Speak up

This week’s blog post is inspired by a research article I’ve just been reading. The research was focused on the continuing barriers to women’s progression viewed through the experiences of those who started their careers in the 1970s and 1980s. Entering workplaces where career progression was dictated by masculine norms they spoke with masculine language. As a consequence they found themselves unable to verbalise alternative pathways to career success.

The article resonated with me since I started my own HR career at that time. And in my experience both women and employers are still struggling with making alternative career pathways a reality. While the situation is slowly improving, the lack of role models, enduring masculine career structures and women’s own feelings about what they can expect tend to get in the way.

Too often women look at the career pathways on offer and struggle to see how they can fit into these while also taking on responsibilities at home. They become disillusioned and they move themselves into ‘mommy track’ jobs or leave; seeking a compromise in mumpreneurship.

The reality is that unless we all speak up the situation will not change. The history of women’s progress at work has been one of speaking up. It was women who spoke up to ask for flexible arrangements such as job-share; offering it as a viable alternative for keeping a foot on the career ladder. So if we’re not satisfied with the way things are working for us, it’s important that we keep on speaking up. Otherwise we let employers off the hook. They can claim it was a personal choice and “there’s no problem here”.

How to speak up

  • First of all get very clear on the working arrangement you need; and how it will benefit both you and your employer. The prevailing myth continues that senior roles must be worked full-time and preferably at the office. But there’s also growing evidence that senior roles can often be worked successfully on less than full time hours. And that doing so offers other team members room for growth and development.

  • Look around for role models in your organisation, your sector or more widely in your profession. Pointing to someone who’s already successfully working the arrangement you want is a powerful endorsement of your request. It’s proof that alternative career pathways can succeed.

  • If you’re part of a women’s network find out whether other members face the same challenges. Get together and discuss how you might collectively influence your employer(s) to offer suitable alternatives.

  • Take a leaf out of my client Laura’s book and tackle your HR department. In her case she set about persuading them to establish a job-share register since her workplace was big enough for it to be viable. If your workplace is smaller a more appropriate conversation might be about how to offer senior roles on less than full time hours.

Above all, remember change is a negotiation that takes time. Many years ago I asked a colleague who’d recently succeeded in getting approval for a support programme for new fathers how he’d done it. He told me: “it’s the dripping tap effect. Say it often enough to enough people and things begin to register.” That organisation is now a world leader in parental support. While he cannot claim all the credit his voice contributed to the overall improvements.

You can do the same; and become part of the force that will eventually change working practices in your workplace or sector. So that future generations of women are able to access career pathways that support work-life balance.

How to share your job

Kids Financial Ideas. Caucasian Teenager Twin Girls Posing With

The IPPR, a UK think tank, recently released a report recommending a coronavirus work sharing scheme. They are calling on government to incentivise employers to retain a larger number of employees on shorter hours.

This both benefits the wider economy and is likely to support women; given the evidence they are currently at greater risk of losing their jobs. It’s also a longer term benefit for employers who can retain a more diverse workforce with a wider skill set.

One of the simplest ways to create reduced hours work is the job-share. Currently the number of job-shares is low with surveys suggesting it remains in single figures. However, it is rising in popularity: splitting a job in half is relatively straightforward.  Perceived and actual extra costs – such as the cost of covering a handover or doubling up on equipment – is far outweighed by the benefits. Two sets of skills which often turn out to be complementary so that job sharers can split the tasks to play to their strengths; and the increased possibility of cover (for part of the week at least) during periods of sickness absence and holiday.

The biggest management objection is around finding a ‘suitable partner’ if a woman asks for job-share. This becomes easier as the number of intermediaries in the marketplace grows. At the time of writing I have curated a list of 18 on my twitter account. While it’s true more time is needed to set up a high performing share, once it’s operational the benefits should outweigh the efforts. If you’re considering a job share here are ten questions to support your success.

Ten questions for a successful job share:

  1. Do you want to share your existing job, or become part of a share in a new job?
  2. If you want to share your existing job, how will you feel about someone else doing half the work? Are you the sort of person who likes to be in control or will you be happy for the sharer to do things in their own way?
  3. If you’re going into a new share with a pre-existing incumbent doing the other half of the job, what issues do you need to discuss with them and your potential manager in order to feel you can do your best work?
  4. Is it going to be a true “Share” with both of you tackling any tasks as required or more of a ”Split” where you both have a portfolio of tasks?
  5. Have you had an informal discussion with your proposed “partner” and do you feel comfortable at the thought of working with them?
  6. Have you explored your proposed partner’s values and professional approach? Are they similar to yours? If not, is this likely to cause any problems?
  7. How will the two of you handle any “emergencies” or other unexpected situations that might arise?
  8. What sort of “handover” arrangements do the two of you need?
  9. What are the “ground rules” for contacting each other during non-work times?
  10. How will you manage your clients/customers and colleagues so they’re not adversely impacted by the share?

