Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Work-life balance? It's all in the mind

Good news for working mothers.  According to a new book just out, work life balance is eminently achievable.  You just need to think about it differently.

I started this blog to encourage women to believe that it is possible to have a high powered job, children, a husband, friends - and stay sane. Yes you need some trade-offs, but so do most things in life.  And the rewards are worth it.  Since I started the blog millions of words have been written - not all by me - about how to encourage more women into top jobs.  But most of the sentiment is negative - stressing how you can't 'have it all', rather than showing you how you can. 

Enter American author - Laura Vanderkam - has written "I know how she does it" which is firmly designed to be that hitherto absent 'how to' guide.  Apart from her name bearing a spooky resemblance to Bree Vanderkamp, the OCD character in Desperate Housewives, Vanderkam is a time management coach with four children under ten who has turned her own skills into very useful advice.  Rather like a food diary designed to help you to lose weight, the core idea is to create a time log to work out how many hours you're working each week, how many spent with your children, exercising, sleeping and so on.  She claims that once women do this, they quickly realise that they are not actually spending their time the way they thought there were.

http://g.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/fc_files/profile/2373034-laura-vanderkam-profile.jpg
Fastcompany.com
Conditioned by an expectation that senior women spend a lot of time working and not much time with their children, she thinks we automatically self-edit, focussing our minds only on the hours we're working rather than celebrating the time were spending with our family and friends.  It's very similar to how most of us react to feedback - we immediately discount all the positives and focus on the negatives and worry about them. She thinks we're deeply conditioned to view our lives through the filter of what we have been brought up to expect we will experience, and focus on where our lives reflect those expectations.

http://www.fatburners.guru/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/how-many-calories.jpg
http://www.fatburners.guru/counting-calories/
We make assumptions without facts and a time log creates those facts. Like many people I have sometimes kept a food diary when trying to lose weight.  When you count up all the calories in the food you eat off the kids plates, that glass of wine you have when you're cooking dinner and, in my case, the inexplicably fast rate I seem to go through cheese crackers, you realise why you might be struggling to shift those extra pounds. It's a wake-up call and you can see ways in which you can trim your waistline without too many life changes - halve the cracker allocation for example.

Once you've created your time log,  it's time for some reappraisal.  Some re-framing of how you see your life.  At its simplest, if you see more balance that you thought, you can re-evaluate the frame through which you see your life much more positively.  There is a lot of evidence that this approach is very effective at increasing positivity, energy and even happiness. I really like this idea.  It's simple, free and anyone can do it.  It's really practical and a refreshing change from some female empowerment self help guides which favour the school of looking in the mirror and telling yourself you're worth it.

Most working mothers will already be time and motion experts - never going up or downstairs without carrying something for example so I think this latest idea could catch on.  Anything that is easy to use and makes us feel better about wanting to combine the excitement of a senior job with the wonderful experience of motherhood has got to be a good thing.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

You're fired - why women leaders hold the secret to better performance


The good Lord Sugar Huffingtonpost.com
"You're Fired!"  Lord Sugar's now infamous catch phrase is key to the success of the Apprentice.  Part of the show's popularity is its reinforcement of our deep seated assumptions about how power is exercised in business.  That to get to the top requires a tough - even ruthless - determination to remove under performers in the relentless pursuit of commercial success.

Medieval Turkish sultans killed their brothers to prevent claims to power
I believe this popular assumption is based on a myth.   We grow up believing men are more ruthless than women and that this extends to removing people in the workplace.  But in my experience male bosses are often afraid of difficult people issues.  Instead of confronting them, they become experts in kicking the can down the road,  hoping the under performer will conveniently decide unilaterally to pursue their career on the other side of the world.  An American variant on this I have observed is to hire duplicate staff as either the boss or the subordinate to do the job of the under performer.  This doubles the cost of the problem but rarely solves it, as those tricky people issues just magnify and the original issue is clouded by an increasingly complicated reporting structure. 

It's not that men can't fire people.  A new CEO will often remove people in the first months of their term - often to secure their power base and bring in their own cohort of tried and tested acolytes.

Women on the other hand almost never fire for political gain - tending to favour starting with what they have and experimenting with trying to get the right people in the right roles.  But when all routes are exhausted and it is clear under performance is the cause of the problem, they will be comfortable and confident in moving towards exiting someone.  Why the difference between the genders?
   
Whatever progress we make in gender equality in the Boardroom, these choices are not really driven by opportunity or lack of it, it is something much deeper that comes from our DNA. 

Many women get stressed by a lack of structure and clarity in the workplace, and so they will consistently strive to remove ambiguous, inefficient structures.  I think this is a major difference between men and women and isn't just true in the workplace.  When my children were small, they would leave their toys scattered around the living room.  I could not relax for the evening and enjoy a meal and a glass of wine until the room was tidy.  My husband was quite untroubled by the mess, hungry after a busy day, food and a civilised conversation were the priority and he was easily able to completely ignore the chaos around us.
Mars vs Venus

When women leaders unpick performance problems in the workplace, our approach inevitably leads to shining a light onto the core issue lurking underneath the stack of complex dual reporting.   Almost always this is someone who just doesn't fit, usually due to poor people skills.  Nine times out of ten these are the same types of people and they're always tough to get rid of because they usually have some core skill that the organization really values but they're tough to work with so they are very hard to fit into teams and projects. 

Organisations desperately need women's forensic, dogged approach to problem solving. Most of us are ready to tackle issues, however awkward, with the goal of a functional happy workplace inspiring us to carry on.  Just as we like clean homes and happy children, we want contented staff who are clear about what's expected of them and are properly supported to do their very best in well-organised, clearly run groups.

Because men don't prioritise the same things, and most leaders are men, organisations don't prioritise these skills but they should.  It's yet another area where women's natural preferences really do make for better leaders.

Regrets? I had a few.. theguardian.co.uk
Good succession planning at all levels can avoid these issues piling up and creating a drag on the organisation.  This is not, as some people think, a time wasting exercise, rather a way of making each senior staff member truly accountable for the number two players in their teams.  I have rarely seen a senior men embrace this idea. They are usually highly resistant to hiring or even identifying a credible successor.  When I have raised this in different organisations I have frequently had the 'look what it did for Tony Blair - dead man walking' speech quoted to me.  Yup, I bet Tony looks back on his time as premier and thinks that's the only thing that went wrong...


Identifying your successor isn't easy because it is like facing your own mortality.  But as with death and taxes, anyone competent knows that they will in time need to identify a new role for themselves.  We don't like thinking about moving on from jobs we enjoy and are good at.  But encouraging people to do this is the key.  Regular conversations with your direct reports about what they want to do next and sharing your own thoughts on your next steps from time to time is healthy and creates liquidity in top jobs which is a key criteria for growth.  Rather thank just box ticking, a credible succession strategy is one of the attributes of a truly strong organisation.
   


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.
http://justcharlee.ca/voices/ageism-aging-and-invisibility/

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.

#girlsmatter
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. 
http://regeneratormag.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/kanyeswift.jpg
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.

http://www.learning-tech.co.uk/Negotiations.jpg
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.

VS VS VS
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.