Journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart was a recent guest at the Mansfield Lecture Series. She gave a talk entitled “Why Don’t We Take Women as Seriously as Men?” which discussed biases against women in public life. Emily Jones, 2nd Year English Literature & Language student and JCR Women’s Officer, met her beforehand to discuss her work.


EJ: Can you tell me a bit about the talk you’re going to give today?

MAS: I’m giving a talk about why we tend to take women less seriously than men. When I say “we”, I mean women as well as men, sadly. So this is not just a man-blaming talk. We tend to do it without realising. It’s as if we assume a man knows what he’s talking about until he proves otherwise, whereas for a woman it’s the other way round.

EJ: How does this manifest day-to-day?

MAS: We find that when it comes to reading books, we women will read books that are roughly fifty-fifty by men and women. We’ll just read the best books on the market or the ones our friends recommend. Men will read roughly eighty-twenty. So in other words, it’s not just that they’re not according our views, our expertise, authority, they’re not even reading what we write in the first place.

Then it’s the same with academic citations. Women’s articles are less likely to be cited in journals than men’s. Women’s articles are also less likely to be put on university reading lists- all these are functions of authority. Then there’s the book review pages, say the New York Review of Books. In 2017, 77% of the books they reviewed were by men, and 76% of the critics were men. It’s not as if women don’t write books. We write really good books, actually.

EJ: Do you think that social media particularly highlights this bias?

MAS: Yes, I do. In fact, I’ll be talking about that today as well. There was a study done in the last General Election campaign about who the most influential political journalists were on Twitter. Now, Twitter really matters for political journalists, and I know, because I used to be one. It’s how you get your voice amplified, how people engage with you, how your opinion is thought to be authoritative. So you want people to engage with you on Twitter, to get conversations going and retweets and so on. Out of the most influential political journalists on Twitter, not one single female political journalist made it into the top ten. Even BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg didn’t make it. It’s staggering. I was on the judging panel of the British Journalism Awards that year for the Political Journalist of the Year and we chose a woman, Rachel Sylvester at The Times. She’s brilliant. It’s not as if she wasn’t any good, she was the best. But she still didn’t make it into the top ten, and the reason was that men retweeted male political journalists four to five times more than female ones. Often they didn’t even follow the women in the first place. So they couldn’t have retweeted them if they didn’t know what they were saying. In general on Twitter, not talking about the elites, men are twice as likely to follow other men than women.

So a lot of this isn’t a conscious bias, I don’t think men think, “I’m never going to read a book by a woman or follow them on Twitter”. I think they just club together really.

EJ: You’ve managed to identify these biases: what do we do about it?

MAS: There are individual small things that each of us can do as people. Women as well as men. Look at the books you read; if you’re an academic, look at the ones you cite and put on reading lists that you give to other people. Look at the people you follow and retweet on Twitter. Actively listen to women with the same attentiveness that you do to men. Notice if you’re ever feeling unconscious bias. I do it myself, and I’m writing a book about it. If you find you’re disliking a woman in a position of power or authority, actually interrogate yourself and work out if that’s because she is dislikeable or because of how you feel about the idea of a woman being in that position.

EJ: Is there any advice you’d like to give to the women in the Mansfield student community?

MAS: I think my biggest piece of advice is never to mistake confidence for competence. On average boys and men are over-confident, disproportionately confident given their abilities, and girls and women are on the whole disproportionately under-confident. They are no less able than boys and sometimes they’re abler. Yet boys and men have been trained, in a way, and brought up to project this image of themselves as being uber-confident. People believe them, and you shouldn’t always believe them.


Many thanks to Emily and Mary Ann.


Mary Ann Sieghart is a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, a journalist and a broadcaster. Former Assistant Editor and political columnist at The Times, she has written for the FT, the Economist, and The Independent and worked as an occasional presenter on BBC Radio 4. She also chairs the Social Market Foundation think tank.