In praise of the pioneers

Woman Equality Gender Rights Liberation

Across Europe the lockdown is beginning to ease. But that’s where the good news ends. As far as working women are concerned the rest is all doom and gloom. The general consensus is that in lockdown couples have reverted to stereotypical roles with women feeling pushed to prioritise caring and housework above their paid work. There’s also considerable speculation about the toll it’s taking on women; and how many might feel the need to downshift or abandon careers as we navigate our way out of the pandemic. As someone who’s worked for women’s equality in the workplace for a very long time it all feels very frustrating to me.

Today, in an effort to inspire every woman who reads this blog to keep going and not abandon her hard won career I wanted to share the stories of three amazing women that have pioneered workplace change.

My first heroine is Baroness Nancy Seear who was president of the Institute of Personnel Management from 1977-79. At that time I was graduating from university and starting my own career in personnel management. Baroness Seear had spent ten years as a Personnel Officer for a shoe manufacturer before taking up a post as teacher and reader in Personnel Management at the London School of Economics. She was at the LSE from 1946 to 1978 and a quick google scholar search shows her to have been a prolific researcher and writer on the thorny issue of women’s equality in the workplace. From 1970 to 1985 she was also president of the Fawcett Society.

While Nancy Seear spent many years shining a spotlight on workplace inequality my second heroine, the British Labour MP Barbara Castle, was able to make change happen. Baroness Castle was a member of Harold Wilson’s cabinet and Secretary of State for Employment from 1968 to 1970. It was during this period that she introduced the Equal Pay Act which is 50 years old this year.

She subsequently introduced further progressive reforms that benefitted women in the shape of the Invalid Care Allowance for single women and others giving up their jobs to care for a severely disabled relative; and the Child Benefit Act of 1975 which paid the benefit directly to mothers rather than fathers as had been the practice under the old system.

These two pioneers are no longer with us, but my third heroine is alive and kicking; and continues her philanthropic work. She is tech pioneer Stephanie (Steve) Shirley. Dame Shirley’s early career was spent in various computing roles. In 1962 she founded the software company Freelance Programmers. Having experienced workplace sexism she wanted to provide work for women with dependants. The majority of her workforce was female. I remember working with one of her employees from what was then F International in my early career long before I fully appreciated how revolutionary it was to offer flexible work to mothers in the tech industry. With such a great role model it’s ironic that the tech sector has been regressing in its support for women in more recent years.

Without these pioneering women we wouldn’t be where we are today. This week let their stories inspire you and remind you of how far women have progressed at work. Then think about the small steps you can take to pioneer a more balanced future not just for yourself and your family, but also for the generations of women that will follow you.

Be assertive

A speedometer with needle pointing to the words You're in Contro

People who’ve mastered the art of assertive communication tend to get more of what they want or need. They possess a skill that helps them resolve matters when things go wrong. And they know that assertiveness works just as well with children and older family members as it does with workplace colleagues.

Communicating assertively means we’re behaving as adults; taking charge of our lives rather than feeling we are merely victims of circumstance. We’re also respecting the recipients of our communications as adults willing to hear our requests and support us; while we accept their response may be a ‘no’. Much of what I’ve been writing about in previous weeks – such as managing our boundaries and creating order in the chaos – depend on assertive communication.

Being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. We’re not demanding and we’re not coming from a place of feeling entitled. Nor is it the passivity of giving in to the demands of others and behaving like martyrs. We’re actively negotiating our own needs and desires while remaining mindful of the needs and desires of others.

As women we always run the risk of being labelled aggressive or difficult: especially when we’re being assertive. In my experience that type of criticism often comes from people who are not themselves behaving as adults and are not treating us as adults either; but are simply playing games.

Nevertheless, in the current circumstances it’s important to remember everyone is under pressure. An initial negative response may simply be a reflection of this. Someone reacts badly because our assertiveness appears to make their life harder. So we’ll need to negotiate.

Choosing to be assertive stops us feeling overwhelmed and can make us more productive. It will help calm our own emotions. It’s hard to focus when we’re feeling angry or frustrated; or that we’re not being heard and supported.

