Tuesday, 14 April 2015

So Long Boys - we're racing past you into the Boardroom

Emma Thompson striking a blow for the sisterhood (Huffpo)

A new book out this week claims that women are not only powering past men in the race for top jobs, in years to come they might no longer need men at all. The author, biological anthropologist Melvin Konner, presents a futuristic world view that suggests women will eventually be able to fertilise their eggs with skin cell clones to reproduce.
According to Konner, the gender imbalance is relatively recent - about 12,000 years - which is a sneeze in evolutionary terms. There's a long explanation of how the world view is moving to see traditionally 'female' strengths as useful once more. It seems we always had it in us. So what's taken us so long?

I can tell you what. Heels. Other than not having a wife, I think heels have done more to hold women back from playing to their natural strengths than almost anything.

Unless you benefit from a chauffeur taking you to work and back every day, a typical senior woman has to plan her outfit round her shoes. Each night you have to ask yourself, "what meetings do I have tomorrow? Who am I going to see? How am I going to get there? How far do I have to walk? Is it going to rain?"
The choice is always the same and it's always bad. A) wear a dress or skirt with flat or nearly flat boots b)wear flats and take a bag to carry your heels/smart shoes or c) take two bags, one for shoes and a 'proper' handbag. Which leads to the other part of your wardrobe dilemma, "which bag do I take?" Do you buy a massive tote that is smart enough to pass for a large handbag but still large enough to take the shoes? If you want to do that and avoid the bag lady look, be prepared to shell out. Both options risk severe neck problems and one shoulder lower than the other. If you're loaded or desperate there is always option d) take taxis everywhere.

No wonder we didn't have time to worry about a career plan to get the top job.

Unlike men. Do they have these worries? Do they hell. Most men own a few pairs of - flat - shoes that go with all their suits and they wear them in all weathers. If they carry bags at all it's to carry their increasingly large collection of devices, and with rapid advances in wearable technology, no doubt even those will soon be redundant.

I had resigned myself to a life of expensive large handbags and sneaky shoe changes. But it seems women have finally worked out that wearing smart flats is the secret to smoothing your path to the top job. If you can get the right flats you remove the bag dilemma. I first registered this thought last year when the wonderful Emma Thompson whipped off her Louboutins at the Golden Globes to present an award in bare feet. I splashed out on a pair of the red-soled wonders a few years ago, and although they look wonderful and have carried me faithfully through any number of events, I have often kicked them off under the table during dinner. 

VB sporting flats in New York (Mirror)
Then I started reading about sales of designer flats going up, Victoria Beckham put them in her Spring collection and articles keep appearing exhorting the benefits of 'luxe' trainers costing as much as a smart pair of heels. The trend has hit the mainstream.  I searched for a sight of heels this week in the office, on the tube and in Oxford Street to no avail.  And no sign of the two-bag strategy either.  Just confident women finding out what men have always known.  Flat feels great.  You feel mobile, free and powerful. Mind you, when I opened my wardrobe this weekend and saw hundreds of pounds of designer heels looking back at me, I had a spasm of heel guilt.  But my slim-line bag collection is coming along nicely.


Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Sexism Paradox - as older women start to crack the glass ceiling, the next generation of leaders are suffering from a new outbreak of sexism

I keep reading depressing articles telling me that women over fifty become invisible.  Not using Potter-esque invisibility cloaks sadly which might be really fun although the Chinese are actually working on a real one.  But rather a more prosaic form of invisibility; no longer being seen by the world as a sexually relevant being.

You may feel that missing out on wolf whistles from building sites and strange looking men standing too close to you on the underground is a bonus.  But the articles tend to be written wistfully - with a sense of loss and a view of a depressing future where you descend gradually into dessicated old age until you're grateful if the postman says hello.   We are encouraged to feel sorry for women as they get age -  poor grey haired things wondering whether to worry more about the guy they're talking to eyeing up the younger women in the room or whether they will die alone and be eaten by cats.

Try as I might, I can't feel wistful and here's why.   Although men don't flirt with you in queues or offer you their seat, they do stop throwing around casual sexist comments in the workplace. I would go further and say that I don't worry very much about casual everyday sexism aimed at older women.  Plenty of  research shows that sixty is the new forty and that after forty we stop worrying about what other people think. Even the Material Girl is grabbing ageing proactively. And who's going to argue with her? But I seriously worry about the apparently uncontrollable growth of sexism aimed at younger women.

