Episode 107: Expect the Unexpected

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…when you think your career is heading in one direction, and then it takes an unexpected turn…

“And maybe it’ll get back, maybe it was just a detour, maybe it was a side street to get me back into the parade. But I have to say these last two to three years have really impacted my perspective on life.”

Coming up – dealing with the unexpected, in career and life.

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So in this show we’re going to re-visit a guest I first interviewed a few years ago. I re-released that show two weeks ago – it’s called Authenticity vs. Conformity - so hopefully you’ve had a chance to acquaint yourself with Lauren Tucker. Lauren is longtime advertising executive and a specialist in data-driven marketing. I’d been wanting to catch up with her to find out what she did next. Because when we first spoke I knew she was getting itchy to do her own thing. One thing you may remember about Lauren: she always looks on the bright side.

AM-T: “When I last spoke to you, which was in the summer of 2014, you were still at the Martin Agency, an ad agency in Virginia…but even then you were talking about the possibility of going out on your own and starting your own business. Take us back and talk about what happened next.”

“Yeah, so I started Cooler Heads Intelligence in January of 2015. Data, at least at that time, it just wasn’t as integral to what the Martin Agency was doing. I thought it might be great opportunity at that point to start my own company.”

The chief data scientist also left the agency and came on as Lauren’s business partner. She says they wanted to be successful enough that they could hire plenty of women and people of color (Lauren is both) – and help make the STEM field more diverse. And they did add a few employees as the business grew. Lauren spent a lot of time going out and making contacts, landing new business.

“We did well, especially for our first year of business. The challenge is you have to have a stomach for it. You have to have a stomach for discomfort. You have to be comfortable with ongoing discomfort. And my business partner was not comfortable with that.”

AM-T: “Do you mean just all the insecurity of starting a new business and doing everything yourselves and being out there in front?”

“I think that’s a major part of it. I think um, you know it is – if you have to have a salary, you feel like you have to have that kind of security, it’s a challenge. You have to be willing to sacrifice. I also think he had a difficult time working with somebody, a black female who was the majority owner of the business. So that was probably the more shocking part of it.”

And she was shocked. Because she had hired this guy at their former agency and he’d worked there for five years. Obviously there was a hierarchy at the agency, and he hadn’t worked directly for Lauren - he had worked for the guy under her. And as their relationship began to sour, she started looking back to his time at their former employer…

“Maybe I just didn’t get it that he had these issues. It wasn’t till later till I started having trouble with him that I found out from other women that worked with him and for him, again, two more layers down, right, that he was a problem.”

AM-T: “Why did you only find out later, d’you think?”

“I am finding this out more and more as I talk to younger women, they don’t tell you at the beginning when things are a little calmer and you can get in a little easier. I found they wait until it just blows up; then they come and talk to you or they leave and they go someplace else and you don’t get the truth until later. And that’s really what happened. And so I was very interested, I was like, well why didn’t you tell me these things when they were happening? And I think there’s a lot of fear at first about – I think they’re questioning themselves, maybe it’s me, I don’t know, then they go through a period of ‘well, maybe she’s not gonna believe me, even though I know we have a good relationship’ – that’s what was so shocking, is I had good relationships with all the women who told me this about him.”

And if at this point you’re wondering what exactly are we talking about here – was this guy rude and dismissive of women, was it worse than that? – you’re not the only one. I was probing until Lauren told me she couldn’t discuss the details, because...

“My lawyers said you know what, you both need to just move on and no one needs to besmirch the other.”

Yup. Things got to the lawyer stage.

Despite the fact that the business was doing pretty well, there had been disagreements over how much they should invest in marketing. And her partner felt he deserved more of a cut. And of course I only have Lauren’s story here, I have not talked to her former business partner. But she says he resented that she was the face of the business. She was majority owner as well – the business was backed with some of her savings. She says he seemed to feel that what she did was over-valued, and what he did was under-valued.

AM-T: “Was it all quite nasty at the end or did you…”

“Yeah, I mean I was Yes. Luckily I had great lawyers and I brought them in and they handled the ongoing conversations. Because there’s a certain point where I’m not gonna engage in ugly fights. I’m not that kind of a person, I don’t want to be that kind of a person. I’m not gonna take someone yelling at me on the phone and yell back. I mean that’s just not the way I work, it’s just not professional.”

She says when she told her business partner, OK, if you’re going to say these things, you can talk to my lawyers…he backed off. He didn’t want things to go that far.

 “But by that time I was done. My father was becoming extraordinarily ill at that point, he had congestive heart failure, and I needed to refocus on my life on my family.”

So they shut the company down. And he went off to start his own business. This was not what Lauren had imagined when she quit her job to become an entrepreneur. She had been so excited, and they were getting some great clients, doing good work. And then after 16 months, it was all over.

AM-T: “Do you regret doing it?”

“No, no, and I would have regretted not doing it. It was a good time to do it. I’d saved up the money and that’s what I tell a lot of younger women. Be smart with our money so you have the freedom to do the kinds of things that I did, whether it’s my own business, where to live I went through some significant savings, but I always paid my mortgage, paid my bills, I didn’t get into tremendous debt and I never touched my retirement. So it’s important if you’ve got that kind of ability financially, you might as well take the chance and do it.”

AM-T: “You sound pretty sanguine about it at this distance, but was it…the whole coming apart, and deciding, go our separate ways, break up the business, I mean was that emotionally really tough?”

“Yes, and I was angry for a very long time after that. I mean for me. I’m not a typically angry person.”

AM-T: “But you can’t help but hold a grudge in that situation.”

“Yeah, I mean it’s in part because I was forced to actually de-classify the business. It would have been great if I’d been able to take Cooler Heads and just keep moving forward with the assets we had built, the website. The fact that we had to take it down made me really angry. But there’s an irony to this – once the business was down, that was when my father really started to get sick.”

Lauren turned her attention to her parents. They lived in the same town, while her brother was 5 hours away. She was glad she could be around so much while her father’s health got worse…

“Being able to have that kind of time, you know, going over there all the time, making sure everything was OK, giving my mom some relief from the situation, taking her out to dinner, all of that was great.”

Lauren’s father knew she had been mulling something for a while – a move away from Virginia, up to Chicago. She’d lived there before and was eager to go back, start afresh in a bigger city. He told her – do it, just go, I won’t be here for much longer, your mother will be fine.

“Literally I moved to Chicago at the end of June, and he died about five days later.”

AM-T: “Wow. That’s a lot to go through in one year.”

“Oh, trust me, I do not need to have another year like 2016. I definitely will say that. That was a very, very hard year.”

Culminating in the election of a president Lauren never thought would get the job. Right now she volunteers her time as the director of marketing and community relations for Indivisible Chicago…the organization set up to resist the agenda of the Trump administration.

In a minute, Lauren begins a new life in a new city. And comes face to face with some stark realities.


So after 13 years of living in Richmond, Virginia, Lauren moved to Chicago a year ago.

AM-T: “So tell me about Chicago, because you did mention that it was always your dream, it’s great that you’re there. But making a big change at this point in your career is not without issues.”

Oh, lots and lots of issues [laughs]. Yeah, there are a couple of things: the great part about it is that I’ve lived in Chicago before which is why I wanted to come back and I’m living in same neighborhood I did before that I loved. I have a lot of friends I’ve made over the years that are here in Chicago. So it wasn’t like I was coming to a place where I didn’t know anybody.”

On the other hand, the research and analytics job Lauren had secured in Chicago didn’t work out.

“I never really encountered this until my business and then this job…that I had when I came up here when I’d just run into an abusive person.”

She was there for seven months. After that experience, she decided it was time to go back to the world of traditional ad agencies. But all her contacts were on the east coast. She really hardly knew anyone in advertising in Chicago. And then there’s the question of who she is. She does not look like most other people in the ad business. She says she has always been a ruthless optimist, but…

“Along with that comes persistent naivety – as much as I know intellectually that being a black woman is a challenge in an industry where there are maybe a hundred, I think the last census, there are only a hundred senior African-American women in advertising in this country. That’s shocking and it’s tragic.”

But in typical Lauren fashion, she began to think about how to turn the challenge into an opportunity. She decided to be totally upfront on the job hunt…

“...just be open about, OK, I’m an African-American woman and I know how difficult it is for agencies to find African-American women with a lot of experience and who can operate at a very senior level, well here I am, I am gonna put myself in the path of opportunity. And so I was open, very transparent about it in every email I sent out, and that certainly got me initial interviews. As my father said, ‘if being black and a woman works against you, you may as well use it to work for you once in a while.’ So I did. People might have questioned that approach but I felt like if the ad industry was going to make a big deal about diversity, then I’m going to make a big deal about it in my initial approaches to the agencies, and say, ‘if you’re serious about diversity then you need to be serious about talking to me.’”

She says it’s worked to the extent she’s met some senior people at local agencies and had great conversations – conversations she hopes will lead to a job offer. At the same time, she says the recruitment machine is broken.

“I think especially for ad agencies, the ebb and flow of human resources needed to staff accounts forces a situation where…hiring managers are like, I need somebody! I have to hire somebody now!  OK, great, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for looking in different places, to get that kind of diverse talent, not just in terms of people of color and women but just some different thinking, right, people think differently from different backgrounds. So they keep going to the same well, over and over and over again, partly because it’s expedient. But also because I’m more comfortable working with people who look like me, is what I think happens. I think from standpoint the CEOs who are tasked with increasing diversity, I mean you think about what their primary job is, their primary job is to make money for that agency – so increase revenue, show growth, show profitability.”

She says they may genuinely want a workforce made up of different types of people, but realistically it’s just not top of mind compared to making a profit. So her advice for women and people of color…

“I think you really have to go aggressively, and be transparent, ‘I am a black woman who is right here in front of you and has the capabilities that are really gonna help you achieve your goals.’ For me, that may be the only answer to diversity I have. Because I’ve been in the ad business for 30 years and we’re having the same conversations we had when I first started. So why haven’t things changed? In part because the entire way diversity is being talked about is still making the diverse candidates the problem, not where the problem lies which is typically with the predominantly white and male management. And think at the end of the day, I don’t want to see another panel with a bunch of black women talking about us as the problem.”

She wants to see a panel made up of white, male CEOs where the onus is on them, where the audience can ask…

“…what is going to get you guys motivated? Let’s have an honest conversation…I get it. You’re tasked with growth, and diversity isn’t always a straight line to growth. So what would get you to put this on the front burner and make this a real initiative for you? And I think no one has really investigated that.”

AM-T: “Well I really hope something great comes up with you for one of these firms so you can start making a difference.”

“Yeah, I mean I actually think something will come. It is interesting, I’m getting ready to go take my mom to Europe. That was a thing my father said, “you go ahead and do that, she deserves to go,’ and he was never gonna do it, he was a World War Two vet and was never gonna go back to Europe, I think he had had enough [laughs]. So I have this time to be with her for 2 weeks, and then when I come back hopefully, I think I’m set up to find something pretty quickly after I come back.”

She’s looking forward to spending some one-on-one time with her mum while they’re sailing down the Rhine…

“My mother’s 85 and as she says it may be the last time she can go on such an undertaking. This is a woman who, we moved her into a new place a couple of weeks ago and it’s interesting how she’s embracing this new chapter of her life and she’s embracing all the good stuff that comes from being 85, which I think is really neat. She’s letting her hair go grey, and she’s like, ‘you know, your father never liked that, but I’m gonna do that,’ she’s redecorating and painting walls…I realize she’s just totally embracing her life after being a wife, and that’s kind of interesting.”

AM-T: “Right, not that she didn’t love your dad, but now he’s gone she’s making a new life on her terms.”

“Yeah, and that’s what’s really cool. Because quite frankly they were so close and interdependent on one another I thought it might go the other way and she might just give up on life, but boy, she is, it is like a whole new thing for her. So she’s so excited and happy about this new chapter of her life that now I think, it’s like, the boxes have been checked. She’s happy, my brother’s happy that she’s happy, and so now I think I have the chance to focus on my life here in Chicago and really leaning in and getting involved with civic life in a way I’ve never done before. And as I’ve told everyone I’ve interviewed with, I will continue the work with Indivisible Chicago because I will not allow myself to become complacent about our democracy ever again.”

She says she’s always been a planner. Next steps have always been laid out in her head. But recent events have changed her way of thinking.

“Things have just happened that have turned my life in a totally different direction than I ever planned on. And maybe it was just a detour, a side street to get me back into the parade. But I have to say these last two to three years have really impacted my perspective on life and have changed the way that, as I told my mother who said to me, ‘I hope I just don’t get on this trip and annoy you for two weeks.’ And I said, ‘Mom, after the last two years that I’ve had I’m thinking nothing you could do could annoy me at this point.” [Laughs]

Now when I spoke to Lauren she was about to leave on that trip to Europe. She just got back, I checked in with her and she says she and her mother had a fabulous time together.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I welcome your comments – you can post on the Facebook page, under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or tweet me or email me.

And you know I mentioned in the last show that I’d been pretty busy with work lately, and that’s why the show’s schedule had been a bit off? If you’re interested in checking out what I’ve been up to for the past several months, I’ve been working on a podcast series for Gimlet Creative and Virgin Atlantic and it’s called The Venture. It’s about pioneers in business – everyone from a highly successful self-deprecating female chef to the guy who essentially invented reality TV to the very interesting and unusual family behind the Dr. Bronner’s organics brand. You can find The Venture on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Next time on the show…in the US we are living at a highly divisive time. And liberal and conservative women do not always talk to eachother…

“When we made the decision to reach out and create a bipartisan organization I needed Republican women and I needed Republican board members who would support me, and I didn’t know any.”

That’s next time on the show.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

Episode 105: The Assistant

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…the most popular job for women today is the same as it was in the 1950s…

“I think it’s viewed as a very subservient role. If you tell somebody that you're an assistant, they think you spent all day answering the phone and doing typing and dictation. The reality now is nothing can be further from the truth.”

 And what does it mean to make being an assistant your career?

“I don’t need to have seven promotions, I don’t need to branch out into a different department. I’m very content supporting a person who’s in charge.”

Coming up – when your job means being ambitious for someone else.


My first ever job was as an assistant. A receptionist actually, at an insurance company in London. Then I graduated to secretary, as it was still called in England then. I was an assistant for about the first 6 years of my working life. I enjoyed parts of the work a lot, but by the time I was in my late twenties I was itching to move on to something else. Even if I still wasn’t quite sure what that should be.

Since then, I haven’t thought about the job of assistant all that much. In fact I assumed it was gradually going away, what with executives having so much technology at their fingertips.

So I was really surprised a few years ago when I came across some statistics here in the US – they revealed that administrative assistant is still the most popular job for women in America, ahead of teaching and nursing. I checked again just recently and nothing has changed.

I have to admit I found that statistic quite disheartening. Women are more and more educated, we’ve entered a ton of professions, yet so many of us are still essentially supporting someone else for a living. I wanted to delve into this and I did – with two women who know the job well.

Jessica Williams lives and works in London. She runs a recruitment company for assistants and other support staff, called Sidekicks. The common British term for an administrative assistant is PA – personal assistant – so you’ll hear her use that a lot. She was a longtime PA in London before starting her company two years ago, at age 30.

She started working as an assistant at 18.

“I always knew that I wanted to work. I was never particularly academic and the practical side of working always suited me so I held several jobs when I was 16. My first job was actually making sandwiches in the petrol station in Kent for truckers when they were on the way down to Dover to drive their trucks through to France, and I loved that. I think a big part of me going on to become a P.A was finding that I enjoyed that aspect for looking after people & caring for them.”

That was one of my favorite things about the job too. Also like me, Jessica’s family sort of guided her in this direction…

“I have mixed feelings about that, but often particularly young women, they will leave university or they will leave school and their first entry level job will be secretarial in some respects. And it can be a fantastic thing like my experience. I started off as a receptionist and really loved it and became aware very quickly that one on one PA support was something that I really wanted to do. A lot of my skills I hadn't realize that I had, such as organization and the ability to act on my own initiative--there were things that I didn't realize I had at school which was really focused around academic ability, which was never really my strong point. And I realized for the first time in my life that I was really good at something and I loved that and I wanted to see more of it. And it just grew from there really.”

She gained confidence and experience with each job. She’s worn a lot of hats over the years – something she says all PAs do. During one job she spent time outfitting a multi-million pound mansion in London’s Regents Park neighborhood. In other jobs she’s picked up dry cleaning or coffee as well as acted as office manager and travel agent...

“The best part about this job is that you’re totally immersed in somebody's life. You do everything for them in the same way as when you have a child. It's not just about the big wins. It not just about watching them graduate or get their first Job or start school. It’s about the little things as well. You’ve got to be willing to do the small things and not begrudge them.”

But I wanted to get back to that idea of women starting off as assistants. My mother pushed me to learn to type as soon as I graduated from university. As she saw it, this was my route into a job. I even learned shorthand. And I’m grateful for the typing skills. But there I was with a degree…

AM-T: “And essentially I was encouraged to come in as an assistant because I was told it’s a way you can get in at a company. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was fine with that. But I was gobsmacked at this one interview. The woman said, what does a clever girl like you want to do being a secretary? And I didn’t know what to say. I just didn’t know how to proceed because I wasn’t expecting the question…I must have completely fluffed it because I never heard from them again. But this thing of ‘girls’ being encouraged to go in at assistant level, it’s not something males of the same age are encouraged to do, right? And I think this is why so many women are assistants is because we’re encouraged to be support because that’s what many of us have been raised to be. We’ve been raised with those expectations that we will be supportive. So it feels natural to carry that into a job. It did for me.”

“Yeah, it does, you’re right and I wish I could tell you your experience is unusual but it’s not. It still happens. And I think that a large part of this is that if you look at the prevailing gender of the people who are hiring assistants, they’re particularly in big corporates the bosses are male. And often a lot of powerful men in a certain position who have been raised to believe that their assistant should be a female or who have only experienced having a female assistant struggle to hand power, control of their day to day lives, in what they view as a slightly subservient role, to another man.”

But another important point I think is that young, educated men just starting out in their careers – they don’t see themselves as support staff. They want to go in with a better title. And they mostly do. Which, perhaps, is why only about five percent of assistants are men.

One thing about this job that the average man may find harder than the average woman…staying in the background.  

“Being a PA or being in administrative support in any capacity is something that you cannot do if you have an ego. You just can't do it. Because the reality is that no matter what level you're at even if you’ve been doing the job for 20 years and you're right at the top of your game and you're at chief of staff level, you're still going to be effectively managing somebody else's life. Managing somebody else's career. Managing somebody else's day. It's never going to be all about you. We have a phrase we use in the office at Sidekicks a lot: ambition worn lightly. And that's exactly what you need to have as a PA. You need to have serious ambition but on behalf of the person you're supporting, not on behalf of yourself.”

And she says because assistants stay out of the spotlight, it’s easy for other people to underestimate the role.  

“If you tell somebody that you're an assistant, they think you spent all day answering the phone and doing typing and dictation. The reality now is nothing can be further from the truth. It’s often an immensely difficult, demanding, completely autonomous role.”

Jess has worked with her share of difficult characters over the years. And I can say from experience that getting on with your boss just makes the job so much easier and more pleasant. You’re not part of a team the way so many of your colleagues are, so a rapport with the executive you work for matters.

AM-T: “What do you think about it being such a female-dominated role, does that bother you at all, or not?”

“No, the reality doesn’t bother me. Which is that the role is extremely female-dominated. What bothers me is the perception that it should be done by a woman because it’s somehow a subservient role which it’s absolutely not.”

Now like many other jobs done almost exclusively by women today, the role of secretary used to be the preserve of men. It’s only been during the last century or so that women have taken over. When the typewriter was invented women’s fingers were seen as being nimbler than men’s. At the same time more women were seeking an alternative to the drudgery of life as a domestic servant. And as in other professions where the sex ratio was changing…bosses offered the new women applicants less pay, and they accepted.

Even today in America – that tiny number of male assistants – they earn about 14 percent more on average than their female counterparts.

Depending on your experience the demands of the job, a personal assistant today can earn a really good salary. And Jessica you may be supporting others but you’re far from powerless.

“A lot of PAs end up wielding an awful lot of power. It’s quiet power. It’s not something you shout about. And it’s something that comes as a result of doing a job really, really well.”

