Driven women don’t have to find excuses for their success

A FRIEND rang me the other day. Spitting teeth, she was, with fury. Reasonably famous, this friend, never mind in what sector of Irish life, but reasonably famous, writes Terry Prone

Driven women don’t have to find excuses for their success

As a result of that reasonable fame, she had been contacted by a journalist in mainstream media, who wanted her to figure in a piece the journalist was writing about menopause.

She might, said the female journalist, even get my friend a free freezable pillow to try out, if my friend co-operated. For the hot flushes, you know yourself?

If the freezable pillow had been handy right then, it would have been used as a weapon by my friend, who was so furious she simply cut the caller off and

blocked her.

Her fury wasn’t generated by any implication that she was aging.

In fact, she’d gone through menopause 10 years earlier and thought it was a breeze.

Her objection was to the idea that she, representing women, should be used in a pattern of coverage of women that was driving her out of her mind.

“Since when did we become no more than a sequence of diseases and ailments and abuse?” she asked.

“Coverage of women boils down, these days, to the teen years when they’re portrayed as suffering anxiety and acne, the child-bearing years, when they tell everybody how guilty they feel about every

aspect of motherhood. Then you get menopause and minding parents. Why do women go along with this? Why?”

The answer is probably that public confession of personal problems, surmounted or not, seems to have developed as a way of being more “relatable”. “Relatable” is the new “formidable”.

Talking about bad or abusive relationships or personal inadequacy or bereavement or illness is a proven way of taking the sting out of success, of effectively saying to onlookers: “Look, there’s no harm in me, I’m just like you. Let’s bond, not over my threatening success in the workplace, but over our commonality of misery.”

Successful businessmen, in sharp contrast, rarely discuss their physical problems. It’s an occasional man — think Brent Pope — who talks about his depression.

However, since men suffer a fair number of disabling and mortifying medical problems and tend to die younger than women, you might expect that they would front up and open up about them. They rarely do. They find other ways to self-deprecate, if they decide to go that route, which they rarely do, the shining exception being the

delightful and phenomenally

successful Eoin Colfer.

Maybe journalists don’t ring reasonably famous men up and ask them to share their prostate problems or confess their regrets over feeding their kids chicken nuggets or not reading them bedtime stories.

That has to be part of it. Mainstream media is happy to take success neat, when it comes to men, whereas it has the need to make success more dilutedly palatable, when it comes to women.

And it trains them well.

From their early 20s, the pattern is set and surrendered to. One successful woman after another talks about her bulimia or her panic attacks.

A radio producer (female) muttered to me recently that she had an under-supply of successful young women wanting to come in to studio but a gross over-supply of women in their teens and early 20s, egging to come in to talk about their anxiety.

She didn’t quite say it, but the implication was that everybody’s anxiety attacks follow more or less the same pattern, so once you’ve broadcast one personal account, that’s it, whereas success comes in many and varied shapes.

THE fact is that women are more “relatable” when they have something obviously wrong with their life, rather than when they’re straightforwardly successful, as I discovered when I had a massive car crash that put me in a wheelchair for a year. Suddenly, I was popular. People stroked my forearms. Nuns kissed me. The warmth even extended to my husband, who was told he was wonderful just for pushing the wheelchair along. Then I got fixed and ambulatory and things went back to normal. No forearm stroking. Thank you for asking: I managed the withdrawal symptoms pretty well. But I learned that being a successful businesswoman was much more acceptable — especially to other women — if it was introduced with an “Ah, God love her, all the same, wouldn’t you be sorry for her?”

It’s a circle that’s getting more pronounced all the time: Women who reach the top, whether in business, politics, fiction or science, are asked about their plans to freeze their eggs, how quickly they went back to work after having their child or children and how supportive their husband is. Men, not so much. I can’t remember the last time I read anything painfully personal about problematic aspects of Michael O’Leary’s body. Those questions just don’t get asked of a man like him. Or answered.

The only woman I can think of who packs the same punch as O’Leary — she’s a corporate lawyer who is on more boards than any other businesswoman in the country — is Rose Hynes, and either she doesn’t get asked those questions or she refuses to answer them, because I can’t find any record of her discussing matters painful, personal or calculated to make her more “relatable”. I suspect if anybody tried to ask them, she’d give them a hooded look that would be infinitely more threatening than a pointed, loaded, gun.

They are exceptions, for different reasons. Michael O’Leary would quite like you to loathe him. Rose Hynes doesn’t have the time to care one way or the other. But out there in the middle is the endless parade of self-deprecation and assertions of incompetence or guilt or self-consciousness by women protecting themselves against being seen as too hard-nosed or thick-skinned, driven or ambitious.

Famous women who are older often quote the contemptuous comments about them made by their daughters as an indication of how humble they are. Meryl Streep is just one example of a star who might usefully have told her daughters to belt up until they’ve achieved maybe half of what the criticised mother has achieved. But then, stars who don’t have children to denigrate them, do it by themselves. A recent interview had Helen Mirren blithering about how she had always felt her legs were too fat. Bad enough internet trolls made a thing out of the allegation that Hillary Clinton had fat ankles. We can’t stop internet trolling, yet. But to do it to yourself, when you have delivered such pitch-perfect performances right throughout your life? To reduce yourself to crawling self-deprecation?

The real problem with all this gormless self-deprecation is it removes the possibility of being a role model. If you got to be where you are purely by luck and you’re really a fat-legged wimp riven with guilt, disproportionately grateful to your “supportive” spouse, then what’s for the next generation to emulate?

Women use self-deprecation to protect themselves against being seen as too hard-nosed or thick-skinned.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up