Source Huffington Post
I have tended to take a pretty ballsy approach to the view that says men are routinely sexist.  I have only consciously experienced sexism once in my career.  This was very early on when I had a client who was a property developer and we went to visit a building site in the Midlands. As we sat down to have the meeting (all men other than me) they asked me to sort out tea for everyone. Maybe there were other occasions  and I was just too pushy to notice it . But I really haven't seen it as a barrier. I think I've been lucky.  But I worry that our daughter's generation and those that come behind them are facing very different - and potentially much darker issues.

I have been following the Everyday Sexism project which was created to raise awareness of the 'normality' of this kind of behaviour.  Founded by Laura Bates when she got fed up with being hassled by men, it exploded last year on Twitter @Everydaysexism. Take a look at the stories women are posting.  Many of them are young and the stories are often shockingly everyday.
Source Belle-Jar.com

This trend is reflected even more starkly in research coming out of Bristol University this week which was widely picked up in the media.  Its headline finding - that four out of ten teenage girls experienced sexual coercion in relationships up to and including violence for a fifth of the large
sample - stopped me in my tracks.

What is going on? What has happened to our young people? Laura Bates says she gets asked this all the time and she doesn't have enough data or easy answers.  But other findings of the Bristol Survey which included 500 teenage boys might give us a clue.  Says the summary: 

"Almost four in ten (39 per cent) boys in England aged 14-17 admitted they regularly watched pornography and around one-fifth (18 per cent) strongly agreed with statements such as: “It is sometimes acceptable for a man to hit a woman if she has been unfaithful.” And: “Women lead men on sexually and then complain about the attention they get.”

Another survey - this time for the Girl Guides reflects very similar data - this time highlighting that girls as young as seven are suffering sexual taunts from boys.

So what if anything can we do about this?

Talk to your daughters - Tanith Carey wrote  about the issue in last weekend's  Times aimed at mothers - urging them to talk to their daughters openly and probably earlier than you think about issues such as sexting, peer pressure and body image.

Stay informed - Keep track of Laura Bates on Everyday Sexism or by following her blogs on the Guardian.

Get involved in change - The Guides have an excellent manifesto - "Girls Matter" using the run up to the election in May to raise awareness of eight key areas with a particular focus on changes that can be made in schools to prevent these problems taking hold in the future. 

Raise awareness - We can add urgency and raise awareness by including this topic in the wider narrative of women's equality and supporting women's ability to achieve their full potential as future leaders. If our daughter's confidence is suppressed by these new challenges our society is experiencing it could have very damaging consequences.  We could take equality back decades.

Let's make sure we use the social media channels that are being used to harm our young women to stand up for their futures.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Why sorry needs to be the hardest word: Stop apologising and boost your career

How are the New Year's resolutions going?  Sticking to the dry January? Perfecting your plank? Kale smoothies on the daily commute? Good for you.  We all focus on self improvement at this time of year but perhaps the best thing you can do for yourself this January is to stop apologizing.

Research shows that women often speak less than men in a business context.  There appears to be some clear evidence that even if women aren’t experiencing direct prejudice - 'manterrupting' as Jessica Bennett calls it- they will self-edit to create the same submissive effect. 
Kanye West 'manterrupts' Taylor Swift as she tries to accept an award - Getty
Typical language I see all the time might include the apologetic introduction “ I realize that you’ve probably already decided this is a bad idea, and the research will show we can’t do it but I think we should perhaps try creating a new xxx” . 

And of course the Brits apologise compulsively.  My American friends are kept amused by those viral “what the British say and what they really mean’ memes that do the rounds on Facebook every few months.  As in “not to worry, it's my fault” meaning “it’s completely your fault and you had better work this out and apologise immediately if you ever want to speak to me again”.  Italian friends are mystified by us, asking me why the British never say what they mean.  A colleague of mine who hails from Eastern Europe finds it hysterical that we apologize to furniture and doors as we bump into them.  He asks me why the British say sorry so often. Are we naturally programmed to lack assertion?

http://usvsth3m.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/RgcK7rh.gifIf you are a British woman trying to make your way forward in the business world - bad luck – double trouble.  What hope do you have of ever making headway in a world that regards crisp, assertive and confident communication as a necessary attribute for leadership?

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's recent New York Times article on a related topic argues that women self-edit because they’re afraid that if they speak confidently they will be seen as aggressive.  I get the facts but it annoys me -  I think it’s defeatist and patronizing.  In my mind aggression is only used when we can’t make convincing arguments.

Marshall your arguments   copyright http://www.learning-tech.co.uk/Newsletter_August_07.htm
Rather we need to be less afraid of criticism and equip ourselves better to convince others of our ideas and arguments.  Using more evidence and facts to support our points of view and less assertion will help. 

