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How the ‘Authority Gap’ Between Men and Women Hurts Us All

13 minute read
Sieghart is a London-based journalist and broadcaster who spent 20 years as Assistant Editor and columnist at the Times. She has also worked for the Independent, the Economist, the Financial Times, and the BBC. She researched The Authority Gap as a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford. She is Chair of the judges for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2022.

If you’re a man reading this, may I first of all say thank you. You are unusual in being interested in an essay primarily about women. But your commitment will be rewarded, for this is meant for you. Counterintuitively, perhaps, it is mainly about what you can gain, as a man, from taking women more seriously and treating them with equal respect. For there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest that this is a positive-sum game in which everybody wins.

I know that may sound odd. Isn’t gender equality a seesaw in which, if one side rises, the other must, by definition, fall? I don’t deny that there may be individual instances in which, if you are in direct competition with a woman for a job or a promotion and the bias against her is dissolved, you may find that she beats you on merit. But in pretty much every other aspect of your life, including your day-to-day interactions at home and at work, gender equality is likely to make you happier, healthier and more satisfied. You’ll even sleep more soundly and, as a clincher, have a better sex life.

Let’s start from the individual and work outwards to the workplace, the wider economy, the country as a whole and the planet, to see what we can all gain from narrowing the authority gap: the gap that measures how much we still take women less seriously than men.

Women these days are much more inclined to choose as romantic partners men they think will be good and involved fathers and share the second shift equally than the traditional husband who expects the woman to do all the chores and childcare. As the psychotherapist Phillip Hodson puts it in Men: An Investigation into the Emotional Male, “Men only need to change a little to gain great improvements in their relationships but they falsely see this change as considerable and resist it.”

Reams of academic research shows that everyone in a heterosexual family, including the man himself, gains from a man sharing in a more egalitarian partnership. The woman is more satisfied with the relationship, the couple communicate better, she feels respected and part of a genuine team, and she is less resentful and exhausted by taking a disproportionate share of the unpaid work. As a result, she is happier and healthier. So are their children, who also display fewer behavioural difficulties and do better at school. But, best of all for these purposes, the men themselves are also happier and healthier: they are twice as likely to be satisfied with their life, they smoke less, drink less, take fewer drugs, suffer less mental ill health, are less likely to get divorced, have a better relationship with their children—and they get significantly more frequent and better sex. What’s not to like?

Fathers being more involved with bringing up their children don’t just free up women to advance at work, thus helping narrow the authority gap. They also transform attitudes in the next generation. Daughters with dads who do their fair share are more likely to pursue their career aspirations, often in less stereotypical occupations, with more self-esteem and self-confidence. Sons who see their fathers share the household duties equally have a more egalitarian perspective of women’s and men’s roles at home and work. And when they become teenagers, these boys are half as likely to be violent as their peers who have rigid views about masculinity and gender.

It seems that gender equality suits men rather well. It allows them to experience all the love and comfort that come with stable relationships and happy families. And it allows them to escape the rigid constraints of masculinity that came with the old notions of patriarchy, which can be just as unpleasant for men as for women.

The Norwegian sociologist Øystein Gullvåg Holter has written a wonderful academic paper called ‘What’s in It for Men?’, in which he enumerates all the benefits that men win in more gender-equal European countries and more gender-equal U.S. states. They are less likely to get divorced. Their chances of dying a violent death are almost halved. The gap between male and female suicide rates is narrower. Men are also less likely to be violent against their partners and children, which in turn reduces the children’s risk of being violent in later life. Best of all, though, they are happier. “It is a common misunderstanding that increased gender equality provides benefits and privileges for women at the expense of men’s benefits and privileges,” he says. In fact, he finds, men in more gender-equal countries and U.S. states are twice as likely to be happy, and nearly half as likely to be depressed. This holds true whatever their class or income.

