I am privileged. Are you?

It’s been a tough year.

We’ve had to confront both an indiscriminate killer in the form of a virus as well as discriminant ones, it seems, in the form of the American police force.

The killing of George Floyd (and many others like him) brought to the fore conversations that I hadn’t heard in a long time.  I was reminded that, just because we don’t see racism – speaking as a white, middle-class woman – it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  The Black Lives Matter movement reminded us to think of those who are less privileged than us.

So I want to say a few words about privilege.

You see, I know about privilege – other people’s privilege.  Men’s privilege over women.  Yes, I have been in several conversations where the man conversing with me and my friend/husband/male colleague only acknowledged the other male in the conversation, not making any eye contact with me.  I’ve also been ogled, propositioned and humiliated by men for being a woman.  I have been passed up for promotions and have been criticised for doing what men do to get ahead because that’s not what women do.  I have frequently experienced the impediment of being of the wrong gender.  Yet none of that prepared me to see myself as privileged over others.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the privilege bestowed on the rich over the poor, the smart over the not so smart, the native speakers over accented narrators.  But during the conversations that started bubbling up as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, I learned that I really didn’t understand privilege at all.  White privilege that is.

It’s true what they say.  Privilege is invisible to those who have it.  You just take everything for granted.  When you’re pretty and everyone smiles at you, you think everyone is nice.  When you’re straight and you unassumingly mention the opposite gender of a person you’re speaking to, you don’t see them squirming inside, trying to hide the fact that their partner is, in fact, of the same sex.  When you’re white in America, you see the police as your protector whereas as a black person, you might turn the corner to get away even though you’ve done nothing wrong. As a white person, you don’t see that.

Malcolm Gladwell made the point in his latest book Talking To Strangers that we all apply a double standard when it comes to understanding what’s happening to us and understanding what’s happening to others.  We think that when someone says something shocking about a black person, they are racist – not like us.  We would never do that.  And yet I know that, if I pushed my non-white friends, I’m sure they would tell me of instances when I said things to them that made them cringe inside.  They spared me the embarrassment; they knew I didn’t mean it.

In a recent roundtable discussion that I moderated, one of the speakers made the point that it is up to each one of us to educate ourselves on what type of behaviour or language might amount to a microaggression.  It should not be up to the person experiencing the blow to educate us.  So I picked up that call to action.

Enough with the blind spots.  Let’s acknowledge the facts: men have it easier in life than women; white people have it easier in life than non-whites; heterosexuals have a smoother ride than LGBTQ+ and so on and so on.  Let’s acknowledge it and agree to educate ourselves.  Let’s stop and think before we speak.  Let’s not begrudge people opportunities where none existed for centuries.

Our eyes may not be opened instantly, but we can try to see what previously escaped us if we keep trying.

Will you try?

For a great explanation of White Privilege, watch John Amaechi’s Bitesize on BBC.

Modern Masculinity: Raising our sons to be more human

My 14-year-old son rejects everything feminine.

In his steep ascendance towards adulthood, he rejects emotions, cordiality and anything else that isn’t brute strength.  He sees himself as an alpha male whose only currency is power and muscle. He considers tears, overt kindness and expression of emotions to be anti-masculine - and therefore feminine - and sees  them all as weaknesses.

Granted, he’s only 14 and is looking for an identity that is his own and different from that of his parents, but I can’t help but wonder where he gets it from.

A colleague recently sent me a link to a short video entitled Why Men Hate Women.  It was an emotionally-produced, well-researched account of the theory for society’s views of what it means to be a man. The premise is that society teaches men that being masculine means men cannot show feelings, men cannot show tenderness or kindness, men don’t cry and can’t be seen as caring - or behave in any way that could be interpreted as that. These behaviours and emotions are seen as the antithesis to being a man and are lumped together as being feminine.   So, the thinking goes, if men are taught to reject what is characterised as feminine within them, it is likely that they will grow to dislike – even hate - femininity in others.

I listened in recognition of what I had observed for years and have spoken about: this outdated definition of masculinity is at odds with our times and many believe is the reason behind the fact that men are 3 times more likely to commit suicide than women.

Society, including parents, gets the blame.  Apparently, the way we talk to our daughters is different from the way we talk to our sons.  While we generally advise girls to share their feelings, we tend to tell boys to subdue them with statements like ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘be strong’.  We encourage our daughters to search and identify their feelings while our sons may not get the same encouragement.

I of course know all this and am carefully watching how I raise my son and daughter.  But even when I’m consciously trying to ensure my son acknowledges and talks about his feelings, I find fewer opportunities to speak to him in the same way as I do with my daughter.  It’s easier, as a mother, to relate to a daughter than a son and to create emotional bonding moments, but that's no excuse.  Whether it’s because he’s a teenager or because society got to him first, this is something that concerns me.  Not only do I want to raise a boy who is sensitive, emotionally-intelligent and respectful of women, I want to ensure my son grows into a mentally (and physically) healthy and happy man.

I’m reminded of Philippa Perry’s recent book cleverly entitled The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and your children will be glad that you did). It’s a fascinating and necessary read for all – whether you have children or not - but even the title is encouragement enough to break the cycle.  We don’t always know how to do right by our children because we tend to repeat the patterns that were programmed into us by our parents and our surroundings.  What we can do, however, is recognise that some of these pattern are no longer compatible with our lives and try to correct them.  We need to raise our boys differently.

So let’s do this together.  Whether you pick up Philippa Perry’s book or talk more to your son about this, let’s encourage our young men to get comfortable with expressing pain and other emotion.  Let’s not punish them with words or behaviours for showing characteristics that might traditionally be considered as female.  Let's ask fathers to get more involved and share stories with their sons that acknowledge and demonstrate feelings.