As well as apologising in advance of making a point, in my experience many women will then use emotional rationale to persuade rather than facts.  “We need to think about what the team needs”  “it’s the right thing to do” and so on.  There is nothing wrong with doing the right thing or looking after your team.  Far from it.  But we need to practice the other half of the argument and get used to making that first.  Linking business outcomes with team benefits – meshing together the rational and the emotional.  Marshalling proof points and evidence ahead of important discussions and meetings so that we can structure stronger more persuasive arguments for action. Getting more practiced at answering structured questions of others.  'How will this course of action you're suggesting help us to achieve our goals? What will happen if we don’t do this? How will we measure success? What are the risks of this course of action and what are the plans to mitigate those risks?' Staying focused on the outcome not the process is a key differentiator of strong leaders of all genders and nationalities.

I know from experience that there’s no reason why women can’t master this approach with a little thought, planning and practice.  And as they do, they will find they are listened to as much or more than their male colleagues.  The best made arguments  should – and can – win the day.

I’m not sure what we do about the British love of saying sorry.  I think it's too deeply ingrained in our DNA to change.  Perhaps instead we should celebrate it as selflessness and good manners and putting others first.  Just not in the Boardroom.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

There must be an Angel

Patsy and Eddie living it large The Telegraph
As a feminist who believes that PR works, I've had a wake-up call this month. After earning a daily crust from the world of public relations for the past many years, I have made my peace with those who criticise the industry as being nothing more than posh girls pushing products you never knew you wanted. I've seen work that rescues hostages, raises millions of dollars for charity, puts dull but important businesses on the map, creates thousands of jobs.

But the Christmas 2014 Victoria's Secret PR campaign has proved that even twenty years after Edina and Patsy ridiculed sexist publicity stunt PR,  it's still possible to get media coverage for a brand which makes Hooters look feminist.

Sheeran can't decide whether he's thrilled or terrified  breakingnews. ie
Unless you've been living in a cave,  you will have found it impossible to avoid the endless articles written by otherwise intelligent, mainly female, journalists who have taken up the Victoria's Secret PR department on their invitation to try becoming a Victoria's Secret 'Angel' - their star models -  for a day to promote the fact that for the first time their Christmas show was going to be held in London rather than in the US. Even the FT covered it. Most of the articles talked about the extensive workouts the Angels do before shows and the thrill of putting on the wings like grown up Barbies.  The highest honour goes the model selected to wear the multi-million dollar bejeweled bikini down the runway  Each time I turned to yet another of these articles I found myself thinking the same thing - Victoria's Secret must have got themselves a new PR firm.

For any readers unfamiliar with how the PR machine works...you know that feeling when something or someone you have previously only been vaguely aware of suddenly seems to be everywhere? You think maybe it's you? You just started thinking about it and suddenly you're more aware of it? Nope. It's PR. And so it was for me with Victoria's Secret.  If I gave the brand any thought in the microscopic part of my brain dealing with possible future underwear purchases,  it would have been that it's another underwear brand - somewhere in the mix with Elle Macpherson Intimates and Agent Provocateur.  What you buy yourself when you just can't convince yourself M&S cuts it.   That's it.  And then you read one of these articles and you think " If the Times/FT/Telegraph think it's worth dedicating pages to this and sending one of their reporters to cover it, it must be important.  Perhaps I should review my thinking and take this brand seriously?".

Normally I'd congratulate any brand who is clearly so good at their PR. Perhaps they employ the best story pitcher in the business.  Or  the lure of putting on those wings is just too much for these editors to resist. Maybe it's just one of those inexplicable things in the world.  Like why Angus Steakhouses stay in business. Or how you grow seedless grapes

From left: Robert Crampton shot by Romas Foord; Doutzen Kroes on the Vitoria’s Secret Fashion show catwalk earlier this month. Photos by Romas Foord, Getty Images
Robert Crampton and an Angel.  Times/Getty. 
But I still don't get it.  These are smart writers with serious credentials and they seem to have taken collective leave of their senses.  Robert Crampton bucked the trend with an article in The Times which he wrote up after attending the show (Sheeran and Taylor Swift also performed) and used it to write a thoughtful piece about male feminists.

The original Angels 
If we're really going to be so recidivist about how we PR things, let's at least use humour and lose the wings.  Good morning Angels.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Sisters have done it for themselves: As the wage gap closes has feminism done its job?

As I approach the end of another year blogging, I am wondering if it's time to shut up shop. It really does feel like we've come a long way in two years.  We've almost closed the wage gap and we look likely to meet the government's target to have women occupying 25% of seats in British boardrooms. Messrs Clegg and Milliband have become feminists. Albeit frankly neither of them rocks a t-shirt.  

