The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men. And What We Can Do About It

By Mary Ann Sieghart
Doubleday, July 2021

Review by Rishelle Wimmer, SWE Editorial Board

Have you ever been underestimated, ignored, or patronized at work? In her book, The Authority Gap, Mary Ann Sieghart addresses some of the reasons women are taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it.

Sieghart, a London-based journalist and broadcaster, carried out extensive research on the impact of gender bias on women’s authority, as a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford. Her research provides insight into persistent inequalities between men and women and the impact they have on women’s professional lives. Beyond presenting well-known problems, she uncovers origins of gender bias and its derivatives (e.g., the gender pay gap), while seeking solutions and outlining strategies for bridging the authority gap.

Taking both men and women to task, she points out that we all, to some extent and without realizing it, “tend to expect less of women, listen to them less attentively, and feel uncomfortable with them in positions of authority.”
Sieghart calls on an unconscious bias expert, Mahzarin Banaji, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychology at Harvard, to describe the mechanics of implicit bias.

Our bias is associated with what we observe in our environment:

We are so used to associating men with taking charge and women with taking care that we find it more difficult to acknowledge the opposite. I see that men do certain kinds of work and women do other kinds of work. If I had seen […] that women were largely construction workers and engineers, that’s what my brain would have learnt; and if I had seen […] that men largely took care of children at home and cooked and cleaned for them, then that’s what my brain would have learnt. We are used to seeing men as leaders and women as mothers or subordinates. There is no value judgement involved. It’s just that we find the pairings that go against stereotype rather more incongruous and harder to imagine.

Gender expectations and the double-bind dilemma

Bridging the authority gap is a journey fraught with paradox. Women, as well as men, tend to associate leadership and influence with men. When women behave in a powerful, agentic manner, their behavior is incongruent with gender expectations; it is this contradiction that makes both men and women feel uncomfortable.

If a woman acts assertively by speaking up, others may resist her influence. And, even though hesitancy and self-deprecation make women sound less confident and competent, by not hedging their statements, not repeatedly saying they are sorry, not diminishing themselves, they may paradoxically be acting against their own interests. This is a double-bind dilemma for women, who must project authority in order to advance, but the more powerful they appear, the less they are liked — a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation.

To close the gap, we must challenge practices that perpetuate gender inequality. but there is no one solution. Sieghart therefore proposes a collection of small solutions, which together can make an impact.


Sieghart emphasizes that being warm and likable is prescriptive for women, but not for men. A woman generally has to be likable if she wants to be influential and therefore command authority. Women are expected to overlay authority with warmth to counteract resistance and hostility when they take positions of authority. Although the author comments that this is grossly unfair, she still recommends applying warmth and likability as a strategy to defuse any hostility to a woman’s authority. She says, “If warmth is what it takes to have men listen to her, it’s not the end of the world.”

Mistaking confidence for competence

Sieghart refers to psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., who points to our inability to discern between confidence and competence as contributing to disproportionate gender representation in management positions. People commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, and we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women.

While men tend to be hired based on their apparent competence and commitment, women are hired based on likability. For men, likability is barely mentioned as a factor in hiring and promotion.

Sieghart draws our attention to why women who challenge gender-expected behavior have a difficult time. She points out that competent women in positions of authority may present a threat to men’s sense of entitlement to power, and are therefore likely to be resisted as leaders.

The heart of the authority gap

The Authority Gap is a wonderfully thought-provoking book, supported by meticulous research. Seeking to understand why things do not improve, the author introduces the concept of solution aversion, the phenomenon where people are motivated to deny problems and the scientific evidence supporting the existence of the problems — when they are averse to the solutions:

If the solution to the authority gap were simply that men had to cede power to women, I can see why they might be averse to losing their privileged position in the world. I don’t deny that some rebalancing of power is called for, but there are so many other ways of narrowing the gap that don’t threaten men, and others that positively benefit them. For some men, it can be challenging to admit that there is a problem. Even male scientists, who have been trained all their lives to analyse and interpret evidence objectively, are still prone to evaluate research on gender bias less favourably than women.

We are forced to ask the question: Does a win for women equate to a loss for men?

Closing the gap

To close the gap, we must challenge practices that perpetuate gender inequality. But there is no one solution. Sieghart therefore proposes a collection of small solutions, which together can make an impact.

Before introducing her roadmap for bridging the authority gap, Sieghart advises her male readers to perform a thought experiment:

Imagine living in a world where you are routinely patronised by women. Having your views ignored or your expertise frequently challenged by them. Trying to speak up in a meeting, only to be talked over by female colleagues. Subordinates resisting you as a boss, merely because you’re a man. Being trolled by women on social media for daring to express an opinion. People always addressing the woman you are with before you. Now imagine a world in which the reverse of this is true.

The closing chapter, “No Need to Despair,” offers a catalogue of how we as individuals, parents, employers, and institutions can impact the authority gap — encouraging us to be vigilant about our biases and to consciously overcome them.

Taking women seriously is the beginning of ending gender inequality in all its insidious forms.

Rishelle Wimmer (she/her) is a senior lecturer in the information technology and systems management department of the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in Austria. She studied operation research and system analysis at Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in educational sciences from the University of Salzburg. She serves on the SWE editorial board and the research advisory council and has been the faculty advisor for the Salzburg SWE affiliate since FY17.