Summer in the City, everyone is away..?

It’s August, so the hall is full of suitcases and beach towels and flip flops. Right? Hmm. Maybe not. If you don’t have kids, probably these weeks were hatched off on the holiday chart by your more fecund colleagues weeks ago. And while a quiet office and the promise of quieter beaches when you do eventually get away might compensate somewhat, I remember, in the years BC (before children), a feeling of being slightly out of sync with the way of the world. I imagine that’s what it can feel like for anyone whose norms and rituals are slightly different from those of the public at large. Like if you happen not to celebrate Christmas or Easter. Or if you’re the only vegetarian in a group of friends debating dinner plans. Or the sole dad at the school gate. Things that no-one, including those who don’t entirely ‘fit in’ pays much attention to, yet can develop from minor incongruencies into full-blown resentment and, potentially, conflict.

Here’s an example: I have a friend who is a senior manager of a team of in-house lawyers in a large company. She’s in her 40s, unattached and unencumbered.  As a manager, she understands and respects her colleagues’ need to cater to their families, take time off during school holidays, and to take longer periods of time to care for smaller children (including parental leave). While she bears no resentment towards those who are part of this well-established societal norm, she does feel niggled that she cannot participate in that part of life. Whenever she has broached the subject of extended time off for anything other than to have a baby or look after someone - a category protected by law - her manager dismisses it as something that she ought to be able to cover with holidays. This of course doesn’t work for her as she’d like it to and, as a result, she feels resentful towards her boss, her colleagues who don’t have this problem and the imposition of society’s preferences for families which, once noticed, seems to pop up everywhere.

Is this something that can be avoided? After all, each one of us has felt excluded at least once or twice before. Think of the time way back at school when maybe you were always one of the last kids to be picked for a team. Think of how the shops seem to sell sizes of clothes or shoes that are just too small for you. Think of how, if you’re single at a certain age, life around you seems to cater to couples only and you might even be dropped off social invites because you are one instead of two.  And so on, and so on.

But being different isn’t something that we can or would want to change. We are who we are and there’s a greatness to that which is much more precious than the pain of feeling excluded.  What it does highlight - and this is our point at Voice At The Table - is that each one of us should have the capacity to understand how it feels to be excluded and we should tap into it when we’re interacting with someone who’s different from us, especially at work.  At work because, not only is it the nice thing to do, but also because if we’re mindful of this and are empathetic to it, we can make the person feel more included and therefore more committed, enthusiastic and appreciative.  A positively- tuned person will be a more pleasant colleague, a better contributor to the team and, as such, to the business.  In other words, being aware of our differences is an opportunity to turn exclusion into inclusion in a way that eliminates the negative psychological impact and yet continues to deliver the positives of our different experiences.

So as go I off on our annual family pilgrimage to the beaches of France, I think of my colleagues to whom I’m grateful for taking time off later in the year and staying behind to interact with clients who are captives of summer in similar ways.  Another reason to celebrate diversity.

That was the month that was… August

Rebecca Dalton

by Rebecca Dalton

Tini Owens has been ordered to stay married to her husband Hugh. The Supreme Court unanimously, although ‘with reluctance,’ ruled that she cannot have a divorce just because she is unhappy. Hugh Owens is contesting his wife’s petition and under British law this means the only way a divorce can be granted is after five years separation; unless it can be proved the marriage has irretrievably broken down because of adultery, unreasonable behaviour, or desertion. Making your wife unhappy is apparently not unreasonable.

The Supreme Court, and the lower courts through which this sorry tale has gradually wound its way, adopted the Ponitus Pilate defence: they only apply the law they don’t make it – that’s Parliament’s job.

Over in Westminster, the Ministry of Justice said: "The current system of divorce creates unnecessary antagonism in an already difficult situation.”

This caused a fair amount of panic that the country might be heading for divorce ‘on demand.’ Much like abortion ‘on demand’ this is absolutely beyond the pale in some quarters. Heaven forfend that women’s needs should be met, that their requests should be granted, guilt free, blame free, no fuss. Whatever next.