A ‘new normal’ workplace? The three biggest employer mistakes

Abstract Image of Business People's Busy Life

Regular readers of this blog will know my posts are generally aimed at aspiring and existing Balanced Leaders. This week I’m making an occasional digression and focusing on employers. I want to follow up my comments in last week’s blog about the lack of appropriate role models at senior levels. We need a new level of employer creativity to design working arrangements at senior levels that are attractive to women.

We’ve learnt a lot from recent lockdown experiences. So I find it frustrating that talk about the ‘new normal’ continues to ignore fundamental differences in women’s circumstances. Indeed for many women it’s a meaningless phrase as they find their ‘new normal’ pretty much identical to the old one.

When it comes to enabling balanced working employers continue to make three big mistakes:

  1. Gender blind assumptions around home based flexible working.

The pandemic confirmed what we already knew. Regardless of working hours or location, it’s virtually impossible to combine paid work with unpaid caring responsibilities without support and when the latter remain invisible. Much of the advice issued on how to manage home working has been gender blind. It’s predicated on the assumption that people are free to work as they choose, unencumbered by the need to look after family members.

Pre pandemic we were already slipping into #AlwaysOn working habits with little or no guidance from employers on how and when to switch off. So far we’ve done nothing to change this. Employers must address the differences in women’s lives and reconsider working practices; including offering more jobs on a reduced load basis. Which leads to my second point.

  1. Opting to cut headcount rather than redesign work.

Research continues to confirm many people want a shorter working week that supports better work-life balance. Women in their middle years, in particular, need more options as they juggle work with child and elder care. Employers must redesign jobs for reduced load working (rather than simply agreeing to shorter hours without adjusting job descriptions) to support women’s career progression. The alternative is that women hold themselves back.

And in the current climate reduced load jobs will enable an employer to retain more of those key skills that will be needed as soon as the economic upturn begins. It makes financial sense: fewer costly redundancies and fewer equally costly recruitment activities down the line. Plus employers get to keep a wider skill set that that adds more value to the organisation.

  1. Treating work-life balance as a minor item on the wellbeing agenda.

We know that good work-life balance is essential for good physical and mental health. We need boundaries and time for rest and recovery. Yet few employers have a clearly worded policy for supporting that work-life balance. Simply stating that the organisation is open to agile working is not enough. It’s time we began redesigning work to make best use of skills, rather than thinking simply in terms of hours to be filled.

If you’re called to be a Balanced Leader or you currently head up a workplace women’s network encouraging your employer to address these issues is a great place to start the change towards better balance.

We have the potential for 2020 to be a year of positive rebalance for many of us. Let’s grasp that opportunity and create a genuinely ‘new normal’ that benefits everyone.

Moving on and stepping up #1

Man At  A Job Interview With  Interviewer, Giving Her His Resume

There’s currently a lot of talk in the social media groups to which I belong of women dusting down CVs and getting ready to move on. Some are doing it out of choice, having learnt through the lockdown that they want to do things differently. Others in response to actual or feared redundancy as the economy slides into recession.

It’s very tempting at this time to think in terms of simply finding work as quickly as possible. But what if you saw this as an opportunity to step up? What if the next job was one that enabled you to be more of who you want to be and supported better work-life balance at the same time? If you believe in the possibility here are some job hunting ideas to play with.

  1. Connect with your best possible self

Some years ago I came across the quote: you are who you are, not who you were. It seems so obvious but we often forget how we change and develop as our lives progress. Think back to who you were ten years ago and you’ll realise you’re not that same person. And ten years from now you’ll be different again.

In her HBR article on mid-career change Professor Herminia Ibarra writes about the work of social psychologist Hazel Markus who popularised the idea that identity is not fixed but comprises many possible selves. These selves are made up of our histories, our current circumstances and our hopes and fears for the future.

When you connect with your future best possible self, who is she? What contribution would she be making in the world, and where does she find joy in her work? It’s by listening to those yearnings in our hearts that we can identify the best next step for our career.

As I’m constantly saying: the corporate world needs women’s representation at all levels and in all sectors; now more than ever as we work to refashion a ‘new normal’ economy.  So what are the unique skills you can bring to the table? What’s the best possible contribution you could make now? When you start your job search from there it can bring very different results.

  1. Write your own job ad

Rather than scouring hundreds of job postings to identify the ones you could do, why not write your own job ad? Describe the ideal next job for you. It may be a logical career step or a sideways move that uses your hard won skills in new or creative ways.

