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Not sexist to say there are more exceptional men than women

Posted on 23 September 2010 | 10:09am

Out last night for a speaking engagement at an event for ‘exceptional people’ organised by executive search company McSherry Brown.

If I am being very frank with you, the speaking circuit can be a bit soul-destroying from time to time, but this was a really nice event, well organised, well attended, well paid (before anyone asks), really nice mood and atmosphere and they also bought loads of my books, with the mark up going to Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. And don’t forget, if you haven’t already, to check out a great fundraiser we have planned for October 3 with Kevin Spacey 

The other nice thing was that rather than just asking me to turn up and say what I liked, Claire-Louise McSherry (the boss) gave me a specific brief – to select twelve exceptional people I had worked with or come into contact with, and use each to give one or two indicators as to why they were exceptional, and how those qualities might be applied by others.

I went for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuinness, Bono and Bob Geldof (I counted them as one), Princess Diana, Cathy Gilman, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Alex Ferguson, Lance Armstrong and Diego Maradona, who narrowly squeezed out Haile Gebreselassie for my final sporting slot. Cathy Gilman, by the way, is the chief executive of Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, having risen to that position from being a tin-rattling volunteer a few years back.

I’d be here all day if I went through the reasons I gave for each choice, though many will be obvious. But even as I drew up the list – good fun by the way, and I recommend it for your next long journey – I was conscious of how few women there were on there. Diana for her beauty, and how she used it, along with her innate understanding of other people, Cathy because I wanted to show that exceptional did not always mean famous or powerful in the conventional sense.

Unsurprisingly, the gender imbalance came up in the q and a. Why wasn’t Mrs Thatcher in there, I was asked? Well, it is my list and though I accept she is an exceptional person, there are many such, and if I am having three former PMs and Presidents, there is no way she is getting in ahead of TB, BC and NM, is there? What about Mary Queen of Scots or Queen Victoria, someone suggested. But my brief had been LIVING people, (thanks to commenter VR for pointing out this would also exclude Diana – I meant living sufficient for me to have met them!) so they were automatically excluded even if I had wanted to consider them, which I probably wouldn’t have.

But I found myself making a broader point, which didn’t go down well with the women in the room, but has a ring of truth to it. Whether you look at history, or the current day, most of the people who would be defined as the best and most exceptional in their field tend to be men. If I had been asked to do a list of 12 exceptional woman, I could have done so, and there are plenty to choose from. But there are more men to choose from, and contrary to the observation of one woman at the event, I don’t think it is sexist to say so. I did concede that the Queen is pretty much the best Monarch around these days, JK Rowling the most commercially successful current author, but I’ve only met the Queen a couple of times, and only ever communicated with JKR by email, so it would have been pure name-dropping to put them in there … not like Maradona, Mandela or Diana eh…

Anyway, Claire-Louise is a woman and she put together the nicest City event I have been at in a while, and given my observation seemed to take off as a rather hot talking point, I thought I would put it on here too. Lists welcome.

  • VR

    But my brief had been LIVING people, so they were automatically excluded even if I had wanted to consider them, which I probably wouldn’t have.

    I thought Diana was dead! Is there something we should know??

  • Eddy Rhead

    Im sure a women – speaking from the same position as you and naming mainly women in her list – would not be accused of sexism.

    *lights blue touch paper and retreats to a safe distance*

  • Deborah

    I hope that my son will one day count me as one of the most exceptional people he’s ever met.

    Let’s face it, all children benefit from a loving, caring and stable environment in order to develop into tomorrow’s exceptional people, be they male or female.

    It’s a pity that society on the whole fails to recognise this.

  • BevGibbs

    I think you make the observation but you pull your punches on what you conclude from it. Are you saying:
    1. you think there are more exceptional men than women, or
    2. exceptional men are more visible than exceptional women, or
    3. it takes more for you to regard a woman as exceptional, compared to a man?

  • Shona

    Little disappointed with this post. The question should be why do those who get to top of their field tend to be men. Is it just because they are generally more exceptional and talented? Of course not is the answer, women are just as talented. Your list would be more proportionate it if we lived in a more equal society and in terms of history, do you think women were blessed with opportunities to become great?

  • “most of the people who would be defined as the best and most exceptional in their field tend to be men”

    ‘Defined’ is the key word here. The world is set up to offer recognition to men above women, generally. It’s a believing-is-seeing phenomenon.