Meanwhile, tennis star Serena Williams said she’d been ‘randomly’ drug tested five times this year – while some of her competitors had yet to be asked for a single sample. ‘Discrimination? I think so’ was her conclusion. She could be right.

But given the number of athletes who over the years have, unfortunately, accidentally, overslept, not heard the doorbell, or been ‘out’ when the inspectors called, who can blame them for taking the odd shortcut to meet their targets? They probably thought: ‘She’s got a baby for God’s sake: she’ll be in, and she’ll be up.’

New Rules: the iGeneration navigates the digital jungle

by Beatrice Fitzmaurice

We have grown up surrounded by technology: social media and the digital world seems internalised in my generation, particularly those born after 2002. It means those born in the 90s may feel old compared to youngsters born after the millennium. Generation Z, the iGeneration, are those born in and after 1995. However, knowing how to use an iPad at the age of 5 was most likely not the case for many, unlike the sticky fingered swiping of today’s coffee shop reared toddlers. A vtech games console was my sole source of electronic entertainment at that age – and I was born in 2001. From this, we can see a distinctive change even for those supposedly born in the same generation, influenced by increasingly rapid changes in technology.

This new “linkster” generation seems uncomprehending of a time without iPhones and iPads, dependent on them for entertainment, their ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ vital to determine popularity, and sometimes therefore, self-esteem. Conscious of this, this year’s UN International Youth Day – celebrated on the 12th of August – had the theme of ‘safe spaces.’ It promoted physical and digital safe spaces where young people can freely interact and express themselves in environments that are inclusive and respectful. Yet, the digital world can never completely be a “safe space.”

I’ve noticed many teenagers have generated an internal mental forefront.  It's a coping mechanism for the challenges social media presents, such as cyber bullying or even small but abusive comments on status updates and posted pictures.  Young people have become more reliant on need for approval from likes but this mental safe space may also give them the chance to express themselves regardless of whether the rest of the world 'approves' of them.

However, this doesn’t work for everyone, being exposed to all this new digital activity from very young can be more harmful than we realise. It is being naïve to the potential harmful side of technology that can  make the digital world even less of a safe space than intentioned.

Safe and unsafe digital spaces from a young woman’s perspective

Women are often on the receiving end of the worst the internet can offer. But this technological advancement benefits us in many ways. The women’s movement has expanded, media has allowed more awareness of inequality and been at the forefront of initiatives to change this. Sixth former Phoebe Richards believes women have been allowed to be “partially freer to express themselves as there is this kind of new movement by which there is more acceptance and a way for us to communicate our views.” In this way it has effectively created a relatively “safe space” for women to discuss these issues and in this way created a digital community with the same main objective as equality. For example, in 2012, UNESCO’s Gender-Sensitive Indicators for Media (GSIM) was published, focusing on social diversity and taking into account all dimensions of gender. The publication recognises the media’s “effective ways of mainstreaming gender in their actions” and thus it attempts to make the content of articles more “gender sensitive” through evaluating them with the use of the GSIMs.

Despite this, it can be argued that women are still generally recognised more through the eyes than the ears. The need for a good physical image is heightened by the media and in this way, women’s voices are undermined due to the concentration on their bodies rather than their opinions. Fixed images can create clichés about women and entrench prejudices and biases that create challenges for any women who try to draw attention to their opinions.

Overall, there are many ways the digital revolution has expanded the safe spaces available to young women, such as being able to communicate more easily with people of similar interests or struggles. Nevertheless, we still need to be aware that this new network of communication can also put us in danger and creating mental safe spaces can be the way to protect oneself.   We might be technical natives, but we still have a lot to learn about navigating social media in such a way that doesn’t leave grave new scars on our psyche. It's a jungle out there; don't let it ensnare you.

That was the month that was… July 2018

By Rebecca Dalton

Rebecca Dalton

She was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar – that much is true. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t need anyone else to pick her up and turn her around, make her into someone new. This sister was doing it for herself. The 28-year-old native New Yorker beat veteran Democrat, and predicted future party leader, Joe Crowley in the primary ballot for November’s important mid-term elections. It caused a major shock to the Washington establishment, and a minor outbreak of unfortunate ‘dad music’: Crowley marked his defeat by picking up his guitar and dedicating a rendition of ‘Born to Run’ to Ocasio-Cortez.