It doesn’t have to be long, a simple outline will do. But feel free to make it longer if you find that useful. What’s important is that when you read your job ad you get that excited feeling which says: this is exactly the job I want to do and where I can make best use of my skills.

When we write down what we want we have a clearer picture of what we’re looking for; and we’re more likely to find it. It could be that you spot an ad that matches the one you drafted. Or it could be that you’re talking with a friend about the job you really want; and she happens to mention there’s a similar vacancy at her workplace.

When you’re clear on the work you’re best suited to do, and how your skills match that work you’re in a stronger position to convince recruiters you’re the best woman for the job.

  1. Update your CV

Once you know what work you want to be doing next, and how your skills match that work; it’s easier to create a winning CV. Recruiters – whether in-house or agency intermediaries – read hundreds of CVs every week. The clearer and more focussed yours is, the easier you make their job. And while they may not pick you for their vacancy they’re more likely to remember you when other opportunities arise.

If you’ve already worked a non-standard (flexible or reduced hours) arrangement successfully make sure it’s clearly described on your CV as it shows evidence of your ability to be productive while working in a more balanced way. Which provides an excellent starting point for negotiating with a potential employer.

Don’t forget to update your LinkedIn profile. If a recruiter likes the look of your CV they may check your details there. By all means expand on your experience; but make sure the information is consistent with what you’re saying on your CV.

Once you’ve done the prep you’ll be ready to start your job search. In next week’s blog I’ll share some ideas for how to go about finding a flexible job that’s also a great career move.

Flex your way to the top

Young Professional Gymnast Is Jumping In Nature Against The Blue

Research published this week suggests the vast majority of parents and carers do not want a return to previous working patterns once lockdown is lifted. They are looking for more flexibility going forward. The pandemic has shown us both the possibilities for new and improved working practices and the risks if employers fail to adopt these.

On closer reading it turns out it’s predominantly mothers in senior roles who want more flexible working. Mothers have risen to the challenge of combining caring with working from home. Those in junior roles are likely to find it easier to renegotiate flexibility for the future. Senior roles still present more of a challenge as prevailing workplace cultures get in the way.

For women in that senior group (or planning to move into it) I offer three suggestions for navigating the tricky combination of working flexibly while continuing to climb the career ladder.

  1. Clarify your ‘why’

If you’re juggling caring with a demanding career I’m guessing it’s because deep down you know you have so much to offer a world in chaos; and a desire to make your biggest contribution. Now more than ever the corporate world needs women in senior positions. Women have different life experiences and often adopt a more inclusive perspective when tackling problems; as Caroline Criado Perez demonstrates so eloquently.

Get very clear on the skills you offer and the bigger contribution you yearn to make. I’m not simply talking about the technical skills that make up your professional qualification or the jobs on your CV. I’m talking about the unique perspective you can bring to issues going forward as the world works to create more inclusive and more environmentally responsible economies. When you’re clear on what you contribute others are more likely to see your value.

  1. Avoid making it personal

Asking for a more flexible arrangement in a senior role is, in one sense, all about you and your needs. But on a bigger scale it’s also about pioneering new ways of working that enable better work-life balance for everyone. It’s about moving to working practices that create gender balanced organisations. Practices that have a broader benefit for working women; as well as for the generations to come. All change starts somewhere with someone. So, as the saying goes: be the change you want to see. Taking action towards a goal that’s bigger than your own needs makes it more compelling for others to buy into your plans.

  1. Safeguard your reputation

Just because it’s not all about you that doesn’t mean you should neglect your reputation. Working a non-standard arrangement at senior levels brings challenges. Make sure the outputs expected of you are realistic. Make sure people know about the contribution you are making, even though at times you may feel invisible. Become a loud and proud role model. In my experience woman are hungry for pioneers to show them the way.

Find a senior manager to be your mentor. And engage in some reverse mentoring too so that he (and it will probably be a he) understands the benefits and possibilities inherent in your working arrangement.

Wednesday is National Upcycling Day in the UK; so this is a great moment to think about #Upcycling Your Job. First, strip out what’s no longer working, then upgrade the rest to make it fit our 21st century lives. This week I encourage you to be creative and to ruthlessly challenge outmoded working practices as we continue our efforts to #rebalance 2020.


Opening up real career choices for women

IWD hashtag

What’s the thing that’s had the biggest impact on your career so far?

It’s a question I was asked on Friday. With International Women’s Day fast approaching I had the privilege of sharing a platform with two amazing speakers as we shared our insights into how we can all empower women’s progress at work.

