Tuesday, 23 December 2014

There must be an Angel

Patsy and Eddie living it large The Telegraph
As a feminist who believes that PR works, I've had a wake-up call this month. After earning a daily crust from the world of public relations for the past many years, I have made my peace with those who criticise the industry as being nothing more than posh girls pushing products you never knew you wanted. I've seen work that rescues hostages, raises millions of dollars for charity, puts dull but important businesses on the map, creates thousands of jobs.

But the Christmas 2014 Victoria's Secret PR campaign has proved that even twenty years after Edina and Patsy ridiculed sexist publicity stunt PR,  it's still possible to get media coverage for a brand which makes Hooters look feminist.

Sheeran can't decide whether he's thrilled or terrified  breakingnews. ie
Unless you've been living in a cave,  you will have found it impossible to avoid the endless articles written by otherwise intelligent, mainly female, journalists who have taken up the Victoria's Secret PR department on their invitation to try becoming a Victoria's Secret 'Angel' - their star models -  for a day to promote the fact that for the first time their Christmas show was going to be held in London rather than in the US. Even the FT covered it. Most of the articles talked about the extensive workouts the Angels do before shows and the thrill of putting on the wings like grown up Barbies.  The highest honour goes the model selected to wear the multi-million dollar bejeweled bikini down the runway  Each time I turned to yet another of these articles I found myself thinking the same thing - Victoria's Secret must have got themselves a new PR firm.

For any readers unfamiliar with how the PR machine works...you know that feeling when something or someone you have previously only been vaguely aware of suddenly seems to be everywhere? You think maybe it's you? You just started thinking about it and suddenly you're more aware of it? Nope. It's PR. And so it was for me with Victoria's Secret.  If I gave the brand any thought in the microscopic part of my brain dealing with possible future underwear purchases,  it would have been that it's another underwear brand - somewhere in the mix with Elle Macpherson Intimates and Agent Provocateur.  What you buy yourself when you just can't convince yourself M&S cuts it.   That's it.  And then you read one of these articles and you think " If the Times/FT/Telegraph think it's worth dedicating pages to this and sending one of their reporters to cover it, it must be important.  Perhaps I should review my thinking and take this brand seriously?".

Normally I'd congratulate any brand who is clearly so good at their PR. Perhaps they employ the best story pitcher in the business.  Or  the lure of putting on those wings is just too much for these editors to resist. Maybe it's just one of those inexplicable things in the world.  Like why Angus Steakhouses stay in business. Or how you grow seedless grapes

From left: Robert Crampton shot by Romas Foord; Doutzen Kroes on the Vitoria’s Secret Fashion show catwalk earlier this month. Photos by Romas Foord, Getty Images
Robert Crampton and an Angel.  Times/Getty. 
But I still don't get it.  These are smart writers with serious credentials and they seem to have taken collective leave of their senses.  Robert Crampton bucked the trend with an article in The Times which he wrote up after attending the show (Sheeran and Taylor Swift also performed) and used it to write a thoughtful piece about male feminists.

The original Angels 
If we're really going to be so recidivist about how we PR things, let's at least use humour and lose the wings.  Good morning Angels.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Sisters have done it for themselves: As the wage gap closes has feminism done its job?

As I approach the end of another year blogging, I am wondering if it's time to shut up shop. It really does feel like we've come a long way in two years.  We've almost closed the wage gap and we look likely to meet the government's target to have women occupying 25% of seats in British boardrooms. Messrs Clegg and Milliband have become feminists. Albeit frankly neither of them rocks a t-shirt.  

New figures from the ONS show that women in their twenties and thirties are outearning men.  It's not completely fixed - men overtake women in pay  in their forties and stays that way until retirement.  But it's tremendous progress and very  encouraging seeing women in those critical career building years really being recogized and rewarded.