The vast majority of her candidates are women, although with the millennial generation she says that is changing, the number of men is going up. But this profession has its biases just like male-dominated areas like tech or engineering. She says it’s tough to place a man in an admin job, no matter how great he may be for the role. She has been working with a candidate in his 50s lately…

“And we've had a lot of discussions internally about this particular candidate because he's incredibly capable. He's an absolutely fantastic, exceptional assistant. He is very senior. He came from a military background. But he is an assistant. And I didn't think it would be hard to place him but it surprised me the level of resistance I encountered to his gender.”

As she said before it’s mostly senior men hiring assistants, and they carry those familiar stereotypes in their heads…

“I had a client once, a private household client who was a highly-respected, very wealthy individual, and he told me that in his household, the females were the PA and the nanny, and the males were the chauffeur and the security. And that’s the way it was. He absolutely wouldn’t entertain anything outside of that.”

In a moment, how Jessica is trying to change some of the biases in her industry. And how one woman found her career as an assistant.


Janel Wallace is in her early 50s and she’s been an assistant for about 15 years. Right now she’s an executive assistant at an international retail company based in the Midwest.

AM-T: “How did you become an assistant or what used to be called a secretary?”

“A secretary, I’m very comfortable with the word secretary.”

Janel started college but she didn’t graduate. She met a guy, got married at 20, and had her first child at 22. She didn’t work when she was a young mother. Her husband didn’t want her to.

“I was quite young when I met him, he was 5 years older and his goal was always to have his wife at home with the children, career wasn’t something that was offered at that point.”

But after 18 years the marriage ended. And Janel needed a job. She’d pitched in at her family’s business on and off over the years and she had always admired her father’s assistant, a German woman who effectively ran the operation. This lady knew every little detail of what went on. Janel says she became indispensable. She is still with the business decades later.

Janel wanted to be like her. In her late thirties she got her first fulltime admin job…

“That really I think started out as a cupcake role, like you sit at the front desk and look pretty, and bring them drinks at 4 o’clock…that evolved into me working on disaster relief plans, disaster recovering plans for an IT firm. It all interwove, and I knew that this support role was what I wanted to do.”

AM-T: “What do you love about your current job and what you do every day?”

“It allows me to be very anticipatory, it allows me to know the boss’s or president’s schedule in and out, to anticipate his every move, his every need, his calendar, appointments, who wants to see him, know who he wants to see, who he doesn’t. And my personality responds very, very well to the assistant role and I’m passionate about it because it is my job to make him look better.”

She takes pride in that. As Jessica said a bit earlier, this job can’t be all about you, and Janel is fine with that. 

“I am very much a people pleaser and my temperament – I don’t need to be upfront, I get uncomfortable when they say thank you in front of people. I have a pleasure knowing what I did, I did well.”

AM-T: “Is there anything that frustrates you about the role of assistant in general?

“It’s interesting, as I’ve thought back on it, that we are really never recognized until we do something wrong, until there’s a misstep. I think a lot of people, especially the men I’ve supported, they think it’s just a seamless thing but it’s really like the duck paddling, it’s super calm on the top but crazy underneath. And as long as you present the super calm on the top people don’t need to know all the crazy that went on behind that.”

But recently she and some of her colleagues did get some recognition – even if it was perhaps somewhat mandated. It was National Administrative Professionals Day in April.  

“The CEO of our company and the number two of our company came in and they recognized the fact their lives were so smooth because they could holler their secretaries’ names out the door and she had it. It was nice to hear from men in fairly powerful positions they did know the role a good admin could play.”

Janel has worked for women too. She says the main difference she observed was that the women were – surprise – a lot busier, they were juggling more. Janel sometimes watched a sick kid at the office while the mother was in meetings. And she enjoyed that. She says her women bosses let her in a bit more on their private lives, whereas the man she’s working for now keeps his home life very private.

One thing I remember from my own past as an assistant was feeling awkward among friends with more prestigious jobs. Janel can relate.

She has a group of girlfriends she goes out with regularly. She says they’re hard working, talented…

“…and have extremely strong careers in the HR field or the marketing field or the management field. And these girls have been career-minded from day one and I love and respect them so very much. I do feel inadequate at times because I’m the secretary. And whether that’s my own fear or, if I’m projecting that on them…”

She doesn’t want to make out that her friends make her feel bad. Because they don’t, exactly, it’s just…

“There’s not a ton of accomplishment you get when you’re sitting around having wine and cheese and they’re talking about accounts, and wins, and programs, and you’re like well, I got the coffee delivered on time this week.”

But most of the time she feels good about what she does. She sees younger women come in and try to get a foot on the ladder by starting out as an assistant. She admires their tenacity, and she gets it – they want to use their education and keep moving up. But she believes women like her probably make better assistants, because they’re dedicated to that job. She says in every place she’s worked…

“I strive to learn every bit about their business. I sit with our financial people. I read the PowerPoints, I know about the ins and outs and that helps me be a more educated supporter of the boss. So that helps me know where we’re headed, where his stresses are.”

She also spends her quieter times – when her boss is traveling – making sure she’s up to date with the latest additions of programs like Excel and PowerPoint.  She’s conscious that she can’t let her tech skills slip.

“There’s always a new thing to learn. And number one it keeps my mind fresh and current and number two it only adds to my desirability in the role.”

But she admits she has trouble with that perennial interview question – where do you want to be in a year, three years, or five years? She says for her, the answer is always the same.

“I want to be so much better at what I do, I want to gain trust and confidence that I am very competent, I don’t need seven promotions, I don’t need to branch out into a different department, I’m very content to support a person who’s in charge, and having them trust me and know that I’ve got their back.”

And even though Janel loves her job, she was surprised when I told her it’s still the top job for women in the US. Jessica Williams in London was less surprised. She says admin roles can be incredibly varied, and sometimes offer flexible hours, too.

But for me, the fact so many women are still doing this work…

AM-T: “…something about that niggles at me. And I think it’s the support thing. We’re nearly always supporting men in these roles. And I worry that the reason so many of us still do these roles is because we may be under-confident and think we can’t do another type of role. That is I think the nub of what makes me a little bit uncomfortable about these statistics. Cos I know that when I was doing it I was under confident, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I worry about that, I think do women still think that they can’t do their own thing?”

“I’m sure some women do, not all of them, I think you and I are testament to that. I’m an example of someone who started younger, did it for 12 years, enjoyed it, learnt a lot from it, decided I wanted to step out from the shadows and do something myself. Rather than supporting the boss I felt I wanted to be the boss, because I felt that it was my time. I think that’s something we’re gonna see with a lot of our junior candidates. I don’t think the traditional role of the career PA is something we’re going to see last for much longer. But I really want people to recognize the role of an assistant is an amazing profession in its own right and it can be an extraordinary stepping stone to anything that you want to do.”

But to take that first step – whether you want a career as a PA or something else, you have to be hired. And Jessica says as her business in London took off she kept noticing something about her clients that bothered her. Even companies with well established diversity programs –  they were picking women candidates for assistants, and white women at that. Other applicants just weren’t landing interviews. So Jess and her colleagues devised a scheme – an experiment of sorts.

They now send clients a list of the top 3 candidates for a position. But all the client sees on the page is a list of the person’s skills, where they’ve worked, any education and qualifications and a summary of their character.

“But that is it. We don’t give any indication as to the gender of the person or their ethnic background or any other information that isn’t relevant to their ability to do the job. It’s really early days but what we’ve found – it’s remarkable. There are candidates that we may have sent to three or four employers and who were not being picked for interview, who are now being seen.”

She says as recruiters, she and her staff have a responsibility to make their industry fairer…

“Because if we don’t do it who else will? The buck has to stop with us. Or otherwise in ten years time we’re still going to have a landscape in our industry that looks much as it does now. A primarily female talent pool and in some industries, only some, but some industries, employers still hiring on the basis of where that person was born, the kind of education they’ve had and where they went to school, which is in my opinion, absolutely…it’s not just irrelevant, it doesn’t just irritate me because it makes absolutely no business sense, but it’s fundamentally wrong. And there are lot of other stories I could tell you of other recruiters in my industry who are still operating right now who I know for a fact screen on behalf of their clients on the basis of gender and ethnicity.”

And let’s not forget looks bias – which can take a few forms.  Some of you remember this story that blew up about a year ago – an assistant in London was sent home from her temp job when she showed up wearing flats. The job apparently required her to wear 2-4 inch heels.  

I asked Jess if she’s come up against this kind of thing, and she has. She told me about a temp job that involved wearing a uniform – the uniform came in two sizes, a UK 8 and 10. She was a 12. And because the uniform didn’t fit, she too was sent home from the job. She says sure, looking presentable in a public-facing role like this is important. But…

“It’s perfectly possible to look polished and smart and professional and make a really good first impression without having to wear a tight-fitting blouse or a stiletto heel. And I just find it distasteful and I find it irrelevant...totally...I think it’s bonkers that it still happens. But there you go. I had the flat shoe fight a lot by the way, when I was younger. I had a lot of recruiters tell me off for wearing flat shoes. But when you’re working in an admin job you spend a lot of time on your feet. It’s just not practical to be running around in stilettos the whole time, I think it’s amazing if people can do it but I can’t.”

Jessica Williams of Sidekicks. Thanks to her and Janel Wallace for being my guests on this show.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. As usual I’d love to hear from you, especially if you are an assistant or if you’ve been one. You can leave a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page. Or you can tweet me or email me.

Thanks to those of you who have pitched in with a donation to the show – either a one off or if you’ve become a monthly sustainer as a listener in England did recently. If you’d like to join them just go to TheBroadExperience.com/support. Those donations help keep the show going, so thank you.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.

Episode 104: Starting Over

Show transcript:

 Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, you start your adult life believing that having a career is wrong …and then everything changes…

“The first week of my divorce, I had $40 in the bank and I cried when I set up the utilities in my own house because I had never imagined I could do that. It was the funniest little things to realize that I was a grown up.”

Coming up, leaving one life behind and starting a career in your mid-30s.


A couple of years ago I heard from a listener Salt Lake City, Utah called Brooke Lark. Her email was memorable for a bunch of reasons but mainly because of the colorful way she wrote.

At one point she said,

“When you're raised believing the only thing you're meant to do is have babies, that education is selfish (and career is even more selfish), waking up outside of religion and realizing you've got to swim up stream (with a boatload of kids in tow) is beyond terrifying.”

Recently I asked her to expand on that.

“I was raised in a very conservative religion and left and right, hook, line and sinker, believed that the only thing I should be doing with myself is being a stay-at-home, birthing as many children as God would allow. I dove into that really readily. I was 19 and married. I remember at my 10-year reunion being really proud that I had had four children, which was the most that anyone had. So you know, I was on this, like, dogma treadmill to winning heaven.”

 Brooke was raised Mormon. And unlike Pat Jones in the last show, who is also Mormon, Brooke had a strict religious upbringing. She says she knows Mormon women who have always worked, but that never felt like an option for her.

“There is no denying the fact that if you are a young girl growing up in the Church and you listen to the lessons, you will come away feeling like, "Okay, I understand that it is my job to be a mother and to care for children. I should sacrifice my life for these endeavors and for my husband so that he can be a caretaker and so certainly, you could interpret that, and different personalities do. I have Mormon friends who have a phD and Mormon friends who have traveled the world and never been married. But the large majority of the dogma and the religion does encourage a woman to stay at home. You do grow up believing that your place is in the home. And anything that would better yourself is something you put second.”

She certainly believed that. She’s the oldest of six daughters.

“Everything in our home and our lives was built around the community of church and family. You’re very immersed in the culture and the culture and your community and your family is an extension of those ideas that you learn in church. Interestingly enough, my mom actually left the church when I was 16, which was a huge taboo, and that made me dive in even deeper because then I felt that it was my responsibility to be very righteous and to bring her back to live in a way that I showed her that she was making the wrong choice.”

AM-T: “ Ah, how interesting…”

“I know. I wish I could go back to that 16-year-old girl and say, ‘It's not your job to save your mother.’" [laughs]

But even though she’s laughing now, her mother leaving the church was huge – because she didn’t just leave the church, she left her family. She had had an affair, and Brooke says leaving that relationship and facing up again to the daily grind of kids and housework… 

“She just didn’t care because she couldn’t do it any more. I mean, she had not been educated and she had six young girls. She was overwhelmed. The promises made in church where not her promises. She felt a duty to just leave and she did. She just up and left one day and turned over all of her parental rights to my father.”

Things did not go well after that. The family was scattered, and some of Brooke’s sisters still bear huge psychological scars. She feels lucky that she was almost out of the house when it happened.

And as Brooke says was a righteous girl. She decided she was going to be the ultimate support to her husband, the best mother she could be. She met her husband at Brigham Young University – founded and owned by the Mormon church. She married at 19 and within a couple of years she had her first child, a boy. Once they both graduated, her husband got a job working for the Mormon church in Colorado Springs.

‘So we weren't just members of the Church. Our entire lives was Church and we would travel and speak to youth every summer in a program called EFY, and it was a very active part of my identity to push against people who did not want children, who would consider not having children.”

After her son was born Brooke went on to have a daughter and then twins, a boy and a girl. And one day when she was pregnant with the twins she came across this old column by Ann Landers, the advice columnist. Landers had polled readers to ask if they knew then what they knew now, would they still have had kids? A majority said no. And Brooke was furious. She wrote to Ann Landers lambasting her and her readers, saying how selfish these people were, how children were the best thing in the whole world…and how sad it was that anyone could think differently…

“I was so in love with my children and the opportunity of being a mother. And I think, in part, is because that's all I had. I was not allowed to let that experience be anything but fully fulfilling. And so on most levels it was.”

But about ten years ago something began to shift. Brooke was still happy with her lot, but household finances were a little tight. Then she met this other Mormon mum through her kids’ school, and the two of them started meeting up every week.  

“Well one day over tea she said you know these people, women, are making money off of these blog things…and I said really, do you think I could make $500 a month? Because we did not have money to send the kids to basketball and I had wanted to send them to soccer and basketball. And she said, well I heard that Design Mom makes $30,000 a month.

Brooke had barely read a blog in her life. She was raised to be industrious. She thought online stuff was basically a waste of time. But she really wanted that extra money for the kids. And she loved baking and coming up with recipes…

“I went home, I had no idea what I was doing. Put up a Blogspot—it was horrible looking. The worst name ever. It was called Conversations with a Cupcake because I had no concept of branding or marketing. This was so far from my world that I ever expected to live in. But I had this goal to make $500 a month so the first 6 months I kind of figured out oh, ok I understand how to connect to the community. So I was able to get promoted on several other blogs. And a company called and they offered me $500 every month, just to put, like we’d do a couple of special posts just for them and they’d put their ad on my side bar. So that was a huge win.”

Money began coming in. She was pleased about that and delighted to have this creative outlet, something for herself. She connected with a highly successful blogger at one point, offered to bake her a cake, and was featured on her blog – and that brought Brooke thousands more readers. And as she got more successful, her world began to change. She began to travel a little, to blogging conventions. About six years ago she went to a convention in Arizona and met a group of bloggers she really liked…

“One day we were sitting at a wine bar and I've never been to a wine bar in my life because Mormons are supposed to avoid alcohol at all levels. So I was sitting there and everyone around me was drinking. I was drinking water sitting next to this man who had been flown in for this event. He was so lovely and so dear, and around me, everyone is drinking. I then had this strange feeling, which in Mormonism, we would say is the spirits. There was such a beautiful connection and humanity at that table and nobody was in a hurry. I had never experienced this before. In Mormonism, you are always busy. You're always running from place to place, event to event; meeting to meeting. Here we were and then this man next to me mentioned to me that he was gay. My world cracked open. I could not understand how you could feel nice and kind feelings sitting around a wine bar with people drinking, sitting next to a gay guy that you've now decided that you really like.”

Brooke had been raised in the church to think being gay was decidedly wrong. A sin. That it was something a person should deny, or get fixed.

“So I went home and thought I have to re-think some of the things that I am thinking because this new world that I am starting to understand doesn't fit with the things I am told about how the world really is. And that was the beginning; 9 months later, I resigned from the Church.”

Brooke’s husband was having his own crisis of faith, though for different reasons, and the two of them ended up leaving the church together. 

But losing their community and stepping into a whole new world in their mid-30s – it was a challenge. And at the same time, their relationship was changing.


So Brooke was happy with her new, expanded life before her, but her husband was struggling with what to do next. They had lost the religion they’d shared, the church he’d worked for – but Brooke had her creative outlet, the blog that was actually paying her pretty well at this point.

“I was making about $2,000 a month with my blog, which is more than I ever...When I first started, I was hoping to make $500 a month, so to suddenly get to this point where I was making 2 to 3 thousand dollars a month, I just felt epically wealthy.”

She told her husband she could cover the bills until he found another job.

“And so that was the plan. I would work hard, take a couple of side-hustles and just make it through. Because at that point I wasn’t even thinking, “This could be a career.” I wouldn’t even give myself a name that that could be attached to a career. I just had a little blog.”

But earning her own income was beginning to affect her outlook on life…

“As I started to gain more success, I started to gain more confidence. That made me feel more comfortable drawing boundaries or saying, "this is what I need or this is what I like or this is what I want." Our relationship was just fully unprepared for that kind of equality. We did not go into that marriage being equal partners. We went into the marriage with me as the supporter.” I was the rib. I was Eve and he was Adam. Maybe that was several little cracks in the foundation.

And then the bigger issue came when we stepped out of Mormonism. It is very difficult when everything had a structure before, and everything had an answer and there were very specific roles. You don't have to use a part of your brain that you have to use when suddenly you have to decide what is right based on simply the information that I am gathering for myself.”

She says her husband had thrived within the structure of the Mormon church…

“Where he was being told, ‘This is how you are good, and you check these boxes." And so it became difficult for him outside of Mormonism to flourish because there were no rules that he could check boxes. For me, it was everything that my personality needed, was finally, I could follow every whim and figure out everything all by myself. That just became a very dramatic shift where we were essentially two different people. It's really hard to overcome that when you are first of all, not living under the rules that you had agreed to in the beginning, and now you are not even the same people anymore.”

A year after they left the church, they agreed to divorce. 

Her ex still hadn’t found permanent work and at that point she realized, it’s down to me – blogging, and writing about food, has to become a career. Something she had never wanted or thought she’d have. She had always been supported. The responsibility was daunting. She was terrified.  

“The first week of my divorce, I had $40 in the bank and I cried when I set up the utilities in my own house because I had never imagined I could do that. It was the funniest little things to realize that I was a grown up. When I got off the phone, and the utilities woman said, “Thank you, Mrs. McLay.” It was so strange to have people talk to me as a grown up. So that week, I had $40 in my account. I did not know if I could pay all my bills. We had just started running forward and I would reach out and try to hustle gigs.”

Her own blog had become a springboard for other work. Corporate work. She had begun to be approached by big food companies to blog for them, and she just kept inquiring about more work.  

“And the following two years later, I had $40,000 paid off in debt and $30,000 in my account, so I know I’ve been incredibly lucky to not only be able to take care of my children, but also rebuild very quickly.”

Her ex-husband pays for their health insurance through his new job. He also pays for contacts and glasses for the kids and he kicks in for some school supplies too. But it’s mostly Brooke who keeps the show on the road. The complete opposite of her old life.

She still has scary moments. One day her biggest client pulled back and she had that thought, ‘It’s all over, I may never get another gig’ – we’re all going to the homeless shelter. But she calmed down, started getting in touch with other companies, and began to create more income streams. Now she does everything from food photography to writing to brand consulting. She says the last several years have been quite a learning curve, very uncomfortable at times. But talking to other women about their work has been a big help.

“I have become obsessed to the max with asking people, how did you come to be where you are in your current job?  And it’s been incredibly revealing and refreshing to find out a lot of people end up taking risks and are starting and reinventing and ending up in careers they never would have imagined or hadn’t been trained for and just kind of fell into. So it was several years of asking and asking people, why are you doing the job and what is your training, what is your schooling? before I understood that a lot of us feel a little impostor syndrome. And listening to The Broad Experience, it has been so hugely important to me to listen to the way you talk about work and women and I realize that so many of the issues I deal with aren’t exclusively because I was a 35-year-old woman suddenly cast out of a conservative religion into a world I didn’t recognize or know…it’s a lot of it because I’m just a woman in a world where we’re all still trying to figure ourselves out and see what works andhow to fit together children and family and home. So understanding a lot of people end up in their careers by surprise was an important part of me saying OK, I can claim this is my own.”

And she’s proud of what she’s achieved. Not only keeping her family afloat, but being able to save as well.

“In fact just yesterday I closed on a house that I will be buying by myself. I am the second woman, in every single generation of my entire family, I’m the first one to graduate from college and the first one to buy a house. So it felt like a very, very big deal to have gone from thinking I could only be a stay at home mom, to completely re-inventing, and in 5 years it feels kind of crazy, but I’m grateful.”

