Monday, 31 March 2014

Positive Gender Discrimination at work - friend or foe?

‘Foe’ of course, right? You, I and the other hard working women who totally and utterly deserve the advancement we come by through hard graft and lack of bullshit are going to strongly resent any implication that we got our jobs for any other reason. And how we feel is what matters right?

The real answer depends on whether we want equality in the workplace just because at this particular moment we are working hard and quite want to be rewarded for that or if we feel that by and large human institutions and processes would by and large benefit from a greater heterogeneity of view, risk appetite and talent than it has at the moment.

In many areas (including genetics, cooking or friendships) heterogeneity wins hands down over sameness (nothing worse than being too matchy-matchy).

Why not then in business?

If we say that in general (and, smarting from the recent financial crisis, some have been saying this a bit louder recently) a more varied attitude to analysis, risk assessment, or communication style would benefit business and therefore the wider environment, how the hell do we get there at a less than glacial pace?

Let me be clear, I’m not talking here about full scale regulatory quotas. But as we stand today, without some affirmative action, we aren’t going to get to anything like the mix we need in my working lifetime. In fact, it feels like in London at any rate, with the rising cost of living / childcare and increased hours demanded at work, we are going quietly but quickly backward.

In every other aspect of life, we KNOW that equality in the future is an entirely useless way to make up for an inequality that exists already. Adding 1 to both sides will never make 3 equal 3000 and if I and my extremely skinny friend both put on weight  at a rate of 2 pounds a month, guess what? She’ll still be thinner in a year’s time.

Anyway, let’s face it, equal policies don’t work in practice anyway.  The path up will be harder and managing to stay up there and keep your sanity will be way way way harder for a woman on average than for a man.
In other words unless there is positive discrimination the end result will never be equal and we’ll all be worse off, both men and women.

The fact that you and I instinctively don’t want our achievements to be ‘devalued’ by positive discrimination shouldn’t be the main factor and constantly surveying women who have ‘made it’ how they feel about gender-related affirmative action is like asking an oligarch whether he thinks lots of other people should own gas pipelines too. It really isn’t the point.

The very fact that we are worrying about the slender chance that in some scenarios we might be ever so slightly advantaged just shows how unequal this is! Ever heard of an old boys’ crony network worrying about whether they might not quite have earned their job, construction licence or presidency? Me neither. Ever heard a city boy turning down a promotion because it isn’t quite fair that he can work 18 hour days and then shag his secretary whilst his wife stays home and wipes his babies’ bums? Nope, I’ve not heard that one either.

Of course it’s possible for an individual woman to 'make it' without positive discrimination. Indubitably, in order to sustain her progress over time, and certainly if she has a family, she is going to be need to be a lot better than her male competitors to do so. The real question is, therefore, is it possible or fair to expect millions of women to all be better than all their male competitors by such a margin that the overall environment begins to equalise?  

It is inspiring and energising to find women who are better, faster, more capable, break more boundaries and are just downright braver than their male counterparts. It is however, in my view, deeply unfair to demand it as ‘standard’ of our entire sex.  

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Why I love talking about cellulite

A very good girlfriend of mine tells me that when I look ugly, I look really ugly.  

If my husband told me that I was extremely ugly one morning I would feel very hurt. I would immediately take care not to let him see me in that state again, and add to the cycle of un-feminist primping I already undertake.

So how come I positively like the fact that my girlfriend calls me ugly? More generally, why are women, when they talk, so keen to convince each other of their hidden weaknesses? A routine conversation between women may well proceed as follows:

Woman A: Wow you look fantastic!
Woman B: God no I put on 5 pounds in the last week!
            Woman A: Really? I can’t see it!
Woman B: I’ve got stomach-holding-in underwear on.
              Woman A: Well no one would know; you look great.
Woman B: Thanks but I must go on a diet.
Both women walk away from this conversation feeling better.