    I don’t think it’s sexist of you to say what your experience has been… but I think it is a manifestation of the way society is still heavily biased to recognise and promote both men and ‘male’ ideas of achievement / exception.

    Certainly this was much more so in the times when the people you listed were getting their foot in the door. The list isn’t sexist but the process by which it was generated (outside of your control) very much was biased.

  • Jude

    I think it is simply untrue to say there are more exceptional men than women – you just haven’t met them. The roles women take, for whatever reasons, may not be as high profile as mens, but that does not make them less exceptional. And re Bono, he is merely exceptional at being a fake. $8m spent on salaries and $180k given to aid, from donations that people are led to believe are going to the poor. And then there’s his avoidance of Irish Tax. Something wrong with that picture, I’m telling you…

  • arresta

    You had better have a tin helmet and a thick skin handy this time.

  • Maybe not diplomatic, but that’s different from sexist. Barbara Tuchman pointed out long ago (in A Distant Mirror, I think) that any woman around whom one could construct a historical narrative would, by definition, be an exception because they are so rare. Look at how many of the women who have left a mark on history are monarchs – until recently a woman without advantages of birth stood little chance of troubling the scorers. Things are changing, but not fast enough to make up for the bias.

  • Normally I follow your point of view, but I feel the need to pull you up on this one.

    “Most of the people who would be defined as the best and exceptional in their field tend to be men”. Ask yourself why that is. Why don’t women rise to the top in business and politics? Is it because women are inherently inferior debaters, motivators and innovators? Of course not. Women are not the lesser gender, incapacitated by oestrogen to perform. So there must be something else holding them down – perhaps the innate sexism entrenched in our society structure?

    You are not sexist for including fewer exceptional women in your list, but your list and defence that “there are more men to choose from”, is evidence of the sexism in our society.

  • Sarah-dodds

    I know loads of exceptional women. But they tend to do things in a less obvious way without bringing attention to themselves or looking for limelight. I think this explains why “most of the people who would be defined as the best and most exceptional in their field tend to be men” – it points to gender imbalance in society as a whole. What does irk is a women being included for her beauty – it’s like congratulating George Osbourne for having been born rich…..

    My most exceptional offering to society is, like millions of women, my children. I don’t resent the professional sacrifices I have made and do make on a daily basis for them. I am grateful to the Labour Government for helping me balance both roles the best way I know how, and fear and dread that life is about to become much harder for us young professional mums.
    Everyone of us who wakes up in the morning to nurture and cherish our babes and families the best way we know how is exceptional. And we certainly don’t give an arse enough to need men to tell us so.

  • Forlornehope

    But it cost that guy Summers at Harvard his job didn’t it?

  • Jenna Gould (Media Jems)

    What a great speech last night Alastair. Yes you did raise some discussions around those who did and didn’t appear on your list, but the point is really, that this is your list – everyone will have their own list of people they personally find exceptional. It’s totally subjective.

    Well done for an engaging and thought-provoking speech.

  • It’s true but it’s very blunt – why is this the case? Maybe equality amongst the sexes (ie each being given an even chance) is still a global issue today?

  • Claire Maugham

    It’s a statement of sad-but-true fact, and not sexist to note, that more men than women rise to the top of politics and public life. I’d question, though, whether the same could be said of your putting ‘beauty’ as the first proof-point of exceptional-ness for one of the two women in your list.

  • JohnT

    The observation is not sexist, but several answers to the question “why is that” might well be. We can acknowledge that the expectations and limitations on women in the past did not allow many to reach their full potential but why is it still the position in what many men would regard as a period of female emancipation ? Unless you posit some psychological or physiological reason – and Occam’s razor suggests that you need not – the simple answer is that our society is still institutionally sexist.

  • Jacquie R

    Feel a bit queasy after reading this!

  • Dr Shibley Rahman

    It’s also interesting noting the sex-distribution of your comments tioday Alastair.

  • I don’t agree at all that women can’t thrive in a male dominated society. You clearly don’t get out enough and meet the right kinds of women. What about that awsome femme in charge of Kidscape, not even going to try and spell her name and no time for Google right now, what about Theresa May, Maria Eagle, Lynn Franks, Tracey Emin? Countless others? Get out of your Islington comfort zone and livea little. Women have all the power, we just let you think you are in control and have more of the duvet. It’s called politics. A thing you ought to know about.

