The Guardian
I do the work of five women
Mary Kenny - Monday 8 November, 2004

However much working women are categorised as 'bitches' or 'guys', the truth is we are all these and more.

We are now informed that there are four types of women who seek to get to the top in a working world that is still, overall, dominated by men. These are, according to a new book written by a former BBC executive: the bitch; the geisha; the guy; and the invisible woman. Indeed, Margaret Heffernan claims that virtually every woman in a working office will fall into one of these stereotypes.

The bitch uses intimidation and aggression to get her way; she may be effective, but she is not liked and can become isolated. The geisha, as one might expect, is manipulative woman - usually young - who uses female charm, but often finishes by serving the menfolk rather than directing them. The guy is the woman who becomes as masculine, and as corporate, as possible, and apes male behaviour. And the invisible woman - well, we've all known one of those kindly, long-suffering females who may have good ideas and a diligent track record, but who are ignored when it comes to getting the credit.

It is possible that most women have been one, or indeed all, of these stereotypes at one stage or another of their career. In a working life, you have to use whatever you've got. When I had my first job in London journalism, I was practically the only reporter in the section who hadn't been to Eton - I was certainly the only one who wasn't a former public schoolboy: you couldn't compete with that kind of upper-class advantage, so you had to find a different role instead - hey, you were a woman, and a young woman too. Life is a jungle out there: if young women can advance their careers with the geisha role, why not? The danger is being typecast permanently.

Yet it seems to me that Margaret Heffernan has omitted a significant fifth female stereotype, which, as an aspirational idea, is a lot more congenial and positive: that of the wise matriarch. There are many examples of women who fit into this category, which is not merely a stereotype, but quite an ancient Jungian archetype. One thinks of women such as Liliane Bettencourt, the head of L'Oréal and the richest woman in France; or, in her time, the lively and down-to-earth Estée Lauder, who left a fine cultural heritage.

Sometimes these matriarchal bosses (the late Katherine Graham of the Washington Post comes to mind) have attained their positions by family connections - Liliane Bettencourt, for example, inherited L'Oréal from her father. That is part of a historical tradition, and is none the worse for being so; dynastic strategies have served women since Eleanor of Aquitaine was a girl, and have often produced female leaders of outstanding command and character.

But many of these matriarchs have shown enterprise and zest in getting to the top by their own efforts - Sherry Lansing, who is due to step down as the head of Paramount Pictures, started as a modest film actress; and Anita Roddick famously launched the Body Shop, and the philosophy that goes with it, from her back yard.

If the bitch gets her way by her harridan scolding and the geisha gets her way by her simpering wiles, the wise matriarch uses experience, knowledge and decisiveness, with a touch of maternal control. But she seeks to mentor, and promote, younger people, rather than compete with them.

There may be some danger that she will choose to mentor men rather than women, in a replication of the mother-son axis: Grace Wyndham Goldie, a legendary BBC TV matriarch of the 50s and 60s, only mentored men; and Margaret Thatcher, similarly, preferred to have men around her (although Edwina Currie always says that, privately, Thatcher could be very kind to younger women).

One example of the wise matriarch in politics would be Golda Meir, the endearing Jewish granny who once ruled Israel. Yet I've also known examples of wise matriarchs in working life, and studies have shown that most women have had experience of helpful, mentoring women bosses who were in that bracket.

Stereotypes are, in the end, crude conceptual cartoons of the way real people are, since most of us are capable of surprising contradictions of character. The bitch at work may be the geisha at home, or, in private, the invisible woman: whether Gail Rebuck or Marjorie Scardino (the chief executives of Random House and Pearson) are in one category or another, they must surely have been able to call on elements of each. But if we are thinking in stereotypes, we should not omit the wise matriarch, who has a long historical hinterland behind her, from the Empress Theodora to Madame Veuve Clicquot.