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Making yourself heard

August 12, 2014

The latest episode of The Broad Experience focuses on what must be one of the biggest issues in any office: communication. I studied sociolinguistics at college and loved it. I've never forgotten the thrill of discovering how much more lay beneath our words than meets most people's ears. 

Robin Lakoff

In this show I feature two guests, sociolinguist Robin Lakoff, who put the topic of gender and language on the map 40 years ago, and Barbara Annis, author most recently of the book Gender Intelligence.

Barbara Annis

We look at how men and women use language at work, and why so often the sexes seem to be talking, but not really communicating. Why do men interrupt? Why do some of us women take so long to get to the point? Can we ever hope to understand eachother? 

There's a simple curiosity side to all this, but there's also an important career aspect for women. Since we still (most of us anyway) work in male-dominated environments, we're the ones who usually have to fit into the male paradigm, the male way of doing things. We are judged by a male standard. This Harvard Business Review blog, Women, Find Your Voice, is a great read that will have a lot of you nodding, regardless of your sex. It's about how women, even senior ones, often get drowned out at meetings, or fail to speak up. They bristle at all sorts of perceived slights. The men actually recognize the problem, but they don't understand why the women behave the way they do. The reason? We're each primed to communicate differently (more on that in the show), but most of us have no idea that's the case. So we usually fail to appreciate eachother's communication styles. Instead, they drive a wedge between us and can perpetuate problems for women at work.

One of Barbara Annis's pieces of advice is for women to tweak their style to communicate a little more forcefully, to be more up-front, in order to get men to pay attention. One thing I didn't get to in the show was that this may only work to an extent. An African-American woman I interviewed earlier this year told me about her difficulties communicating at work. She has to cope with her white supervisor's perceptions of who she is (which, she says, include 'intimidating' and 'aggressive'), and feels she often has to think long and hard before she opens her mouth. 

“I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Not all of us have to work that hard to get our points across. 

This is the second in what I hope will be a continuing series of shows on communication. The first was my show on the way men and women use humor at work. I couldn't get to body language in this show, so am saving that for a future episode. Amy Cuddy, on the offchance you're reading, I'd love to talk to you for that one.


Rejecting perfection

August 12, 2014

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave. This isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in." - Rachael Ellison

Breast pump

I’m thinking a lot right now about women's quest for perfection. Often this desire lies uninvestigated within us, unquestioned. It's simply part of who we are. A woman I interviewed yesterday for a future show talked about this: she mentors young women who feel they have to exceed every expectation out there, and they're exhausted. It was the main theme of my last show, Killing the Ideal Woman. And it came up in my conversation with coach Rachael Ellison, who gave such thought provoking insights in The Motherhood Factor.

This is my second blog post springing from my interview with Rachael earlier this summer.

She counsels working parents who want to achieve a saner life than they feel they currently have. 

For starters, she says, it’s hard for women who, until they had kids, had leapt up the career ladder two rungs at a time. Often these women are left reeling after they have a baby, faced with the possibility they may not be able to do everything - at home and at work - the way they'd like. One of her recent clients was a senior leader with a 10-month-old baby at home.

“She was really struggling,” Rachael says. “The hours at her job were very demanding. She was in a setting where she had to come in very early in the morning and leave quite late at night, so she really wasn’t able to spend time with her child.  She basically got to the point in our conversation where she said, ‘You know, I really don’t know if I can do this.'”

They talked through it, but ultimately the woman decided she should try to tackle her home/life problem the way her older female supervisor had. The woman had two children and had handled many major projects. Rachael's client admired her a lot. But what her client didn’t know at the time was that that woman also had a stay-at-home husband.

“There was no transparency,” says Rachael, “So she felt she had to follow the model of the generation prior.”

She felt immense pressure to perform and couldn’t let anyone at work see that she was flailing (that is flailing, not failing).

Society has enormous expectations for mothers. Essentially it wants us to be mothers above all else, no matter how much lip service it gives to our careers. That pressure to be supermom came up a few years ago when Rachael was running a new mothers group. One of the women in the group had been reporting back about her sessions with a lactation consultant.

This lactation consultant had the new (working) mom in quite a state. She informed her that if she pumped milk at 4p.m. on a given day at her office, her baby had to drink that milk at exactly 4p.m. the following day, or another day of the week. The lowdown: the milk that came out of her body at 4p.m. must be drunk at that exact same time for her baby to get the most benefit.

Talk about pressure.

“It is this horrible precedent, that this is what a good mother does,” says Rachael. “It’s so hard for mothers to pump at all at work. I’ve heard stories of mothers sitting up against a glass window, basically pumping in an open space. So people face a lot of challenges when pumping, and to be told you have to have your milk time correspond, it's just this impossible standard.”

In the end, the woman announced that timing her milk production and baby feeding to the same hour of the day was too hard. She stopped trying to achieve that particular feat. She resisted the consultant's advice.

We’re meant to be perfect mothers, perfect wives, and perfect workers. Few of us can possibly meet all those standards, but we still try, because the messages coming at us from the media, politicians, our families and other women tell us that's what we're supposed to be.

Finally, Rachael told me, part of her job is to let people know their everyday attempts to make it all work are echoed in others' lives.

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave – this isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in. This is an uphill battle.”

You can read my last post with Rachael, on workplace flexibility, here.


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.