New figures from the ONS show that women in their twenties and thirties are outearning men.  It's not completely fixed - men overtake women in pay  in their forties and stays that way until retirement.  But it's tremendous progress and very  encouraging seeing women in those critical career building years really being recogized and rewarded.

At the same time,  The Cranfield School of Management's recent report revealed that FTSE 100 Boards now boast 22.8% women - which puts us on course to hit Lord Davies' target of 25% by the end of 2015. Thanks in part to the debate raised by the Davies targets, barely a week has gone by when we  haven't seen a new story of women breaking through barriers hit the headlines and as a subject it has emerged from the niche and slightly worthy to the mainstream.

It's all over.  Job done.  Argument won. Has the sisterhood run out of things to fight for?

Of course not.  For starters, we need  to crack the problem of  how to have a  wife.  This is perhaps the biggest remaining barrier to more wholesale access for women to senior jobs.   But hope may be on the horizon.  This 'last taboo' issue is being aired openly in a new book called "The Wife Drought" that attempts to define the role of wife as a job - one that high flying people need and one that is not uniquely female. The author Annabel Crabb, an Australian political journalist, tells it at it is complete with the negative judgements that society gives stay at home husbands and dads.   I've never met Annabel but I feel great affinity with her -  reading it felt like reading about my life.  I felt rather like people must feel when they join a self help group "finally I have met someone who feels as I do".   She talks about 'wife envy'.  Men get wives and women don't. But she puts forward the argument that wives can be male or female.  The main thing to recongize she says, is that that wives are a  cracking professional asset.  If, as is so often claimed, a strong wife is the secret of a man's success, why shouldn't a strong wife be the secret of a woman's success?
Young male feminist
As more men become wives, are they also becoming feminists?  Hot on the heels of Nick 'n' Ed's great t-shirt debacle, I went to a debate last week entitled "We should all be feminists" put on by the organisers of the Brick Lane Debates - one of whom is my son (left). It struck me that the feminists of the 70s would have felt right at home here - a packed low ceilinged room, women addressing each other as 'sister' although thankfully not 'comrade', a baby in the arms of one of the speakers, angry declamation against men who look at porn.  So much, so traditional.  And then again - completely modern.   Lots of men were there - many young and equally as passionate as the women.  They have no problem describing themselves as feminists.  Rather they see feminism as a movement that anyone can - and should - join.  There's lots to fight for and they're using thoroughly modern techniques to make their point - live webstreaming, wall to wall smartphones, lots of social content, the debate as lively on Twitter as it was in the room.

If this is what a feminist looks like today - I can't wait to see the new wives.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Desperate Housewife? Why doing office housework could be keeping you out of the Boardroom

Control your inner Bree if you want to get the top job: copyright ABC
Recent data released by Google provides surprising insight into leading successful teams.  And it turns out the key is not traditionally respected skills such as giving stirring speeches or clinching million dollar deals.  The company reviews each of their 50,000 staff a couple of times a year which produces vast amounts of performance data.  And the answer is....being predictable.  That's it.  Boring is good.  It's because predictability means your staff know they have autonomy within certain guidelines and this is the secret to job satisfaction.

I read this with delight.  I have always championed predictability at work - but then I am someone whose idea of a nightmare is a surprise party. But even more laid back female colleagues like things at work to be organised and structured.

"I love it when a plan comes together" (fanpop.com)
We may 'love it when a plan comes together', but many of our more traditional ideas of successful leadership have more in common with the creator of the catchphrase - Colonel 'Hannibal' Smith who led the A-team vigilantes to triumph every episode. No one ever accused him of being boring.

So if women are in their comfort zone with predictable leadership, why aren't more of us running organisations?

Speaking from my own experience, I suspect we confuse clear predictable leadership with 'office housework'.   Joan Williams who writes extensively on women's career issues explores this idea in her most recent book written with her daughter Rachael Dempsey: "What works for Women at Work".  She says women are often offered 'office housework' which varies from industry to industry.  Employers say this is valued but evidence shows it is not.

 In this months' HBR there is an interesting article looking at this trend in the technology industry.
"Office Work vs Glamour Work" copyright HBR

The article shares evidence that similarly qualified men and women will be offered roles that bias towards gender expectations – and that they will seek and accept these roles unconsciously.  In high tech companies more men by far are coders – the geeks who build the software and app that create millions of dollars of value.  Similarly qualified women tend to become project managers.   Seen as careful, organized and reliable, they will get things done while mentoring the team along the way.  In principle there’s nothing wrong with this – providing these roles provide equal access to the top jobs and are viewed equally in the power and reward hierarchy.  But that’s rarely the case.  These roles often have a ceiling built in.  In fact you easily lock yourself out – the better you are at delivering on time with everyone you started with working in careful harmony – the less incentive there is for your employer to let you stop doing such a great job that is so useful for everyone else and let you loose on the high risk stuff.

