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My Q & A with LinkedIn

July 14, 2014

I'm belatedly posting a link to an interview I did in late June with Beth Collins of LinkedIn's Connect Professional Women's Network. I was using all the knowledge I've gained during two years of hosting this show to answer her questions. Thanks especially to the women in my networking show and to Mrs. Moneypenny of the Financial Times for some great insights.

Flexibility: who wants it, who gets it

July 14, 2014

“He’s a single dad...and he says it’s very obvious. When he asks for flexibility, or telecommuting, before he even finishes the sentence, it’s, “Oh, sure, you do what you need to do.” When his colleagues who are single moms ask for it, forget about. It’s, “Do you really have to go to the appointment? – Rachael Ellison

Rachael Ellison

My latest show, The Motherhood Factor, packs in a lot. Still, you can’t get everything into a podcast. My conversation with executive coach Rachael Ellison covered so much that's relevant to people's working lives, I’m breaking some of it out in a couple of blog posts.

This one focuses on that holy grail: workplace flexibility.

Last year the Yale School of Management sent me a press release about a study they did that said women, regardless of their status (executive level or hourly worker) are less likely to be granted some kind of flextime than men. The study essentially said women are still regarded suspiciously when they ask for time off, no matter the reason.

 Rachael knows one dad who works for the government whose experience bears out that research.

“He’s a single dad and he works with single moms,” she says. “And he says it’s very obvious. When he asks for flexibility, or telecommuting, before he even finishes the sentence, it’s, “Oh, sure, you do what you need to do.” When his colleagues who are single moms ask for it, forget about. It’s, “Do you really have to go to the appointment? Is it absolutely necessary?”

Which suggests a depressing double standard that reflects what Rachael talked about in the show: that when some women go back to work after maternity leave their bosses assume they're bound to slack off now they have a child.

“But I spoke to another dad, and he was saying he’s just terrified to ask for flexibility. Like…why should he have a need to ask for it?” The way this guy saw it, she says, “Women advocate for themselves. He almost feels like it’s not his place to put those needs out there in the workplace.”

Hello to more ingrained gender assumptions: that’s it’s not OK for a guy to speak up for his outside-work needs at work. He has to be all worker, all the time. But it’s OK for a woman to advocate for her needs, because she’s a mom, and being a mom comes first when you’re female (while also undermining your credibility in the workplace).

The key to getting some degree of flexibility, Rachael says, regardless of your sex, is in the ask.

Often, she says, by the time parents summon the gumption to ask a supervisor about flexibility, they’re exhausted and desperate. They may blurt out something like, “I just need to see more of my kid!”, which is more about their own needs than the company’s. If they do, chances are they’ll be met with a ‘no’. She says it’s key to frame your ask in a way that makes it clear the company is getting something out of this as well –  to be able to step back, think about the possibilities for you and the company, then present your case.

Some women need to be encouraged to see these areas of compromise in the first place.

“I think a lot of the challenges around seeing these possibilities are caught up in a lot of these women’s understanding of who they were as professionals before [they had kids],” says Rachael. “And their unwillingness to compromise, and their willingness to give 150% at their job.”

There is often a path forward, she says. You just have to find it, then be willing to take it.

You can hear more about the possibilities women don’t always see in the episodes Home as Career-Killer, Women, Work, and Sex, and Killing the Ideal Woman.


The unspoken fears of maternity leave

June 23, 2014

Photo by Fernando Landeros used w/Creative Commons license politicians have always given plenty of lip service to family life. Yet families are supported by parents who work, and more and more by mothers who work. They do their jobs in an increasingly pressured 'always on' environment. Today, the White House is holding a summit on working families to address some of the issues parents face when work and life collide.

Which tallies with a conversation I had last week with Karen Rubin of the company Talking Talent. It helps companies - and women - with maternity transitioning: settling women back into the job after they've had a child, and keeping them happy at work. I'm planning an upcoming show on that particular intersection of work and life.

While many women can’t afford to stop working once they have kids, others can and do. Perhaps, like Karen herself, they went back to work initially, but after a year or another child or two, their life seemed to be exploding at the seams. Childcare was a problem. Work was demanding. They were exhausted. Their husband or partner could support the family, so they quit. The company lost a good employee, often with years of experience under her belt. It then had to spent tens of thousands of dollars replacing her.

Karen says here’s the issue, especially in the litigious US: HR is afraid to ask women what they want when they come back to work. And women feel they have to be on top form, just as productive as they were before, or they’ll be looked on as slackers. If they’re having difficulties managing their new lives, they keep them to themselves. Until they quit.

“No one is talking about it,” she says. “People feel scared and alone.” 

Her company gets managers and employees to communicate with eachother about what women want before they go out on leave, and after they come back.

I have one friend who didn't want anyone to think of her as ‘a mom’ ahead of being a worker. She wanted all the same newsroom assignments she got before. She never wanted to hear anyone excuse her from anything “because I know you have two children,” as one editor once did. She made clear she needed to go to the Middle East for a story. Whereas, Karen Rubin says, other women may actively wish for less travel for a couple of years after having kids: “But if they don’t have that conversation others may make assumptions about what they might want.”

And assumptions there are.

“Sometimes managers may think, 'Well, here’s a young woman, she’s recently married, I might not want her to take this position because she’s gong to have a child and I’ll lose her anyway,'” says Karen. In that example, the bias went unsaid. But sometimes managers’ biases are overt – as in this stunning example. That guy simply assumed his employee wouldn’t be capable of doing the job once she had a baby to care for.

Karen says it’s tough to upend our ingrained assumptions about what mothers want and need. And not every manager is open to this idea of maternity transitioning. One potential client told her, “Why should the company pay for this kind of thing? Shouldn’t the woman just get a therapist? If people choose to have children, that’s their business.”

