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Expert Comment: Woman's Hour Power List

0258 Dr Amelia Yeates Friday 15 February 2013

Lecturer in Art History, Dr Amelia Yeates, examines how power is measured in BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour Power List.

This week, BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ announced its list of the UK’s 100 most powerful women. Whilst it is important to recognise, and publicise, the achievements of women, the idea of a Woman’s Hour ‘Power List’ seems somewhat misplaced.

As gender theorists (and not only feminists) have demonstrated, power is a deeply gendered concept and exists within patriarchal structures. The desirability of merely applying it to ‘high-achieving’ women is therefore questionable and by no means self-explanatory.

What does it mean for a woman to be powerful? The list claims to identify the ‘movers and shakers’ of today but this merely transposes a spirit of energetic masculine entrepreneurialism, now under question because of the current financial crisis, onto the achievements of women. And is the Queen, who tops the list, really a ‘mover and shaker’? How much power does she actually wield?

The mention of ‘soft power’ as a more appropriate concept for understanding women’s activities suggests the inappropriateness of the entrepreneurial model, but also returns us to the gendered polarities of masculine (hard) versus feminine (soft). The fact that the fifth person on the list is a ‘Chairman’, rather than the gender-neutral ‘Chair’, highlights the anomalies at play when women enter positions of power traditionally held by men.

It is entirely appropriate for Woman’s Hour to celebrate the achievements of women but I remain ambivalent about the concept of power as a framework for doing this – over whom is power exercised, how is it derived and at what cost to others?

The fact that the list is made up largely of white women might offer some uncomfortable answers to these questions. 

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