meaningless platitudes into the ether.
What rituals like these are really good at is circumscribing what counts as acceptable behaviour for women in whatever career field is being highlighted. Officially, what is celebrated are the sort of pink and fluffy values that might easily end up printed on a yoga sweatshirt: things like compassion, positivity, self-care, inner strength and authenticity. Perversely, though, the eventual result seems to be an increase in narcissism, envy, self-criticism, weakness and the slavish copying of others.
In real life, everyone knows that career success — whether for women or men — requires some degree of aggression, competitiveness, dishonesty and selfishness. Humans are hardwired to compete with each other for resources, after all, and socialisation can only transform the methods, not remove the trait entirely. In reality, women often resent the successes of other women rather than celebrate them. It is telling that Angela Rayner polls as men’s most popular politician, but only seventh with women — while men take all the spots above her.
Still, it seems that such facts can only be acknowledged by women when swiftly followed by self-chastisement. In this suffocating environment, characteristics like aggression and spite get shoved into what Carl Jung called the “shadow” — still present unconsciously, but explicitly disowned and projected onto others. We’ve all seen it — mixing sideswipes with excessive praise, picking fights while claiming innocent victimhood, finding quasi-objective reasons to criticise rivals, constructing “relatable” confessional narratives for social media with just the right level of humblebragging, and so on.
The shadow side of glossy positivity discourse for women also includes the gossip website, where women go to savagely mock and deride other women under the guise of anonymity — and jolly good fun it looks too, as long as you aren’t the unfortunate subject being discussed. Bitching, backstabbing, gossiping, mobbing — all can make a workmate’s life hell and contribute to a toxic environment. Men do these things too but not as much, because masculine culture isn’t as focused on disavowing the originating traits in the first place.
So, what’s the solution? Tempting as it is to imagine an alternative workplace culture involving mandatory secret Fight Clubs for girls, the very least women can do is to stop sublimating our darker instincts into passive-aggressive rituals and ceremonies that ultimately make everyone feel worse. We could just admit to ourselves that we can be as angry, envious or competitive as the next bloke — without immediately feeling we have to confess the fact on Instagram, “educate” ourselves, chant self-help mantras, or otherwise atone for our sins. We could just — and hear me out, here — get on with our jobs. And if that’s not possible, then perhaps we could start giving out much crappier prizes. If any would-be awards organiser is interested, I hear there’s a warehouse full of Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Selected Speeches of Nicola Sturgeon going extra cheap at the moment.