We need to become more aware of language and demeanour that perpetuates the antiquated idea of masculinity.   In that way, we will be able to raise our sons to be more human.

The story of pink!

What do you associate with the colour pink?

Nowadays, most would consider pink to be a girl's colour.  We're told it's a colour that stands for charm, politeness, sensitivity, tenderness, sweetness, childhood, femininity and romance.

So why would Voice At The Table – a gender parity and balance advocate – choose pink as its dominant colour?  Doesn’t that reinforce the stereotypes attached to women and, as such, go against everything we stand for?

Not as I see it.

I chose pink to defy the stereotype and encourage others to move away from labels.  We help people see beyond convention.  The challenge we offer is for each of us to be confronted with something that seems straight forward and learn to understand the complexity beyond.  Let’s not judge books by their covers.  Let’s read the pages in between and gain a greater understanding of people and perspectives.

Let’s start with the colour pink.

Pink didn’t start out as a colour of girls.  In fact, in the 19th century, pink was a colour associated with boys.  As red was the colour closely-associated with men, pink – a lighter shade of red – was the colour most often chosen for little men, as boys were then regarded.

In June 1918, an American trade publication even wrote:

The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.

Pink also had different connotations in different cultures.  In India, for example, pink was seen as a symbol of a "welcome embrace", while in Japan it was the colour of masculinity and now, the colour of Spring (when the famous cherry blossoms colour Japan pink throughout).  In Thailand, pink is the colour of Tuesday so anyone born on that day may wear pink on a Tuesday and adopt pink as their colour.  Italy’s sports newsletter La Gazetta della Sport uses pink paper to stand out and awards a pink jersey to the winner of Italy’s biggest bicycle race.

In Catholicism, pink symbolises joy and happiness.

Nowadays, the colour is closely associated with women’s issues and empowerment, as well as the LGBTQ+ movement.  And of course we all would recognise the pink ribbon as the emblem of breast cancer awareness.

I am surprised at how many different meanings the colour pink conjures up, and for all these meanings and reasons, I’m pleased to peg our name to it.

“Where are all the guys?” Why men avoid entering the gender parity debate.

Guest blog by David Levenson*

This article has been a long time in gestation – novels have been written quicker. But its development, alongside the evolution of my views, has given me the confidence (yes, men need confidence too) to write for Voice At The Table. It is also the story of why the men who should be publicly leading on gender equality mostly stay silent.

The inescapable conclusion is that men are too scared to engage on a subject that is so often regarded by them as a hot potato. Alternatively, we just don’t get it – we don’t see it as a problem, certainly not in a business or work context. It ends up that women’s issues are for women alone to comment on.

However, what is needed here is less gender politics and more honest conversation.

To the women who I hope are reading this, my message is simple – get the men in the room, onto the social media feeds and get them talking. It’s time to engage the guys in the gender parity debate and stop them from finding reasons to opt out.

So, here is the tale of my journey through diversity politics and how it relates to the wider issue of male engagement.

Fifteen months ago, I stumbled upon an article by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox of  the consultancy 20-first in the Harvard Business Review. Her argument that gender equality is more than a “women’s issue” rang a bell for me and made me think about my position and indeed my role in helping to achieve parity for women on pay and in the boardroom.

Moreover, it convinced me that successful gender balancing requires convincing the majority of your employees that it’s a good idea. And that cultural change needs to be led from the top. Now, the majority of CEOs are male, so it follows that the equality agenda needs to be pushed… by men.

Having absorbed the article, I ran my eye down the list of comments on the LinkedIn posting that had accompanied the article.  Dozens of comments, all from women.  So, plaintively, I added a thought of my own – C’mon on guys, where are you?

As it turned out, my plea didn’t disappear into the ether.  Other men started to appear and contribute views in the discussion thread.  For me, this first tiny venture into the discussion was the start of a process which has culminated in this article.

Now, I may not be typical; I spent the best part of twenty-five years as a finance director in social housing during which time I worked for women CEO’s, and with many female executive colleagues and board members. It is fair to say that the experience of diverse groups generally, and women in particular, has been better than in most industries.  However, it is instructive to listen to the words of Terrie Alafet, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing and one of the sector’s most high profile women executives, in 2016:

“We know from our own research that as a sector, housing is actually more diverse than average…But at the top of our organisations, in our boards and senior teams, it’s a different story.”

It requires more from CEO’s than just a commitment to balance their executive teams, as Ms Wittenberg-Cox suggests.  It needs recognition that there is a duality of interest in gender equality.  Men have a stake in the decisions that women make about their roles as partners, parents and providers.  Economies and societies work best where there is openness and accountability for the contributions made by women and men in the workplace.

I like to think, notwithstanding all that the #MeToo movement necessarily represents and has had to undertake during the past year, that we have moved on from the battle of the sexes that characterised 20th century feminism and its machoistic counterpart.  Today’s workplace is less divisive and more co-operative.

But we are not there yet as all the statistics show and there is still a cultural battle, if not all-out war, to be fought and won.  And pivotal to this are the men who continue to occupy most top seats at board tables and in executive teams and who should constantly send out the message that striving for gender equality at the apex of companies, financial institutions, professions and public services is in the interests of all of us.

* David Levenson is an accredited executive coach and career strategy coach.  He founded Coaching Futures in 2016 with the aim of transforming people’s lives, careers and goals.

David is one of the co-creators of Raising Roofs.  He is passionate about the workplace of the future and fascinated by how technology is rapidly changing the way we work.

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!