She persuades companies it is in their best interests to talk to women before, during and after their maternity leaves to ensure those women are not burning out and leaving the workforce like she did, taking years of training, experience and institutional knowledge with them. 


He for She

June 6, 2014

"We're not losing manhood, we're gaining our humanity." - Gary Barker, Promundo

I spent yesterday at a women’s conference. And, as at all events billed ‘for women’, there were few men in the audience. The title of the event, run by the unflaggingly energetic entrepreneur Claudia Chan, is S.H.E Summit. I don’t think I’d apply to a HE Summit, so it’s not surprising men were so thin on the ground. But it’s a shame. Because when there are no men at these things the panelists are often singing to the choir. Also, part way through the morning there was an excellent session entitled ‘He for She’. I'd have loved more men to have heard it.

This topic came up in my last show with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, but it’s just as true in life as in the workplace: women aren’t going to get anywhere without the help of men. They can’t. Men are still the most powerful group on earth – they make things happen. And we need their support. 

On the panel were three guys: America’s Next Top Model judge and photographer Nigel Barker (you can’t NOT be British with a name like that), serial entrepreneur Simon Isaacs, who recently founded the site Fatherly, and Gary Barker (no relation to Nigel) of Promundo, an organization based in Brazil that aims to get men and boys ‘to promote gender equality and end violence against women’. 

Each spoke eloquently about the need for men to do their share of the work in the home, which we know doesn’t happen, and for men to speak up in particular about the awful problem of domestic violence. Nigel Barker experienced that first hand. He described his mother as a very strong woman who moved from Sri Lanka to Britain as a teenager thanks to her earnings as a model. She brought two female relatives with her so they could have a better life. But in marriage, her husband hit her. He didn't know how to cope with her non-pliant personality. He'd been raised to think women were a lower form of human. How dare his own wife not conform to type?

Simon Isaacs of Fatherly made the point that “it’s tough for men out there” in this new world of supposed female equality, saying the change in status for men was “terrifying”. (I should make clear he was in no way condoning domestic violence.)

This may be true for educated men, but it’s even truer when you’re uneducated and far down the socio-economic ladder. That’s where Gary Barker’s organization, Promundo, comes in. He says there are regular, poor, working class guys in developing countries who are willing to stand up for women. But the cult of masculinity is incredibly strong. Since hearing about the film The Mask You Live In, which should come out this year, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The recent rapes and killings of young girls in India, not to mention the horrific shootings in Santa Barbara the other week by a young guy furious that he couldn't 'get' girls, have made me stew even more.

An unfortunate byproduct of the cult of manhood: many men all over the world consider it unmanly to to be seen or heard to be supporting women. They don't want to be tainted by that association with the 'weaker' sex. And in some cases, women don't even expect - or necessarily want - that male support. 

One example: Nigel Barker said when he offered to be an ambassador for the UN’s Girl Up campaign, he was initially met with odd looks from the women. Er, what could he do, exactly?

He is now an ambassador for Girl Up. He's their only male ambassador. 

He thinks we've created too many lines between the sexes and that "we instill this difference from the get-go" when kids are tiny. "The only way we'll address it is by getting rid of that line between 'he' and 'she'," he said.

As the host of a show called The Broad Experience, I have mixed feelings about this. Women and men have such different experiences of the workplace, and of life in general much of the time - but these differences come mainly from the way we've been socialized. And, gradually, we can change that.

Maybe, Nigel suggested, next year's conference could be called the 'WE Summit'.


On not leaning in

June 4, 2014

I’ll say it straight up: I enjoyed Lean In. Before it came out I’d read New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s rather excoriating piece on Sheryl Sandberg’s women-and-work book, and, like a lot of other people who saw that article, I began to wonder what I was in for. Would this be some snobbish tome from a privileged billionaire who had no idea what it was like for women further down the ranks? In short, would Sandberg annoy me? Me, who’d been steadfastly putting out a show on women and the workplace for a year (to a then tiny audience) before this famous and well-connected Harvard MBA was published?

But on the whole, Sandberg failed to aggravate. OK, there were parts of the book that rankled a bit. Crying at work? It may be OK for Sheryl Sandberg to break down in front of her boss, but for people who are nowhere near the C-suite, it’s less so. We know, or at least fear, we’ll be judged: eyes will roll, and our reputations will suffer. I had a few other quibbles, but basically I thought her message was a good one to get out to millions of women who find themselves at a disadvantage in a made-for-men workplace.

But Avivah Wittenberg-Cox wants to know why, in the 21st century, women should have to lean in. “It worries me,” she says in my latest show, “Because it’s often interpreted as women should behave and become more like men. Whereas what I hear from leaders is they don’t want that.”

Avivah says it’s time companies leaned in instead – especially given that women are now 60% of university graduates all over the world. Rather than women altering their behavior to fit into corporate life, corporations should adapt themselves to the way women do things. 

Here are a few takeaways from our interview, which you can hear in full here:

  • Most male leaders she works with have no idea they’re not already doing everything they can for women at their office. The way they see it, if women aren’t exceling, they’re the problem. Avivah’s company alerts these guys to the differences between men and women – differences that mean women are less likely to thrive in a corporate environment designed by and for men.

  • She says the US is the worst culprit when it comes to framing the issue of women in the workplace, “as a women’s issue, run by women, for women, all about women.” This, she says, is a big mistake. There will be no sizeable jump in women in top roles unless men are allowed to be less ambitious. She is adamant that this issue is about ‘balance’, not about women.  Men must be able to care less about work if women are going to care more.

  • She wishes Sandberg had written the same book and called it ‘Companies Lean In’. “She would have had a hundred thousand times the men reading that book…she’d have had the same level of impact but on the right audience, and that would have been extraordinarily helpful at this time in history.”