independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Clinton is wrong – women can get on without being ruthless

Hillary Clinton: said women need to grow skin as thick as a a rhinoceros. Photo: Getty Images
Hillary Clinton: said women need to grow skin as thick as a a rhinoceros. Photo: Getty Images

SO, ladies, apparently we must "grow skin like a rhinoceros" in order to get ahead in political and public life. This is according to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, instead of helping the women's cause, has set it back by reinforcing the damaging stereotype that to be successful women have to adopt the so-called 'bitch in the boardroom' syndrome.

Flanked by her daughter Chelsea and Melinda Gates, Ms Clinton was speaking at a New York University event for the No Ceilings project, an initiative of the Clinton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to empower women in the 21st Century.

"One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever heard from anyone is from Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1920s, who said that women in politics or in public roles should grow skin like a rhinoceros," Clinton said, adding: "I think there is some truth to that."

That's true, of course. But not just for women. Men in politics and business also have to be able to withstand the cut and thrust of life.

For far too long, qualities deemed admirable in men have been labelled "ruthless" in women.

If we make a hard business or political decision we are accused of being "tough". If we are passionate we are "emotional". If we are frustrated we are "angry".

We have been conditioned, wrongly in my view, to feel that we have to have a hard edge in order to get ahead. And then we are slapped with the 'witch' word when we do.

We just can't win.

One of our leading businesswomen, Jackie Lavin, and her partner Bill Cullen have been in the public eye with news that they are to make a comeback after seeing their car dealership and hotel go under last year.

Both spoke openly and passionately in TV and radio interviews about their year from hell and were critical of a number of banks who, they claimed, withdrew support from their businesses, although they had never defaulted on a loan. They have just opened a new car dealership in Dublin.

It was interesting to see the reaction from the public to Jackie's interviews. She and Bill were equal in outlining their story and both came across as being almost bitter about what had happened to them.

But the public were unkind to Jackie with comments about her being a "hard woman" and a "tough cookie". Bizarrely, Bill was saved this bashing.

But hey, he is a man and he is allowed to be tough. Right?

An RBS study of diversity in business and commercial banking, published in the UK last May, found that one-third of women were put off by the type of aggressive business behaviour seen on TV shows such as 'Dragon's Den' and 'The Apprentice'.

Neither men nor women need to be ruthless in order to get ahead. Both sexes need to be reminded of this. The 'Devil Wears Prada' type of characteristics displayed by the movie's main character, Miranda Priestly, are not required to get ahead.

Being tough for the sake of it will win women, and indeed men, few friends and little respect.

Ladies, forget Hillary's advice to grow a thick skin. We are born with this anyway! We should concentrate instead on getting on with the job and improving our skills, rather than trampling on others to get to the top.

Women have brilliant skill sets and instead of emulating tough male behaviour, we should celebrate what comes naturally to us. We should reinforce our great qualities, especially our organisational skills.

And maybe its about time that men started to learn from us. A 2009 article in 'The Economist' made the argument that the financial crisis would have been handled differently if it were Lehman Sisters as opposed to Lehman Brothers.

Food for thought.

This is not to say we cannot push out the boundaries, but being ruthless for the sake of it does not have to be part of this strategy.

Women will always face challenges and a different set of constraints from those of men. I have said before that we can't have it all – be the perfect mothers, have the high-flying career and the ideal lifestyle all together. Sometimes we have to make choices, even if for a certain period of time.

But that does not mean we are not a success. Senior leaders in business, politics and public life need to see the value of women and to encourage a gender balance and ensure a level playing field. The female talent pool needs to be nurtured and appreciated.

Forget about that rhinoceros skin. Girls, don't abandon our soft side. Just be true to yourselves. Stay authentic and show the guys who is tops – and the boss!

Irish Independent

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