"When a man gives his opinion he's a man.  
When a woman gives her opinion she's a bitch" - Bette Davis
But if you say no all the time, evidence suggests that you will risk being seen as inflexible and a poor team player.  So you need to develop some ways of ensuring that you can have it both ways - a civilised, organised working environment without sacrificing your career progression.

Just as I had to accept that if my husband did housework at home he would do things differently to me with different priorities (not easy) and that some things just wouldn't get done, so it should be in the office.  Agree basic minimums for a structured workplace that values people.  Women care about this and get frustrated and even unhappy if they work in places where this is done badly.  But not everything is equally important.  Think about things you'll trade on.

I decided not to argue about the way the dishwasher was stacked or what the children had in their packed lunches.  At work, it helps to handle things using a project management approach with clear deliverables, a budget and an end date as well as a succession plan so that you don't end up chairing the diversity committee for ever.

Use a dashboard or fact based format to report progress.  This allows you to promote your success without bragging which most women hate. I became a devotee of this approach after working with a particularly tough Mckinsey consultant who was a special forces officer  in his spare time.  'Structure sets you free' he said.  Facts win over emotion in the battle for boardroom power. Facts presented by someone with great communication skills who can explain why the project they're delivering is critical to moving the organisation towards its most important goals is what you're aiming for.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Boardroom Dandies: Why women need to up their fashion spend to compete for the top jobs

I celebrated the end of Summer by starting the autumn travel season - kicking off with my first visit to Heathrow's new Terminal 2.  I was struck by the global nature of travel - this brand  new terminal is slickly laid out to a pattern determined by those who design flat-pack airport terminals from Barcelona to Beijing. Do you think there is an app to do this? Instinctively I knew which way to go and which retail experiences to expect along the way. But kicking against the predictable, I was delighted to see a small branch of John Lewis bravely bucking the identikit trend and felt a small patriotic stir.  Perhaps we'll see these pop up alongside the branches of Mont Blanc and Starbucks that fill terminals the world over.  Spreading the John Lewis modern British vibe around the globe can't be a bad thing.  And you never know when you're going to need a good value cashmere sweater in a hurry.

Catching up on the weekend papers on the plane I came across a fascinating statistic.  Men spend more on clothes than women.

I was surprised but looking more closely the statistics reveal some insight which I recognize.  Men outspend women in their early twenties which I put down largely to boy bands and  Harry Styles in
Copyright The Financial Times
particular.  Maybe he actually accounts for this spending statistic personally. By their late twenties women have retaken the lead only to lose it again during their thirties. I assume this is the influence of getting established on the career ladder - then having babies - vomit stained YSL anyone? As the little darlings gain independence we rediscover our retail spending power, and thanks no doubt to a good dose of post children investment dressing, we're back on top by our forties.  However, from then on in the men have the upper hand all the way to retirement.

This rather depressed me but I cheered myself up with the accompanying shoe spending statistics which show women spending more on their feet than men at every age except the early twenties. Why the early twenties? Are those stats driven by incredibly expensive trainers? As the mother of one in this group who refuses to own more than one item of footwear at one time and literally wears them until they fall apart - who are these expensively shod young men?


But back to those dapper silver foxes.  Why are they packing such a sartorial punch? I thought about the contents of my wardrobe and admit that it is worth a lot more than in was in my thirties.  But is that because I'm still working? I still spend the majority of my clothes budget on clothes for work rather than leisure - and so do the men.  All those men dominating Britain's boardrooms aren't going to work naked.  One of the beneficiaries of a male bias in the boardroom is a healthy business for the world's finest tailors.  Yes you can get a Timothy Everest suit at Marks and Spencers.  But as twenty years of expensive lunches begin to make themselves visible, every middle-aged man knows that the secret of having it all is a very good tailor, handmade shirts if they can afford it and a well cut suit.  Long before we discovered Roland Mouret and Spanx they had that problem cracked.

So come on ladies, we owe it to the fashion industry to get ourselves to the Boardroom in greater numbers.  More female spending power, boosting the bottom line of British fashion (why not?) must be a legitimate goal.  And we should indulge ourselves.  That Savile Row tailor will set your male director back a couple of big ones. That's a lot of lovely dresses.  And even designer shoes.