Latest blog posts

Association of Independents in Radio
Subscribe to the show's feeds

Communication problems in your twenties

January 23, 2015

"Men get feedback more easily than women. Everyone's afraid of hurting women's feelings." - Joanna Barsh

I'm about to release a new show focusing on the careers of women in their twenties. I did it because a listener asked. But at the time I admit I wasnt that interested in the topic. How different could navigating the work world be from when I was that age?

A lot, as it happens. Much of the stuff that comes up in the show, which will be out next week, is about communication. I've learned it can be incredibly exasperating for millennials of either sex when they try to communicate with older colleagues (insert your own joke here about how Gen Xers and others cope with being on the end of those attempts). They have their own shortand for connecting with eachother, but two of my guests talked about how tough it is to translate that to the office, with its weird rules and roundabout ways of getting things done. 

But there's a gender thing I want to write about. The person I interviewed gets to be anonymous because, well, she likes her job and doesn't want to stir up any trouble. She's new to the workplace. She and her boyfriend work at the same place, on the same team. Recently there was a big decision the team was asked to contribute to - it had to send an idea to the two top brass, via a direct manager, a young man.

The team's idea was ultimately rejected. My interviewee wanted to clarify why, so first she wrote to the higher-ups and asked if they could meet to discuss it. She heard back that she had to go through the interim manager first. So that was her first frustration, that she couldn't speak directly with the ultimate decision-makers, she had to go through their deputy (to her, an absurdly indirect way of doing things, and inefficient). But then came the reaction of the deputy manager to her emailed request. She wrote to him saying she thought there had been some communication problems in getting across the team's idea, and could they meet to talk about it?

His reply came: "It’s OK, we can figure out something to do with this later, I don’t want anyone to be upset."

Her boyfriend wrote an almost identical email, but the reply he got from the guy was quite different.

"I completely agree with you, I take responsibility for the communication problems. Let's figure out a time to talk."

This surprised her.

"His response to me was more placating than anything else," she says. "'It’s OK, everything’s fine, don’t be sad. Don’t be upset. Don’t cry.' And I feel like the tone of our emails [hers and her boyfriend's] was very similar. It was, 'I have some concerns, can you talk about these concerns?'" 

This incident tallies with research that shows men are uncomfortable giving women feedback. When I spoke to former McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh in 2012, this was one of the things she talked about: that men will often assume that a woman will crumble on hearing something difficult. So they end up soft-peddling whatever it is they want to say. As a result, the woman often doesn't get the honest feedback she needs to progress at work. 

But in this case, the young male manager was getting ahead of himself. He already seemed to assume a request to 'talk' from a female co-worker meant she was upset about something. When a man wrote to him about the same thing, he met the request with equanimity. It's just another example of how a small act of communication is often deceptively tricky, especially when you throw gender into the mix. 


Smiles and power

December 19, 2014

"Higher power people smile when they're relaxed or happy but low power because they have to." - Marianne LaFrance

The latest show is all about power and body language at work. Something I couldn’t fit in was the subject of smiling. Most of us don’t think about this, except perhaps to notice when someone seems unusually grumpy. But smiling is social glue. It’s also linked to power.

Yale professor Marianne LaFrance, one of my guests on the podcast (left, smiling), told me that during her years of studying smiles she’s found a very quick smile from someone else has an immediate effect on the person who sees it.

“It’s a mini emotional high, an up in the day, although the person may not know where it came from,” she says.

If you’re female, chances are you smile a lot more than the men who surround you. Marianne says women not only smile more but “more intensely than do men”.

Women are expected to be pleasant and accommodating, and to make those around them feel comfortable. Smiling is a short cut to achieving this.

At work, it turns out those in lower-power roles smile more than people high up the food chain. Marianne says the smiliest employees are people – usually women – in roles that are all about making other people happy, such as executive assistant or paralegal. Smiling is their way of creating a harmonious environment. But they’re not necessarily content when they crack those smiles.

“The thing we’ve found in our studies is higher power people smile when they feel relaxed and happy….but they won’t smile because they have to, whereas low power people will report they will smile because they have to.” In short because it’s their job to please.

Broaden that and you’ve got women as a group. Our unofficial mandate is to please others. That’s why people of both sexes seem affronted when we don’t meet grinning expectations.