It certainly looks like nothing’s gonna stop her now; if she wins her place in the House of Fun (aka Congress) she’ll be the youngest woman ever elected.

And that really is enough dreadful puns on terrible 80’s pop songs.

Meanwhile, you may remember a year ago the BBC was forced to reveal the pay packets of its highest earners. Cue much astonishment that so many men were paid so much more than so many women.

Auntie promised to do better. Several high-profile white, middle-aged men were given very public pay cuts. But, learning a trick or two from governments past and present, this year the Beeb altered the way it presents the figures. The production arm has been hived off and is called BBC Studios; as a commercial entity it doesn’t publish how much it pays its stars. This means many top presenters have conveniently fallen off the best paid list, and others such as John Humphrys only have the part of their salary paid by the licence fee in the public domain.

It was a cunning plan and should have highlighted the increasing proportion of women edging into the top salary brackets, while fudging the issue of the stark pay differential with men.

The new figures were revealed, and (drumroll…) ta da! Now there are no women at all in the top 10 highest earners. Claudia Winkleman is still head girl: but now down at number 13 on the list.

Good Job!

In Praise of Show-Offs

You may have come across the twitter hashtag #ImmodestWomen and wondered what it’s all about.  It caught my eye because it seems another excellent example of the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ behaviour asked of women:  on the one hand, we are expected to be humble, compliant and supportive of others; on the other hand we’re told to promote ourselves – particularly in the context of our careers – showcase our strengths and talk more about our own achievements.

To give you some context, #ImmodestWomen is a hashtag introduced by Dr. Fern Riddell who dared to insist that her hard-earned PhD title form part of her twitter handle. A backlash of comments from men berated her for being immodest, lacking humility, even being vulgar. By simply showcasing her expertise, Dr. Riddell was publicly shamed for not conforming to society’s expectations of women to be modest, well-behaved, not showing off.

How do we strike the balance between society’s – and frankly, our own - expectations of humility with the need to self-promote at work so as not to lose out to those (mostly men) who do it so well?

At Voice At The Table, we have a talk entitled ‘The Art of Female ‘Blagging’ with Integrity.’ Here’s how it works:

My good friend and associate Cara Moore and I recognised a while ago the double-edged sword society had dealt us. To generalise, men seem to be at ease ‘blagging’ their way into promotions and pay rises by exaggerating their achievements and abilities, while (again in general) employing those tactics made women feel uncomfortable.

After much discussion we came up with a way of ‘showing off’ which we think feels more natural to women. In other words, turning blagging into bragging – but doing so based on actual achievements and confidence in our potential. Hopefully it negotiates the fine line between what feels right, and what we as women need to do to be seen and heard.

We came up with our own acronym BLAG which captures the elements that make the term ‘blagging’ more palatable to women:

B stands for Bright: Being visible by speaking up, contributing without hesitation or self-doubt, confidently applying for stretching tasks, and asking for that title, promotion or pay rise. We should aim to be bright like a beacon and be known for our strengths and unique talents.

L stands for Learned: Many of us are experts in our fields, and this is important. Whatever we say or do, we need to be comfortable that we can back it up with substance. For many women, this is the reason the term ‘blagging’ feels unnatural – we think of it as a cover-up for actual knowledge. Not so for most of us, who know much more than we give ourselves credit for. Learned means not only knowing our ‘stuff’ but remembering that we do!

A stands for Audacious: This is where we must ask ourselves to ‘just give it a go.’ Often, before we try something new or more daring, we talk ourselves out of it before we even begin: ‘I’m not good enough. I don’t have the experience. They would never agree to it,’ pipes up our unhelpful inner voice. We have dozens of reasons for not doing something instead of just going for it. So being audacious is about silencing that inner critic and ‘JFDI’*.

G stands for Gutsy: Gutsy is about being brave enough to tie these three elements together and take action to BLAG by being visible, known for our expertise and knowledge, and unafraid to step up.