 And after not dating since she was a teenager, she plunged back into that world too, and met someone. Her boyfriend now lives with her and the kids. He’s an outdoors type, works as a creative director for a bike company.

“He was never Mormon, never wanted children, had no children, and of course in Utah there’s just a plethora of women to date all of whom have many, many children. So it’s become a funny thing, my world of only women with 4 to 9 children with his world of outdoor friends, none of whom have children.”

But it works.

Brooke says she never wanted to live in Utah – she had lived there for part of her childhood, and had no desire to go back to what she remembered as a very conservative place. She moved to Salt Lake City when her ex-husband re-located to look for work and they wanted to keep the family in one place. But in the years since she’s fallen in love with the place, its proximity to the mountains.

“So no I don’t see myself moving, in fact few places hold a draw for me, and not because my family is here but because I love the land here. I would like to see my children grow up in a place where they’re surrounded by more women that they can see. I think we’ve found a nice little niche but I’m aware that when they get out and about they’re largely surrounded by a culture where it’s very, very uncommon for women to work and it’s certainly uncommon for women to make equal amounts of money. I actually went on a date right after I moved here with a man, a business owner, who said, ‘oh I’ve always told everyone that women are the secret to success, you can pay them 60c on the dollar and they get more work than a man in a day.’ And I was so shocked by that but that’s true and it’s a pervading issue in the Utah mentality, is that women work, they work hard, and if you do pay them a little bit they’re so grateful they’ll work even harder for even less.”

That is not the message she wants her daughters to absorb.

Brooke says an important part of her new trajectory is being a good guide for her children. Her oldest son is now 19, and came out as gay a couple of years ago. Her older daughter is sixteen and her younger son and daughter are 14. She says her family teases her…

“That in a three year period I went from a mom who would drop the kids off at school and say, ‘Return with honor,’ which is a big Mormon thing.”

To a mum who has entirely different concerns…

 “And now you just drop us off and say, ‘don’t have kids!’ so there has definitely been some evolution, and the children have weathered it very well.” [laughs]

AM-T: “Huh…and you wouldn’t really tell your daughters not to have kids, would you?”

“I feel it is my duty – because I did not have a woman who was allowed to speak about what motherhood and womanhood really was – to help my children understand what choices they can’t make right now entail once they do make them. So I will tease them that I don’t want them to have kids but we talk about it a lot. It’s important to me that I’m very open with my children. My daughter is 16, she said I want to have all my eggs taken out…and I said well honey, I don’t know that you want to make your decision when you’re sixteen. And she said ‘you know mom, we’ve talked about this – I know I need to get financially prepared, get 100,000 dollars in the bank, get my schooling under my feet, I’m hoping to start a coffee truck...and I don’t know if I’ll have time to do all that before I want to have kids so maybe it’s just not gonna happen so I’m just getting the eggs gone’ Maybe it’s a little bit of overkill but I’ve gone from the only answer is have children, to if you do want to have children, if you want to discuss what it means to have a career or go to college or whatever your choices are, let’s openly discuss how that will affect your life and especially as a woman, let’s discuss how that will affect your options. Whatever the kids decide to do I give them my hugest blessing, but I hope I’m the kind of mom and the kind of woman that I never got growing up in a religion where the only thing you could say is motherhood is sacred and precious and wonderful, and it is, but not always, certainly not always.”

Brooke Lark. You can check out her work at cheekykitchen.com.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As ever I’m keen to hear from you. You can comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page. Or you tweet me or email me.

This is a one-woman show – although I will say I am lucky enough to have a great intern working with me this spring. Zaynab Ubaid helped transcribe my interview with Brooke. But I have no producer, no engineer, it is just me creating and producing the show. If you can kick in to help support the podcast just go to paypal.me/thebroadexperience – and if you give 50 bucks you will receive the official Broad Experience T-shirt.

If you can’t give money please write a review on iTunes instead – some of you have, thank you so much, but the more there are the more chance there is of the show coming to other people’s notice.

Coming up on the next show…one of the most popular jobs for women today – as in the past – is the role of assistant…

“We have a phrase that we use in the office a lot. Which is ‘ambition worn lightly.’ And that’s exactly what you need to have as a PA. You need to have serious ambition but on behalf of the person you’re supporting, not on behalf of yourself.”

Tune in for that next time.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

Episode 103: Conservative State of Mind

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…attitudes to women’s roles have changed a lot in the last several decades. But some influential people still believe women’s place is in the home…

“…and one of the male representatives from a very conservative area stood up and said we don’t need more childcare, we need to do away with the need for childcare.

Coming up…pushing for change in a conservative place.


How much do you know about Utah? Maybe if you’re a film fan you think of the Sundance Film Festival – it takes place there every year. Or maybe you’re an outdoors type and you’ve been hiking or biking in one of Utah’s incredible state parks. But a lot of us, when we think of Utah, we can’t help thinking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – or the Mormon church. Because Utah is where the Mormon faith was born in the 19th century and where the church still has its headquarters. About 60 percent of the population is still Mormon. And it’s a fair to say Mormonism is a conservative faith. Men have the power within the church, and attitudes to gender at home and outside tend to be quite traditional.  

In Utah plenty of women start college, but quite a few drop out to get married and start families before they graduate.  Most women work in some capacity, but you won’t find many women in public life or in leadership roles in business – although today many women are starting their own businesses. The state also has one of the highest wage gaps in the US.

So what do you do when you have progressive ideas about women’s place in the world, but you’re surrounded by traditionalists? If you’re like Patricia Jones, you try…slowly…steadily…to change minds.

Pat describes herself as a very open-minded Mormon. She’s always had a career – including more than a decade as a politician.

She’s in her mid-60s now and these days she is CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute in Salt Lake City.

She grew up outside Salt Lake City, and she had a different kind of upbringing from most of the other girls in her neighborhood.

“I was the fourth of five children. My mother was a career woman growing up, which was rare in the '50s. I was born in the 1950s so in those days, I think I had one other friend whose mother worked outside of home.”

AM-T: “So why did your mother?”

“My mother? Well, I am a little like my mother. She loved it. They needed the money certainly but I think she got quite motivated going to the office every day. She did some very important things. She helped run the whole company. She worked for a company that provided industrial tools and they were quite well known. They were a fairly large company. She would do bids internationally. She was challenged by that and loved to meet people from different countries.”

Pat’s mum also didn’t put up with what many women felt they had to back then. 

“She worked for the ABC affiliate here as a secretary in those days and was harassed, so when she was approached one day, she told him to stick it and she changed jobs. That would've been in the early '50s and things were--they are similar to things today in some ways, but they are quite different in some ways too. But she tells me those stories of...She'll be 95 this year.”

And Pat says, still going strong. With her mother as a role model, Pat says she always knew she wanted to work and have a family.

She married young and had a son, but got divorced when he was little. Then she met her second husband and they soon had children of their own.   

Five years after they married they set up a business together conducting market research and doing focus groups for various clients.

“In 1980, is when we incorporated, we started with two of us--he and I. We had two little kids. One was barely a year old, one was three. My older son was about seven. We started the business grew and grew. I spend a lot of nights and days. It was hard work but I loved it.”

 She particularly enjoyed talking to all those people in focus groups, gathering their opinions…

But what I heard, especially in Utah is that they felt like their legislators weren't listening to the needs of public education in our state and it kind of stuck with me, and I felt the same way. I had kids in school.”

She says that idea came from the then attorney general of Utah, a woman called Jan Graham. Pat knew her because she’d done some research for her political campaign. And initially she told her no – politics is not for me. And she kept saying no. But Graham wouldn’t give up.

“So Jan Graham – attorney general Jan Graham called me every day for two weeks. And finally I just said yes, to kind of get her off my back.”

When Pat was elected as a congresswoman there were quite a few raised eyebrows in and around Salt Lake City. She had run and won as a Democrat, but her business had done a lot of work over the years with Republican politicians on their campaigns.

“It was quite surprising. There were articles in newspapers about what a risk it was for me. But I am here to say that not all Republicans agree with everything Republican and I think they felt that I was able to work across the aisle quite well and pull it off.”

AM-T: “Well yeah, you talked about that – you said you made an effort to befriend your Republican colleagues.”

“Well yes, and something happened today that reminded me of that--women make a huge mistake when they go into a committee or meeting where there are very few women, which was the case for me today at the Salt Lake Chamber's meeting, and they go and sit and hang out together. I always made it a point to sit next to Republican men, of course most of them were so it wasn't difficult. But I made it a point not to just sit with women because you build relationships in that way. It's absolutely critical that they get to know you, and when they are discussing a bill in a legislative committee, it is very common to discuss it a little bit while you are sitting there, and you can help persuade people and it may make you more open-minded, and it helps you build relationships.”

AM-T: “Did that help your political agenda, ultimately, doing that?”

“Oh, absolutely. In Utah, we have five Democrats in the Senate out of 29. We have a super minority in Utah in the House and the Senate. That's what I had to work with. I think it's all about building relationships with the other side. I wish our Congress would do more of that. It is critical that we can put some of those things aside and really do what's best for our communities and our people, you know put politics aside and think about building coalitions with people who share commonalities.”

This is a big theme with her – the need to talk to others who do not agree with you. She says it’s vital for more women to enter politics. And there’s some evidence that in the wake of the US presidential election, that’s actually happening.

“I had a marvelous experience as a politician. We need women in politics. I mean for example, I was the only woman on the law enforcement committee when I was in the house. They packed that committee with pro-gun legislators. By that, I mean they advocated more the NRA position.”

That’s The National Rifle Association…

“All of the gun bills would go through this committee. At that time, there was a debate about whether the University of Utah should be forced to allow guns on campus. We would hear over and over again that concealed-weapon permit holders are law-abiding citizens and that was just part of the discussion.”

So just to break that down, especially if you’re not a US listener…so a concealed weapon permit holder – someone who holds a permit to carry a weapon somewhere on their person – that they can whip out in the event that they need it.

Pat says she was worried – you know, this was about weapons on a university campus – who were these people who were allowed to carry guns around an area with hundreds of students and professors? Her male colleagues argued look, they’ve been vetted to get these permits, they’re upstanding citizens.

So one day, and It seemed like I was one of the few who would ask questions in that committee…”

She asked, so how many of these permits are revoked every year? And why?

“And no one had ever asked that question before. It took a woman, the only woman on the committee, to ask that question. It turns out, there were hundreds revoked every year for very serious crimes. So after that point, when people would automatically say that concealed-weapons holders were law abiding citizens, I would always point out, "yes, until they break the law." That's just one example of many that I could point to that if you have no women on a committee or maybe one, you need a critical mass of women who can ask pointed questions.”

AM-T: “Before we move on can I just ask what happened in that case? Are people just allowed to carry open weapons at that university?”

“Yes, it passed. The University of Utah was forced to allow concealed weapons on campus. One of the bills that was passed, later on when I was on the Senate...was we have a state gun. We have a state tree, a state song, a state bird, go down the list…and we have a state gun. And I think that's unfortunate and I was there fighting that also in the Senate committee. Not all women and not all men feel the same way on those issues, on, for instance, guns. But I can tell you based on research that we have done over and over again in my business, women and men feel different in aggregate about guns. And if you don't have a women's voice at the table asking those questions, you'll get policies like we do today.”

She remembers another time when she cringed at what she was hearing. One year when she was a congresswoman, Utah’s House of Representatives was debating a bill on affordable childcare…

“…and one of the male representatives from a very conservative area stood up and said we don’t need more childcare, we need to do away with the need for childcare. And I looked at my colleague, a woman next to me, and said, does that mean we get rid of kids?

It’s critical that we are at the table and that we share our views and our experiences to help shape public policy that affects us – us!”

Those kinds of views on women’s role as homemaker are hanging on in Utah. In February a Republican politician wrote to his local newspaper opposing equal pay for women. He said if businesses were forced to pay women the same as men, they’d have to reduce the amount they paid men. And he said that would make it harder for men to support their families, and more mothers would be forced to leave the home and join the workforce. There was quite a backlash, and he ended up resigning.

To many people in Utah as elsewhere equal pay is a matter of simple fairness. But the whole topic of gender equality can still be fraught. Pat says in a conservative state like hers you can’t make equality about politics and make any progress. In Utah, just over a quarter of people voted for Hillary Clinton. Plenty of Pat’s friends loathe her. And the word feminism? It tends not to go down well. She says as head of the Women’s Leadership Institute she talks up women’s economic impact on businesses because that’s something all business leaders can understand.

She also emphasizes how much better off both men and women will be if women are doing better at work.

But sometimes getting there takes a roundabout route. Recently she set off to give a talk.

“There’s a company, it’s a very large construction company, they own gravel trucks, it’s very large, housed in most conservative city, Provo, in Utah. The head of it asked me to come down and tell them something about the Elevate Her Challenge and the Women’s Leadership institute. I drove up, there were pickup trucks all over the place with gun racks and so forth. I knew I was in for a challenge. I went in there. It was all men, their executive team, all their VPs were there, and I started to talk about the Women’s Leadership Institute, why it was important, and you know, it was crickets if you will, all looking at their phones. So I thought I’m gonna change the discussion here.” 

She started talking about research she’d read on how men and women are quite different – and how those differences can complement eachother in the workplace…but she wanted to appeal to the men directly to get their attention…

“And I said to them, I just dropped everything and I said, ‘you know it’s very difficult working in your environment right now and bringing in women. I said men are confused about the rules today. They don’t know what to call women: ladies, women, girls? They don’t know whether they should compliment them on what they’re wearing. They’re concerned about reverse discrimination. They’re wondering, can I go to lunch alone with a woman in my office if we talk about business? You go down the list today of the things men are worried about working in the office with women…and as soon as I started talking about it in this way, where the men felt understood, something they had never heard a woman talk about before, they put their phones down, crossed their arms across their bellies, and started listening to me.”

So I bet some of you will be fuming to hear this…the idea of indulging the privileged white male psyche to get those men to embrace equality? But Pat says you have to meet people where they are. And this way… it’s a first step to getting roomfuls of conservative men to actually care about elevating women into senior roles at their companies.

She says unlike Provo where she gave that talk, Salt Lake City where she lives is quite a diverse place. There’s a mix of religions, more of an ethnic mix than elsewhere in the state, and a gay population. She laments that Utah has kind of a bad rap.

“I’ve traveled extensively in my legislative career and in my business. And once you tell people you’re from Utah there’s like stone cold silence – they wonder how many husbands you have, they wonder if you’re stuck at home. This is a very vibrant culture here, very different than most people who haven’t been here. We have some issues, yes, we have a wide wage gap, very few women in political office, we’re working on that. We have women who start college but don’t finish to the extent we’d like them to…but the women here are forward thinking, looking for new ways to do things…we have an incredible number of women who are starting businesses in their homes and outside of their homes, and great executives that are moving here. But we have some work to do in some areas and that’s what we’re doing.”

You can check out the Women’s Leadership Institute at WLIUT.com.

Pat just mentioned women starting their own businesses in Utah. In the next show we’re going to meet one of those women…and unlike Pat, she was raised in a strict religious home.

“I was like on just this dogma treadmill to winning heaven and would never have expected that I’d need to have a career and I certainly wouldn’t have expected to be financially caring for myself and my children 20 years into that experience.”

Tune in for that next time.  

And thanks to those of you who’ve left comments on that episode I did about how open to be about your home life when you’re working in other cultures. I love the feeling that I’m building a community of people who can help eachother. It’s one of the most rewarding things about doing the podcast. 

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time. 

Episode 102: When Women Work For Free (re-release)

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This week show’s is an episode I first put out in 2014. It’s as relevant today as it was then. It has to do with women’s worth in the marketplace and our tendency to under-value ourselves. Now I will say that since I made episode I have got a lot better at putting a value on my time and expertise – in large part because of what I learned talking to these guests and others.

And I’ll give you a quick update at the end that may be helpful for anyone starting out in a new freelance career. Just because you lack experience doesn’t mean you have to under-charge. So stay tuned for that.


This time on the show: why do so many women have a hard time putting a value on their work?

“If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t believe you’re worth what you’re charging, other people won’t, they’ll smell that fear and they’ll try to haggle you down.”

And how do you respond to those requests to pick your brain over coffee?

“If it’s really people wanting to pick your brain and they’re not coming to the table with anything, they’re not offering to barter, they’re not thinking of paying, there’s ways to respond to that.”

Coming up – when women work for free.

Earlier year I was on Forbes.com one day and I came across a post that really got me thinking. It was called No, You Can’t Pick My Brain – It Costs Too Much.

It was by an Atlanta businesswoman called Adrienne Graham and it basically said, I run my own business and I have been overrun by people who want to talk on the phone or meet for coffee so they can pick my brain – essentially they want me to give them advice for free. Here’s why I say no and here are some tips for you to set boundaries. 

The reason that article made me think so much is that I recognized my own tendency to want to help people…and my own tendency to totally undervalue my work and give away time for nothing. And when you are freelance like I am, time really is money.

And I’ve had more of these kinds of queries lately: people, sometimes individuals, sometimes companies, who want to ask my advice about women and the workplace, or who want to find out more about podcasting. But they couch it in terms of ‘can you chat on the phone?’ or ‘can you meet for coffee?’

And I have to explain that I’ve built up expertise in these areas and this is actually part of how I earn my living. I charge a consulting fee for my time. But I tend to feel awkward about this declaration.  And I know I am not the only woman who finds it tough to talk about what she’s worth.

So I got in touch with the author of that Forbes post, Adrienne Graham, and we got on Skype. She actually wrote the post three years ago but it keeps popping back up like it did for me this year. It’s proved so popular she has now written a book and launched a speaking tour on this exact topic. Her company is called Adrienne Graham Ventures.

Here’s how the whole thing started. In her business, she was switching tack from a focus on recruiting to concentrating on consulting about business growth strategies. And because she was re-focusing her business she thought well, OK, I’ll talk to some people over coffee because that’s how you build up your business, right? You give away your expertise for a while and then people come back? But that’s not how things worked out. The tactic backfired on her. She was losing money fast.

“And it just started grating on me because when you have a child and when you have mortgage payments and bills due, you can’t pay your bills with niceties and pleasantries and advice So one morning I got up and thought my business is sinking, I’m sinking, I might to lose my home, what am I gonna do? And I just got frustrated because all the other people that I had spoken to or given advice to, these others were killing it in their businesses, they were taking off.  I didn’t get a thank you, I didn’t get a referral, I didn’t get an offer to pay. So one Saturday morning I got up and all of this was weighing on my mind, and I just released all this energy into this blog post.”

The comments began pouring in and they haven’t stopped. And while most are along the lines of ‘you go girl’…some are critical, calling her ungenerous. But Adrienne points out she charges clients good money for her advice – so how would they feel if they knew she was giving the same advice to another person over coffee, for nothing? These days her business is doing well. She says it is vital to believe that what you know – all that expertise you’ve acquired – is valuable.  

I said I really feel it’s women who have a problem valuing themselves. Or is it just that men don’t talk about it?

“OK, well I hate to assign gender to it, I really try to stay out of that area. But let’s do it. A lot of my women clients come to me after they’ve read my book or the article and they say this is a really sticky point for me, where I can’t monetize my intellectual property, or my content, or people are not valuing me. Because women feel nurturing for the most part. The majority of us are moms. So that’s one thing, by nature we are nurturers, we want to be able to hold hands and help people. And that’s great, that’s a beautiful thing.”

But not so much when that instinct to help people overrides your ability to charge. And even though I do not have children I absolutely have this nurturing trait. 

“Second thing is we are taught, if you look at these marketers out there, they have conditioned the market or the general population that you have to give something for free in order to get something. And with all this let me give you my free e-book, my free this, free that’, women feel like we have to compete. And the third thing is the confidence thing: sometimes people feel, ‘If I charge too much I might alienate a whole segment of people.’ Well guess what, you don’t have to worry about that. As a business owner, you have your target market, that’s who you should be focusing on. Women get distracted by the details. You need to focus in on not making friends with everyone but being able to fulfill the needs and services that your customers need, everyone else is secondary.”

So there.

And I appreciate Adrienne’s allusion to the people pleaser that lives in so many of us. How often have you made a decision you knew was about keeping up your ‘nice’ credentials rather than helping you achieve something you needed to?

