Judge Theresa May on her policies, not on her gender

Kate Andrews
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If fiercely disagreeing with a woman is equated to sexism, we’re going to have some very serious problems on our hands (Source: Getty)

“Having failed at an impossible task no one else wanted, the men in grey suits are lining up to push… their female leader off the glass cliff.”

So tweeted the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) on Wednesday afternoon, before the confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership took place.

It’s not exactly a kind write-up for the Prime Minister – but more importantly, it’s a hopeless message for anyone who ticks the “working woman” box.

The WEP is not alone in its perspective on the past few weeks of political shenanigans with the implication that eurosceptic MPs are attacking the Prime Minister for more than just her Brexit agenda.

The act of male politicians – who hold one opinion – pushing back against a female politician – with another opinion – apparently has undertones of sexism. But the only “evidence” I have seen to back up such claims is literally the PM’s gender – which is to say, no evidence at all.

The eurosceptic movement has not been accused of language that is particularly loaded, gendered, or belittling. May’s backbenchers are not making references to her outfits, her hair, her tone of voice, or her body.

Indeed, the majority of criticisms about the Prime Minister have been linked to profound disagreements on policy – mainly the withdrawal agreement which she has negotiated with Brussels, and what it means for trade, tax, and regulatory opportunities post-Brexit.

But if fiercely disagreeing with a woman is equated to sexism, we’re going to have some very serious problems on our hands.

This definition essentially rules women out of top jobs, and indeed any job that requires some element of decision-making that another colleague could object to.

Prime Minister is – thankfully – no longer a gendered position. It is the leader of the United Kingdom, the most important decision-maker in Westminster, and any person of any gender or association can do the job.

It is also a position that must be constantly scrutinised and criticised. To label journalists, MPs, or members of the public as “sexist” for playing their role in a free and liberal society is dangerous – for the safety of society, and also for the rights of women to hold positions of power.

I’m sure that the WEP thinks, in some roundabout way, that it has come to the aid of the PM – and women everywhere – by attacking the “men in grey suits”.

But in reality, it is making the radical pronouncement that you cannot disagree with a woman in a position of power, without making yourself vulnerable to accusations of sexism.

If you must be able to criticise the Prime Minister, but you cannot criticise female leaders, where does that leave women? Jobless, and powerless.

This kind of messaging is insulting to a Prime Minister who, regardless of what you think of her politics, has proven herself to be extremely stoic and strong in the face of backlash.

But it also reinforces problems that women in everyday jobs face when trying to climb the work ladder. A report from Lean In and McKinsey found that, while women were just as likely to ask for feedback from their managers at work, they were 20 per cent less likely to get it, as managers “are more likely to hesitate… due to the risk of sounding mean or hurtful”.

We must continue to fight for women’s equality in areas of society that haven’t caught up to today’s standards – but treating women as delicate wallflowers who can’t take the swipes of men is moving us further away from this goal. And denying women critical but useful feedback to protect their feelings advantages men in the long run.

I for one am grateful that, on the whole, May’s femaleness has not been a major focus on her premiership. Please, let’s not make it one. Judge us on our actions, our achievements, and our failures – not on our gender.

£ Kate Andrews is a columnist for City A.M.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.