Women are all too familiar with the concept of the mediocre man. The averagely capable everyman who, equipped with the most basic of skills and all the confidence in the world, is propelled towards the top of the career ladder, leaving a wave of exasperated, more qualified and usually more competent women in his wake. And, this past weekend at the United State Of Women Summit in Los Angeles, Michelle Obama gave voice to that age-old problem.
In conversation with Tracee Ellis Ross, the former First Lady discussed workplace gender inequality and all the frustration that comes with watching far less accomplished men rise through the ranks.
"I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do and be OK," she said. "Because, let me tell you, watching men fail up – it is frustrating. It's frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win. And we hold ourselves to these crazy, crazy standards."
Allusions to the current president – perhaps the clearest example of what it means to be rewarded for repeated failure – aside, Obama also made sure to speak about the importance of disrupting the structures that hold women back when some of us do eventually get a seat “at the table”.
Getting to the table was so hard, so you're just holding on. But, now, we have to take some risks for our girls
She said: “We're still too grateful to be at the table to really shake it up. That's not a criticism, because, for so many, just getting to the table was so hard, so you're just holding on. But, now, we have to take some risks for our girls… just holding on to our seats at the table won't be enough to help our girls be all that they can be.”
Making sure to point out the ways in which men could hold themselves accountable for the advancement of women in society, Obama added:
“You can't have it both ways. You can't whisper these magical thoughts in your daughter's ear about who she can be or what she can do [...] If you're tolerating [inequality at work], that is the workplace that's going to be waiting for your little girl, but you sold her a bill of goods. You told her she could be anything, but then you're not working to make sure that can be actualised. And so men have to understand things don't just work out for your little precious pea."
While Obama’s underlying message may not be new – countless women have screamed the same truths from the rooftops for years – it’s no less inspiring to hear, given the current state of affairs. And, hey, maybe it would do all the “fathers of daughters”, who only seem to speak out when major sexual misconduct scandals come to the fore, some good to take a leaf out of Obama’s book – it takes work to create change and, unless we all keep at it, it’s likely that women like Obama will be making speeches like these for years to come.