At the same time,  The Cranfield School of Management's recent report revealed that FTSE 100 Boards now boast 22.8% women - which puts us on course to hit Lord Davies' target of 25% by the end of 2015. Thanks in part to the debate raised by the Davies targets, barely a week has gone by when we  haven't seen a new story of women breaking through barriers hit the headlines and as a subject it has emerged from the niche and slightly worthy to the mainstream.

It's all over.  Job done.  Argument won. Has the sisterhood run out of things to fight for?

Of course not.  For starters, we need  to crack the problem of  how to have a  wife.  This is perhaps the biggest remaining barrier to more wholesale access for women to senior jobs.   But hope may be on the horizon.  This 'last taboo' issue is being aired openly in a new book called "The Wife Drought" that attempts to define the role of wife as a job - one that high flying people need and one that is not uniquely female. The author Annabel Crabb, an Australian political journalist, tells it at it is complete with the negative judgements that society gives stay at home husbands and dads.   I've never met Annabel but I feel great affinity with her -  reading it felt like reading about my life.  I felt rather like people must feel when they join a self help group "finally I have met someone who feels as I do".   She talks about 'wife envy'.  Men get wives and women don't. But she puts forward the argument that wives can be male or female.  The main thing to recongize she says, is that that wives are a  cracking professional asset.  If, as is so often claimed, a strong wife is the secret of a man's success, why shouldn't a strong wife be the secret of a woman's success?
Young male feminist
As more men become wives, are they also becoming feminists?  Hot on the heels of Nick 'n' Ed's great t-shirt debacle, I went to a debate last week entitled "We should all be feminists" put on by the organisers of the Brick Lane Debates - one of whom is my son (left). It struck me that the feminists of the 70s would have felt right at home here - a packed low ceilinged room, women addressing each other as 'sister' although thankfully not 'comrade', a baby in the arms of one of the speakers, angry declamation against men who look at porn.  So much, so traditional.  And then again - completely modern.   Lots of men were there - many young and equally as passionate as the women.  They have no problem describing themselves as feminists.  Rather they see feminism as a movement that anyone can - and should - join.  There's lots to fight for and they're using thoroughly modern techniques to make their point - live webstreaming, wall to wall smartphones, lots of social content, the debate as lively on Twitter as it was in the room.

If this is what a feminist looks like today - I can't wait to see the new wives.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Desperate Housewife? Why doing office housework could be keeping you out of the Boardroom

Control your inner Bree if you want to get the top job: copyright ABC
Recent data released by Google provides surprising insight into leading successful teams.  And it turns out the key is not traditionally respected skills such as giving stirring speeches or clinching million dollar deals.  The company reviews each of their 50,000 staff a couple of times a year which produces vast amounts of performance data.  And the answer is....being predictable.  That's it.  Boring is good.  It's because predictability means your staff know they have autonomy within certain guidelines and this is the secret to job satisfaction.

I read this with delight.  I have always championed predictability at work - but then I am someone whose idea of a nightmare is a surprise party. But even more laid back female colleagues like things at work to be organised and structured.

"I love it when a plan comes together" (fanpop.com)
We may 'love it when a plan comes together', but many of our more traditional ideas of successful leadership have more in common with the creator of the catchphrase - Colonel 'Hannibal' Smith who led the A-team vigilantes to triumph every episode. No one ever accused him of being boring.

So if women are in their comfort zone with predictable leadership, why aren't more of us running organisations?

Speaking from my own experience, I suspect we confuse clear predictable leadership with 'office housework'.   Joan Williams who writes extensively on women's career issues explores this idea in her most recent book written with her daughter Rachael Dempsey: "What works for Women at Work".  She says women are often offered 'office housework' which varies from industry to industry.  Employers say this is valued but evidence shows it is not.