There’s plenty of advice about how to be assertive in person. Being assertive during telephone and video calls can pose more of a challenge. However, the basics remain the same. Tap into your self-confidence, relax, breathe and remain calm and alert. The more we do this, the more even our tone of voice and depth of pitch become. Both of which add to the ‘body language’ of assertiveness.

Remember to keep the conversation focused on your needs and feelings, not on berating the other person because of ‘how they make you feel’. Separate the individual from the behaviour and ask for changes to the latter. Above all, keep in mind that many of us are struggling. We want to do our best and we want to support each other. We may not always get it right but if we start with that basic assumption in mind we’ll succeed more often.

Let’s choose to be both assertive and kind. So we can support each other to rebalance our lives in these challenging times.

Career advice from George Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw

I’ve recently finished reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez which has powerfully reconnected me to my feminist roots. They go way back to the late 1970s when I was at university, living in the optimism that things would be better for my generation (and successive generations) of women. Despite increasingly focussed equality legislation progress since then has been at a snail’s pace. And with the advent of the pandemic I’m seeing more and more sexism everywhere.

My inbox and twitter feed are currently crammed with advice on how to manage flexible workers and flexible working. And all of it is gender blind. By which I mean it fails to acknowledge the huge differences between men’s and women’s circumstances. Women shoulder three times the burden for caring and household tasks. Advice such as making sure to take regular breaks from work is meaningless for women under unprecedented pressure to juggle work, childcare and home management. And the challenge of protecting our mental health becomes exacerbated as the mental load increases.

But men are stepping up; I hear some people argue. If only that were the case. Men believe they’re stepping up but, as the New York Times reported last week, they’re actually not. According to two US based surveys women continue to shoulder the burden of household duties while also carrying out the majority of home schooling. Men, on the other hand, report they’re helping more at home and covering the bulk of home schooling. The explanation for the discrepancy lies in the invisibility of women’s unpaid work.

So here’s some radical advice for women based on the words of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: be unreasonable.

Shaw said:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The history of women in the workplace has been one of them adapting to the working world. Now’s the time to be unreasonable and:

  • Make employers, partners and even older children aware of the extra burden that women have always carried and that’s getting heavier at this time;
  • Politely challenge gender blind employer guidelines on “how to be an efficient home worker” that assume work is our only focus;
  • Remain grounded in the knowledge that women bring value to the workplace simply by providing a differing perspective. That our paid work makes an equal and essential contribution.
  • Develop a vision of how better balance looks rather than compromise our own needs; and develop clarity around what that requires from both our employers and our family.

Yes, we run the risk of being called unreasonable. But then being reasonable hasn’t gotten us very far.

Our challenge is to create new working and living arrangements that are neither gender blind nor gender neutral; but that accommodate current differences between men’s and women’s lives. We must continue to press for progress. So that when the whole pandemic fiasco is over women are able to continue making their best contributions in all walks of life.

Ten tips for negotiating a flexible schedule

Funny Baby Girl In Glasses Reading A Book In A Library

Throughout February I’ve been focusing on various aspects of flexible working since it’s a key tool for many in their search for better balance. One of the most complex aspects seems to be negotiating a flexible schedule that suits both you and your employer. In this post as the month closes I’m sharing ten tips for success.