  • Ken Coker

    Well, you were asked to populate the list with people you had come into contact with – what about Mo? She strikes me as pretty exceptional…and I’ll just look and see if Barbara Castle is in your Diaries…oh yes, pp 63 and 159 in my paperback edition

  • Olli Issakainen

    May I start with the news that according to a new study gender gap is a scientific myth. Our brains are not hardwired according to gender. There is no such a thing as biological destiny
    As for the gender imbalance, there are, of course, numerous historical and social reasons why this is the case.
    In Finland, our president is a woman. Our PM is a woman. 11 members of our Cabinet are women – 9 men. What have Scandinavian values of equality and solidarity done to Finland? Newsweek says that Finland is the best place in the world to live.
    Oscar Wilde once said that anything worth learning cannot be teached.
    As for my “heroes” (past and present), here is a list: 1. JFK 2. Winston Churchill 3. John Gray 4. Alastair Campbell 5. Rupert Murdoch 6. Tony Blair 7. John Maynard Keynes 8. Paul Davies 9. Richard Branson 10. Will Hutton 11. Madeleine Bunting (a woman!) 12. Ted Heath (yes – he was my hero in the 1970s especially after he visited Turf Moor).

    • GenderAgenda

      I like your post. What is the name of the study on the gender gap?

  • Rolls eyes. Come now, this is a totally subjective list and you say you could have made a list of 12 exceptional women so WHY bring up the gender imbalance? What is “exceptional” anyway. I’m exceptional along with all women for what they put up with (from men in particular)
    ps. I do wish I was a Burnley fan right now; there’s a first for everything. The FA should insist that clubs don’t field all their reserves in cup games; it signals disrespect to fans, players and the game

  • you don’t think that part of this may be your lack of awareness of exceptional women ? doesn’t mean not out there! #justsayin

  • Not sexist, at all, but a little ill-considered. Diana over Mo Mowlam, JK Rowling, or Shirley Williams? All three achieved amazing things and are widely respected.

  • If naming this list is sexist, it is also homophobic, racist and ableist by dint of who isn’t on it. And yet of course it is none of those things. Fighting discrimination isn’t about getting enough entries in a list, and those who would reduce it to such banality are forming a cheering section not a protest.

  • Maizey

    Mm upon reading and considering the content of your blog I can only comment thus : The brief was to select 12 exceptional people that you have personally worked with/come into contact with etc so it was your own choice.That choice could have been made depending on how long you had to think about your choices and who stood out at for you that time and even what mood you were in imo
    The lack of many females shows nothing tbh If you were asked to do this same list in another moment in time your list could have been entirely different with the females outnumbering the males.
    I also think that there might just have been a little twinkle in your eye knowing the controversy your list might spark amongst females…I will not rise to the bait but simply say that I’m certain that you have worked with and come into contact with many exceptional females that your list could have included if you had wanted it to 🙂
    Glad that you enjoyed such a wonderful evening and maybe there was at least one exceptional female there that you came into contact with who will appear or on next list…

  • Victim’s relative

    Presumably what’s exceptional about Martin McGuinness is that he’s murdered rather more people than anyone else you have ever met?

  • Alison

    You just don;t know enough women.

  • Emmyt

    I don’t think what Alastair is saying is sexist. He is remarking on a sad state of affairs. There are plenty of formidable women out there.

    What is sexist are the institutions, like the city, like Westminster, the press world and in fact many standard work places, that have cultures that have a tendency to promote men over women.

    Women dont’ get the same opportunities in many circumstances and don’t have the opportunity to present their “exceptional” selves. AND, if anyone does break through – it’s quite common, for the very male dominated press, to belittle their status, by remarking on “lady” things i.e, they’ve got too much cleavage on show (Jacqui Smith) or that they are shrill (Hilary Clinton) etc.

  • Tom

    I don’t think it’s particularly sexist to have so few women on the list – it’s dominated, unsurprisingly, by politics and sport, with a couple of people in computing too: all fields in which men have (for different reasons in each, I think) tended to dominate. That’s not to say you couldn’t have easily found plenty of exceptional women in each – Mo Mowlam and Tanni Grey-Thompson for example (it’s harder to find an exceptional woman in the field of computing who you’re likely to have met, though maybe other commentators will come up with one).

    But to then say that the reason for that bias is that there are more exceptional men than women – well, that might be sexist. Ten of your twelve are white, with one black person and one Latin American. Would you similarly say there are more exceptional white people than non-white people? Or would you put it down to your limited experience, and the fact you’ve met more white people than black people?