I made a new acquaintance in the gym last weekend. Within 5 minutes, she had told me she didn’t like her thighs but thought her bingo wings were under control. This didn’t feel merely like an exchange of information, it was a friendly overture.

Why do we do this? Do men routinely immediately share their deepest and hidden flaws? I don’t think so. And yet I don’t feel a woman is being friendly / genuine until she does. Someone who talks about her ‘cellulite’ (i.e. insecurities/mistakes/weaknesses) on day 1 is therefore someone I like.

A lot of common wisdom claims that in general women see each other as competitors; that living in a man’s world as we do, we compete for the scarce resources of good men, power or career status. Much as I love my girlfriends and wish them only success and happiness, I will admit that this is partially true although it is not competition as a man would recognise it.

Man’s ‘compete’ thought process

Woman’s ‘compete’ thought process
a. What game or competition is on?

b. I want to compete to determine whether or not I am better than you

c. Now that we’ve competed I know whether or not I am better than you.
a. What are you most outstandingly good at?

b. I feel rubbish because you are better than me at the thing you are best at.

c. Now that I feel rubbish, I need to invent something I am better than you at to cheer myself up.

d. I have now added to my feelings of worthlessness by competing with the sisterhood.

e. Moreoever, I still feel rubbish because even though I’m better than you at making cupcakes, Kate Hudson’s thighs are thinner than mine.

And so, I’m not really competing with my girlfriends, I am competing with the best aspects of every other woman in the world simultaneously. It isn’t a competition, it is a voluntary thrashing. Whatever I get from this futile exercise, it certainly isn’t a feeling of superiority.

I think it is true that I do this because I cannot help myself; that we are more critical of ourselves than we need to be and/or that we are well aware that women who are perceived as ‘perfect’ elicit eye-rolling from both genders, whereas the same league of guy would not. But this is not a post about why women are down on themselves; this is a post about how in spite of suffering along with millions of other women from this incurable disease of self-depreciation, how in spite of demonstrating its nastier side effects of judging other women, though not as harshly as I judge myself, how in spite of all this, girlfriends are of incredible and growing importance to me:

1. They let me know it’s OK: They reflect me back to me in a more truthful way than I can obtain from a (heterosexual) man. Many men, after all, do not consider me ugly. Magically, in spite of seeing me as I am, in spite of the ‘judging’ (let’s be nice and call it ‘assessing’) which women do to each other, some of them still like me. They think I am ugly yet talk to me anyway. Their good opinion is more difficult to get and is greatly prized.

2. They show me how to be better: Grateful for some of their imperfections though I am, I admire their talents and can learn from or emulate them. This makes me better at things; from tips on how to apply mascara to disciplining my child.
Girlfriends are the exact opposite of how many of us feel we have to act at work or in relationships; from the first scary job interview or date onwards, we try to portray ourselves as our best. If we falter, we get told to act more confident and quite rightly so; out there it’s a man’s world and we act ‘up’ or fail.

But with our girlfriends, with my old and honest friends or new and forthright ones, we can relax. We may wish we didn’t worry about ourselves as much; we may wish we were less judgemental. Maybe it’s our fault, or the fault of men or society. Whatever the truth of it, like getting older, it may be something we cannot help. But by acknowledging that many of us feel the same, and by letting others see our fears, it is so much more comfortable a world! Comparing cellulite may be as good a way as any to signal our oneness.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Do women really change when they have babies?

In my opinion, no they don’t. Not really, not underneath.

After giving birth a woman’s working hours may change, her ability to go out on a Saturday night be curtailed and her reactions to Oxfam adverts move from academic concern to actual tears BUT she is fundamentally the same person.

Let me explain what I mean.

The women I know who continue to have career aspirations after a baby, always had long-term career aspirations and never imagined their lives differently.

Those women who may have worked extremely hard and been extremely successful before children but do give up work, always had only short-term career aspirations and/or always wanted and expected to raise a family at home. Or hated their job.