My problem is basically that: it’s the nice police.  And there’s been plenty of research done on this, especially with regard to women’s ability to negotiate for a raise. Women have been found to negotiate just as well as guys when they negotiate for another person. But when they ask for money for themselves, they aim lower. The reason: social backlash. Women expect to be judged poorly for aiming high – after all they know society expects them to be selfless beings, so they temper their ask. And they get a lower offer.

I think it’s the same thing here: I fear offending people when I explain yes, we can talk about this, but you need to pay me – some voice in my head tells me, who do you think you are to charge for your knowledge? I tried to explain all this to Adrienne…

AM-T: “This is the kind of thing that kicks in and hampers me is this, this weird...It’s almost an inability to value myself. Not that I couldn’t sit down and do it. But it’s tough to actually say I want to be paid what I consider my worth. And then there are these underneath things of , do you even believe you’re worth that much? It’s complicated, it goes really deep I think.”

“Well two things: you can be nice and firm. People make the assumption because of the tone of the article that I’m a mean person. I’m far from it. I just know what my worth is. If this was a day job I wouldn’t be haggling with my boss about what I’d be making. Second, my dad had a saying: a closed mouth don’t get fed. If you don’t believe you’re worth what you’re charging other people won’t, they’ll smell that fear and they’ll try to haggle you down. When I first started my first business, my recruiting firm, I was very new, very green, I had no connections. I just picked up the phone and started cold calling. Reached out, finally got this ad agency and the CEO of the agency decided to take my call. And I was very excited. I won’t go into the details but every time I threw out a price he said, oh, no, doesn’t work for me. Because I wanted to snag a client I agreed every time he lowered. He got me down to 11 %. My fee at that time was supposed to be 33%. He said, OK, 11% is good. Then he said let me stop you right there: I’m not going to do business with you. He said did you learn anything yet? He said you never, ever, ever discount yourself, you never let anybody diminish your worth right before your eyes. He said if you have a price, you stand firm in your price and let them see that you are confident in what you have to give. He said in essence because I came down so much on my price so much, I was telling him I wasn’t worth it.”

That taught her a lesson. And it’s helped to keep her focused.

AM-T: “You also, in the piece, um, I notice that one of the points you make is for people’s websites, you say ‘prominently post that there are no freebies’. One of the things I notice about your own site is that unlike so many other consultants, you post on the site what your fees are, you’re not hiding behind call me and we’ll talk, you have your fees right there on the website.”

“Yes, you have to. And another thing I do, I never leave home without my fee schedule, I keep it on my iPad, it’s always within reach, I never leave home without it. But yeah, I don’t believe in all that not sharing your fees, no, people want to play these games. I don’t have time. I have so many people calling and emailing me. I have three companies I’m running, I teach, I mentor, I speak, I’m a mom. I don’t have time to play games. So I want them already, when they come to me they’ve already done their research, they’ve made their decision, they know exactly the value I bring to them and they’re ready to get to work. The ones who are scared by my fees, they’re not meant to be my clients.”

She has no regrets.

Now we all know there’s a pay gap between men and women. But there’s also evidence that even when women are paying themselves as entrepreneurs, they pay themselves less than male business owners do. A recent Financial Times article looked at this and there have been other studies too. One reason cited is that women may not need the money as much as a male entrepreneur because they have a spouse who’s earning more. Also it’s said that women simply don’t care as much as men about getting top dollar – they want to do good by the business before earning a lot. But the other possibility is that women just do not value themselves or their work as much as men do theirs.

Next, I spoke to Kathy Caprino about this. Regular listeners know Kathy. She’s a career coach based in Connecticut and she does a ton of writing about these issues for Forbes and the Huffington Post.  She herself has come up against others’ expectations about her status as a woman in a business that’s all about helping other people. Some don’t seem to think it’s a business at all.

“I had a funny thing happen a few years ago. A neighbor of mine told a friend, ‘Kathy charges because she has to charge.’ I had to laugh. I charge because I run a business…and I’m in the business of serving others and generating income. But there is an expectation in some ways that women are gonna give, be supportive, it’s how we’re raised, and the messages we get. But the most important thing isn’t to blame society and culture. It’s to look at yourself and look at how comfortable are you charging? I work with a lot of women and they’re not comfortable. They went into this because it’s a service business and they want to be of help. And charging top dollar can be very jarring. There’s process they have to go through to be comfortable charging and not offering everything for free.”

She says you can’t just pick prices out of the air. You need to do a lot of competitive research. Find out what other people with similar businesses are charging. What exactly do they offer, and how are you different? What can you guarantee you’ll deliver to your clients? 

“And then you start setting what those prices are and you start offering that, and you start doing the work of the pushback – there will be pushback, but let’s face it, money’s tight for a lot of people today, there will be pushback: oh, do I really have to have 10 sessions for $3500, can it be less? You’ve got to learn to get comfortable that yeah, this is what I’m worth, and sure we can talk about this, that and the other thing, but you’ve got to set the boundaries and live with it.”

That, I needed to hear.

I also wanted to ask Kathy about the whole ‘can I pick your brain?’ question. As someone who has a public profile she does hear from a lot of strangers, many of whom just assume she’ll help them out. She says she had a major revelation about this a few years ago.

“…when a post went viral and I got 300 requests a day from people a day to look at their LinkedIn profile for free. And I got mad. And after the third day my husband came in and said you’ve got to find a way not to get mad at this. And that was such the light bulb. I thought oh, he’s so right. From that day to this I’ve done a lot of work about it: don’t get mad and don’t get resentful. I’ve seen a million posts so snarky about this and I wrote one. People don’t know your business model – they see you write, they want some help and they’re desperate. That’s all. So get over being mad. We have to educate them on what we offer and what we charge. That’s our job. We don’t have to expect that they’re going to peruse our website for 10 minutes and find our prices. But when people ask me to meet and they do, here’s how I view it: is it going to be a connection that is mutually beneficial? And if so, in fact this week I am meeting with someone in my town who’s got a wonderful nutrition business and works with a ton of women, and it’s gong to be very beneficial for both of us to chat about how we can help eachother. But if it’s people wanting to pick your brain and they’re not offering anything, they’re not offering to barter, they’re not thinking of paying, there’s ways to respond to that. I have a pre-written response, which is totally true, which says ‘Due to the very high volume for free help that I receive, I’m unable to give you tailored recommendations if you’re not my client’, and the reason for that is to offer effective guidance I have to know a lot more, and that takes time and commitment. On the other hand here are my free resources. And Ashley, that is a key component – if people want to be of help and they don’t just want to be of help to people that have a lot of money, then to have free resources available – downloads, guides, webinars, audio – it’s so powerful. Because now you’re able to say I’m sorry I can’t give you my personal time but I have these wonderful free resources.”

This is something Adrienne Graham does too. It’s a way of maintaining good will but making clear any deeper engagement will command a fee. And to be clear, each has done her fair share of free speaking gigs for good causes.

Kathy says there’s one more thing she finds useful when it comes to these coffee meetings – to meet, or not to meet? She usually doesn’t, but she says if you do think the person might be worth meeting with because each of you could learn something, or because you’re just really motivated to help, consider this:

“Often women find it challenging to come out very straightforwardly and say ‘this is what I want in return’. But when you give of yourself for free, at the end when they say thanks so much, you can say, oh, I enjoyed it, and there’s something you can do for me, and then you state it. ‘I’m looking for more sponsors for my podcast,’, or I want to do a TV show around women, so make sure you have that ask: this is what I’d really love in return. I’ve never had it where they don’t say they’re going to help. They try to reciprocate in a way that is very meaningful to you.”

 I’ll link you to some of Kathy’s pieces about this topic and to Adrienne Graham’s post under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

Now to a 2017 postscript about starting out in a new freelance career. After I made this show I heard from a friend and listener. She had made a total career switch after spending some years at home with her kids. She was re-training as a website developer. She’d done online courses, taught herself. But she assumed that before she could get a paying gig she’d have to start building a portfolio first and to do that she’d need to work for free – because after all she had no experience in this area. Her husband told her, no way, don’t undervalue yourself. He got her to take on a paying job right away, one where she knew the industry the site was needed for. She totally pulled it off; she learned on the job and she told me the client was happy with the work, and she was happy she got paid to build her portfolio.

She said it was tough to get over that initial feeling of discomfort but it helped to think 'This is my price because of the value I bring to this project - which comes as much from my inside knowledge of an industry as it does from the technical skills I need now.’

She told me it was still her instinct to talk her prices down, not up, but she was practicing and getting better at it all the time.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. You know you can always comment under this episode on the website or on the show’s Facebook page, or you can email me.

Episode 101: Your Work, Your Private Life

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…how open should we be about our privates lives when we’re on the job? Especially when we’re away from home…

“I've always been quite guarded with revealing details about my personal life as I wouldn’t really want that information to be out there, out of my control I suppose.”

But not everyone believes discretion is everything…

 “I also don’t want to go out of my way to play mental games and think about oh, how can I do my part to make sure this person is comfortable by my constructing a false reality?”

Coming up – when work, social media, and the rest of your life collide.


At the beginning of the year I heard from a listener in the UK. We’re just using her first name, Marie. She’s in her late twenties. She lives and works in the north of England. And she’s been grappling with this problem related her work. Her job involves a lot of networking and travel inside and outside the UK.

“I’ve always been happy with the way I do my job and I think I’m very good – well not very good, but I think I’m good at it.”

Typically female takedown of one’s own abilities? Check.

“I've just become increasingly aware of the fact that part of my success in my professional life seems to depend on how much of myself I am giving socially.”

Now not all of us are natural networkers, let’s face it – I did a whole show called the Hell of Networking a few years ago. But Marie is good at the talking to strangers part. It’s just that she wants to keep those relationships work-based.  She doesn’t want to share too much about her non-work self. And she feels that reluctance may be hurting her career.

“I suppose my issue is that I'm happy at events and when on trade delegations and things like that, and being sociable and going out to dinner. A lot of these times, we end up seeing the same people in the same circles. Generally, it's a nice bunch of people. I'm always happy to hang out, but I'm quite happy to leave it there at the end of the working day or at the end of the trip. "Great, maybe I'll see you next time." Whereas, a lot of people do seem to have these friendships that exist outside of work. And I have just begun to wonder whether I'm putting myself at a disadvantage by not socializing in that same way. By not extending those professional friendships.”

She’s particularly concerned about social media – a lot of her colleagues at home and abroad are Facebook friends with one another. She is happy to connect on LinkedIn where things are more formal. But on Facebook, where everyone shares family news and social lives…not so much.

“I’ve have had a few colleagues try to add me on Facebook, so I’ve either put them on limited profile or I've ignored their request and hope they don't take offense. I'm aware also of things that are said on some of these trips, when people say "Oh, yes. It was in that big Facebook message that got sent around. Didn't you see it?" So people assumed that I am Facebook friends with everybody, and that made me realize most people are.”

AM-T: “Tell people why this is an issue for you and perhaps it’s not a lot of your colleagues.”

“So I'm a married, gay woman and a lot of the countries that I visit for work, it's either illegal to be gay, so I visit a lot of African countries, for example. Or it’s maybe not illegal but it’s taboo. Because I know some of these U.K contacts are then say Facebook friends with local clients who I have a professional relationship with, I've always been quite guarded with revealing details about my personal life as I wouldn’t really want that information to be out there, out of my control I suppose.”

On Facebook one connection easily leads to another. And she worries about how those foreign colleagues would react if they knew she was gay. So far she’s dealt with it by revealing as little about her personal life in conversation as is politely possible. And also by not connecting with many of this circle of people on Facebook, where they could spot pictures of her and her wife.

AM-T: “What about other gay friends of friends in the LGBT community? Has anybody there have any advice to your or spoken to you about what they do? Or is it that they're in such a different job, it doesn't really apply?”

“I have spoken to someone I knew at university who works in the charity sector and that involves a lot of time spent overseas and getting into countries where it's illegal to be gay, and she's actually recently married too. For her, she was saying safety comes first. She doesn't have a steadfast rule for everything. It's very much a case by case basis. She'll sometimes be staying in a country for up to 3 months, and by then, she's usually figured out who's a good ally, and who's not gonna freak out if she tells them that she's gay. She's also mentioned coping mechanisms like referring to her wife by a slightly more masculine version of her name so that people would understand it as a man's name or using the word ‘spouse’, which is an interesting one. I don't know anybody who uses the word spouse in a natural way. It seems very clinical to me to say that word. I have recently found myself saying things like "my other half" because again that’s quite neutral I suppose, gender-wise.”

AM-T: “What's your status with regards to your colleagues there at home in Britain. Do people know you're gay, do they know you’re married?”

“They do. It did take me a good while to come out at work not through any kind of danger of personal safety. It’s just you just never know what people's reactions are going to be and my tendency is to play it on the safe side there. But certainly now, yeah, in my office it’s very open. A few of my colleagues did attend a wedding-blessing thing we had a few months ago.”

But that comfort level disappears on business trips.

AM-T: “And how do you feel being in those countries where being gay is taboo or illegal?”

“It does feel quite strange. I think it's something I have to figure out in the long-term is whether I am happy doing a job in international traveling to countries where I've always had to repress a little bit of myself and switch a bit of myself off. Otherwise, it'll be quite upsetting I think. You see some harsh signs in the airports. I think it's in Ghana, when you go through the visa and immigration section, there is a sign that says, I’m paraphrasing, but something like "Ghana does not welcome sexual deviants. If you are a sexual deviant, for the good of yourself and for this country, turn back around and go back where you came from.” It's quite brutal. And I think that these countries themselves, the laws don't exist in a vacuum. In Nigeria, they did an opinion poll a few years ago, and it was like 95 percent of the population thought it was immoral to be gay. That it was morally wrong. And so that's probably 95 percent of the people I've met, if you want to put it that way.”

I looked into this too. The most recent poll found 87 percent of Nigerians think homosexual relationships are wrong, and should remain banned in Nigeria. That’s down from 96 percent five years before. And yes, Ghana’s airport does have a sign that warns about sexual deviants and basically lumps homosexuality together with pedophilia.

I mean how many of us would feel comfortable talking about our same-sex partner to a Ghanian colleague if we’d seen that sign at the airport? In a minute Marie wonders what’s next for her career, and we meet someone with a different take on openness.


So that knowledge about public attitudes in some countries stops Marie in her conversational tracks. The whole situation sometimes makes her wonder…is she even cut out for this work?

AM-T: “You did allude to this in your email as well, you said something along the lines of ‘maybe I’m not right for this kind of job long-term.’”

“Yeah, I do wonder if…because a big part of my job is this maintenance of relationships and networking, whether I am not fully visible on social media or having these really pally conversations with clients about family or any more personal matters. If I can't say, can't send an email, ‘oh like, I saw a picture of your kids the other day, haven't they grown?’ or something. Maybe that just means I am not able to do my job as effectively as someone who is not in my position.”

She says if she were married to a man, it wouldn’t be an issue. She could talk openly about family when she’s abroad just like everyone else, maybe strengthen those relationships. And she thinks if she were connected to a big group of colleagues on Facebook, popping up in people’s news feeds, maybe they’d be inclined to think of her more when new opportunities arise. For now though, she’s holding back…

“And part of it is the professional and personal aspect, and part of it is…obviously the being gay of me part isn’t going to change… what I can change is the situations that I put myself into. I have never really felt physical danger, but I've definitely felt uncomfortable quite a few times. I think there is this thing, especially interacting with local clients of just wondering "what if you knew?" A lot of the times, I am able to compartmentalize private and professional so it doesn't affect me a great deal on every trip that I go on but I do have these moments sometimes where I am chatting to someone and it's a client I have met a few times and we get on really well, and I think "Oh, I wonder what you would say if you knew I was married to a woman? Would we be having this conversation? Would you be happy chatting with me? Would you have invited me around for dinner? Or would we have just kind of stopped and be speaking the bare minimum?" It is a strange one, and how I feel about it varies a lot depending on not only the country but depending on who I am with, whether I am traveling with groups of colleagues, whether I am by myself. I haven't made up my mind about what I think about it. Hence, why I wrote in to you as well. I am interested in seeing other people's takes on this situation.”

“Where I personally come down on it is I try to create the reality that I wish to live in.”

This is Dorie Clark. She’s been on the show before in that episode on networking. She’s the author of the books Reinventing You and Stand Out. She teaches at Duke University’s business school…

“I do a lot of professional speaking but my main thrust is helping professionals become recognized experts and make sure their talents are standing out in a crowded marketplace.”

Like Marie, Dorie travels extensively for her work. She’s a big social media user, and she is also gay.

She says the people around you – they take their cues from you…

“…about how you want to be treated and how you expect to be treated. Of course there’s outliers but often you set the tenor, and so if you go into something in a nervous or apologetic way it’s almost telegraphing a kind of weakness and I prefer not to do that. So I literally go into the scenario thinking, ‘how would a straight person handle this?’ So if it is germane to a story to say, ‘oh, I did this with my girlfriend last weekend’ then I will include that. If someone in a reasonable situation would say, I did this with my husband, then I will do the exact same thing.

I don’t think it’s politic or advisable to make a big deal of one’s sexuality, just as you wouldn’t if you were straight, I don’t think it’s really helpful to engage on politics or get into a big discussion about the nature of the country’s policies on homosexuality unless your colleague somehow brings it up or you’re sure there’s political common ground. But I also don’t want to go out of my way to play mental games and think about oh, how can I do my part to make sure this person is comfortable by my constructing a false reality?”

AM-T: “When you are in one of these countries where they are less than friendly at least outwardly, to gay people, would you still do what you said you would do…if it was natural you would mention your girlfriend if you had one?”

“100 percent I would. It’s important to keep in mind if you’re in a situation where you feel you could be at risk with your physical safety then obviously you need to be smart. But if you’re in a professional context, you’re at a cocktail party with your colleagues and this is more about how people will respond to you emotionally, in terms of their interpersonal connection, then absolutely I would not hesitate to be honest about my life. And with regard specifically to Facebook and social media, that is a place where I feel like people have many different views. If in general you have a policy where you don’t want to connect with professional colleagues on Facebook that’s fine, nobody needs to do that. But if you do in general and there’s a concern that specific people from a different culture wouldn’t know how to respond to your personal life they have a lot of options. I don’t think it’s our job to shield them. I mean maybe if your Facebook feed is like mine maybe they’ll see a picture of you and your girlfriend at a restaurant or at a play. Even if it’s clear it’s your girlfriend these are things that are mild, they’re not in and of itself they’re going to be upsetting to someone…it might be upsetting to think you have a girlfriend if someone is not happy with homosexuality, this is not overt, you making out with someone, it’s you going to a restaurant. If that is so traumatizing to them they can unfriend you, they can block you, but I like to give people that choice because I have found you can be more professionally successful if you also have a more real personal connection with other people and I think actually in many foreign cultures that is even more true. In the US and Britain we tend to have a more transactional view of business relationships…’oh, we do business together but we’re not friends.’ Well if you go to Asia or Africa they don’t want to do business with you unless you’re friends, unless you have a connection. That’s why it’s so important to go to these endless banquets in China and drink all night…they want to get to know you, they want to know about your family. So if you are cutting that off it may lead them to feel less close to you and they don’t know why. And that may actually be in the long run an even more damaging way to handle the issue of sexuality.” 

And that of course is exactly what Marie is worried about. That maybe she’s cutting herself off from deeper connections and a better career by not connecting more personally on Facebook. I told Dorie she’s even questioning whether she’s suited to this kind of work…

“Yeah, to me in a lot of ways this harks back to Lean In. Meaning Sheryl Sandberg’s argument in Lean In was that women often are the ones who take themselves out of contention too early. Women are the ones who say, ‘oh I shouldn’t accept that promotion because I might want to have kids in a few years.’ I think the truth is we shouldn’t be taking ourselves out of contention. If it turns out, I mean this would be horrible, but if it turns out that for some reason her being gay is just too much for these foreign colleagues to bear, let it be on them – I think it’s inappropriate for us to guess what they can handle and what they can’t handle. I would give them the opportunity to show her exactly what kind of people they are. We’re dealing presumably with people who are well educated, that are professionals, perhaps quite cosmopolitan, maybe they’ve done a lot of business themselves in other countries. And so homosexuality is not gonna be something that is so new to them. Even if the cultural context of their country is disapproving, a) that doesn’t mean that they are personally disapproving, and b) even if they are personally disapproving there are a lot of people who are perfectly able to hold opposing things in their own minds. I mean I grew up in the south and there’s a lot of people who might not be so crazy about homosexuality in general but you don’t want to mess with their homosexual, and I think a lot of people operate like that, there’s people they like and they’ll be very protective of you if they like you.”