 In this months' HBR there is an interesting article looking at this trend in the technology industry.
"Office Work vs Glamour Work" copyright HBR

The article shares evidence that similarly qualified men and women will be offered roles that bias towards gender expectations – and that they will seek and accept these roles unconsciously.  In high tech companies more men by far are coders – the geeks who build the software and app that create millions of dollars of value.  Similarly qualified women tend to become project managers.   Seen as careful, organized and reliable, they will get things done while mentoring the team along the way.  In principle there’s nothing wrong with this – providing these roles provide equal access to the top jobs and are viewed equally in the power and reward hierarchy.  But that’s rarely the case.  These roles often have a ceiling built in.  In fact you easily lock yourself out – the better you are at delivering on time with everyone you started with working in careful harmony – the less incentive there is for your employer to let you stop doing such a great job that is so useful for everyone else and let you loose on the high risk stuff.

"When a man gives his opinion he's a man.  
When a woman gives her opinion she's a bitch" - Bette Davis
But if you say no all the time, evidence suggests that you will risk being seen as inflexible and a poor team player.  So you need to develop some ways of ensuring that you can have it both ways - a civilised, organised working environment without sacrificing your career progression.

Just as I had to accept that if my husband did housework at home he would do things differently to me with different priorities (not easy) and that some things just wouldn't get done, so it should be in the office.  Agree basic minimums for a structured workplace that values people.  Women care about this and get frustrated and even unhappy if they work in places where this is done badly.  But not everything is equally important.  Think about things you'll trade on.

I decided not to argue about the way the dishwasher was stacked or what the children had in their packed lunches.  At work, it helps to handle things using a project management approach with clear deliverables, a budget and an end date as well as a succession plan so that you don't end up chairing the diversity committee for ever.

Use a dashboard or fact based format to report progress.  This allows you to promote your success without bragging which most women hate. I became a devotee of this approach after working with a particularly tough Mckinsey consultant who was a special forces officer  in his spare time.  'Structure sets you free' he said.  Facts win over emotion in the battle for boardroom power. Facts presented by someone with great communication skills who can explain why the project they're delivering is critical to moving the organisation towards its most important goals is what you're aiming for.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Boardroom Dandies: Why women need to up their fashion spend to compete for the top jobs

I celebrated the end of Summer by starting the autumn travel season - kicking off with my first visit to Heathrow's new Terminal 2.  I was struck by the global nature of travel - this brand  new terminal is slickly laid out to a pattern determined by those who design flat-pack airport terminals from Barcelona to Beijing. Do you think there is an app to do this? Instinctively I knew which way to go and which retail experiences to expect along the way. But kicking against the predictable, I was delighted to see a small branch of John Lewis bravely bucking the identikit trend and felt a small patriotic stir.  Perhaps we'll see these pop up alongside the branches of Mont Blanc and Starbucks that fill terminals the world over.  Spreading the John Lewis modern British vibe around the globe can't be a bad thing.  And you never know when you're going to need a good value cashmere sweater in a hurry.

Catching up on the weekend papers on the plane I came across a fascinating statistic.  Men spend more on clothes than women.

I was surprised but looking more closely the statistics reveal some insight which I recognize.  Men outspend women in their early twenties which I put down largely to boy bands and  Harry Styles in
Copyright The Financial Times
particular.  Maybe he actually accounts for this spending statistic personally. By their late twenties women have retaken the lead only to lose it again during their thirties. I assume this is the influence of getting established on the career ladder - then having babies - vomit stained YSL anyone? As the little darlings gain independence we rediscover our retail spending power, and thanks no doubt to a good dose of post children investment dressing, we're back on top by our forties.  However, from then on in the men have the upper hand all the way to retirement.

This rather depressed me but I cheered myself up with the accompanying shoe spending statistics which show women spending more on their feet than men at every age except the early twenties. Why the early twenties? Are those stats driven by incredibly expensive trainers? As the mother of one in this group who refuses to own more than one item of footwear at one time and literally wears them until they fall apart - who are these expensively shod young men?