The women who take picture perfect cupcakes into the school fetes were the ones who had matching dinner services and crystal at their dinner parties before they had kids, like designer clothes or expensive home d├ęcor i.e. perfectionists or the highly competitive.

The women who take in shop-bought fairy cakes or ones covered in globs of imperfectly mixed icing to the school fete were the ones who always considered it OK to bring friends home for dinner when they weren’t entirely sure what was in the fridge but thought they might have some ketchup somewhere i.e. pragmatists who know that once you’re drunk you’ll eat anything and that this is a golden opportunity to get rid of the out-of-date hummus.

What I’m trying to say, not very articulately, is that our daily activities may change, but our quintessential characteristics - ambition, pragmatism, sense of humour, young-at-heartedness, stinginess, selfishness - don’t change.

Why does it matter?

For two reasons.

Firstly, it matters to those women who haven’t had kids, who are thoroughly enjoying their current lives, work, social or otherwise but fear that birthing a baby will somehow change them beyond recognition and that this scary new person may well turn out to be much less fun to be. Be comforted; you will remain yourself unless you let yourself be lost (and, in my opinion, the tendency to allow yourself to get lost is a quintessential characteristic in itself).

Secondly, to the on-lookers, (partners, bosses, work colleagues of both genders), who can be incredibly patronising to as-yet-childless or pregnant women; acting as if everything she does or says before becoming a mother, cannot be trusted because she ‘will change’.

Aaagh! She will not change! Or if she is forced to become something she is not by economic pressures or society’s demands, she will become increasingly unhappy exactly because she hasn’t changed!

Details change, principles do not.

And yes I do know that the number of women, as a percentage of the world population, who have a reasonable degree of control over the structure and content of their lives is pitifully small. Far too small. But if a woman somewhere is standing up and saying ‘this is me and this is who I am’; we shouldn’t bat her down by saying ‘ah yes, but only until you have a child’.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Trading partners

How do you deal with it when what you want and what someone else wants (husband, boss, or friend) wants something else?

Answer A: Ignore what the other person wants or what you want (bitch or doormat)

Answer B: Ignore the problem entirely (storing up trouble to burgeon and propagate like a Ponzi scheme before you end up exhausted and plumping back for Answer A)

Answer C: Trade (relies on you having something the other person wants)

Answer D: Negotiate a win-win (may not come naturally and/or is difficult)

Ok so there’s no easy answer.

There is another option which is what many of us heartily wish was a viable answer:

Answer E: Our wants and needs are proactively identified, prioritised and granted from the sheer intuitive and psychic goodness (or guilt) of the other person.

Let me illustrate:

In the 2006 film The Break Up, the Jennifer Anniston character (Brooke) feels unloved and let down by the thoughtlessness of the Vince Vaughn character (Gary), whilst Gary feels nagged:

Brooke: It would be nice if you said thank you and helped me with the dishes

Gary: OK I’ll help you do the damn dishes

Brooke: No, come on, you see, that’s not what I want

Gary: You just said you want me to help you do the dishes

Brooke: I want you to want to do the dishes

Gary: Why would I want to do dishes? Why?

Brooke: See, that’s my whole point!

Gary: Let me see if I’m following this; are you saying that you’re upset because I don’t have a strong desire to clean dishes?

Brooke: No, I’m upset because you don’t have a strong desire to offer to do the dishes.

Gary: I just did!

Brooke: After I asked you!


What Brooke meant of course, which every female watching the film knew immediately, is that she doesn’t give a shit about the dishes. She wants to be loved enough that Gary’s disinclination to wash up loses to his desire to help her.

In negotiation tactics, Brooke's approach here is called 'Appealing to the Giver' i.e. appealing to, or being dependant on, the other person's desire to give. This is a lovely thought but is an approach fraught with disappointment because is based on a win-lose solution.

Human history will easily show that it is a far safer bet to rely on selfishness over selflessness. So a solution which appeals to the other person’s ‘Taking side’ must, on average, succeed more often.