A couple of years ago Dorie went to Kazakhstan for work. Kazakhstan de-criminalized homosexuality in the late ‘90s. Still, according to Human Rights Watch, ten years later 80 percent of LGBT people there felt they faced disapproval and disrespect. So she wasn’t exactly in friendly territory.

“…I think it’s really just a question of what is appropriate in a particular context. I was there --doing a stint teaching business school. I was talking with my students and other folks in the academic community, mostly about business and careers and things like that. But I am friends with many of them on Facebook and I don’t hesitate to post pictures of me with someone I’m dating. I feel like Facebook, it’s your space essentially, and they’re opting into your space…and if they can’t deal with it that’s on them. But if they have indicated they want to get to know me better as a person and see what my life is really like I’m glad to open that door and let them in…as long as they’re willing to be nice and good intentioned…and I’ve never had any blowback about it. People have been great.”

The first time she was out and overseas things didn’t go smoothly. In the early years of college she spent a summer in Norway at something called the International Summer School – it was a program at the University of Oslo. She said it soon emerged that she was gay and some people weren’t happy about it. Some weeks into the program one of her friends there put on a talent show. Dorie wasn’t going to be part of it but at the last minute her friend said not enough people had signed up – please could she do something? Anything! Dorie had written this short story and the protagonist was gay.


“So I read the short story and at the talent show…and during the show a woman from Mexico I believe, stood up, yelled me down, and encouraged other people to walk out, which some did. And you’re sensitive enough of your short story anyway…but actually what was impressive to me then even 20 plus years ago was the Americans and people from a few other places, really united around me, and a bunch of people came up and they were so mortified and so apologetic that this person had done this, and many of them, they weren’t necessarily people who were so pro-gay, but they didn’t want to see me treated that way, they thought that was wrong…that was a very formative moment. It took my patriotism up a notch because I realized first of all these people feel a kinship with me and are coming together. But it impressed me the level of decency and understanding, that even if you don’t 100% agree with someone if you like them enough as a person you don’t want them to be treated poorly…and I think for a lot of folks that more than ideology is a central organizing principle. And I think often we don’t expect to see that as much as it might really happen. So I think that if we give people the chance to rise to the occasion oftentimes they will.”

AM-T: “Really interesting, thank you so much for doing this. I mean I feel like you’ve given a lot of great fodder for this person and anyone else who’s thinking about this. But is there anything else you’d like to say about this topic that you haven’t got across, that you think is important for people to bear in mind?”

“When people are thinking about how out they should be in the workplace I think that once you have covered your bases and are clear you are not at risk for losing your job, that legally you’re protected, then you can transition into a much more important question, which is how you want to be in the world. For me personally I’m a big believer that if someone is uncomfortable with me that’s on them, and it should be on them. I am not going out of my way to try to make people feel uncomfortable, but if they happen to be uncomfortable I’m not gonna contort myself to try to please them. I think that’s a losing battle for almost anything whether you’re a teenage girl trying to be the weight that you think your classmates expect you to be or whether you’re a gay person in the world of work trying to be the colleague that you think your colleagues expect. We’re able to let go of a lot if we let go of those expectations. And I actually think that it’s an exercise in becoming the kind of person that I think almost anyone gay or straight, should aspire to be…which is driven by authenticity and our own convictions about who we are rather than letting anyone’s expectations factor into that.”

Thanks to Dorie Clark and my listener Marie for being my guests on this show.

So that’s Dorie’s view, but what about yours? Do any of you have experiences or ideas that could help Marie? You can post a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience.com or email me or post on the show’s Facebook page. Both of us would really like to hear from you.

Be part of this community that is helping women – even if you’re not a woman yourself.

Talking of community, if you’d like to be part of the community that supports this one-woman show, you can do that via the support tab on the website – you can give a monthly amount or a one-off donation. Everything is appreciated.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. 

Episode 100: Owning It - an Interview with Sallie Krawcheck

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…you’re a powerful woman in a profession dominated by men. How do you react when a male subordinate challenges you in front of a group?  

I could have dressed him down. What would have happened then? He would have been embarrassed, which probably would have been good. But so would everybody else have been. And you know who would have gotten the blame for it, right, because he was their bud. So it would have been me.”

Coming up, an interview with Sallie Krawcheck. For years she was one the few famous females on Wall Street.


Before we get into the show I want to mark this occasion. Because this is the hundredth episode of The Broad Experience. I started producing the show in the spring of 2012. If you are one of the early listeners, thanks so much for staying with me and the show all this time. It’s only five years ago but things were quite different then. Women and the workplace felt like a niche topic – even though it shouldn’t have been. Now, it’s an international conversation. Things I used to talk about in early shows like unconscious bias…these days it feels like everyone’s talking about that. In fact there are so many blogs and podcasts and conferences on women and work now that I have wondered lately…where do I fit into this? Is there still a place for this show in the sea of content that’s out there now?

On the whole I think there is still room for The Broad Experience. There’s a lot of black and white out there but I’m more interested in the gray. I try to keep these discussions thoughtful and nuanced. I’ll never please everyone. You won’t like all the guests you hear on this show – maybe you won’t always like what I say either. But that’s part of the point. I don’t want to have people with identical views on every episode. I want to make my listeners think, to make myself think, and consider things from different points of view.

Anyway, thanks for listening and supporting this independently produced show for all this time.  


For a decade or so Sallie Krawcheck was one of very few women with a top job on Wall Street. She earned millions of dollars, had a huge office, and the use of private jet. I knew her name from when I was a daily business reporter. I remember the news of her firing from Citibank spreading all over the business pages back in 2008.

I ended up meeting her a couple of years ago because I’m a member of Ellevate, the women’s networking group she chairs. After leaving Wall Street for good a few years ago Sallie became an entrepreneur; she bought Ellevate, worked hard to build it and more recently she founded an investing platform for women called Ellevest – if you’re a US listener you’ll have heard me reading an ad for Ellevest on the show recently.

Sallie is also the author of a new book called Own It – the Power of Women at Work.

AM-T: “You say not that long ago, you were one of those people who didn’t really think about gender, ‘we’re all people, we’re all different’ – and now you’re writing a book about women owning their power at work. Tell me a little bit about your past.”

“Yeah. So if you’d asked me if I were a feminist I would have said yes. I wouldn’t have said it with a capital F, I would have said it with a little F. If you’d looked at my leadership teams when I was running Smith Barney and Merrill they were diverse. So I was out there maybe not talking the talk but I was walking the walk. It was really in my thinking post the financial crisis when I began to as a former exec in these businesses and former research analyst began to think about the causes of the crisis. Everybody was talking about greedy evil geniuses who perfectly foresaw the downturn and that is not at all what I saw. What I saw was well meaning individuals who missed it. What I also saw were well meaning individuals who all looked alike, had sort of the same backgrounds, who’d all been in the same training programs, were all friends, some vacationed together, who missed it. And as I began to think through I thought, that is groupthink. And how do you break groupthink – oh, diversity. Diversity of thought, perspective, background, orientation, education, skin color, nationality and one that has become my favorite, gender, and that is when I became truly passionate about the issue of the advancement of women in business.”

AM-T: “And you started doing your research because that’s your forte…”

“Right, I researched and researched and researched and actually spent time down in Washington DC saying guys, we talk about how for these banks quality of management is so important, but we’re just winging it.  You know, ‘oh I think he’s smart, I think this person has a lot of experience.’ The only research I’ve seen that says anything about the quality of management is the research on diversity, and in particular gender diversity. And that it’s not by a little…that companies that have people of difference in their leadership teams have higher returns on capital by a lot. Lower risk, greater innovation, greater employee engagement, greater customer engagement…the power of diversity is such that diverse teams outperform smarter teams. But somehow we just don’t seem to acknowledge it. And worse, even with this research, with all the discussion and debate and advice for women and do this and do this book and this book and this book, the march to gender diversity has stalled and on Wall Street it’s gone backwards!”

AM-T: “Some people will know you and your work but others will not. You’ve famously talked about being fired publicly twice. Tell people about those two really big jobs that you had.”

“So my background – I was there. I was the CEO of Smith Barney for a while, I was the chief financial officer of Citi and I was the CEO for Merrill Lynch, so I was in those board rooms. I was fired on the front page of the Wall Street Journal twice, which I’m sure is the world record for any woman and really up there with the guys, too. Some people do it once but to do it twice is a super-special event. And I talk – for years if you’d said to me, were you fired from Citi because you were a woman I would have said, absolutely not, that’s an outrageous thing to say, get over yourself. However, as time has passed I’ve begun to think I was. Not because I had different body parts.

Here’s what happened: In the crisis it turned out we at Smith Barney had sold our clients investments that we truly madly deeply believed were low risk. It turned out they were high risk. They should have gone down 8c on the dollar, they went down 100 c on the dollar. The big print said low risk, the small print in the document said you could lose anything. I went to my very brand new boss and said this is unconventional but I think we should partially reimburse clients, because we’re wrong, cos these are our clients, we did wrong by them, and because of the long term health of the business this is better than being sued. And it’s the ethical thing to do. He disagreed, we went back and forth and back and forth, it went to the board, and board sided with me and of course then I knew it was done. You go up against your CEO with the board, you no longer have a job. And sure enough, a few months later I found out I’d been fired on CNBC, which is always a [laughs] one of those mornings, hey honey, what did you do this morning, well I went to get some coffee, some Cheerios, then I found out I’d been fired on CNBC. Weird! And what, that doesn’t sound like a woman thing! Except the research shows we women tend to be more relationship focused than men, we know this, more long term focused than men we semi know this, more risk aware, not risk averse, risk aware, we want to know more about it, understand it. And the other thing the research shows is we women tend to make decisions based on more factors…that is as the situation becomes more complex we can keep up, and gentlemen tend to narrow their focus…and all those things went into my decision to go up against the CEO. So I say yes, I was fired because of my more womanly characteristics.”

She ended up moving on to another top job – this time at Merrill Lynch, which had been bought by Bank of America. She was named head of global wealth management. The CEO who hired her said he’d be staying on for two years…but in the end he retired two months later, and in came a new regime. And even though the business did well under her leadership…she never loved the job the way she had her previous role. And she lacked real supporters at a senior level. After two years, she was let go. Again. 

“And the lesson of that was the importance for us women of sponsors. When I called the board later and said, tell me what I could have done better. The answer was you had no one in that room arguing for you. You were by yourself.”

AM-T: “Yeah I thought that was so interesting…that picture of yourself on the coach feeling sorry for yourself, but having that sensible instinct to actually say thank you very much, what happened, and everyone who responded to you told you that same thing.”

“And a lot of them didn’t respond to me. But this is an issue right, that we women tend to get less feedback at work than men do. And we are not as individuals, we don’t come out of the womb understanding how to lead, how to run a business. So my advice is feedback…but to try to learn about yourself every step of the way. Learn what works, learn what doesn’t is important so I called the board even though I was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain and I was embarrassed and I was humiliated, I thought I can’t wait a month to do this…because then they’ll give me their pat answer, you know, time has passed. I want this to be fresh and I want to surprise them into telling me the truth.”

AM-T: “Can you just tell that story…when you were first working, you came in and on your desk every day you found an interesting little…”

“Ah, yes.  Salomon Brothers. So this was 1987. I am fresh out of college. I think I had hay coming out of my teeth because I had come from North and South Carolina. And I came to Wall Street not because I had this burning desire to work on Wall Street but because I was a journalism major and wanted to know more to become a business journalist, and knew it was sort of rough and tumble but it was Michael Lewis’s – for those of your listeners who read Liar’s Poker - Salomon was as tough as they came. So about my second day of work I smelled cigar smoke, and a gentleman – well a man, came up behind me and said, ‘what kind of –fing discount maternity wear is that?’ And I thought, who is that profane individual? And it was the height of Charleston fashion, and of course it was my boss’s boss’s boss. So that was the environment. A couple of days later I saw a guy fall to the floor out of the corner of my eye. He’d had a heart attack, in his 30s, 40s. They carted him away, they brought him back and a couple of weeks later they fired him! OK, so all this is happening and in the meantime to the story you’re talking about, I’m having Xeroxed copies on my desk of male nether regions. And you’re thinking huh, this is an interesting artistic photocopy of something squishy and hairy…and…” [laughs…]

AM-T: “You don’t talk about a lot of things like this in the book, you tell some stories and you sort of laugh them off, and you don’t talk about sexual harassment, either, but you must have had to deal with this. I mean you call Wall St the biggest boys’ club”.

“Well it is the biggest boys’ club. So I did an interview a week ago and the person called me back afterwards and was a little accusing, an edge of why didn’t you go to HR? and what about the other women? And I said, I was 22 years old. I had no idea there was such a thing as HR. like I had no conception that was even an option…that was the culture and I had rent to pay. I came from, at the time my family was solidly middle class. They could not afford to pay my year-long New York City lease. I had to keep that job. So you just…”

AM-T: “The same reason women today don’t…”

“Absolutely, I had to crumple it up, throw it away. And essentially look guys, y’all are not gonna run me out of here, you’re just not. And eventually found my way out of investment banking and into research and to a company, Sanford Bernstein, and a company with a different culture and different values where I felt like I could be myself. But it took a lot of years to figure that out.”

AM-T: “And did you parry it largely with a sense of humor?”

“Well, yes because I had to, and I’ll tell you, a friend of mine, one of the investors in Ellevest said something really interesting to me. She tells young women, if you look for gender discrimination you will find it. You will find it everywhere.  And you can choose to look and look and have it drag you down, or you can choose to pick your battles on it. And there are battles you need to pick. If someone is making overt sexual comments or overtures to you, today happily we have anonymous report lines and people do know what HR is and the environment is different. What I have found though is there is a lot of – among men and women – there are a lot of inherent gender biases and expectations that some of us, many of us don’t even know we have. And if you attack every one of those with anger and energy you’re gonna wear yourself out. So I practice what I call MRI – most respectful interpretation, and I bring humor to it.

One little example. When I was brought in to run Merrill there was a more mature gentleman in a big branch meeting – 150 people – and he essentially challenged me, well what makes you think you can run Merrill Lynch? And sort of arms folded, sitting back, challenging, not obnoxious but challenging. And I could have dressed him down. What would have happened then? He would have been embarrassed, which probably would have been good. But so would everybody else have been. And you know who would have gotten the blame for it, right, because he was their bud. It would have been me. I was the brittle bitch who had embarrassed their friend. Instead what I did, and this isn’t very funny but it’s just a slight…oh, oh my gosh, I thought I was here to do a presentation about the future of the company, but looks like it’s an interview right? He said, well yes it is… I said OK great, so let me see how I do. So I ended up parrying back and forth with him, going through my background, and at the end of it I said do you think, do you give me your OK to run the company? And he said yes, and off we went. Now none of it’s particularly hilarious, but I let him off the hook…and I did it in a way that took the temperature in the room down and I was respectful of him.  MRI – it’s not oh, he’s an old gender biased fart, let me do that again, dude, and I’m angry at him, instead it was the way I’m gonna think about it is this man cares for this company and he sees me coming in quite a bit younger, looking quite a bit different than anyone else has ever looked here, so let me answer his question and let’s do it in a way that engages us both.”


I told Sallie I’d done a show on flexibility recently, and we started talking about how that’s still lacking at so many companies – even companies that give lip service to the idea. Sallie knows this first hand.

“Sometimes you need to leave a culture. You know I think we as women tend to think if we, you know, asked to be transferred away from a boss or away from a department or quit and go to another company that that's a failure. But some companies really are not conducive to I would not say being a woman, to being a person. So the anecdote I told, the story, I had a scare. I had a real health scare and went to my boss, the CEO, and said to him I'm afraid I'm going to have to step out today for a bit in order to have a brain scan.

And his response was, well, get back as soon as it's over. Not, hope you're OK, or ‘Oh my gosh! Take all the time you need. Is there anything we can do? I don't want to pry…’ – nothing. Get back as soon as you can. And lest you think I said hey, I have to step out. I said I have to go have a f--ing brain scan, right? That was not the kind of company in which I wanted to work quite honestly or I think people should want to work.”

AM-T “Did you leave that company?”

“Well, I got re-orged out”. [Laughs] Actually I say that because the issue that I really had, and I've thought about this a lot, that company's culture did not fit me. Bernstein's culture fit me, Citi’s culture fit me. It was a company that where there were meetings before meetings to figure out what was going to be said at the meeting. And that's not a culture in which I felt completely comfortable. My challenge was I had 40,000 people working in my department and so I just could never imagine calling my dad and saying you know, I'm just I'm just not comfortable every day. But what I will tell you is it is this is a reason that we women drop out, when we have cultures that don't have any give to them that don't accept us as people. I'll go further: when so much of the advice from so many experts out there and from our bosses and from H.R. professionals when we do our performance reviews, is essentially to act like a man -- be more confident. Raise your hand for the job you're not ready for, take on whatever those things are. Those ways that push us to be something we’re not, always what I hear from women again and again is just, I'm tired of being told, contorting myself to act like something I don't feel like.

And look, the reason companies do it is because for one they don't fully recognize the power of diversity is…dramatic pause…diversity! Not bringing in a bunch of people of difference and telling them to act like middle aged white guys. And the other thing is it's just an easier way to manage. I've managed a lot of people, it's way easier to manage everybody the same than to say you know what, Ashley is an introvert. And so I'm going to have to pull stuff out of her as opposed to, you know, just come on. You need to be much more forthcoming. You do the work, not me. But when we allow people to be themselves we get much more out of them.”

AM-T: “I mean you had you had two really big health scares with each of your kids after – you had you were not in one of these jobs, but I have to wonder, if that had happened when you were on the job at that company, what would have happened?”

“You know it's hard to…and both of my kids, I had such easy kids for so many years and then all of a sudden they both - my son got very sick for a while and my daughter was in a car accident it was out of school for a while. And happily somebody was looking down on me. I wasn't working at the time so I gave my full attention, and you know it's funny for a bit of time I sort of said geez if this had happened when I worked at X, any of these companies, I would have had to quit my job. The truth is I wouldn't have. I would have done a really bad job for my kids and I would have really done a bad job for the company and it would have been bad. So somehow in our, and in particular with companies like that in our culture the fact that we are humans and have lives outside of work rather than being viewed as normal or even positive it somehow makes us less ambitious. I assure you when I was in the hospital room with my son and I wasn't not ambitious. I was taking care of a kid who was in grave danger. Right. It didn't mean I didn't want to be CEO or CFO or C anything O. It just meant I'm a human being and I for some reason we hurt women – mostly women still for just simply being humans.”

AM-T: “Regarding…having…you lay out in the book that we should be talking, we should be having these conversations. We should be you know if someone makes an inappropriate comment there's a way to draw them aside. But surely it's much easier for women who do have some seniority to do those things, because the problem is the rank and file…it's tough.”

“Well, so I talk about the courageous conversation, and the courageous conversation is the one that I'm having with the book, is one where you will say, Hey Joe, you interrupted Susie 12 times in that meeting. These don't again – we can do them with humor and most respectful interpretation. But part of that most respectful interpretation is teaching people, sharing information with them. ‘I'm not sure that you did this but we'd get a lot more out of Susie if we didn't interrupt her.’ And of course, of course any number of conversations are easier to have when you're more senior but I had some at a junior level, you know, and which ones can you have and which ones are you comfortable having? And all of them not in a blame-based way, ‘You're such a jerk, you're doing this,’ but ‘hey, not sure if you're aware,’ right? Hey, I was reading something the other day I think you might find useful, or, it can be a courageous conversation even by going to H.R: ‘Coach me through this please. I'm challenged by this. Help me work through this.’ It is their job after all.

So I think for all of us rather than just letting it go by, what do we see and how can we make our workplaces better? Because it's good for them to have these conversations. And by the way we have to start them. I love all this bringing men in. I love it. I really, really, really hope it happens. I can tell you on Wall Street I interrupted more men talking about more things than anybody on the planet. As I say in the book, never once did I walk into a room and say oh my gosh sorry guys, and they’re like oh no, hey Sallie, come on in. The ten of us are just sitting here shooting the breeze about the power of gender diversity in driving business results. Never – it never happened. It was me who had to bring it up because it's a topic that's near and dear to my heart. And so if we wait, if we continue waiting, we're going to see what we've seen so far which is gender diversity in business has stalled.”

AM-T: “And I think race adds an extra layer as well, for women of color, especially if most people around you are white and your bosses are white, that's an extra layer of difficulty as well.”

“Oh my gosh, well in every way, right. Because we talk about the 78 cents on the dollar, but it's much more and much more for women of color for women with disabilities as well. So they're approaching these issues, you know, they have a harder climb than Caucasian women do.”