So, while shouting from the roof tops about how good we are is something we prefer to leave to others, there is no shame in adding those well-earned initials that follow your name. Thank you, Dr. Fern Riddell for standing up for yourself and for BLAGging with integrity.

* For those of you who are wondering, JFDI stands for Just Flippin’ Do It!

3 Reasons Diversity Initiatives Fail to Shift the Dial on Gender Balance

Advances in achieving gender balance in the corporate space are slow, at best.  Despite the deafening cries for progress towards gender parity, progress is, indeed, evading us.  The latest gender pay gap statistics in the UK prove the point, with the largest pay gap reported in the construction sector at 25%, followed by finance and insurance sector at 22% and education at 20%.   The World Economic Forum predicts it will take the world another 217 years to reach parity, and many other reports show that, while we appear to be inching closer to a more diverse and inclusive world, progress is, well, patchy and sometimes questionable.

I have to ask myself the question why?  After all, in my conversations with clients and other companies, it seems diversity and inclusion is an important part of the business agenda, and gender balance even more so.   Most have already spent copious resources on various initiatives that intend to support and advance women - and, more broadly, diversity - within the organisation.  And yet, few would claim genuine parity at all levels.

If you ask me, part of the problem is the belief that we’re doing all the right things whereas the truth is that most of the current initiatives fail to shift the dial on diversity.

Here are my 3 reasons for it:

All female leadership and other initiatives

The intentions behind programmes that support the advancement of women in the organisation are great, but there are a number of problems with this approach: (i) when programmes cater to women only, the overarching message the company is sending to its women is that there is something wrong with them and that it is trying to ‘fix’ them.  This is particularly true of leadership programmes which intimate that women need more development than men to become leaders; (ii) even successful female-only initiatives tend to backfire because, to the extent they succeed to motivate and engage women, by the time women go back to their unchanged work environment, frustration starts to set in as they continue to perform in an environment that fails to recognise the value of their authentic contribution; and (iii) initiatives that are aimed at a specific segment of the population tend to be divisive and fail to attract the requisite amount of support and inclusion to harness lasting progress.

Appointing a female head to ‘tackle the problem’

In many cases, executive teams are genuine about their desire to advance women.  But they don’t recognise it as a central business priority and look at it as a project to be managed.  Having identified it as an issue, they tend to look for the right person to address it which, in many cases, happens to be the one woman on the executive team.  I have heard this story so many times.

These women, or other senior women in the organisation, are anointed as Head of People, or Gender Diversity Sponsor or similar, and are expected to single-handedly ‘solve the issue’.  If they’re lucky, the board will agree to authorise resources to support the position in the form of additional help and/or budget. Yet in most cases, all the resources are going to be insufficient because the ‘problem’ cannot be solved by one or few individuals, and certainly not this particular ‘problem’ (because it’s not so much a problem but an unexplored opportunity).

Parachuting women into senior roles

In many cases, gender imbalance exists primarily at the very top.  Many companies tackle the issue by bringing in lateral hires as they don’t appear to have their own senior female pipeline to address the disparity.  Sadly, this is one of the worst solutions to this issue.  Having spoken to a number of corporates who have taken such measures it becomes clear very quickly that there is no substitute for ‘growing your own’.  Attracting senior women from elsewhere is, at best, a temporary solution.  These freshly-hired women – like the the women who have been at the company for years – will be exposed to the very same culture that failed to produce the senior pipeline in the first instance.  As a result, the new senior female leaders are likely to become disenchanted with their roles as they come to realise that they are not hired for their expertise and contribution but, instead (to put it bluntly), to tick a box.   Even if they do succeed in making a contribution to the company that is genuinely valued, companies have to carefully guard these women from being hired away by others with a similar agenda.  The reality is that there are not that many senior women out there who seem to satisfy the existing requirements for board or senior level hires (although, of course, many more women can indeed to the job) so, unless companies develop their own female leadership pipeline, they stand to lose those recent hires to others that have a similar approach to gender balance.

These are but a few reasons current initiatives fail to advance gender balance at work, and there are a number of others.  If you would like to explore this topic further, email us for a longer version of this post.