The easiest way to do this is to Trade.

Trading is easy to do when the stakes are relatively low and when both parties have ‘resource’ to trade with.

For instance, because my husband and I both work and want to spend time with our child, exercise and socialise, time is accepted as equal value to us both and, (extremely importantly), used for similar purposes by both. ‘I’ll go out Thursday night and you can go out Friday night’ doesn’t make me feel like either a bitch or a doormat, nor am I likely to burst into tears if one time he wants to trade a slightly different way.

But the trade agreement falls over when the value or significance of time is different for each. This happened to me when I was on maternity leave (“can’t you get home at 7 o’clock when you say 7 o’clock I’ve already bathed the baby now” being translated as “You pretended you wanted a family but now you’ve got me up the duff and trapped in this clearly loveless relationship, you are out having fun safe in the knowledge I’ll bathe your bloody baby for you).

I had a lot of time. Time wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t have a lot of company. He thought I wanted time but I wanted his company.  Gary in the film thought Brooke wanted help but she wanted consideration.

Stands to reason that if your trading partner doesn’t even know what resource is at stake you aren’t going to feel fulfilled. It’s like asking for a boiled fish but secretly wanting a lovely rack of BBQ ribs. The fish may come your way (maybe maybe) but it sure as hell won’t hit the spot.

Of course you can only trade if you’ve got something the other person wants and that is of accepted equal value. Therefore, with more nebulous things like ‘love’, ‘company’, or ‘thoughtfulness’, trading is difficult if not impossible. It is not the same to say ‘you think of my needs above yours today and I will think about your needs over mine tomorrow’ (especially difficult if you are secretly resentful that you are always aware of his needs, whatever day it is).

Definitely then, the ideal approach is to negotiate for a win-win i.e. to co-operate, not compete for a win-lose.
Ah, added complication, he needs to know whether you are going for win-lose (competing) or win-win (co-operating) else you’ll end up battered:

  • If you both cooperate, you will both have good outcomes.
  • If one cooperates and the other competes, the co-operator will get a terrible outcome and the competitor will get a great outcome.
  • If both compete, you will both have mediocre outcomes.
  • In the face of uncertainty about what strategy the other side will adopt, each side's best choice is to compete.

Since most of us don’t have our conversations holding out large placards which say ‘today I think we should co-operate because I don’t feel I have a resource to trade with’, the problem of ensuring everyone is on the same page can be overcome by what is known as ‘framing’ i.e. how you start the conversation by articulating the problem:

Frame 1: ‘I never get time to go out but you go to the pub every Friday’ = I want to compete or trade but, as I’ve just reminded you, you already get what you want so it’s not in your interests to change unless I can trade another resource of equal value and this is a very complicated sentence but not nearly as complicated as the process of winning from such a desperate starting position

Frame 2: ‘Didn’t you say you wanted a poker night every week? How about you have it here on a Thursday and I’ll go out and leave you boys in peace’? = Think of the poker! You know you want the poker! Think of the Nachos you could eat in peace! And I’ll be in such a good mood when I get home I won’t even notice the crumbs!

I find the framing /negotiating for a win-win thing comes naturally at work but doesn’t even make an appearance with the terrible nebulous love-and-care-based things at home. There is so much at stake, emotions can be so near the surface, and the value we place on ourselves and on each other so dependant on not having to explicitly negotiate that even to think about framing / setting objectives etc. seems manipulative, unnatural and unromantic.