I was a reflective teenager, and on my way to school in London every day I’d be lost in my own thoughts (which, being a teenager, weren’t always particularly cheery). A loud voice in a Cockney accent would often erupt from a nearby building site with “Cheer up love – might never ‘appen!” or “Come on, smile!” accompanied by male laughter.

At the time I didn’t consider that complete strangers never seemed to do this to schoolboys, only schoolgirls. When I told Marianne LaFrance this story she reminded me that these days this kind of thing is considered street harassment.

“It’s not injurious but it is another way women are reminded they have to put out, and one of the ways they do that is by smiling and always appearing pleasant and agreeable.”

I don’t know that anyone’s ever done a study of the smiling patterns of male and female CEOs.  As is so often the case women tread a fine line between being viewed as cold and unfriendly and smiling too much, which can hurt their gravitas.

In an email, I asked Marianne LaFrance about female leaders’ body language, citing IBM CEO Ginny Rometty as an example. Marianne replied she didn’t know any details on Rometty’s body language as such, but “she is often photographed with a big smile.” 

Marianne is the author of Why Smile - The Science Behind Facial Expressions.


Yes, you can say no

October 20, 2014

Someone asks you to attend an event after work, speak on a panel, or become part of a book group.

You don't want to do it but you

a)    Feel you have to say yes because you want to be nice and being nice is incredibly important to you, plus you believe in the organization’s work. But then your heart sinks because you’ve added one more thing to your overwhelming list of tasks.

b)   Are determined to protect your time so you say no with lots of add-ons like, “So sorry, I’d love to do it but I’m totally swamped at work and my mother-in-law just had a hip replacement so my husband’s staying with her and I have to take care of three kids on my own, and walk the dog. Again, so sorry!”

I want to share these ‘how to say no’ tips I picked up on the online leadership course I’m doing with Gloria Feldt, because they’re too useful not to disseminate. They come from Victoria Pynchon and Lisa Gates of She Negotiates

They key to saying no is to say it firmly and to stop talking after that. Even when every fiber in your body is screaming that it’s not ‘nice’ to refuse and you simply have to churn out excuses to make up for it. No. Stop. Talking.

Vickie and Lisa offer simple lines like, “I’m really working at creating balance in my life right now. No thank you.” No further explanation needed.

There are alternatives depending on how much you care: “I’m sorry if you were counting on me. How can I make it up to you?”

So many women are afraid of feeling horrible - and being horrible - if they say no. I used to hate it, but I’m increasingly protective of my time and I say no quite a bit these days without a twinge of guilt. If you’re one of those people who still struggles with no, consider these responses.

7 ways to say no, from She Negotiates:

1)   No: “Yes, I’d love to take part, and I’m going to have to decline.”

2)   No with help: “I love that you thought of me, and I’m unable to participate. How can I help you find someone else?” (This technique is used by FT columnist Mrs. Moneypenny, who talked about this in episode 27 of The Broad Experience on dropping guilt from our lives.)

3)   No with appreciation: “I think your idea is fabulous, and I’m not able to participate at this time.”

4)   No and yes: “Yes, I’d love to participate, but at a later date. Can you ask me again in January?”

5)   No with specific yes: “I’d love to help you with your project, and I’m on a deadline until Tuesday. Can we meet on Wednesday?”

6)   No when you don’t know: “Sounds interesting. I need to sleep on that.” OR “I need to check with my boss/partner.”

7)   No with values: “If I take on another task right now I wouldn’t be honoring my commitment to my family/work/business.”

Note the use of the word ‘and’ in most of these sentences rather than ‘but’.  I suspect this is a subtle difference that frames the response in a more positive light, but - I mean and - I’m going to see if Vickie or Lisa can weigh in in the comments below.

I realize this is not exclusively a woman thing. My boyfriend hates saying no too, which is sometimes endearing, sometimes exasperating. Still, women are the ones who are are acculturated from birth to be sweet, pleasing and accommodating. Saying no clashes directly with that societal mandate. 


An audience with Iron Erna

September 26, 2014


Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg

Earlier this week I attended an event featuring the Prime Minister of Norway. Until I received the invitation from the New America Foundation I candidly admit I had no idea who ran Norway, let alone that she was a woman. Her name is Erna Solberg, and she heads a conservative government. I went along because I’m fascinated by women who do unusual things – and running a country is still unusual for a woman.

