Sue Gray: why do we fetishise older women in positions of authority?

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She has become the most famous person in Britain without uttering a word. 

A social media star who hasn’t so much as posted a thumbs up emoji on Twitter (followed by a magnifying glass and a ticking clock). It must surely be the first time in history that so many powerful men have waited on the edge of their seats for a woman to speak.

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Welcome to the weird world of Sue Gray – which, for the senior civil servant tasked with investigating Downing Street parties during lockdown, has undoubtedly been one long Google spreadsheet. But which, for the rest of us, has morphed into a stream of one-liners and memes that say so much about how we see older women in positions of authority.

‘You are cordially invited to the launch of Sue Gray’s report. BYOB.’

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‘Sue Gray’s out of office reads: ‘I’ve been ambushed by a cake…’

‘We’re gonna need a bigger Sue Gray.’

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‘Sue Gray should just release her report onto everyone’s phones like that U2 album.’

Sue Gray: why do we fetishise older women in positions of authority?
© Provided by Evening Standard Allegra Stratton is the only person in Government to have resigned over partygate (PA)

So oft-repeated is her full name that it’s impossible to call her anything else. Sue Gray, Sue Gray, Sue Gray. Should she have the audacity to sign her report Susan, the internet would doubtless go into a tailspin.

We love to fetishise older women in this way, especially those with power. We still see them as curiosities and figures of fun. You only have to recall the national delirium around Jackie Weaver’s intervention at the December 2020 Handforth parish council meeting to understand how women of a certain vintage are put in their place in professional settings. And that, when they do dare speak up or wield influence, we throw our hands up in the air and hail them as unexpected heroines, instead of asking why they had to come out fighting in the first place. Although Sue Gray does at least have the authority.

As well as rapidly becoming a lightning rod for the Government’s messes, the Second Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office is also the woman we want to sort out our own.

‘No, I haven’t done the washing up yet, nor taken the bins out – I’m waiting for the conclusions of Sue Gray‘s report.’

‘My wife thinks I’m cheating on her, but I told her she’d have to wait for Sue Gray to investigate.’

I struggle to believe that Twitter would be brimming with such quips about our domestic lives were ‘Stuart Gray’ (or even Simon Cable) heading the investigation into the Government instead of a 63-year-old woman.

We love to shoot the messenger and when that messenger is female, she tends to be destroyed

We adopted the same patronising tone in September 2019, when Lady Hale delivered the ruling that the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament had been unlawful. It was a groundbreaking moment of political history… and yet we descended into mass hysteria about how a 75-year-old woman had happened to wear a spider brooch that day and referred to her as the ‘Beyoncé of the legal profession’.

It would all be much more amusing if I didn’t suspect that the mood might swiftly change once the report is published. Whatever she says, and however she says it, she can’t win. Too lenient? The public will blame Sue Gray. Too damning? Her boss will blame Sue Gray. It’s a poisoned chalice whichever way you look at it.

We love to shoot the messenger and when that messenger is female, she tends to be destroyed. Remember, the only person to have actually resigned so far is former press secretary Allegra Stratton, who doesn’t appear to have attended any of the Number 10 parties in question.

Put yourself in Sue Gray’s shoes right now and it’s an unenviable place to be. Let’s just hope someone has bought her a ruddy big cake.

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