One way Sallie is hoping to level the playing field for all women is by encouraging them to invest some of their hard-earned money. She recently founded Ellevest, that investment platform for women I mentioned earlier.

AM-T: “I know when you were doing your research you had some outraged feedback along the lines of ‘how dare you, you know, pinkify investing?’ How do you get around that, because this is something that happens when anything is done for women.”

“I know it, I know it. And I for years, I have to tell you, people would say, ‘you should start investing business for women.’ I would say, ‘you should jump off a cliff,’ because we don't need anything special or a dumbed down, or remedial financial education. And then the research and analyst in me recognized that we have a gap, a money gap we never talk about. I talk about it all the time now, the gender investing gap. Men invest to a greater degree than women do. It cost your listeners hundreds of thousands, some of them millions of dollars over the course of their lives. We will not be equal with men until we are financially equal with men and the investing industry has really kept us away from it. Not on purpose but an industry with 86 percent males who are on average in their 60s. An industry that traffics in war and sports analogies - beat the market, outperform, pick a winner. An industry in which the TV shows are built off of sports broadcast. An industry whose symbol is the bull, which is a phallic symbol, is an industry built for men, and indeed does a better job for men than for women. And so when I began to recognize this…and by the way their answer is women work harder, or you're flawed in some way, you're risk-averse so you don't invest because you have a uterus, obviously, or you need more hand-holding, or you need more financial education. That one kills me because men need more financial education too, but they invest anyway.

And so we spent hundreds of hours with women to build an investing platform that doesn't market to them, though we do market to them, but works to solve the underlying issues that keep them from investing. And so a couple of things we did that no one else does: We take into account we live longer. Super important! We take into account, bummer, our salaries peak sooner. We have career breaks that we take. So that changes the entire complexion of how we need to save, slash invest.”

But at first, women were quick to criticize…

“What we saw at the beginning is we’d put a pop up, a Facebook ad. “How dare you. My lady brain isn't smart enough, you know, for the guy brains. I hate you.’ And then women would sort of circle through the site and say wait a minute, wait a minute, this is different in a good way. It isn't sexist, it’s sexist that we haven't had something like this in the past. What is notable and sad is that not one single solitary person, not one, has seen that it's for women and said it must be smarter when in fact in my view it is.”

Full disclosure – I was intrigued by this idea so I opened a small account at Ellevest myself at the end of last year.

Sallie is on a book promotion blitz right now and she needed to get to her next interview, but I wanted to make sure I covered one last thing.

AM-T: “Can I ask you one more question, do you have time for one more? OK. I was reading the book last night and I thought, I’m gonna ask Sallie why she doesn’t talk more about her family and how she did it all…and then I get to the end of the book where you say, I’m not gonna dwell on that. But you do talk a little bit about that. but of course everyone wants to know how a woman like you managed you know, your family life. Does your husband work in finance as well?”

“Two kids, two step kids, two cats, and one husband who worked in finance. And look, part of it is we were fortunate because we both were compensated well. We were able to put in place an infrastructure and support structure that sadly many women in this country can't afford to do. So for me to you know for me to say, ‘oh, it was so tough.’ I mean we had it lucky. The other thing I'd say is that I took a different approach, which is the whole work life balance, how do I do it, oh my gosh. I am a mediocre mother on my best day. I make such an unbelievable pie. I do a great luncheon spread. I'm 15 minutes late for every school play that has ever has been. And guess what? It never killed my children. And my approach to it rather than, I'm sorry, I'm guilt ridden, I hate myself was, ‘Hey guys, I'm doing the best I can.’ What I wanted them to see instead of me having this perfect work life balance, what we talked about my household is what impact was I making in the world out there.”

And she says even though her first office as an entrepreneur was the opposite of the corner office luxury she was used to – small, cramped, with mice – her daughter was impressed. Because she could tell her mum was really excited about what she was doing.  

That’s the Broad Experience for this time.

If you’d like to become part of the group of listeners that supports this one-woman show, you can go to the support tab at The Broad Experience.com or go to paypal.me/TheBroadExperience. Any contribution is welcome.

And if you can’t give maybe you can take a minute to rate and review the show on iTunes instead. This helps the podcast get found more easily – and I still need people to find me, believe me – even after 100 episodes.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

Broad Experience Shorts: Going on Leave

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

In this mini show we’re talking about parental leave – or really navigating any extended leave.

“…a really big challenge around leave and flexibility, is that people who aren’t going out on leave feel very overburdened when work is just dumped on their plate. And that’s another place where resentment can build up.”

That’s Rachael Ellison. She was one of the guests on my last show about delegation. When I interviewed her, she told me delegation is key to a successful leave – but more than that, a successful re-entry.

We got onto this topic while we were still mulling over delegation. She told me her female clients have a hard time handing off work.

“It’s so much easier for them to take on more work time, than thinking about how could I structure this differently. When we think about why flexibility is hard for companies to implement and when we think about the challenges around leave, parental leave or any kind of family leave and what’s challenging about that, a lot of it is about how you change the workflow and delegate, and we’re not set up to do that. We don’t know those skills.”

That is so true. After last week’s show I heard from a friend of mine – and she really crystalized something for me about this whole delegation thing. She said look, I am terrible at delegating. I admit it. I would love to be better. But she said delegating requires being organized in the first place. You have to strategize and think things through.

Rachael says for companies who’ve never even thought about leave before, ramping up means putting in some time. She tells the story of a tech startup in Pennsylvania – the CEO had never had a pregnant employee before, or the spouse of a pregnant employee who wanted to go on leave…

“He had a young workforce, when his first employee got ready to go out on leave they spent 50 hours with her breaking down the different tasks she had and thinking about how could we hand things off, and what’s the process we’re gonna use, when not just you but anybody has to leave the office for any period of time for whatever reason. I spoke to a dad at that company who when he had to go on leave and needed flexibility, there was a very clear process for, “this is how you hand your work off.”  And often that’s just not explained, it’s not detailed, no one knows what to do. And if you’re not explicit about it, the delegation is not gonna work.”

AM-T: “Well yeah, talk about this work you’re doing around parental leave and how delegation or lack thereof plays into a difficult transition.”

“Yeah, so you know, I’ve been coaching and consulting around parental leave for quite some time and I’m working with the Center for Parental Leave Leadership. And one of the things I’ve noticed when working with folksis the enemy of success in the process of leave, in the transition to ‘out for leave’ – we think about the three phases of leave, preparing to go, being out on leave, returning from leave…is the ambiguity – without outlining what the expectations are explicitly for how work is going to be handed off, and how it’s going to be picked up…what the communication timeline should be, how and when should people be expected to respond to communication from the office? There will be automatic resentment and confusion and conflict between managers and employees, between team members. It happens every time, particularly on the return.”

She says women often come back from leave to find some nasty surprises…

“So I’ve had people who are partners in professional services firms who have lost clients, the clients – no one ever planned for it to come back to her, so she didn’t have that client any more. There are just so many ways in which things are not spelled out. And it’s not spelled out according to the employee’s wishes, it’s not spelled out according to the manger’s wishes, so it falls apart and there’s resentment.

So one of the things I’ll say before I talk about the tools that we use is that one of the reasons parental leave is an important transitional moment, it’s one that comes up a lot in workplaces, it’s an opportunity for managers to learn skills about how to support someone personally and professionally in the workplace, it’s an opportunity for employees and managers to learn about how to create more clear communication aroundwork re-organization and delegation and it can transform the way people work going forward.”

Maybe you’re listening to this in the UK or Canada or Sweden – or somewhere else where women get a year’s worth of leave, or more. I’d be so curious to know if this stuff resonates with you or not. Because in the workaholic US you’re lucky if you get 4 months off after you have a baby. So maybe in other countries they just do leave better? Maybe none of these problems exist in countries where leave is a bigger part of the culture.

Rachael says she and her colleagues at the Center for Parental Leave Leadership use this tool called the next step action plan: she says it lets people think clearly and specifically about what projects they have on their plate, what tasks are involved, who’s gonna be affected by the handoff, who is gonna take on responsibility when that person is gone. She says there’s also a communication plan, you know, will you be in contact while you’re away? If so, how often?

“There are contingency plans, right, what if you have to go out on leave earlier? What if there are unexpected changes that are required? How can you plan for those? And when you come back, how exactly are each of those projects you outlined before going on leave going to be transitioned back to you in a specific way? How do you make sure not only are you clear on what you want, your manager is clear, your team members are clear. It also gives the employee who is delegating the work an opportunity to be aware and conscious of who is taking that work over and how to reward them and thank them for stepping in when they needed them to – which is a really big challenge around leave and flexibility, is that people who aren’t going out on leave feel very overburdened when work is just dumped on their plate. And that’s another place where resentment can build up. So this is about intentionality, this is about thinking through delegation in a way that’s proactive and productive as opposed to an afterthought.”

She says the best way for people to plan their leave is to plan their return.

“They feel prepared. I think the overwhelm of thinking about how to suddenly combine work and life in a different way can cloud their thinking on some of these practical pieces that they need to be considering.”

And of course it helps a lot when you and your company are working in tandem to plan this leave, so everyone knows what to expect…

“Too often I’ve heard from clients before planning in this way, I’m not sure what’s gonna happen when I come back, what are they gonna expect from me? What are they gonna say about me? So many questions that are not just about the work itself but the expectations of their performance and the judgments they’re assuming are gonna come. This process of planning seems to wipe all that out.”

You can find out more at CPLleadership.com. I’ll also put a link on the website. And if you have had an experience around leave you’d like to share, go ahead and post a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience.com or on the show’s Facebook page.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. 

Episode 99: Hate to Delegate

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…a lot of women don’t feel comfortable delegating. And there may be good reason for that.

“We’re also taught that we’re supposed to do it all and we’re not supposed to ask for help and we’re supposed to be perfect in all that we do…but what ends up happening is then when we delegate we don’t feel right because we’re letting somebody else do it.”

But a desire to control the outcome can also play a part…

“The struggle is not wanting to…I think it’s the assumption that we can take control of things that are not remotely within our control.”

Coming up, why some of us shy away from delegation, and how to master it. 


I was doing an interview a few months ago and I asked my guest why she thought few women in Sweden had top jobs in the private sector, despite the country’s egalitarian outlook and all the effort it’s made to ease life for working parents. And one thing she said was, well, I’ve noticed women aren’t that good at delegating. And when you don’t delegate you don’t have time to focus on more of the big stuff – and the less obvious, network-y kind of stuff – that helps your career.

That delegation question is something I’ve thought about too. I have been a reluctant delegator in the past. I’ve caught myself thinking, time and again, oh, I’ll just do that because it’s easier – it’s easier if I do it. I’ll do it better. But what that means is spending a lot of time on stuff that’s fairly routine and could be outsourced.

I sat down recently with Rachael Ellison to talk about this. She was a guest on a past show I did about work and motherhood. She is a coach and consultant and she works a lot with new parents – mostly women – going back to demanding jobs after their leave ends. She’s also a partner at the Center for Parental Leave Leadership.

AM-T: “What’s your impression of how comfortable the women you work with are with delegation?”

“They’re not. They’re very uncomfortable with delegation and I think there’s a sense of wanting to do your best in every sphere of your life and wanting to control that outcome and delegation obviously takes away from your ability to control the outcome. You see it with parenting, you see it in the workplace. But I think most of the people I’ve worked with are quite uncomfortable with delegation.”

Again I’ve often noted my own desire to control and I’ve noted it a lot in other women – whether it’s to do with their kids or their work, they want to put that finishing touch on whatever it is themselves. They don’t want to delegate it. We talked about why this is – maybe women feel if we don’t control the final outcome, it’ll reflect badly on us?

“I always hear…this sense that, what I hear from new parents is I need to give 150% at work and 150% at home. So that feeling of needing to go over and above and show that veneer of perfection. And you can’t do that if someone else - theoretically it’s harder to do that if someone else is taking some of that job from you. I think that’s what people are feeling. And on the home front there are pressures around motherhood and the image around motherhood and being a perfect mom that we’re struggling with. And we don’t want to relinquish that role even if we don’t…you know, I find it’s very hard for moms that I work with to – and again it’s this one particular area - to relinquish control to dads. They kind of assume that, you know, there’s this stereotype that if you have dad make the lunches instead of you make the lunches rather it’s gonna be thrown together pieces of bread with maybe one piece of protein in there. But if you make the lunches it’s gonna be beautiful, it’s gonna be a balanced meal…”

AM-T: “Yeah, I want to talk to you about the part home plays in this – I think there’s overlap between home delegation and work delegation. But the lack of home delegation affects your work greatly, or can do. This has come up a few times on my show and the example the woman has given has been a home arena, where they’ve found it hard to relinquish control of that thing whether it’s lunches or choosing an accessory for the home that they outsourced to their husband. It was tough for them to do that. Now I’m assuming this is because the home has traditionally been our arena. And so many of us still find it hard to say, ‘no, you do that.’ is that where it comes from do you think?”

“I think that is partially where it comes from but also we’re not doing it in a vacuum, right? There is the other side. How do men, how do they assume the role they’re given when it’s delegated? There’s an interesting study that came out of the Families and Work Institute a couple of years ago looking at heterosexual versus homosexual couples and the division of labor and responsibility there. And basically…and I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the data top of mind, but the issues around delegation and division of responsibilities were essentially not there in homosexual couples. There were no roles that we’re assuming we’re supposed to take. So I think in heterosexual couples, men and women, they are assuming their roles – the woman maybe feels it’s her role to be in charge of the home sphere. And similarly the male is feeling like, that wasn’t really my job. I don’t know how to assume it. So on both sides I think there’s hesitation there.”

She tells the story of one heterosexual client she had who was trying to exert control both at work and at home. At work there was a tricky management transition going on. And at home, she was frazzled trying to potty train her toddler…

“She was just, really didn’t want to let go of the management transition and what she felt like she needed to do to make things go smoothly, and also was really struggling with this potty training on the home front and would not let go of that…would not let go of being really strict about it, felt like her husband wasn’t stepping in the way he needed to, felt her staff wasn’t stepping in the way they needed to at work and just wouldn’t let go. She really did have a moment of saying I can’t – I have to have a different approach to both these things and recognize what in this situation I can control and what I can’t. And potty training is not something that is very easy to control. You can set routines but there is a certain level of letting go and letting it happen, and the same is true with management. [Laughs…] so you have to let it play out.”

AM-T: “What happened?”

“She took a step back. She did some reflecting and she said I’m not gonna put so much pressure on my son to be potty trained at the pace I want him to be, he doesn’t have to be, I’m gonna let my husband take more of a role with this.  And in terms of the management transition, these are the pieces that are most important to me and the rest is gonna have to play out the way it’s gonna play out. There’s nothing I can do.

I think a lot of times the struggle is…it’s the assumption we can take control of things that are not remotely within our control – they’re not controllable! But that’s where we run into the most trouble is when we…you know, I was talking about the 150% at work and the 150% at home. There’s a math problem there. There’s a kind of logic problem we have. It’s just not possible to control both spheres the way we want to…it requires letting go…and I think it’s about choosing which parts you want to let go of.”

I bet a lot of you can relate.

You’ll hear from Rachael again in a mini show I’m releasing next week – in that we’re focusing specifically on parental leave and how delegation can help with a successful leave. So if you’re a manager or someone who’s likely to go out on leave – or both – tune in for that.

Jodi Detjen is also a past guest. She’s a professor of management at Suffolk University in Boston. She’s also a partner at Orange Grove Consulting – it’s a firm that works with companies to get more women into leadership.

When we spoke there was some overlap with what Rachael and I talked about. But Jodi has her own take on this topic.

AM-T: “It’s come up in past conversations I’ve had with guests, the idea that women don’t delegate as much as men or don’t like to, and thus more of their time is tied up on the smaller stuff they could give to somebody else – what do you think, it this true, what’s been your experience of women and delegation?”

“So we found the same thing in our research and our work with women, and what we found is that women and girls, it’s reinforced and reinforced across their lives about getting stuff done. "Oh, you are so good at that." "Oh my gosh, look how hard you are working." And you see this consistently. And so what ends up happening is that women believe that they are not very good at delegation. So what ends up happening, for example, think about men. Men are entitled to support. So they think--"alright, the women are going to clean the office's dishes. I don't have to worry about that." Or they believe that their work is valuable so they are much more ready to spend money to make their life more efficient. So for example, men will have no problem getting their shirts cleaned, whereas women will wash them and iron them themselves. They will also feign incompetence in support tasks. "Oh, I can't take notes. I am an awful writer and you are so good at it." And that just triggers women who have been told they are so good at these things—these small things. It just triggers them to want to do it more. And so men have learned that they are supposed to get support. And that this is their God-given right. And women have been taught quite the opposite.”

Not to generalize too much about men, but as I listened a portrait of myself was emerging pretty fast. Take the pride many of us have in being self-sufficient…

“…if you look at the data – girls outperform boys in school across the ages, so through college. But we are also taught we are supposed to do it all. And we are not supposed to ask for help and we are supposed to be, you know perfect in all that we do. And if we ask for help, that's selfish. But when ends up happening is that when we delegate, we don't feel right because we are sort of letting someone else do it, and it feels really uncomfortable to us. So when we’ve been working with women, you'll be surprised at how many women refuse to delegate housecleaning even when they can amply afford it. Affording is not a problem. They just don't want to do it because, you know, the cleaners won't do it as well as they will. Men, no problem at all.”

AM-T: “I think I’m gonna book a cleaner as soon as we get off the phone.”

 “I have done this back when I was living in London. My husband said, "We are spending too much money on the cleaner." So I said, "Let's try cleaning in it ourselves." And so we had our list, and he didn't do his list, and I said, "That's it. We are hiring the cleaner back." And we have had a cleaner ever since.”

AM-T: ‘I would love to hire a cleaner so I think you’ve just galvanized me. But what you said about men expecting to receive support was so interesting. Because in all my thinking about this topic I’ve never thought about that.”

“Yeah, so they are raised to believe that it's okay to get support, and women are raised to believe that they are the ones who have to give support. I'll give you an example. So a couple of years ago, I had a male student tell me--this was at the end of the semester. He had a team of all young men. He said, "You know, we did poorly because we didn't have a young woman on our team to organize us." And I liked looked at him and I almost exploded. And the more I look at this, I see this again and again and again. And of course, what ends up happening is that the men get all the glory jobs, the glamor. They are the ones who are up in front doing all the work. You know, looking like they are doing all the work and the women are in the back organizing it. This is undergrad, so it's not changing. These are 21-year-olds!”

In her house delegation is a way of life – her two sons have been doing their own laundry since they were 13.

But let’s consider the idea that, again, women don’t actually like to delegate – whether or not they’re expected to do everything, they want to do it. Jodi tells the story of one woman she and her consulting colleagues worked with.

“She was a relatively new manager. She was probably managing for about a year. And she was really uncomfortable with delegation. So she would delegate it to her people, and the minute they came back with a problem for her, she would just be like "Okay, just give it to me," and she would take it over. So what ended up happening was and the problem she was having, she would be working later and later and later because she was doing her work and their work. And they were leaving earlier and earlier and not getting much to do. And the other thing that was happening was that they were starting to think that she didn't trust them. That they were incapable. So she was sending them a really clear message that they didn't have the capability to get the work done. That only she could. So we had to work with her, on really thinking about what is it that could happen? What's the worst thing that could happen if you could delegate to them? What if you look at it as an opportunity to develop them? To build their skills so you have a stronger team? So she worked on it over a six month period, and at the end of it, she was going home a much more reasonable time. She had a stronger team. She had a more capable team. And she wasn't doing their work anymore. But she had to get over that hump, that initial hump – she really believed they were incapable, and they knew it.”

I had an experience like those employees once, years ago. I was hired by a company in an associate role, to help out my new boss, who was overwhelmed. But my boss – even though she had asked for the help, she had persuaded the company to create this position – she just would not delegate. So I was incredibly bored, a, and b, I felt like she didn’t trust me to do the work. It was really dispiriting. And I wondered why I’d been hired in the first place if she was just gonna keep doing everything she’d done before. Finally I talked another executive into giving me some other writing work to keep me busy, and that ultimately led to me becoming a journalist a couple of years later.

Jodi says the ability to delegate is vital if you want to rise through the ranks. 

“It's the difference between a junior and a mid to senior level manager. Because the ones who don't make it to the top are the ones who can't delegate. Because there is absolutely no way you could be in a senior level management position without delegating. You just cannot do your people's work as well as your work. It's just not possible.”