But back to those dapper silver foxes.  Why are they packing such a sartorial punch? I thought about the contents of my wardrobe and admit that it is worth a lot more than in was in my thirties.  But is that because I'm still working? I still spend the majority of my clothes budget on clothes for work rather than leisure - and so do the men.  All those men dominating Britain's boardrooms aren't going to work naked.  One of the beneficiaries of a male bias in the boardroom is a healthy business for the world's finest tailors.  Yes you can get a Timothy Everest suit at Marks and Spencers.  But as twenty years of expensive lunches begin to make themselves visible, every middle-aged man knows that the secret of having it all is a very good tailor, handmade shirts if they can afford it and a well cut suit.  Long before we discovered Roland Mouret and Spanx they had that problem cracked.

So come on ladies, we owe it to the fashion industry to get ourselves to the Boardroom in greater numbers.  More female spending power, boosting the bottom line of British fashion (why not?) must be a legitimate goal.  And we should indulge ourselves.  That Savile Row tailor will set your male director back a couple of big ones. That's a lot of lovely dresses.  And even designer shoes.

Monday, 18 August 2014

We can do this on our own terms

I am so pleased that Claire Murphy took me out for lunch a year or so ago and shared her idea to create a women's mentoring project under the PR Week umbrella. It's been a great project - she gathered a group of some great mentors and matched them with high potential women looking for mentoring.  I've been very fortunate to work with a wonderful mentee and I've learned a lot from hearing her perspective and priorities. It's a great scheme and I hope it continues.  Here's a short video interview I did last week talking about it.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

It's official - you really do love us for our brains

Belle of the ball: Carol Vorderman is joined by two male models as she showcases Isme.com's latest range
Source ISME, published Daily Mail
I confess I have always found Carol Vorderman irritating.  I feel bad about this - she is after all a world class maths genius and by any standards a successful role model for women. But my dark heart found those Christmas adverts for ISME made me want to throw things at the set. I'm sure you remember la
Vorderman  'smouldering' as I think the taboloid jargon has it. She posed with men young enough to be her sons in skin tight dresses, saying in accompanying interviews that her figure is a 'Ten Ton Tessie'.  Right.  Bring on the support girlfriend.  But last week I had an epiphany.  I agreed with her. Well it's August, no real news, a two week heatwave, I might put this down to temporary summer madness. 

She was writing about a story which was picked up widely in the media saying that men now preferred 'brainy' women.  Vorderman explained that .."the research published  in the American Socialogical Review analysed US marriage statistics between 1950 and 2000, and found that marriages in which the wife is more intelligent than the husband are no more likely to fail than if the balance is the other way round. Men have learnt to live with women who are cleverer than they are – and about time, too".

Does this mean that finally men find us more attractive for our personalities and brilliant insight than more prosaic merits? Hmm.  I'd like to believe that but if you read the paper carefully it says that as women's education continues to increase faster than men's (a very well documented trend across the developed world) more marriages consist of women who have more years of education that their partners - up to nearly a third from 20 per cent in the early 1970s. Which makes sense if you think about it.

Education is certainly the key.  LV did a great piece of research last summer which showed that women made up nearly half of primary breadwinners in their household. And the women in the survey put this progress down to better education: 
Women are much more likely to apply to university than men, UCAS figures show.
Source: The Daily Telegraph
Looking at the key reasons why these women believe they’ve been more successful in their earnings than their partners, the majority put it down to “education, education, education”. Reflecting the tendency for girls to outperform boys at all levels of education, over half (54%) of female breadwinners claim to have better GCSE and A-Level results than their partners, while 47% also have a superior university degree. Almost two thirds (60%) believe that these achievements have been extremely helpful in securing them high-flying jobs and aiding their progression up the career ladder.

According to figures released last week by the University and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS), a third more women than men applied for university entrance in 2014and the gap is widening year on year.

Women having real confidence that they don't need to trade between looking good and being bright to have a stable long term partnership is great news.  We should champion this with young women.  Thanks Carol - hat's off to you.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Boards need Women more than Women need Boards: If you want us, you need to woo us

Boards need women more than women need Boards
courtesy ManMen Facebook
Most recent writing on women and Boards - including my own - has focussed on the problems of getting women admitted to the Boardroom.  We have examined the inequalities - on why women are kept disproportionately out of the boardroom and how this situation can be levelled.  But I think we're about to see the tables turning.  Last week Glencore, the last remaining FTSE company with no women directors, announced that they have appointed  Patrice Merrin.  This was declared 'historic' by Business Secretary Vince Cable and ushers in a new period when I predict women will be in the driving seat. We are finally moving into a real economy for Boards - where public companies must woo the highest performing people whether male of female. Ironically women may be much harder to persuade than the establishment thinks.