But, as a wise person said to me recently “there is a difference between natural and magical”. To expect, in our busy lives, someone else (particularly males) to be psychic / have the required magical powers to divine what we want and then to have the goodness to give it to us at personal expense, is not only naive, it diminishes both dismisses everthing we have as not trade-worthy (and being wonderful, strong, talented people, our resouces are valuable and we, not they, need to be the first to recognise them as such) and ignores our ability to use our brains and intuition to come up with a solution that works for both sides.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The feedback fix

File:Charles Thomson. Woman with a Hammer (reversed horizontally).jpg

Welcome back to my blog! I hope you are all looking forward to the New Year.
Back at work after a break, I’m spending much of my time finalising my own and subordinates’ year-end assessments and setting objectives for the year ahead.
At this same time two years ago, I got one hell of a shock. Having sat down with a senior person to discuss a planned initiative, I got slammed with critical personal feedback which hit me like a slab of granite. It felt not only totally unfair, but the worse for being entirely unexpected and coming a source who, having stood as friend, protector and mentor for many years, had, I felt, earned the right to be trusted, even though I couldn't really believe my ears.
After the inevitable upset and walking around feeling like a tube
of squeezed-out toothpaste for a few days, I slowly began to accept most of the feedback and sought to change. I even asked for, and received at the firm's expense, personal 'executive' coaching to help me improve and, though painful, I did see benefits.
The thing is that all this fixing took an enormous amount of emotional energy and headspace, time and money. On the other hand, the volume of feedback available to me, of which a proportion can reasonably expected to be critical, is limited only by the number of people I could ask and the time taken to get it.
Throughout our early lives, the regularity of school reports, grades and parents’ evenings not even counting the constant comments and discipline we get from our parents and other family and friends accustoms us to feedback. Once in a job, every Human Resources department I’ve ever had has insisted on regular formal feedback and strongly advised additional voluntary feedback between cycles.
The choice open to me therefore is not whether to get feedback, but how to react to it. For people-pleaser-hard-workers like me (read teacher’s pet), the overwhelming urge is to (a) take all feedback as gospel (‘don’t argue with the teacher’) and (b) assume that the only humble and rational (‘nice’) response is to work hard at fixing the fault and that this is the only way to demonstrate that I value the feedback-giver’s opinion.
I find it incredibly hard to ignore feedback I know to be valid; if I could do better, I want to; if the benchmark has been raised I want to beat that one. To knowingly and deliberately ignore or refuse to improve goes against not only my personality but against everything I was taught as a child.
A less-than-averagely-egotistical male colleague at work regularly laughs at me for the amount of time I worry about perception and what others think of me. But I don’t think I worry more frequently than many other women. Most men I know, on the other hand, are much more likely to have a 50-50 approach to feedback, or to automatically convince themselves that the criticism demonstrates a fault of the giver (‘they are a total %$*!-wit anyway’).  I would love to be able to laugh distasteful feedback off as untrue because the giver is not themselves perfect! But I can’t.
Unfortunately for my fixing tendencies, just like all of you, I’m busy; I’m just too damned busy to be able to dedicate much to self-improvement over and above the constant running list of get-thinner-fitter-better-at-mothering-be-nicer-to-my-parents-budget-better-manage-my-team-better-manage-my-career-better-improve-quality-time-with-my-husband-what-have-you-done-for-charity-recently list which operates as standard.
So with extremely limited time and energy, and unlimited scope for feedback, I am forced to identify what is critical and leave the rest. To use a domestic simile, this is a bit like ironing only the right side of the duvet cover and pillowcases but not the fitted sheets (with an open question as to what would happen if I ironed nothing at all?). At work I naturally prioritise and de-prioritise tasks on an almost constant basis; why does the work I have to drop not niggle me but the fault I cannot get around to fixing guilt me out?
How strange to wish that instead of being trained to react blindly to a teacher's say-so, I’d learned instead to only work at something if the cost-benefit was positive to me! Perhaps even to deliberately choose to not do as well as I possibly could? Maybe the many tears I shed during an abortive and disastrous course in ‘weaving’ could have been saved and my effort better applied to the varied things I was already good at?
For this reason I heartily approve of (and am belatedly trying to implement) the ‘strengths’ approach (see links below and on my facebook page). It just makes sense.
But now for the real test; do I believe in my belated wisdom strongly enough to pass it onto my child early, before the adrenalin rushes of achievement and praise turn into a lifetime of misdirected effort? Or will I, for sheer ease of parenting, and for the pleasure of benign parent-teacher evenings, tell her that she has to work at all her weaknesses and that the teacher cannot be ignored? I wonder.
What do you think?