Here’s what I took away from the talk:

The first thing I noticed is that Solberg is not slim. I was surprised and excited by this because as every woman in public life knows, the pressure to look 'good' by western standards is unrelenting. She’s plump and she wore quite a loud print dress, which, again, seemed bold. I imagine a Hollywood stylist would be horrified, but Solberg clearly dresses (always professionally) to suit herself. Hats off to her. She is a female head of state who hasn’t tried to lose 50 pounds to please the tabloids.

Being British I can only imagine what the British press would do to a woman of her size who wanted to become prime minister of Britain. Every other article would make some snide remark about her weight.

Solberg admitted during her conversation with Liza Mundy of the New America Foundation that a female PM did have to put up with more questions and comments on her appearance than a man would. But she believes there is a positive side to this, which is that "people get to know me better as a person."

Known in some circles as ‘Iron Erna’, she said on the one hand the nickname conjured up images of someone who’s ‘too’ tough, unfeeling even. But on the other if it let people know she was able to make difficult decisions, ‘Iron Erna’ was fine with her.

Years ago she watched another female politician cry when she lost an election. At the time she thought, "You can’t let your feelings show in front of other people. You’ll come of as weak." But she’s had a change of heart over the years. Now, she says, who cares? You’re a person with feelings. So what?

Several of my guests on The Broad Experience have echoed what Solberg said next, when asked about why there are still few women in powerful positions in the Norwegian workplace: yes, there are structural impediments, but women are also perfectionists. We are so busy trying to excel in every area that essentially we don’t have the energy to scale a company’s heights.

“I’m a big fan of getting people to lower their shoulders,” she said in her rather charming English. In short, you cannot do everything, so concentrate on the things that are most important to you and leave the rest.

The divorce rate in Norway has dropped lately. Solberg believes this may be because Norwegian fathers get so much paternity leave relative to men in other countries (currently 10 weeks). She thinks that leave helps families bond and stick together.

But Norway is not perfect. Yes, it has a much higher number of female politicians than many other countries and yes, 40% of board members at Norwegian companies are female thanks to a quota system. But in other areas of the workplace, the number of women has not increased. There are fewer female CEOs in Norway than in the US.

Solberg said, “There is a structural problem in our society,” and that is gendered jobs. 48% of Norwegian women work in the public sector, while only 19% of men do. Women continue to do traditionally female jobs such as teaching, nursing and cleaning and men continue to be engineers.

I’ll be talking more about Norway’s gender policies and its attitude to work/life balance in the next episode of the show. Tune in on October 6th.


Introverts at the office

September 12, 2014

Photo: Writer's desk by Mika Marttila, used with Creative Commons license

When I released the latest episode of the podcast on authenticity at the office I suspected it would resonate – after all, a lot of women are criticized at work, subtly or otherwise, for being too ‘pushy’, ‘abrasive’, or ‘intimidating’. It’s that kind of criticism, and how to handle it, that I covered in the show.

But here’s what I didn’t think about – the flipside of that: when women are criticized for not being pushy or outgoing enough.

Last night I had dinner with a friend. She’s a writer in her mid-thirties, who, like me, did not grow up in the US. Being outwardly excessively confident is not her thing. That said, she is highly intelligent, educated, and friendly. For a few years she was freelance, but last year she got her first permanent US job in a corporate setting.

Initially all seemed well.

“Just be yourself,” said her first (male) boss. Shortly afterwards he was pushed aside. Since then, she’s struggled to fit in. And her new bosses have made her very aware that she doesn’t. They’ve carped at her appearance, starting with her hairstyle. She was told her fringe [bangs] made her appear “unapproachable”. She was informed that the top boss “likes big people” (we’re talking personality here) and asked if she could be “bigger”. She is not only physically tiny, but rather unlikely to be able to effect a complete personality change after 30-something years of being herself. Essentially, her workplace is asking her to morph from introvert to extrovert. Which, to me, seems even harder than curbing a more outgoing, say-it-like-it-is personality to mesh with workplace culture.

Hearing her story reminded me of this wonderful New York Times op-ed by Brazilian writer Vanessa Barbara. In the piece she talks about how all Brazilians are seen as extroverts and how difficult it can be when you don't fit this stereotype, particularly in the workplace.

I’m more of an extrovert myself, but I have introvert tendencies. If you’re a natural introvert, how do you manage at work? Does your personality fit your office's culture or not? All stories and tips are welcome.