Many women do want a seat on a FTSE Board and I'm delighted that solid progress has been made since the Davies report was issued in 2011.  But shareholders should be wary of assuming that this progress will lead inexorably to a flood of high quality women candidates.

Source: GEMUK Adult Population Survey 2002-2011
Plc Boards do not offer the appeal they once did.  Years of tightening transparency rules bringing with them a round of grinding process and the relentless demands of capital markets have sent people running to more attractive options.  Many of these involve entrepreneurship of varying types from kitchen table businesses to high level private equity. In fact women are leading the charge - between 2008 and 2011 women accounted for an unprecedented 80% of the new self employed in the UK.

 This inevitably leaves the pool of candidates for non-execs for plcs shallower.

My personal experience reflects this dilemma. In the two plus years since I left the corporate world and started my own business many opportunities have come my way.  But by far the easiest to turn down was the approach to become a non-exec for a FTSE 250 company.  It required a heavy workload, combined with the inflexibility of having to be at meetings in person, in a fixed location booked a year in advance. In an age when entrepreneurs can run billion dollar businesses from a laptop from anywhere in the world, it felt like a lock in with far more disadvantages than benefits. This kind of inflexibility is putting off candidates.  The alternatives - opportunities that allow us to embrace the freedom brought by the digital world are far more attractive. Disruptive technology suits us - we can provide top quality support and insight whilst managing families. Why should we give this up to pander to people who just want to protect the status quo?

Getting women on to boards of plcs is rightly seen as a priority.  There is now a lot of research showing that women on Boards generally add substantial shareholder value.  I greatly admire Heather McGregor in her various incarnations, and as a very successful head hunter she must be focussed the difficulty of persuading female executives to do these roles.  But her recent Times article instructed women to make sacrifices to build networks that will get you recommended for Boards, saying that Patrice Merrin wouldn't have been appointed if she'd been 'under a hedge'.  Clearly visibility is important.  But the implication that women should sacrifice family life to build networks in the hope of hooking a Board seat feels outdated to me.

If plcs choose not to hire good women it is their shareholders who will lose out. As in much of recent history, there would seem to be a clear divergence of interests between the directors and owners of plcs. There is no incentive for incompetent men to hire capable women. The only way change will be effected is either by the introduction of quotas which I firmly disagree with or by shareholders being active in the same way that they have done recently on issues such as as executive pay.  This I would like to see.

Come and find us.  We're here, we're not difficult to find, but do offer us the kinds of roles that suit the way we work and deliver value.  Don't make us become ersatz men.  Let us bring our skills and abilities but on our terms.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Fallen Idols - Kirstie gives feminism a kick in the teeth

Kirstie, Paxman and Holly Paxter, founder of feminist blog, Vagenda - Daily Express

Kirstie, Kirstie, Kirstie*.  How could you let me down this way? First Nigella** - the queen of 'having it all' fell to earth. Now you are found wanting.  You - the woman who could buy the most unpromising property for a song whilst learning how to make a stained glass table decoration - and all before putting the kids to bed. 

Truly it hurts me to say this, but I found myself shouting at the TV watching you on Newsnight being interviewed by Paxman of all people,  seriously defending the idea that women should prioritize having babies over going to university. As I have said myself elsewhere in this blog, I am all for having children reasonably young.  But even I have never suggested you should breed before going to university.   