Monday, 2 December 2013

Overdoing it

Having been commanded by the doctor to take it easy, I promptly reacted by Overdoing It (the annoying capitalisation here represents my mother's voice in my head which too is slightly annoying. My pain is your pain).

So on my first night out of hospital, I rearranged our bedroom furniture to take account of the newly delivered still-smelling-of-wax super king size bed (Doc's rule number 1: don't lift or strain) and nursed my puking three year old (Doc's rule number 2: avoid infection). In the week since then I've cooked and cleaned almost incessantly (rule 3 kicks the bucket), gone swimming (rule 4 hits the dust) and undertaken a variety of what I'm sure my mother and doctor would both agree are non-essential tasks such as shopped for presents, framed photographs, guillotined several hundred pages from an old volume of Shakespeare's collected works for next week's decoupage of an old IKEA bookcase, ironed an enormous mound of shirts, kept in near-constant touch with the office, had my hair cut, lugged a heavy new laundry basket over a mile back home and started writing a short story.

And now I'm tired and grumpy and want to stop.

The problem is, of course, that everyone appears to be labouring under the delusion, admittedly wholly created by me, that I wish to Overdo It; that in allowing me to Overdo It they are granting me the respect and freedom I deserve as an independent and intelligent woman, capable (as women are in this day and age) of making her own choices. Notably my boss who, having claimed I am far too driven to sit around and watch daytime TV, (a damned lie - I LOVE 60 minute makeover), has, much to my dismay, asked me to complete a chunky piece of work during my time at home next week (I do accept that I am getting paid this month but those IKEA shelves won't decoupage themselves).

The other culprit is, of course, my very liberal and modern husband who never questions either my career plans or my shabby-chic craft projects and who finds himself ill-equipped, and, let's face it, entirely oblivious of the need, to morph into a Mills and Boon hero (I have some hazy notion of being 'ruthlessly pinned' against a wall or locked in a room, weeping, to prevent my womanly nonsense).

'Nonsense' of course being the operative word here.

Because not only have I, in one way or another, invented all my chores, (ok maybe not the ironing), but I would vehemently reject any insinuation that I am NOT capable of undertaking all these and more whilst fighting disease and maintaining a healthy blood count level.

When I am well I love the fact that apart from the inevitable constraints caused by biology and a demanding pre-schooler, no one in my life puts noticeable limits on me.

Now I'm ill I want to be petted and told not to worry my pretty little head about anything. I want someone to tell me what to do and, contrary to any tendency I've ever shown and to any feminist principle, I want to obey uncomprehendingly.

But, dammit, no one is bossing me around!

I am sure that I should be able to turn off my constantly spouting tap of objectives myself without the need for external intervention but this would require effort and effort is something I don’t have the energy for at the moment, so that, ironically, continuing as normal is actually easier than the mental upheaval required to forgive myself everything I would usually do.

The downside of continuing as normal under all circumstances is that at some point you crash whether you want to or not.  This need not always involve overflowing into tears in front of one’s highly introverted and data-driven male boss…but it might.

The upside of the downside is that everyone (including said boss) seems totally OK with it and that I’ve discovered and tested the strength of a support network that, to be honest, I hadn’t tested for a while. If ever.   

So I suppose my point is that whilst aiming for moons and shooting for stars and doing bits of everything that might, at a distance, vaguely approximate to something approaching 'it all', we all crash at some point or another. The faster we run, the more frequently we may need to crash. And if we've beaten stereotypes and kept going and done well and been capable, we can’t rely on others knowing they need to step in unless we let them see our vulnerability or exhaustion. And doing this isn’t losing ground, it’s being human.