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The mansplaining of female achievement: Let's stop hailing 'the guy who got her there'

By Rachel Pashley |

August 25, 2016 | 8 min read

I am a global planning director for one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, J Walter Thompson. I know I am responsible for creating ideas and projecting images on behalf of brands all over the world every day. That’s why gender equality and diversity are on my mind every day.

They are hot topics at J Walter Thompson and within the advertising industry, because we have a long way to go to truly represent the society we live. And although we are challenging ourselves to do better, I am constantly reminded that we all need to pay closer attention.

Just take the Olympics. If you’d been watching the coverage you could have been forgiven for thinking that there were two entirely different Games going on: a serious men’s athletic competition, and for women…. well they were wearing some fancy schmanzy leotards this year, and honestly those gymnasts ‘might as well be standing around at the mall’ (someone at NBC actually said that).

You see, women don’t get to be portrayed as serious athletes, as that gets in the way of our lady pursuits (mall shopping). The Finkbeiner test was devised by journalist Christine Aschwanden to illustrate the gendered language used to describe female scientists in literature. The test examined the way in which a woman’s gender, family responsibilities, childcare etc are referenced in discussion of her scientific achievements (Erika Kirgios at Princeton used a similar test to evaluate the role of gender in political blogging). So why should we care? It’s simple really, and the same reason why the Cambridge University Press monitored the language used in sports coverage during Rio 2016, because by conflating her achievements with her home responsibilities we serve to undermine her; we imply that her energies and concentration are focused not on the job at hand, but at home.

In the case of sportswomen it implies she can’t be a serious athlete. Case in point: the Chicago Tribune's article on the ‘wife of a Chicago Bears lineman’ (she doesn’t even get to have a name) who by some fluke, in-between running errands and dropping off dry cleaning, went and won herself a bronze in trap shooting. Corey I don’t know how you did it, but we miss you at the mall.

In the workplace, it’s not hard to understand how implicitly this kind of thinking could rob women of opportunities for advancement: she ‘might have to leave early to take care of the kids’ – this is how unconscious bias works. Another facet of unconscious bias that befalls women in the office is the lack of credit we get for ideas. You know that moment when you suggest an idea that everyone ignores only for the guy next to you to repeat it, and suddenly it’s brilliant. And it's his idea. Something not too dissimilar happens outside the office too.

I call this phenomenon ‘the guy who got her there’, the man behind the scenes who is ultimately responsible for a woman’s stellar performance – because she couldn’t have done it herself. In Rio it happened in epic proportions: just witness Hungarian swimmer and medallist Katinka Hosszú’s sporting performance, deemed almost incidental to her coach husband, ‘the man responsible’ for her victory. She beat a world record by the way.

Or gold medal winning swimmer Katie Ledecky, who is described as the ‘latest innovation’ of coach Bruce Jemmell in an article in the New York Times. If you read that piece you could have easily mistake Katie for a Stepford-like swimming fembot designed by Jemmell, the former engineer, because ‘he’s never stopped innovating’. Am I the only one getting chills at this point?

If you thought this was just confined to the sporting world, you would be wrong, because ‘the guy who got her there’ pops up just about everywhere. And boy, he must be exhausted supporting women everywhere, because it’s portrayed as a full-time job. I mean there’s Hillary Clinton, who has Bill to thank for her political career, and so it felt justified that The First Ever Female US Presidential Nominee (insert applause) should hand over the front page to her husband. Credit where credit’s due, ya’ll.

Or spare a thought for poor multi-millionaire Grammy winning musical failure, Taylor Swift, for whom it took Ryan Adams to give her 1989 album credibility by pointing out the real hidden meaning – in her own songs.

I could bore you with all the female scientists whose achievement were credited to their husbands, or even the fact that so many of the great, iconic films – written by women – are attributed to the male directors… I’m thinking here of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, which is accepted as Steven Spielberg’s film, but was in fact written by Melissa Mathison. Have you ever heard of her?

Sarcasm aside, the point I’m making is that the portrayal of ‘the guy who got her there’ robs every woman of the real, hard won credit she deserves. Plus, it implies women lack the ambition and courage to strive and compete on their own terms and that they need a man to be successful. It’s the ‘Mansplaining of female success’.

This I find curious, given the fact that more women than men are attending university in the US, women are attaining higher grades, and we’re increasingly the primary breadwinners. Perhaps though, and most importantly, this phenomenon robs us of female role models and the opportunity to really acknowledge and celebrate female achievement.

At J. Walter Thompson, I have led a research project called Female Tribes which aims to create a new narrative around women by assessing the new multi-faceted, empowered face of femininity globally. We found that while 76 per cent of women worldwide feel it’s never been a better time to be a woman, 74 per cent wished they’d had more female role models as inspiration growing up, with more than 80 per cent wanting to see greater inclusion of female achievement in the history books.

We witness a direct correlation between onscreen role models and women’s career and life aspirations, so giving women the recognition they deserve has a legacy effect – and that benefits everyone.

So my point is this: we have a long way to go but let’s start with not robbing women of these valuable role models, or denying her of her achievements, because we’re pretty good at this stuff you know. It’s time to change our standard portrayals, and it’s time to step aside, ‘guy who got her there’. She did it all by herself.

Rachel Pashley is group planning head at J. Walter Thompson and the creator of Female Tribes, a global study into thousands of women that looks at their attitudes to everything from religion, race, sex and marriage to careers, ambition and money.

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