One shiny morning, I woke up to the realisation that I have never tried listening to podcasts before on my way to work or school. So, I took my phone out and I started browsing through an endless list of options, when I discovered Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is an exceptional storyteller and the very first story he shared was about a woman, named Elizabeth Thompson, a British painter.But not just a painter, since Elizabeth Thompson is the first woman to be nominated for election for the Royal Academy, as you might expect, a male-dominated world. However, whilst this was a great feat for women around the world and art in general, Gladwell argues that the appreciation of the Roll Call painting, that brought Elizabeth’s fame and her nomination, has also brought her downfall. Why? You might ask. How can her talent be at fault?
It is not her talent, but a psychological process called moral licensing that buried Elizabeth Thompson in history so much that her Wikipedia page mentions her marrying and having six children, but not her nomination for the Royal Academy. That page also attributes the end of her career to her choice of having a family. Is that what history is about? Women ending their careers because they also want families? I seriously doubt that and Gladwell proves in his podcast that it is untrue.
The true history account tells us that the Royal Academy has broken barriers by recognising a woman’s painting as the star of the collection. That star was the Roll Call, depicting a roll call of soldiers during the Crimean War. It was a mega success. Imagine tours across the country, thousands of people queuing to see it, history being written. One might think that this step was enough to CREATE CHANGE. As Gladwell puts it: “It fits our romantic view on progress. The door opens for one person, so then it opens for everyone”.
That’s what all the men in the Royal Academy definitely thought. So much so that they got scared they have been so open to include ONE painting of ONE woman for the FIRST time so when the voting actually happened, Elizabeth Thompson lost by two votes. So much so, that the second time she was nominated, she lost again with a considerable amount of votes. So much so that even though a woman was not yet voted into the Academy, the members (which ‘accidentally’ happened to be men) decided to pass regulations to limit the privileges of any women who might get elected in the future.
The perfect image of moral licensing – or as one says today, tokenism – do one perceived good deed that you can use to justify your future bad actions. “I have voted with Barack Obama, hence I cannot be a racist”, “I have voted a woman into the Royal Academy, hence none of our discriminatory rules can be sexist”. Moral licensing brought the end of Thompson’s career, not her marriage. With every nomination, she was voted down, with every new painting, she was hidden in the darkest far-away room, left to be forgotten.
Thompson was a token for the Royal Academy, not a step towards CHANGE. This is a standard explanation of why CHANGE does not happen at a fast speed in the world, why we struggle to achieve gender equality, why we struggle to have more women in male-dominated worlds.
But realising that this process happens can also help us find solutions to address the problems and create real CHANGE around us. Excitingly enough, I have put together some information for self-identifying women interested in leadership. This information will be FREELY accessible through our online course called – CHANGE – Women in Leadership. It’s not a course that has all answers and it’s not a course that has solutions. It’s just a course that aims to give you a framework to work with to find your own solutions on how to change the world. I mean, it’s free, so why not give it a try.
If you want to register for the online course or learn more about CHANGE, visit: https://enterprise.shef.ac.uk/event/change-women-leadership-online