Unsurprisingly my focus was on how too many working women currently hold themselves back, settle or leave the corporate world. When they become mothers the struggle to find work-life balance can become overwhelming. One of the spinning plates needs to be dropped and it’s highly likely it’s going to be the career one. Research evidence is increasingly showing women holding back from promotion; compromising by accepting any job that offers reduced hours, regardless of whether it plays to their talents or not; or being seduced into thinking that mumpreneur is a better career choice.

I talked about how employers remain ambivalent in their attitude to working mothers. While many have flexible working policies which ostensibly support better balance there’s very little follow through. In the UK uptake of flexible working has stalled for the past ten years as corporate cultures continue to force a choice between career progression or balance. Research has shown that grateful mothers granted the concession of flexible hours are now undertaking a ‘triple shift’ of work followed by childcare and rounded off with more work once the children are in bed. The mothers end up exhausted; yet only half of employers care enough to have a formal work-life balance policy.

I also talked about how previous generations of women had been at the forefront of pushing for workplace change. I shared a model that demonstrated how change started at grassroots level when large numbers of women entered workplaces in the last quarter of the 20th Century. They found themselves butting up against cultural expectations and working practices that failed to acknowledge their dual responsibilities as parents and workers. So they pressed for childcare support and the beginnings of flexible working arrangements to help with the juggle. Formal HR policies (and legislation) came later.

Those early workplace pioneers had few choices but to stay and change the system. As I write this on International Women’s Day I want to acknowledge and applaud their efforts which contributed so much to the progress women have made at work so far. They showed a determination we need to reclaim.

Facilitated by technology today’s working women seem to have many more options. In reality they have no more choices; although employers often ignore that reality.

It’s hardly a choice when a woman leaves her job because she’s been told all managerial roles must be worked full time and the resulting mental pressures are having a negative impact on her well being. It’s hardly a choice when a woman is forced to accept a more junior role as the prerequisite for working less than full time hours.

To open up real choice – I told my audience – we must take matters into our own hands and redesign our jobs. So that we can be both productive and live more balanced lives. It’s one way we can all be #EachforEqual and make things better for the generations that follow.

Returning to the question with which I began this blog: my response was that my career changed when I embraced my power. Given the way powerful women are pilloried on social media; and the fact that I rarely consider myself a powerful woman it felt uncomfortable to say. But the reality is we are all powerful beings; and we can all contribute to leaving the planet a better place than we found it. So this week, as we continue our rebalance journey I encourage you to embrace your power and see where it takes you.

2020: the year to re-balance work and life

Close Up  Rethink Text Written In Torn Paper

It’s the start of 2020 and a twitter meme has just reminded us of the top 5 regrets of the dying. Unsurprisingly these centre around connection: with others and with ourselves, our inner feelings and desires. As someone once said:

Nobody on their deathbed regretted not spending more time at work.

And yet the powerful technologies that drive our smart devices are supporting practices that result in our strongest connections being to our work. We live in an #AlwaysOn culture. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century we need to rethink the way we live and work.

Increasingly we’re finding that 20th century working practices don’t fit 21st century lives.

What we need to do – as I explain in my book– is to #upcycle our jobs. I use the word upcycle deliberately.

When we upcycle something we revamp it to create something of higher quality or value than the original. We do it with much loved clothes and furniture and we can do it with our work and our careers.

Upcycling our jobs will make us:

  • More productive

Upcycling jobs means looking at ways to eliminate the low value tasks that take up a disproportionate amount of our time while making little use of valuable skills. Can these low value tasks be automated? Delegated? Or perhaps eliminated altogether.

  • More balanced

Upcycling allows us to pause and consider our current work life balance needs; and how closely they match our present reality. There’s no formula for the ‘perfect work life balance’. What’s right for us will shift as we progress through life and our circumstances change. When we review our needs and desires we can make the necessary adjustments that enable us to lead a richer life. One with more connection to family and friends; and to ourselves.

  • More visionary

It’s no secret that workplace change over the past half century has often been driven by women, and specifically by working mothers. They were the ones that pressed for employer understanding of childcare needs; and for flexible working arrangements such as term-time and job-share. There’s still more to do – particularly now that changing expectations mean we all want a better balance between work and other parts of our lives. Sacrificing everything at the altar of career and promotion has become unpopular. At the same time we need to redress the balance at senior levels in the corporate world. Research evidence is increasingly revealing that mothers in particular hold themselves back from promotion as they seek solutions to work life balance issues.

As we upcycle jobs we’re creating new possibilities in the workplace. Working arrangements that better suit our 21st century lifestyles. Possibilities that will help us complete the workplace revolution started by our mothers and grandmothers over half a century ago.  That’s a legacy worth leaving for our children.

Over the course of this coming year my blog posts will be all about the small steps we can all take to upcycle our jobs and re-balance work and life.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.