Comeback after kids: how to survive a career break

by Rebecca Dalton

Heat, hay fever, and wan-faced teenagers: it must be exam time. If you have a child going through this particular torture, you’ll appreciate the fine line between stressing the vital importance of it all, and not completely stressing everyone out about the vital importance of it all.

We can probably all remember writing as if our lives depended on it in that sweaty school hall. And yet, a few years – perhaps two jobs - down the line, those qualifications start to lose their significance, start to gain a little dust down at the bottom of our c.v.

But what if everything on your c.v. looks a little dusty, feels like ancient history? It’s problem for anyone who’s taken an extended career break, and that, disproportionately, means women.

Julie Coates, Head of Human Resources at Lockton Companies LPP, says life experience shouldn’t be underestimated. Her key tips for returners putting together a c.v. are: try to show you’ve kept up to date with the industry – read the trade publications for instance; highlight any new qualifications and any voluntary roles; and absolutely don’t be apologetic about taking a career break. She adds: “You gain skills and knowledge from every experience you have in life but it’s about working out how they are relevant to the working environment.”

One mother of two, who returned to her career in procurement after nearly a decade away, applied for nearly 30 jobs before securing an interview. Two years on, she’s been promoted twice in her new job. She says: “My advice would be to keep a spreadsheet of all jobs you apply for: company name, role etc. and a folder for the job specs. So that in a month’s time when they offer you an interview you have some chance of remembering what you applied for!”

She admits it’s easy to lose confidence: “A number of things go through your head: am I too old, how junior will I have to go to get a foothold, how much have things moved on. And how do I make those years ‘disappear’ or appear useful.

“You start to feel absolutely useless: the longer you are out of work, the further away any likelihood of returning appears.”

A senior marketing executive, who sees dozens of c.v.’s, says: “A career break doesn’t put me off. If they’ve done it once, they can do it again. However, I do normally go straight to look at the references. If they’ve managed to keep in touch with at least a couple of people in the industry – and hopefully senior people, that’s a huge advantage.”

He added: “Selfishly, if someone’s children are older, they’re less likely to want time off for every cough and sniffle.”

Voice At The Table’s CEO Rina Goldenberg Lynch says: “That might not be the most right-on way of putting it, but businesses certainly stand to gain much more than they realise from returners. Our role at Voice At The Table is to help companies adapt their practices to get the most out of this hidden workforce.”

The new regulations on gender pay gap reporting are forcing this issue up the agenda. However, the problem is not that organisations have been deliberately trying to make things difficult. It’s more that a lack of imagination, combined with long held perceptions about people who’ve been “out of it” for too long, are creating obstacles. Times are changing – but it’s taking time.

That was the month that was… June 2018

by Rebecca Dalton

The government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review issued its interim report on gender balance with a list of some of the reasons given for not appointing women to FTSE company boards.

Here are some of them:

  • “all the 'good' women have already been snapped up"
  • “our annual report runs to 165 pages. Most women are too weak to carry it to the boardroom”
  • “we have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else's turn"
  • “most women don't want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board"
  • “this is a dynamic 24/7 company. When the Harvey Nics shoe sale is on, we lose our female workforce for days on end. We can’t risk share prices collapsing just because it’s 30% off on the Jimmy Choo’s.”

* two of these are not real excuses

Meanwhile, improving diversity at airlines was a big theme at the International Air Transport Associations’ annual conference in Sydney. Just the right forum for Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker to treat us to his view that an airline has to be led by a man ‘because it’s a very challenging position.’ Cue a slightly stunned pause and audible gasps. After which his audience at the press conference – and social media worldwide – decided laughter was the best medicine. Allowing Mr Baker to claim it was a joke all along.

Yes, of course it was dear.

Mr Baker has form in this area, once describing female air stewards on other airlines as ‘grandmothers’ and boasting that the average age at Qatar was 26.

Furiously rowing back on his cracking ‘joke’ he issued a statement that ‘Qatar Airways firmly believes in gender equality and… it would be my pleasure if I could help develop a female candidate to be the next CEO of Qatar Airways.’

Hopefully, that position may become available quicker than you think, grandad.