Further education is the place to widen your horizons and make yourself employable.  We live in a global knowledge economy and if you don't acquire skills to make you employable you could find yourself have to rely on your husband or partner to survive.  That might be fine if you have family money behind you (step forward Kirstie's Daddy - Baronet Hindlip).. But how many of us start in life with an aristocrat up our sleeve in case of emergencies? A UK Government research study last year showed that not only do graduates earn significantly more over their lifetimes - women do so far more than men - over a quarter of a million pounds for women versus 170,000 for men.  And given that the average UK house price has now broken through  the 250,000 pound barrier those extra lifetime earnings could make a lot of difference.

When I was 17 and filling in university application forms, my feminist headmistress was horrified when two girls in our year said they had no plans to go to university. "Never rely on a man" she uttered dramatically.  She wasn't advocating the single life, rather urging all of us to ensure we could look after ourselves if we wanted to.  
Emma getting her degree and thinking about house prices..

Apart from anything else, further education is a great place to meet a potential partner.  I did - and at the very least it will widen your social group.   To be fair, Kirstie wasn't saying never go to university, just that you should go later after having children. It is often said that university is wasted on the young but it is much easier to go at 18 than at 28 or 38.  I really admire mature students but watching both my children going through university reminds me that the system is set up to suit younger students. Taking time out later whilst possible is much harder and often involves much greater risk and sacrifice.
 * For my non UK readers, Kirstie Allsopp - the British queen of property buying and retro homemaking -  is a real aristocrat - her father is the 6th Baron Hindlipp so she is entitled to use the title The Honourable Kirstie Alsopp.  And in a bizarre twist, she is also related to interior design aristocracy - her cousin is Cath Kidston. 
** And even my non UK readers are probably familiar with "Nigella" Lawson - in another coincidence also the daughter of a Baron - in this case Baron Lawson of Blaby - and so also entitled to call herself The Honourable.  In his case - this is a life peerage not an inherited title unlike Baron Hindlipp - although the title was only created in 1886 which is positively brand new - the oldest ones go back to the middle ages. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Boardroom Breakthrough at Last?

Women now make up over twenty per cent of the membership of Britain's Boards - almost doubling in the three years since the UK Government commissioned Andrew Davies' original report.  The report references the creation of a new industry - supporting senior women into senior roles and trying to develop a stronger pipeline of candidates - one of main reasons why so few women make it into the top jobs.  This is all to be celebrated, but we are still making slow progress on the international stage.

Another new  report out from Grant Thornton looks in detail at women's role in business worldwide and provides interesting insight.  It shows that some of the BRICS markets lead the world in their share of senior women - for example over 60 per cent of CFOs in China are women.  The authors state:

"Some progress has been made at the
EU-wide level since 2004 (17%), but
European businesses are amongst the most
likely globally to have no women at all in
their senior teams (38%), led by Denmark
(71%), Germany (67%) and Switzerland
(64%). This drops to 29% across North
America, but both Canada (22%) and
the United States (23%) have seen no
significant increase in the number of
women holding top jobs over the
past decade".

Progress such as this is to be celebrated certainly. But in some areas progress is stubbornly slow. We can be our own worst enemies - our desires to conform to some ideal shape and look are alive and kicking.  Magazine pictures are still routinely airbrushed and my Facebook feed has daily offers of foods I should avoid to lose weight instantly - providing I buy diet pills or rare berries. And the extraordinary popularity of the Daily Mail  "Sidebar of Shame"  - all evidence of our obsession with perfectly presented bodies.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BmUmu_5CUAAZ8Pf.pngBut even this deeply wired habit has new energy to defeat it. Writers, bloggers and celebrities are fighting back. I first noticed this in 2011 when Caitlin Moran published "How to be a Woman" in which she asked: "What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be". I loved this item  in feminist blog Vagenda whose Twitter followers suggested alternative headlines.  And in the US last week a bill was introduced to curb overzealous photoshopping and teenage singer Lorde found pictures of herself at a gig photoshopped to remove her acne. She tweeted it along with the orginal and a reminder to her fans that 'flaws are OK'.

View image on Twitter
She might only be 17 - but we should all take her advice.  And if we do, we can probably use some of that wasted emotional energy to carry a few more of us into top jobs.