  • Gedrobinson

    Including Martin McGuiness in your list is somewhat insensitive to the victims of Derry IRA and their families.

  • Jacquie R

    Why is Rupert Murdoch your hero?

  • I’m not sure what this list says about you. That your life experiences have been both extraordinary and limited? That you relate better to powerful men than to powerful women? That you like women beautiful and vulnerable, rather than strong and confident? That you’re intimidated by women?

    What it doesn’t say is anything at all about whether the world is populated with as many extraordinary women as extraordinary men. Because you are not the world.

  • Anonymous

    I asked hubby what he thought and he said behind every exceptional man is an exceptional woman

  • Olli Issakainen

    Mr Murdoch was my hero in the 1980s when I was obsessed with British newspapers and earned my living by investing money in newspaper companies.
    He has, at least, kept the Times afloat.
    But it is not a good thing that an American citizen now dictates Britain´s policy on Europe. And Lance Price has said that no big decision was taken at Number 10 without thinking Murdoch.
    I should also have added the names of Anthony Sampson, CS Lewis, Karl Popper and Sidney Bernstein to my list. And known how to conjugate “teach”!

  • Olli Issakainen

    Dr Cordelia Fine has written Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference.

  • Claire-Louise McSherry

    So, I was there last night as the host and CEO of the executive search firm, McSherry Brown. A couple of points to make. The brief was meant to be a list of people that Alastair ‘had met’ that ‘he believed’ to be exceptional (made no difference to me if they were male or female). Personally, I would have selected some other names for my list and btw not necessarily all female however I’m entitled to have my list just as much as Alastair is entitled to his. My selection criteria is based on what I believe defines someone as exceptional. Qualities such as courage, integrity, inspiration, self awareness, being a visionary etc. For me, I don’t see that these qualities are or should be gender specific. Historically, and let’s face it we all know this – women have not enjoyed the degree of freedom that we experience today. We now have choices. We can have successful careers as well as family. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the ratio of men to women in the past has been weighted in favour of men. I don’t believe the comments to be sexist and I didn’t take them that way. Exceptional women did feature; Princess Diana, Alastair’s secretary and Cathy Gilman. The Queen got a mention. In fact, prior to the event I recall Alastair referring to his headmistress as exceptional. At the evening itself there were in fact 43 exceptional business women. Another comment that Alastair made was that exceptional people are hidden within institutions and that power, money and celebrity do not constitute exceptional; I agree with this. What was actually more interesting to me was that our guest speaker said that he struggled to think about 3 exceptional people in business. With over 200 people from within financial services in the room this remark seemed to go unnoticed. Strange?

  • Guest

    Men also comprise the overwhelming majority of the exceptionally bad – it’s a chromosome thing.

  • Sarah

    and the mediocre ones too….

  • J Kirkham

    A lot of women hit a ceiling when they have babies as their perspective and focus changes. Men carry on pretty much as they did before.
    Your wife is pretty exceptional, as is Yvette Cooper and many others. I think women who make a difference in the workplace, charity or public life, yet also manage to bring their children up with time and love are pretty amazing. It’s damn hard to do both. That’s why Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t make my long list.

  • Rachel

    I’d say it’s as much about Alastair being male as anything. It’s socially more acceptable to have close friendships with the same sex, well that is if you’re not William Hague anyway, so likely the people you know best are more likely to end up on your list.

  • I sometimes wonder if some women (of which I am one) are just too touchy and will play the feminist card at any given opportunity. Had the lady in question not felt it necessary to ask a man who worked for Labour (albeit New Laour) why he hadn’t chosen a female conservative leader, maybe some of the conversations after the event would have focussed on a different issue.

    Maybe someone else would have asked, “Why not Hitler?” After all Martin McGuinness was on the list and I’m glad to see this has not gone unnoticed in the commentary to this blog. Having said that, even though Alistair did explain this choice during the speech it may be slightly more of a touchy subject than balancing the genders.

    Whether you agree or disagree with any of Alistair’s choices you have to recognise his brief was to come up with a list of HIS choices, not a list of crowd pleasers.

    I recently saw Karren Brady speak at an event. I found her to be exceptional. Not because she is a woman. Because she has vision, guts, conviction, a sense of fair play, drive and motivation (for herself and others). At the event she admitted a sense of shame for continuing that drive and motivation in business at the expense of her newly born child. A couple of days after the event she was slated in the press such an admission, mainly by women.