  1. Be very clear on your business case from the outset. Spend some time thinking about the tangible (i.e. costs and time) benefits and the less tangible ones (e.g. improved productivity when you’re living a more balanced life).
  2. Identify the flexible arrangement that’s most suitable for your needs and the type of job you have. If you need help to do this you can download my free workbook. Aim for some flexibility in your thinking rather than being rigid in your requirements from the outset (I recognise this can be difficult if external childcare arrangements are involved). This will give you some ‘wiggle room’ if your manager rejects your initial request as unworkable.
  3. But don’t fall into the trap of being too flexible in your efforts to show how grateful you are that your request has been granted. Without boundaries around your flexible working agreement you risk finding yourself always available for work while your new arrangement slowly erodes beneath you.
  4. Do some research before you start negotiating. In most organisations there’s plenty going on under the radar. Identifying allies who can support you in your quest for flexibility and role models who are pioneering change will make you confident you have a strong case.
  5. Focus on the positive. Your initial request may be met with a negative response. It’s easy to get defensive and the situation quickly spirals downwards. Instead ask positive questions that help you and your manager explore possibilities. What would balanced working look like? Not just for you but also for your entire team and your manager. What would need to happen for that to become a reality?
  6. Keep in mind that any negotiation is a series of small steps. Gradual change with minimal impact on the lives of those around you is easier to implement. Small steps stop you feeling overwhelmed; and mean you can make adjustments as you go along – so you’re always course correcting towards success.
  7. Recognise it’s down to you. The combination of your job role and your life circumstances makes your situation unique. So you’ll have to take charge, figure out what you need, connect with your power and find the confidence to go for it.
  8. Recognise you’re likely to be a pioneer – which may bring up challenges for you. If you’ve lined up those role models and champions; and if you’re clear on your business case you’ll find more confidence to step into this leadership role.
  9. Trust yourself. You’ve got this. You’re a better negotiator than you think you are. Relax, be more playfuland explore the options open to you. Finding balance is a journey not a destination.
  10. Good luck – you’re ready to go. And if you find you need further support from me check out my new VIP day coaching offer.

I trust you’ll find these steps a useful summary. I’ll be writing more on some of these topics in the coming months as we continue our journey to #rebalance 2020.

Flexible working: what’s your business case?

African American businesswoman juggling many objects and feeling

At the end of last year the UK government turned the discussion about flexible working on its head. The Queen’s speech in December 2019 promised legislation to make flexible working the default position for all employees.

When I began campaigning for flexible working 25 years ago a positive business case was essential. Employers assumed a detriment and viewed flexibility as a concession for employees unable to work standard hours. Things have moved on since then. Increasing numbers of UK employees now have a legal right to request flexible working..

Evidence of the benefits that flexible working brings to employers has been accumulating. Flexible and reduced hours workers have been found to be as (and sometimes more) productive as their colleagues working standard arrangements. There has been a growing awareness of the large number of people forced to work below their skills levelin an effort to find flexibility; of mothers holding back from promotionbecause of concerns about work-life balance; and most recently of the enormous benefits that advertising all roles as flexible can bring in terms of attracting a more diverse range of applicants.

Despite this wealth of evidence some employers – and more pertinently some individual managers – remain sceptical. In my book I suggest you can be most persuasive when you develop your personal business case; and that you should think about it at three levels:

  1. The personal. What’s in it for your manager (and perhaps your team)? The obvious answer here is the resources he or she will lose if your health suffers and you begin to under-perform. If you feel you simply cannot continue in your current arrangement and resign there will also be a financial loss to your employer. Typically this will be the cost of recruiting your replacement and getting her up to speed. And don’t underestimate how much internal knowledge (about “how things are done around here”) you’ve accumulated.
  2. The wider organisational business case. This is represented by the ways in which your employer benefits from supporting women to progress into senior management.
  3. The external (PR) level. I’ve discovered that most employers value the kudos associated with an external award (such as Best Employer for Women or Best Employer for Working Families). At the external level there is also an increasing realisation that the internal setup should mirror the marketplace in which your employer operates. So, for example lawyers have told me they would not be received well if they sent a team to a potential client and the team comprised solely of white men.

If you need more clarity around developing your own business case I’ve prepared a free workbook which you can access here.

Along with building your business case goes a mind-set of feeling entitled to flexible working – especially where the latter is part of your strategy for reducing work-life conflict. Knowing that you’re entitled to live a balanced life will give you the courage to ask.

Once you’re clear on how flexible working benefits both you and your employer the next step is to work out what sort of arrangement best suits your needs. Join me next week when I’ll be writing about how to #upcycle your job (and why you should).

#BalanceforBetter – IWD 2019

BOOK COVER bigstock--153505721

Another year has gone by and once more we’re getting ready to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year’s campaign theme is #BalanceforBetter – urging us to take action and build a gender balanced world.

There are plenty of economic, social and moral arguments for gender balance in all aspects of life. In the business world there’s mounting proof that achieving gender balance at all levels will have a positive impact on the bottom line. And in my experience achieving that balance requires an employer to support good work-life balance.