AM-T: “Well talk a little more about that because as you know, the idea for a show on delegating came from one of my listeners who’s also been a colleague of mine and she said she’s getting better at delegating at work. But she pointed out that often means letting people make mistakes, and some people would say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ So how do you start to become a delegator if traditionally you haven’t been much of a delegator?”

“Well, I think the problem is that people get scared of the process itself. Initially the process is a learning process, so you have to teach people, they have to learn how to do it. And you're right. They have to learn how to do it. And you're right. There's mistakes. And that's just the nature of the beast. You know, if I hand something to a junior person for the first time, what I get back is not what I want. It's not. It's going to take me three to 10 times longer the first time, but you have to look long-term. I have to think "Okay, this person is going to be with me for several years, and I am going to invest this time now because in three months, I don't want to be doing it.” If they haven't learned it in three months, then I haven't hired well. I don't have the right person to delegate to. So part of the process is who is it I am delegating to? Do they have the basic essential skills to start with so that they can learn from there? And that's not always the case. But I'll give you an example. We had an assistant here 10 years ago. And at first, she was absolutely awful. She was just one of the least capable people I have ever met, but she was perfectly capable of learning it. And so we all took the time, and we taught her every little aspect of what we needed. And it probably took her three months because she was a quick learner. And then she became one of the most capable people in that position that I've ever met. And she got promoted within a couple of years, because she was so competent. We trusted her and she learned. Now, there's two pieces to that puzzle. You gotta have the trust and then you gotta have the person who is willing to learn. And then you don't have both of those things, but both of those things are managerial challenges, right. If you don't trust, there's a problem with who've you hired, and if they are not capable, then there's a problem with who've you hired. So all roads lead back to us.”

But she says once you start…

“Delegation is addictive. I delegate everything. So I delegate to my kids. I delegate to my husband. I delegate to my graduate assistant. I delegate to people who work for my company. I delegate to my teams at Suffolk. I delegate to everything. So the first thing that happens to me – the first time I get a question, I ask myself, ‘Who is the best person to do this task?’”

And sometimes it is her. But often someone else can do it.

One thing that drives Jodi nuts is a particular belief people seem to have about women – including women. It’s become a cliché.

 “Women are so good at multitasking. So this is a trigger word, right? We are told that we are just so good, and we are so efficient at getting a lot done. We have to do it all. And so when we delegate, of course we are not doing it all. Somebody else is. We are giving it to somebody else to do. And when people tell us that we are great multitaskers, what they are basically saying is, "Keep at it. You keep doing everything. We aren't great at getting things done." And it keeps reinforcing this same exact bias. - And we internalize it as a rule. And so when people tell me I am a great multitasker, I say "Actually, I don't multitask." And then I just stop. And they don't know what to say. And they get really uncomfortable. But I am just like "Multitasking is not actually physically possible. When you look at brain research, people don't multitask. There are actually costs to multitasking because every time you switch tasks, there's a pause in your brain, and it's like a microsecond, but it adds up. So multitasking is actually quite inefficient.”

But punting, as she calls it, now that is efficient…

“When we learn to punt, we actually learn how to let go of control. So punting is basically saying you're dropping it, you are saying, "not my responsibility." And there's actually a method to doing it that we've discovered. And the first one is, you just stop doing it. So for example, there was this one woman whose team was responsible for monthly reports. So she decided to do an experiment and didn’t do half the reports one month just to see what was happening. And you can imagine what happened. Nothing. So she was just relieved of the majority of those reports nobody even looked at. They didn't miss. So she just relieved herself of a ton of work that opened her up for a lot more strategic work. So another one is a lot of people punt on their emails. They look at their emails and they’ll only respond if it’s urgent. The rest of it they just punt and the whole idea is if it's that important, it will come back again. And men and women do this. It's fantastic. The third one is that you can ask for help and this one, everybody always talks about how men don't ask for directions, but women don't ask for help. So for example, a big presentation that we have to do next week.  Each piece of the presentation has been given to my team so the team together is creating the whole thing, not one person. And then the delegation piece. So as we learn to punt, to prioritize what really needs to happen here and actually, most stuff, you'd be amazed of how you can get away with subpar, and when I mean subpar, I mean subpar compared to perfection, not subpar compared to expectations. Because you can meet expectations and our expectations of perfection are not really what the other person’s expecting. They are expecting it just to be done.”

You can listen to the early show I did with Jodi for more on women and perfection – that one’s called Killing the Ideal Woman.

And she says it’s not just people like her with teams who can delegate. A lot of entrepreneurs hire virtual assistants or if you’re like me you sometimes hire an intern to help out with research and transcribing interview tape – Zaynab Ubaid transcribed most of my interview with Jodi and she found me an academic study on women and delegation.

Jodi says one woman she worked with was hired to do social media for her company but the company had a tiny budget, she was the sole person in this role. She ended up asking her friends all over the different departments to find interesting stuff to post, and it worked out really well. She was doing her job but she had lots of unofficial helpers.

Jodi says the problem is it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the outset. To think, ugh – how can I delegate this beast? I’d better just do it myself.

But…

“And all you have to do is just break it down into smaller pieces and then figure out which aspects can be delegated. And you know what? It's a 21st century leadership skill. You learn how to do that, you can do a lot of stuff.”

Jodi Detjen.

As ever I’m curious to know what you think. Has your career rocketed since you began to delegate? Do you find it hard to give up control? You can comment under this episode at The Broad Experience.com or on the Facebook page or you tweet me at @ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen.

And I mentioned this earlier but I’ll be bringing out a mini show in about a week. In that show Rachael Ellison talks specifically about parental leave and the role delegation can play in having a successful leave and re-entry.

If you can kick in a few bucks, or pounds, or anything else to support the show, that would be great. Any amount is gratefully received – you can go to paypal.me/TheBroadExperience.

I will see you next week for that mini show. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

 

 

 

Episode 98: Leaning Back

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, so much of the literature for professional women urges us to strive for the top job. But what if you have no interest in leaning in?

“The majority of women want to capitalize on their educations, want to do something meaningful and interesting and lucrative, but they’re not willing to sell their soul for their professional life.”

Coming up, we talk about leaning back, opting out, and asking for flexibility.


So last month I came across an article in The Atlantic – in fact it was the beginning of a series they ran on women’s ambitions over time. And you know, as with so many of these pieces about highly educated, high achieving women, about a quarter of the women they focused on had dropped out of the workforce completely to look after their kids. Something that’s fairly common in the best-educated cohort.

Reading it, I thought about Kathryn Sollmann.

Kathryn runs the website 9 Lives for Women. She’s also an executive coach. She’s done a lot of different things in her career. She started off running training programs and events in the corporate world, but switched to running her own business when she was still in her twenties. After 9/11 her business hit a major downturn and she started to ponder what she should do next. At the same time, she’d be out and about at her kids’ school or at the supermarket near her home in Connecticut and she’d get talking to other women.

“And they’d say to me, oh God, it’s so great that you work, and I really would like to work again but I’ve been out so long and I don’t know who would want me. And I would keep talking to them, and in the next few sentences I’d find out they went to Princeton, they have an MBA, they used to be senior vice president of a big Wall Street firm…and I would think wait a minute. There’s a big disconnect here. Why would these women think nobody would want them or they couldn’t get back into the workforce?”

But it really was tough. They’d lost their networks, their skills were rusty. They’d lost confidence. This gave Kathryn an idea for a new business and for the next decade or so she and a business partner ran programs for these returning professional women; eventually they morphed into a recruiting firm.

These days she’s writing, consulting and working on a book about how women can work flexibly throughout their lives – without taking damaging career breaks.

AM-T: “When I heard you talking about the women saying you’re so lucky to be working, I’ve been out so long…that’s quite common in wealthy suburbs in America and elsewhere, these are the people who can afford to quit work. I’m just a bit worried some listeners may hear this and say I can’t relate to this at all, much as I’d like to scale back I really can’t, we need our two incomes. Does this discussion only apply to the kinds of people you and I are surrounded by, fairly wealthy people in New York and its suburbs?”

“No it does not. And that is a very interesting social commentary and I feel I can really speak to this. I’ve been working with this demographic of returning professional women for 15 years. Obviously if your husband is making a big salary and can pay the mortgage and all the big bills it’s very easy to say, I am gonna leave the workforce for a few years. But what I’ve found is that there are women at much lower income levels who, you know, don’t have a lot of extra income coming into the household each month who just firmly believe that once you have children you are supposed to be home with those children. It is definitely not just something the most affluent women do.”

AM-T: “You have a beef with the current discussion around women and work. What is it?”

“Well I think there are two prominent discussions that linger. The ‘can women have it all’ will not die, and then there’s the Lean In. And I feel that both those conversations are really talking about the pros and cons of working and of getting to the top, and missing from the conversation is any discussion about the fact that working whether you’re a male or female, working is attached to long-term financial security. And rarely when I’m talking to women who are struggling about whether or not they should leave the workforce or the ones who did leave the workforce, rarely is there any big thought about the financial aspects of leaving.”

Instead, they’re focused on what they can achieve at home, and having a less stressful life. She says the women she met over the years who quit spent an average of 12 years at home. And the yearning for the off-ramp often begins when a second child is born.

“They’re saying I don’t know if I can do this any more. And then there’s the thought that if I can just go home for a couple of years and get everything in order, then I’ll come back. But the problem is most times a couple of years then turns into the average of 12. And women aren’t thinking about what the impact is of 12 years out of the workforce. Because every year they are out of the workforce they are giving up up to 4 times their potential compensation.”

Not just salary but pensions and other benefits.

Now Kathryn grew up in an affluent community herself and she lives in one now. So in a way she seems an unlikely person to push this idea of continuing to work throughout your life. But she got an early taste of instability when her father lost his job decades ago. He never fully recovered. It made her determined to keep earning money no matter what her future spouse might do. She worked in a corporate setting for several years after college but then left to start her own marketing/communications business. She was running that when she had her two children, now young adults. She says she worked early mornings and late nights, but she also got to go to school events sometimes. They were crazy hours. But they were her crazy hours. And yes, her husband earned more as an insurance executive. But she says working consistently but flexibly has allowed her to be present a lot for her kids, and to earn decently too…

“So I’m saying that you have to think about your work/life decisions not only in the context of family but also in the context of long-term financial security. That is because life has many you-never-knows, and even though you may be comfortable today and your husband may have that big job today you don’t know what’s gonna happen down the road, and it’s very foolish to be out of the workforce for twelve years and do absolutely nothing that’s professional. Because it becomes very difficult to get back in when you really need to.”

She says many women need jobs that not only fit around child-rearing, but also caring for aging parents. Daughters are often the ones who take on this role. Many baby boomers and some Gen X women are already firmly entrenched in elder care on top of their other responsibilities.

“If you have experienced it yourself and I’m certainly going through it now, you don’t have to be the caregiver for that caregiving role to take over your life.”

AMT: “Right, you just have to be the coordinator.”

“The coordinator. Right, exactly. So basically what I’m saying is there is no perfect time to work in terms of caregiving and family. The smart thing is to always work in some way from college to retirement. And it does not have to be a 60 hour a week corporate job.”

AMT: “You also say few women have the desire or family bandwidth to break the glass ceiling.” 

“Well I do think that’s true. It’s counterintuitive, counter feminist to say that but it is the reality. I mean all the talk about the fact that women are not at the top of corporations. Again yes, for the women who do want to be at the top of corporations, be in C suite, have that 24/7 responsibility, they should be able to get there and stay there. But my argument is there are very, very few women relatively who want to be in that C suite. There are very few women who want to be Hillary Clinton. There are some, absolutely, but I feel that the majority of women want to capitalize on their educations, want to do something meaningful and interesting and challenging and lucrative, but they’re not willing to sell their soul for their professional life.”

One of those women emailed me last year. She’d definitely leaned in. She has a good career, great title. But now, she wants to lean back. I read Kathryn her email. 

AM-T: “She wrote to me in the early summer, she said she’s in her early 30s, her husband’s mid-30s, they live in DC…she’s a health care executive. She said we both have demanding careers that take up most of our time both during the week and during the weekends. We'd like to have kids within the next year, and I can already tell that it will be difficult to balance my career and having a family. I would love to be able to stay at home part time especially while my children are young, and I honestly doubt I will miss my job and all the stress. And yes, I realize what a privileged position I am in to even consider this.

That said, I definitely do not want to opt out. I watched my mom do it and depend on my dad for an income for many years and would never want to be in that position. I would love to go and take a low stress, part time job for a few years. But I don't know how to do this without losing my network, being branded as a quitter, and destroying any prospects I have to get back on the fast track if I wanted to later.”

“Well I mean the first thing I would say is that you have to adjust your definition of the fast track, you know the fast track is not just being a health care executive or being an executive at a corporation. The fast track can be having your own business. It could be you know being a consultant, in my mind, there are lots of ways to skin the cat you know and it goes back to what we were talking about before. I mean how many people, how many women are so, so concerned with what their title is?”

I am one of those people who honestly doesn’t care about titles. But then I’ve never had an impressive one to lose.

“I mean I'm sure there are women who do, who do care about it but you know especially once you have a family you know your priorities shift a little bit and you're trying to fit everything in. So I still think that this woman can be a health care executive without being under the corporate umbrella. And you know what I would say to her as a career coach is OK. You're think you're starting think about having children now. So start planning now for how you're going to work when the children come.”

Now this listener who wrote to me – she indicated her company just isn’t flexible. She’s not even attempting to ask for flextime there. She is looking around for other jobs, she told me just recently. Places where she can imagine scaling back. But Kathryn says a lot of people can achieve a part-time schedule at work IF we sell it right.

“Most women at that crossroads, they would go into their boss and say you know I'd like to scale back a little bit. You know would it be OK if I if I work part time? And that is the extent of their pitch for flexible work, that's it. Because I've spoken to so many women who say well I left my job because it just was not possible to work in a flexible way.

And then I dig deeper and I say OK, so what did you say and what did you do? And it's always this simple ask. There's not a professional pitch for flexibility talking about how it's going to work for you how it's going to work for the employer. How are you going to manage people if you work at home, you know all those kinds of things. And so I mean she's now, this woman is now a subject healthcare expert and there are probably many, many companies, health care institutions, who would want her expertise.”

She’s says there’s always the consultant route…and to go that route you need to lay some groundwork. Think about clients you might approach. Plan ahead while you’re still at the current job.

“But she doesn't, she doesn't have to think of it as being a quitter. She's instead what she's doing is putting work more on her own terms and she could become a very highly sought after consultant that could be still considered very much on the fast track. It's just that you're not within the corporate confines.” 

And we’re going to come back to that thought about working on your own terms in a minute.

So talking to Kathryn I kept thinking about an earlier show I’d done with the author Laura Vanderkam…some of you may remember this one, Laura is a well known author on time management and show 67 was called How to Make the Most of Your Time. Her contention is that if we just managed our time better…we could achieve a lot more and be a lot less stressed. She says going part-time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

 “We think that going part time will allow us to officially set boundaries right, we've paid the price. Now we can set artificial boundaries but the problem is just because you have a boundary doesn't mean that people will automatically respect it. And so you're going to have to constantly be negotiating this, you know if you have Tuesday as your day off. People are still going to schedule meetings on Tuesday. Your team is still going to have a conference call they're going to wonder why you're not there. They're going to e-mail you and wonder why you haven't responded and so you can not respond but many people are trying to be accommodating and so they wind up working basically full time hours they're just getting paid less for it. So in particular if people are thinking about taking an eighty percent schedule I would caution against that because it is quite possible to slack for twenty percent of the time and still get paid for it. I am not sure how many people who are working aren't slacking twenty percent of the time at the office. So why officially cut your pay just to go through, you know we all go through ups and downs in our productivity and this may be a particular low point for you but probably there will be a higher point at another point.”

 “Laura's work is terrific because she's really showing everyone that you know, we waste a lot of time and we can be more choosy about how we spend our time. I don't know that I would say though that you should not try to go the part time route because I mean that's the old model. You know, you go part time and you have to work full time. I mean there are ways around that too. I mean we're certainly moving to a freelance economy which is you know not full time work every day 52 weeks a year. I think people are much more, employers are much more open to less than full time work and you know and again it's back to how do you propose it? And you know what are the what are the guidelines that you're proposing. For example I know a woman who works for one of the big recruiting firms. She was very high flying and she decided that she wanted to go part time and she saw that it was starting to be you know, the hours were expanding beyond the twenty hours or whatever she had had agreed upon. And so then she basically had a conversation with her employer and said look, I understand that you know life and work is going to go beyond the 20 hours but that's what I'm being paid for. So would you agree to pay me by the hour? And then sometimes I will be working 35 hours and sometimes I might work 15. So a lot of it is that we need creative thinking and much more work at the front end, of what the parameters will be of whatever the flexible work is.”

Which prompts me to ask if any of you have tried an ask like this – like a strategic ask, something you planned carefully ahead of time. And has it worked? I think other people could really learn from this so please post a comment under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

Back to the topic of financial security, which is close to Kathryn’s heart. She did a survey of her readership, and she found the majority of women – 70% plus had experienced some kind of unexpected life event that had hit their finances hard. There were the big things like the death of a spouse, or a divorce, but other things as well.

“Parents are footing the bill for their adult children and supplementing their income or you know maybe they don't have a job at all. And then you know, this one I've mentioned before, this aging parent situation where it's becoming more and more common that your parents are going to run out of money and that can happen even if the parents were at one time affluent. Once they get to the point where they need $25 an hour care around the clock which is $4,000 a week, you run through even a big bank account very quickly. And if you have four parents who are living, if you're married and you have you know two sets of parents, I'm hearing more and more from people that they're having to pitch in and help their parents.”

And I’m not sure how many of us are thinking of this kind of thing when we’re in our thirties. But I said to Kathryn, what about the argument I’ve heard women make against returning to work, which is, I’ve been out so long, I’d only get a low-paying job, 25,000 dollars a year really wouldn’t make much of a difference. But Kathryn says, hang on a minute – say that is all you can command initially…

“If you are able to just sock that away because somebody else is paying all the bills, I go into all the numbers in my book but I give an example where a woman who does that from age 45 to age 65 – she would have an additional 500,000 dollars at age 65 for retirement. 500,000 dollars is a lot to turn your nose up at.”

Especially given so many people are living a long, long time after retirement these days.

“You just can’t count on anything. You’ve got to have the insurance policy of always being able to generate of a paycheck – you can dial it up or dial it down, but it’s really very scary to leave the workforce for long periods of time. And you also don’t have to suffer in a big corporate job that’s stressing you out…you know if you are really hard driving you can be hard driving in something that is on your own terms.”

Kathryn Sollmann. Her site is 9 Lives for Women.

I’d be really interested to hear stories from any of you who have deliberately scaled back your career in some way and how that’s turning out. You can leave a comment under this episode at The Broad experience dot com or post on the Facebook page – or email me if you prefer.

And you may have noticed we have some new theme music today. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for ages – I wanted something punchier, more confident sounding. And I’m really happy with the result. The composer is Nick Bullock, who pitched me after listening to some of my shows.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

 

 

 

Episode 97: Women's Work

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…we talk a lot about women in traditionally male office cultures. But a number of professions are female-dominated and have been for a long time. And they bring their own challenges…

“What the analysis has really showed is there’s just a lower value placed on work done in an occupation with a higher number of women. When women start doing work, that work becomes undervalued and under paid.”

Still, working mostly with members of your own sex can be rewarding in other ways…

All the women I work with have quite a feminist angle to it…we are very aware as a team of the need for women to help eachother and to work together.”

 Coming up – we take a look at the female dominated workplace.    


I spoke to three guests for today’s show. One is a sociologist. Two are listeners on different continents – each of them works largely with other women. Each has things they like about it, and things they wish could change.

We’re gonna start in London.

“My name is Lucie Goulet. I work for a British luxury fashion company and I also run a website called Women in Foreign Policy about gender equality in foreign policy.”

Lucie was born and raised in France. She came to London to go to university and she’s been there ever since. Her site, Women in Foreign Policy – it’s a bit like the Broad Experience in that she took it up on top of her other work because it’s something she’s always been passionate about and wanted to be involved in. Foreign policy of course, is an area with few women – fashion, on the other hand is full of them. And fashion marketing has been Lucy’s day job for six years.

She doesn’t feel comfortable telling tales about her firm. But she points out something that’s common in female-dominated workplaces: you won’t find many women in the top jobs.