So if men are happier at home in more gender-equal households, how about at work? Well, if you treat your female colleagues with equal respect and value their competence as highly as that of men, they will like you more, work harder for you and be less likely to leave their jobs. And if you are lucky enough to have a female boss, you will probably find her a better people manager. Gallup’s State of the American Manager report surveyed 27 million employees and found that those who work for a female manager are 26 per cent more likely than those who work for a man to strongly agree that, “There is someone at work who encourages my development,” and 29 per cent more likely to strongly agree that, “In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.”

The 66th session of the 'Commission on the Status of Women' is held at the UN headquarters in New York City, on March 14, 2022.
The 66th session of the 'Commission on the Status of Women' is held at the UN headquarters in New York City, on March 14, 2022.Tayfun Coskun—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As a result, people who work for women tend to be more engaged and loyal, which is good news for employers too. Both men and women are more engaged with female bosses, but the biggest gap is between women who work for women (35 per cent engaged) and men who work for men (only 25 per cent). “Overall,” says the report, “female managers eclipse their male counterparts at setting basic expectations for their employees, building relationships with their subordinates, encouraging a positive team environment and providing employees with opportunities to develop within their careers.” And the female managers themselves are more engaged than their male counterparts, finds the survey, perhaps because they know they have to work harder to gain the same recognition.

This is something that Mike Rann, former premier of South Australia, has noticed in politics. I went to talk to him about the appalling misogyny that his friend and colleague Julia Gillard had endured when she was Australia’s first and so far only female prime minister. But he expanded on his theme. “Women read their briefs, they don’t just read the summary of their Cabinet papers, they’ve actually done the homework, often much more diligently,” he told me. “And why? Partly because it’s the right thing to do, but because they’re constantly being judged more harshly, under different standards to the blokes, they have to make sure they go the extra mile. So I think men have a lot to learn from women and I don’t understand why they’re so scared.”

One consequence of the authority gap is that women are held to higher standards. This means that employers are often losing out on under-promoted female talent. So they, too, have a lot to gain from narrowing the gap. As Rann points out, women often outperform men. For instance, research shows that houses listed by female estate agents sell for higher prices, female lawyers are less likely to behave unethically, and patients treated by female doctors are less likely to die or be readmitted to hospital.

The business case for promoting more women to positions of authority is very strong. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2019 report on the subject, which looked at more than 1,000 large companies in 15 countries, the most gender-diverse companies were 25 per cent more likely to earn above-average profits than the ones with very few women. The more women there were in senior jobs in a business, the higher the likelihood of outperformance.

Think how much richer the country would be if more women played a bigger role in running businesses. That would mean more jobs and higher wages for us all. Investors and the stock market understand this. Many big institutional investors are now putting pressure on companies that have very few senior women. This isn’t for box-ticking purposes, but to increase shareholder value. Once a company (or any other employer) has more senior women in its ranks, it is likely to be able to recruit better talent. When considering a potential employer, 61 per cent of women look at the diversity of the employer’s leadership team and 67 per cent at whether it has positive role models similar to them.

One reason for the outperformance of these gender-diverse companies is that they are fishing in a much larger talent pool, and women often outperform their male colleagues. But there is also strong evidence that more diverse teams (including race, nationality and class as well as gender) make better decisions, even if the members don’t always feel it at the time.

Having an outsider come into a team may be uncomfortable to start with, but it is that very discomfort that jolts us from our tramlines. While homogeneous groups may feel more confident that they have made the right decisions, it is the diverse groups that actually perform better. Katherine Phillips, a professor of business and organization, did an experiment putting people into groups investigating a murder. In some of them, the members all knew each other, but the ones that contained outsiders were more likely to find the right suspect because they ended up thinking harder about the problem. The least diverse groups were much more confident about their decisions, even though they were more likely to be wrong. “Generally speaking, people would prefer to spend time with others who agree with them rather than disagree with them,” says Phillips. But agreeing with each other does not always produce the best results.