There’s growing evidence that mothers (and an increasing number of fathers) are compromising their careers in their efforts to achieve work-life balance. There’s also considerable research evidence confirming that flexible working is a key factor in supporting women’s career progression. Wider access to well-structured flexible working arrangements often has other benefits. For example, it allows fathers to be more involved in child rearing; which in turn enables mothers to participate more fully in the workplace. In an ideal world our employers would be fully convinced of the benefits that accrue when everyone can work flexibly; and would have practices in place to make that happen.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and we still have a way to go. Waiting for our employers means we could be waiting a very long time. If we want change then it’s down to us to make it happen. To guide our actions we can draw on lessons from previous generations of working women:

  • We embrace our pioneering role. The corporate world needs a new band of leaders ready to complete the workplace revolution by modelling new possibilities. Not just for our own sake, but also for the benefit of future generations. Do we want our daughters and sons to struggle with work-life balance in the same way we currently do?
  • We connect with our power to source the courage we need to ask for #better. It’s easy to feel disempowered in the face of embedded cultural norms that tell us we must choose between career and caring – we cannot have both. When we dig deep we remember that we’re not only entitled to live a balanced life but that doing so is essential for our wellbeing.
  • We take the first step recognising that change often happens slowly and incrementally: and that’s no bad thing. When we’re pioneering new ways of working things will not always run smoothly. We’ll need to make adjustments on the journey; to pause and reflect. And we’ll need to remember that as our life circumstances change we’ll want to restructure again to hold onto our work-life balance.

The International Women’s Day website reminds us that it’s a year-long campaign, not a one-day event. So if you’re ready to join the call and #BalanceforBetter why not make that the focus of your life in 2019? Connect with me and let’s work on Balanced Leadership together.

Everyday courage

Superhero girl holding a heart icon

When we think of courage most of us will think in terms of big, bold, brave acts. Such as – for example – those taken by the Suffragettes a century ago; and which contributed to improved lives for so many women. While few of us are likely to be called upon to demonstrate this level of bravery; we can all be courageous in our everyday lives.

Submitting a flexible working request – particularly in a senior role – may not at first glance appear to be an act of courage, although I choose to see it that way. When we ask in the belief it will improve not only our own lives but those around us we’re demonstrating the courage of our convictions – which the Oxford dictionary defines as being ‘brave enough to do what one feels to be right’.

Challenging a corporate culture that forces us to compromise well being and family time for the sake of our career has to be a good thing. If we don’t then nothing will change and our daughters (and sons) will find themselves in exactly the same position down the line. We’re acting with integrity when we take a stand. Writing in Rising Strong researcher Brené Brown defines integrity as

choosing courage over comfort’

Brené’s books are full of great advice on how to be more courageous.

Courage means finding the confidence to step outside our comfort zone. As women we often feel uncomfortable when we think about doing this at work. We know we’ll be criticised regardless of how we step out of line; and there will be people waiting for us to fail (after all terms like the ‘glass cliff’ were not coined for nothing).

How can we cultivate the courage to become Balanced Leaders?

  • We start by having faith in the value we bring to our employers; and the contributions we make. Aiming for balance will make us more, not less effective; and more likely to stay in workplaces that desperately need to improve their gender balance.
  • We hold onto our sense of entitlement to a balanced life. Balance allows us to be present for all those important non-work moments that add to the richness of our lives. As they say: nobody on their deathbed regretted not working more.
  • And we continue to hold a vision of a better working world for the generations of women that will follow us.

Emmeline Pankhurst reportedly said: ‘courage calls to courage everywhere’.

Whether it’s the enormous courage that enabled her to endure or the small everyday courage demonstrated by our grandmothers and mothers as they pressed for progress in the corporate world; it’s all been moving us towards the same end – an improvement in women’s lives.

The corporate world still needs to change; to embrace the value of women’s contributions at every level. As women we must find the courage to change it. If we wait for our employers we could be waiting another century.

So this month I want to encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Embrace those small everyday acts of courage that will improve not only your own working life but also that of the women around you. Let’s build on the courage of earlier generations of women, grow ourselves into Balanced Leaders and complete the workplace revolution.