    Come on ladies you can’t have it all. You can be an exceptional mother (I would hope that if you can’t you don’t bother having children). Even still father’s figure in the parenting equation too, there’s a balance for you. You cannot criticise, on one hand a lack of exceptional women and on the other an exceptional woman who chose to be exceptional at the expense of maternity leave, rocking up late for work due to morning sickness (expecting it to be a god-given right) and leaving early for sports day.

    After all, just as Alistair is entitled to his choices women are entitled to theirs. They have a choice of being staunchly feminist, they have the choice of having a career or family or both, they have a choice between standing up for what they believe in (and not having to stand up on a bus). Often choices do involve sacrifices. It wouldn’t be much of a choice if one option was all pro’s and not cons. Whether that sacrifice is as small as not having a door held open for you, having to put the kids in nursery, sacrificing your partners salary so he can stay home to tend children and house while you excel in your career, chaining yourself to railings or being burnt at the stake. Men have to make sacrifices too – look how many men sacrificed themselves in the army years before women. They weren’t just fighting for the men of the country.

    It is a balance but one which goes far beyond gender.

  • ARJ

    “Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuinness, Bono and Bob Geldof (I counted them as one), Princess Diana, Cathy Gilman, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Alex Ferguson, Lance Armstrong and Diego Maradona” > tbh, this list is almost wholly limited to those prominent in the ’90s as well, though I suppose that’s because it reflects your life experiences.

    It is indeed a bit silly, but telling of AC’s character and outlook, I suppose, that Diana is on the list “for her beauty, and how she used it” – As a woman I’d have rather a man who was actually exceptional be included on the list rather than someone who was merely beautiful. But then again to me it defeats the point to compile a list of exceptional people based on a gender quota.

  • Richard Brittain

    Alastair is just stating a fact. It would certainly be a shame if our society ever became so Politically Correct that we had to pretend all people were exactly the same. It is better to be honest. A prerequisite of societal change is the initial acceptance of the reality. Alastair well knows that an exceptional individual can arise from any gender, race or background. Considering the world has been ruled by men for most of its history, it is no surprise that the majority of inspiring figures and heroes have been of the male gender.

  • Teresa

    That’s why we love you Alastair, you always say what you think, not what you think people would want you to say. Maybe I’m being sexist, but beautiful women and football, two things that so many men find exceptional, and that will never change 🙂

  • True!

  • Paul H

    Regarding the comments made about your choice of Martin McGuinness, I seem to remember similar opinions expressed about Nelson Mandela not so very long ago. Surely one of the exceptional things about both of them is the journey they have made to political power, which doesn’t negate any actions they may have taken in the past

  • Ioannis

    Who remembers the The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 (c.2), introducing ‘positive’ sexual discrimination to parliament, allowing parties to select on the basis of gender?

    Given Alastair’s observation that ‘most of the people who would be defined as the best and most exceptional in their field tend to be men’, can we take it that this particular statutory reform acted to lower the standards of MPs representing the country? To give it a horribly modern context, I’m sure that it’s ‘not in the national interest.’

  • Pagliascat

    Ali, face it, you ARE sexist…
    Also, next time you do a list of ‘exceptional (or whatever) people’, check for a pulse first… LOL

  • Fodensteven

    Is it possible to compile an “exceptional people” list that is anything other than subjective? Asked to do it we would all tend to look at it from our own point of view. Can anyone imagine a way in which a list could be compiled that reflected exceptional people objectively? How about “the planet’s” exceptional people?

  • Quinney

    Alastair, I presume you’re in the Republic of Mancunia for the conference. If you fancy a match while you’re up here, FC United of Manchester are at home on Saturday in the FA Cup qualifying rounds and on Wednesday too. You’ll be most welcome if you want to come along.

  • redders11

    Hi Alister, I heard you speak a while ago at a CIPFA conference and you listed Berti Ahearn (Spelling !), whats changed ?

  • Ehtnax

    How, in this day and age, can someone think this sexist crap is ok? Women have become far too complacent about the need to get out there and fight for gender equality – there’s still a huge battle to be fought and we need to wake up to it.

  • Ehtch

    Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma? But it seems it is quite difficult to arrange to actually meet her, it seems.

  • Frank

    There will never really be equality of the sexes. It’s either men remain men or they become women. End of.