Venture capital is a famously cliquey male field. But VC firms that hire more women as partners have 10 per cent more profitable exits. Another study finds that women-run private tech companies earn a 35 per cent higher return on investment. Yet companies run by men still win 93 per cent of all venture capital funding. So just think how much richer we could all be if we used this potential better.

Protestors gathered at the Women's Climate Strike on International Women's Day in Cape Town, South Africa, on March 8, 2022.
Protestors gathered at the Women's Climate Strike on International Women's Day in Cape Town, South Africa, on March 8, 2022.Brenton Geach—Gallo Images/Getty Images

Giving women more authority—taking their talents more seriously, promoting them more, lending them money, allowing them to lead—could hugely boost the world economy. Christine Lagarde, the economist who is the President of the European Central Bank, has co-authored a paper with Jonathan Ostry which calculates that, on the basis of the complementary skills and perspectives that women bring to the workforce, countries ranked in the bottom 50 per cent for gender inequality could boost their GDP by 35 per cent if they closed the gender gap. What’s more, this could actually increase men’s wages because having more talented women in the workforce would lead to higher productivity, from which everybody gains.

McKinsey, meanwhile, estimates that, if all countries in a region matched the rate of gender-equality improvement of the best one, this could add $12 trillion, or 11 per cent, to annual global GDP: equivalent to the current GDP of Germany, Japan and the U.K. combined. This, as economists say, is non-trivial.

The world might also be better run if women were accorded as much political authority as men. We have already seen how successful leaders such as Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand can be, with their more consensual and empathetic style. But this isn’t just anecdotal. Research shows that female politicians, on average, do more constituency

work than men, are less corrupt and have a leadership style that is more cooperative and inclusive. They focus more on issues that help the most vulnerable. They also win more central government spending for their constituencies and they legislate more.

We even have more chance of living in peace. Countries that have more women in power are less likely to go to war and less likely to have a civil war. Countries with 10 per cent of women in the labour force are nearly thirty times more likely to experience internal conflict than countries with 40 per cent. Meanwhile, including women in peace processes makes them more successful and long-lasting.

In the Journal of Happiness Studies is an article called ‘(E)Quality of Life’, in which the authors conducted a cross-national analysis of the effect of gender equality on satisfaction with life. They write: “By any standard, improvements in the status of women appear to be associated with large improvements in the overall quality of life within a nation. The conclusion is fairly straightforward: across our different measures of the relative empowerment of women, the data suggest that society is happier as women achieve greater equality.” No wonder men as well as women prefer living in Sweden than in Saudi Arabia.

“It could be that any improvement in the wellbeing of women produces a corresponding reduction in satisfaction among men, as if quality of life is a zero-sum game in which improvement for some means a diminution for others,” they concede. But no: “For both men and women, gender equality would seem to lead to greater life satisfaction regardless of the measure used.” Given how worried we are these days about teenagers’ wellbeing, it is cheering also to discover that adolescent girls and boys are happier in gender-equal countries, even after controlling for national wealth and income equality.

Finally, let’s consider the implications for the future of the planet. Women are more likely to worry about climate change and to believe that it will harm future generations. They are also more likely to believe that it will affect them personally. So having more women in positions of decision-making power, with people listening to them, would help to reduce global warming.

At the local level, an experiment with forest-users in Indonesia, Peru and Tanzania found that including at least 50 per cent women in the decision-making groups led to more trees being conserved and to payments being distributed more equitably. At the national level, too, it makes a difference. Having more women in national parliaments leads to tougher climate-change policies and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

So, from the home to the workplace, the economy, the nation state and the planet, allowing women to have equal authority to men is in all our interests. We gain so much, men as well as women, from having the added talent and perspective of women contributing to our shared lives. We will be happier, healthier, richer, more fulfilled and better governed if we close the authority gap. We might even save the planet in the process.

Adapted from Sieghart’s new book The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men And What We Can Do About It

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