“I think it can be frustrating sometimes as women to see a lot of the decision making process still sits with men. There’s a couple of examples in fashion…without speaking directly to my company. I don’t know if you’ve seen The September Issue…which is that documentary about Vogue…Anna Wintour is really powerful and then you watch the September Issue and you realize she answers to the powers that be at Conde Nast. You see her go into a room and All the people in that room are men. I think it’s quite a recurring theme in fashion.”

 And in plenty of other professions as well. We’ll get to the why a little later.

Lucie says one aggravating thing about working in her industry is other people’s attitudes.

AM-T: “You talked about fashion being a field that isn’t taken particularly seriously in general.”

“Yeah, if you go to people, like for instance like I say at the start, I do a lot in foreign policy. And at the beginning when I mentioned I worked in luxury fashion they used to find it very amusing, to think it was a bit of a fad and something --not very serious – but working in marketing and all the things we do you’ve got big stakes involved whether in terms of money, for instance, it’s a really huge company. But I think because it has to do with clothes people have this thinking you can’t be serious and be interested in clothes. You know there was that whole debate in the news earlier this year or last year – I think you had articles that question whether you can be a smart woman and be interested in clothes. That was the gist of it. Even though it’s 2016 and you would hope we have moved away from this, I don’t think we have.”

There’s been a lot written about British prime minister Theresa May and her love of high fashion. And she is one serious woman. If she can’t change that perception I don’t know who can.

Now maybe you’re someone who’s had a bad experience working with other women. It happens. It’s a stereotype about women that they’re nastily competitive at work, undermining, eachother. We’ve talked about this on the show before. But of course that’s not the whole story. I’ve had brilliant experience working with and for other women, and I’ve had bad ones.

AM-T: “It’s your whole career really you’ve been working in this female dominated arena, so maybe you can’t compare it to working with mostly men. But what does it feel like, working with predominantly women? Do you like it, are there things you love about it?”

I like it because I think that all the women I work with have quite a feminist angle to it – for instance I read Feminist Fight Club.”

Feminist Flight Club is a new book by journalist Jessica Bennett.

“And I turned up to the office with it and posted quite a few quotes from it on Instagram. Quite a few colleagues have borrowed it and read it – and I think we are very aware as a team of the need for women to help eachother and work together. I’ve heard some women say women are the worst to work with because they’re really bitchy and undermining to eachother but I haven’t experienced this in a gender way. I think you have people who are like this to eachother,and when they are I think it’s because of their personality not their gender.”

She’s found her female workplace to be very supportive. But she says structural problems remain.

“Fashion as a whole is not the best paying industry. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it’s very in demand and if there are 20 people applying for every job there’s less incentive to pay people incredibly well. Not that I can complain about my salary. But on the whole I think fashion pays less than other industries and for me it goes back to the fact it’s not taken that seriously because it’s a woman-dominated field.”

I wanted to talk about all this with someone who knows the research.

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist, She’s based at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She’s also the author of a book about inequality in the US called Cut Adrift.

First I asked her about the positive stuff – what are the benefits when women work largely with other women?

“So when women work with units with more women, they report lower levels of gender discrimination and harassment, higher levels of group cohesiveness, coworkers considering them friends, and also strong organizational commitment so commitment to their jobs or their companies and overall lower levels of disagreement and conflict.”

I was interested to hear that part about women being more committed to the job when they work with more women. I wondered why.

“It may be related to when there’s more women working together there is perhaps more social interaction and friendships and things like that, that can – and of course when you’re friends with the people you work with you’re more committed precisely because you’re friends with them.” 

And staying at a job for a long time can be a good thing…but sometimes you need to leave to get to the next stage of your career or up your salary. And all those friendly relationships can hold you back.

Next, Marianne got to the less good stuff – and one of the points Lucie raised.  

“Even in these female dominated occupations often men are still over represented in leadership and it’s even more glaring in those kinds of environments because the staff is largely female.”

AM-T: “Why does that happen?”

“Well, it’s an interesting thing. And what sociologists have pointed out is when men enter female dominated jobs or occupations they experience something that sociologist Christine Williams at University of Texas at Austin – she coined the term the glass escalator…which are invisible pressures that men have to move up in their profession. So when men are in a female dominated occupation, within that occupation there can be roles that are seen as more fitting for a man, such as administrative roles or leadership roles, because we tend to think men are a better fit for those kinds of roles. So men can be encouraged to take that next step to leadership or offered opportunities. Or sometimes even men themselves can experience an internal conflict, a feeling like, ‘I know I’m in a female dominated job and it doesn’t quite fit with who I think I am, and I’m gonna move up into a position that’s more culturally male.’ That’s not explicitly the thought process that a lot of men have but it just feels like the right move. And so that’s how you end up getting these odd situations where in teaching for example where women make up, it’s about 76% of teachers but only half of principles and only a quarter of superintendents.”

AM-T: “Yeah, and I mean, I’ve thought about that a lot and someone wrote to me, she’s been a teacher her whole life said - she’s in younger childhood education.  She said I’d go so far as to say a male who wanted to teach young children is looked at askance. She said, ‘I’ve had a director tell me point blank she wouldn’t hire a male teacher because she didn’t think the parents would like it. Which is so interesting…”

“Sure, and it’s true that just as women can experience gender bias getting into male dominated occupations men can as well, and there’s studies showing – like resume studies, or job application studies, and when men apply for female jobs, particularly in childcare, they don’t get the callback rate that women get and it’s related to our beliefs about what men and women are good at. And women are thought to be good at caretaking and nurturing, and when men do that there’s a suspicion about what their motives may be.”

Last year I read a piece in a business magazine about male nannies in New York – apparently there’s a growing call for them. But they’re still unusual.

Marianne says kids are growing up, seeing men and women doing certain jobs, and they begin to imagine themselves on those same paths.

“But what’s interesting too is how easily jobs can be reinterpreted along gendered lines – and there’s a great book by Robin Leidner, another sociologist, and she studied fast food restaurants, and in some restaurants men were at the stove cooking the hamburgers because it’s kind of a tough job, you might get burned. And in other places women made the hamburgers because women cook. So pretty easily we can gender jobs, most jobs in different ways, depending on what we choose to emphasize and de-emphasize.”


Several listeners have got in touch with me over the years about their work in female-dominated areas. I’ve heard from nurses, teachers, social workers. And one topic they’ve all raised is pay. One woman asked, ‘How do we disentangle the relationship between profession and gender when gender is why the profession started with such a low status?’

I wanted to ask Marianne about this. Now at this point in our conversation we ran into some major technical hurdles. We ended up having to finish our discussion on the phone. So that’s why you’ll hear a difference in voice quality.

“So in general occupations that have a higher number of women, they tend to pay less even when you control for things like education, skill requirements, things like that – what the analysis has really showed is there’s just a lower value placed on work done in an occupation with a higher number of women. So it’s not just that the work inherently should be lower paid – it’s that when women start doing work, a certain kind of work, that work becomes undervalued and under paid, so that kind of analysis has showed that occupations that have gone from more male to more female, you see a decline in pay over time.”

As with teaching, for instance – that began as a male profession and flipped in the 19th century.

She says female-dominated professions are a story of social class and race – and which groups of women have always worked more…

“Women have always worked and the fact that we don’t have that as a cultural narrative just shows the larger belief that women really shouldn’t be working, and they should be just taking care of families and other things. But women have always worked and some groups have always needed to work for economic reasons. But typically because of ideas about men being breadwinners and taking care of their families even when women are doing that work they are not granted that same belief that we should pay them a wage to support the family. And we see that today, there’s the fatherhood bonus. Research has found when evaluators are looking at a resume between a father and a man who’s a non-father, very similar, they’ll give the father the higher salary.  And in contrast when evaluators are looking at resumes of a mom and a woman who doesn’t have children the mom is offered less money – so these beliefs about who works, who contributes money to the family, and who provides, are still bound up with very traditional gender ideologies.”

But again, she says, it’s amazing how quickly we can alter our thinking on this stuff.

“So when we needed women to work in WWII, all of a sudden we had childcare and women could work in factories and all that kind of stuff. And when men came home and needed jobs we stopped thinking that. So the malleability is what’s really interesting because it shows how fast we can really change these things when we want to.”

But perhaps when it comes to one area – caring for others – we’re not so quick to change our ideas. Recently I heard from a woman who works in Silicon Valley – but she’s not developing the latest app. She works in social services, with young people at risk of dropping out of the education system. All her colleagues are women. She says software engineers get paid three times as much as she does, and wonders why her work with other people is so much less valued.

“Care work in general is devalued – caring for people, doing that work of feeding children and caring for the elderly and all of that, it’s devalued work, and people who work in these jobs, they often are getting paid less than everybody else even though it’s the work that keeps our  world and our society going. It’s a big contradiction and any job that is related to caring particularly for children tends not to be valued as much as other kinds of jobs, despite the fact that we know how important it is. So you have people working in preschool and daycare centers who are paid such low wages that even when working full time they are paid barely above poverty wages…so it’s a values system, really.”

 These professions that involve caring for another person in some way – they’re associated with female-ness – with stuff women just do – for free – because we’re women, nurturers. Marianne says the only way she can see that lower pay changing – at least for some of these jobs - as if there were a shortage of workers compared to the numbers of people who need care. But she’s not optimistic there’ll be a revolution in how society sees these roles.

Kailah Carden works at a university on the east coast. She’s a sexual violence prevention educator. She sees her role as very much a caring one. She’s in her late 20s and everywhere she’s worked or studied has been female-dominated.

“My other major was community health, which was also primarily women, and definitely

in women’s studies, in my classes, and in women’s centers, it was really celebrated as being a female space, it was empowering and viewed as something that was positive, and beneficial, and spaces that were different from mixed gender spaces that new and exciting things could come out of.”

Now, though, in her current job, things are starting to feel different. And not in a good way as far as she’s concerned. She says traditionally this area of sexual violence prevention has been full of women – makes sense – but now there’s a lot of pressure to get men involved as allies. And to do that she says everyone’s being urged to lighten up, to make anti-sexual violence discussions less dark, more appealing…she says it’s a tough sell.

“The shift I see at work is that you know, we really need men involved because only men can reach men, men will only listen to other men, and we need to find ways to make this fun and engaging and not heavy and depressing because that’s the only way men will be involved. Whereas I look around the room at myself and my colleagues and I feel very saturated in content that is not fun or engaging or light but it’s work that I feel obligated to do…so it can be frustrating the way it’s framed as an expectation for women to do the heavy emotional lifting around sexual violence, and then lamenting the absence of men but their involvement being much more about them having fun and being engaged in very different way than women are.”

We talked about emotional labor in the last show. Kailah says there’s a lot of it when you work in this realm. And she understands the need to work with men. But she says there’s this whole history of female scholarship and activism in this area, and it feels like it’s being shunted aside.

AM-T: “Moving away slightly the topic of sexual violence…because you’ve worked women’s spaces before…you were telling me when we first spoke that you really enjoy working with a lot of other women. Why?”

“That’s a great question. I do really enjoy working with women, I enjoy women in general. I enjoy a collaborative environment, I enjoy bouncing ideas off other people, I also enjoy not having to have an artificial separation between my personal life and my professional life. I definitely believe the personal is political and I can do better work professionally when I can bring my whole self, including my personal life, including my personal beliefs and opinions into my work, and I’ve often found in female dominated spaces that is something that can happen.”

AM-T: “I mean do you mean just talking about personal stuff in the context of work sometimes?”

“Yeah,  definitely talking about personal stuff, using personal experience to inform the work you’re doing, I think again thinking about care, I do think the ethics of care are really valuable and important in a workplace and often it can be pushed to the side – so I think caring is important, it should be part of our work, I think attending to emotional wellbeing should be part of a professional workplace…and I do find that to be more common when there are women and when women can be in charge and women can set the tone.’

What do you think? If you work with lots of other women does that jibe with your experience? I’d love to hear from you if any of this rings a bell – or if your experience has been quite different from what we’ve talked about today.

As usual you can comment at The Broad Experience.com or on the show’s Facebook page.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Kailah Carden, Marianne Cooper and Lucie Goulet for being my guests on this show.

A big thanks to all those of you who have supported the podcast with a donation or who give a monthly amount. I’m really grateful. I also love hearing from listeners. This is a one-woman show and your support helps keep me going – mentally and otherwise. To donate just go to the support tab at The Broad Experience.com.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. 

Episode 96: Burnout

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…

“I think a lot of times what happens with my female clients is they will be on the edge of burnout and feel like they can’t do anything about it because it’s self-indulgent. Or they’ll get to a place where they are burnt out and they’ve already given away their energy to everyone else.”

“I have gotten much more ruthless about proactively avoiding getting to burnout rather than dealing with it once I notice it’s happening.  So I schedule my workouts in, I make sure I see people I care about a certain number of times a week or month.”

Coming up…anyone can burn out at work, but women seem to be doing it faster and younger.


Last year I did a show on women in their twenties. And we talked about the world being so much more competitive than it was when I graduated from college in the early ‘90s. And as I see it, one aspect of the current work world is that these young women with their packed resumes and multiple skills and incredible work ethics...they’re burning out faster than my generation did. They’re getting that don’t-care, can’t-do-it-any more feeling quite young.

I began to talk about this with Dana Campbell. She’s a career strategy and burnout coach. And she came to the work honestly – by burning out. Twice.

The first time she was still in her twenties…

“I was in management consulting at the time and I had just come off of a long string of traveling projects, traveling 5 days a week, working management consulting hours, very long hours, often on weekends…I mean at one point in that stint my then boyfriend said no way can you spend the night here because you received phone calls at 2a.m., 4a.m. and 6a.m.”

But it wasn’t just the insane hours. It was the work she was doing, the fact that at one point everyone was kicked off her team, and she didn’t feel safe either. She didn’t like or respect the people she was working for, or believe in what they were doing any more.

“The term for burnout that I use follows some really long-standing research that talks about it as three symptoms: exhaustion is the first one. The second one is cynicism.   And then the third one is negative self-evaluation. So you take someone who maybe was a high performer or is used to being high performing and all of a sudden it’s like, I can’t do this…”

That’s what happened to her at her next job. She was only working 35 hours a week. But still she had to drag herself into the office. She says she and the company were totally mis-matched.

I told Dana about a listener I heard from recently who said she’s on the edge of burnout. She teaches and does administration at a university. She said she loves her work, but state budget cuts have hit her institution. Everyone is doing more for less. But she says it’s not the extra work that’s running her down. It’s that the administration doesn’t seem to find her work valuable. 

AM-T: She says ‘burnout becomes more of a threat when I feel like I don't belong anymore, and what I do isn't truly valued. That sense of belonging and fit to the large culture seems key.’”

“And if you think about it, right, one of our base human instincts or needs is to belong. And when we feel that we don’t belong it triggers the stress response. We see that as an enormous threat to our safety and to our livelihood.”

True in organizations and society as a whole.

Dana sees these kinds of issues all the time with clients – she has corporate types, yes, but also teachers, even a church choir director.

She sees a mix of men and women, but her clients are mostly women. I pushed her on the gender aspect of burnout…

“So I think there absolutely is a gender component. So when the initial burnout researchers stared doing research, it was all on service-based professionals, so nurses, therapists, people who are really serving, and people have that tendency to want to be in serving fields…so already we have that tendency to wanting to give to others instead of feeding ourselves or putting ourselves first. But the other piece is that new research is proving the connection between burnout and perfectionism – perfectionism being basically the amplifier for your ability to go into a spot of burnout. And women overwhelmingly tend to exhibit – there’s two components to perfectionism, the first being the tendency toward wanting to be a perfectionist, the second is all around how you treat yourself when you aren’t perfect. And it’s that second category where women tend to be mean to ourselves, we tend to beat the hell out of ourselves when we don’t show up perfectly.”

And that’s because we are expected to show up perfectly…to be all feminine things to all people…and a good employee as well.

And that thing of putting everyone else first…

I have a lot of female clients where half of our work is identifying their true needs, and feeling OK with meeting those needs. So I think a lot of times what happens with my female clients is they will be on edge of burnout and feel like they can’t do anything about it because it’s self-indulgent. Or they’ll get to a place where they are burnt out and they’ve already given away their energy to everyone else, they don’t have anything left to turn around and fix themselves, or they just believe it’s wrong. There’s a lot of fear with taking care of themselves. I also have clients who very much live under the do it all label…you know they want to be mothers, to be professionals, to have a social life, and in order to prevent burnout quite often you have to shine a spotlight on one of those areas and downplay it. Meaning you only have limited resources, so at a certain point you have to start diverting resources to take better care of yourself so you don’t burn out.”

That’s exactly what my second guest has done. But it hasn’t come easy.  

Stacy-Marie Ishmael was born and raised in Trinidad. She started her work life in the UK and now lives in the US. She’s in her early 30s and she’s a journalist. If you’ve been listening since the beginning you’ll have heard her on a couple of early shows. Right now she’s on a break from the regular work world – she’s doing a fellowship at Stanford University.

Before that?

 “It was a slightly more stressful environment. I was a news editor at BuzzFeed News and the managing editor for mobile, which meant I was responsible for launching and shipping and running the BuzzFeed news app and the team that managed the BuzzFeed News app and the BuzzFeed News newsletter.”

In short, great colleagues, a lot of pressure, endless deadlines.

AM-T: “It’s my perception that women are burning out younger. A lot of women in 20s and early 30s have already experienced some form of burnout. What do you think? When you speak to your friends and your colleagues what are you seeing and hearing.”

“I think there are a couple of things that are playing into this, which is one, that we are finally out now of a major financial crisis but it’s had some long lasting effects. So people now in their mid- to late 20s, who in another era would consider buying a house for example, have a different understanding and experience of the financial system and in some cases didn’t get the kinds of jobs they thought they’d get, and in a lot of cases are faced by significant amounts of student debt and student loans. And there are all these calculations that are generationally distinct partly because of what was happening in the financial system when they were graduating or getting into their first jobs. I think that’s an underestimated effect that is in fact very stressful – you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, you have these societal expectations that don’t line up with your bank account.  You don’t have a 401k. if you’re in the UK you probably do not have a final salary pension. So that’s what I’ve seen, that people are much more stressed out and have much heavier financial stresses.”

And stress often leads to burnout. The other thing she sees a lot – this misconception so many young women have that you just have to work hard, and better pay and promotions will naturally follow. Spend long enough in the workplace and you realize that is far from true. But most of us don’t start our careers knowing this. After all…

“These are high achieving people who have been conditioned by their parents, by their schools to expect that if they do good work they’ll get rewarded for it and they’re not being rewarded in the same way. And that again is something that’s stressful.”

AM-T: “I imagine that you must have been burned out in your last job, but tell me what’s been your own experience of burnout in the last few years. Have you experienced it? Have you experienced it more than once?”

“My last job was stressful, yes, news is stressful, shipping new things is stressful, building teams is stressful. But I don’t think about burnout in terms of stress. I think of burnout in terms of not prioritizing things I want to do enough. So for me I get burned out when I spend too much time, too many hours, too many mornings and evenings doing things only for other people, only for the team, for other people’s deadlines, and skipping yoga or not running or not being able to see my family because I’m spending all my time at work. Which isn’t always correlated with how stressful that work is…right, there are definitely times you’re in the office till 7p.m. and you’re like, this wasn’t a stressful day, why am I still here? So I’ve really figured out and it took me a while, what the early warning signs are and how I can combat them…but I 1.17 was once so properly burned out it took me several months of spending most of my time learning how to make ketchup to really recover from that. For me the symptoms of burnout are, I’m naturally a very curious person, I like getting things done, I like hitting targets, beating expectations – but when I’m burned out I just stop caring.”

She can’t get motivated by the things that usually galvanize her. We’ll talk more about symptoms and solutions in a minute.


Some people quit when they’re burnt out. The lucky ones can quit without anything to go to, others seek another job. But Stacy is skeptical that leaving your job is the answer.

“I don’t think that quitting a job is a solution to burnout.  I think people quit jobs for other reasons. I mean sometimes your preferences change, the country you want to live in changes, your family circumstances change – because unless you figure out how to deal with burnout as a concept, as a thing, it doesn’t matter what job you’re doing.

So let’s say you work in a media industry, tech, advertising, you think that your burnout is related to your industry, sometimes that’s true, so you maybe switch job, but unless you’ve developed the coping mechanisms to identify what does it feel like to be burned out, why do I feel like this, what can I do about it? – it doesn’t matter what you are doing, it will happen to you again …unless you maybe quit and take up professional surfing…so I have gotten much more ruthless about proactively avoiding getting to burnout rather than dealing with it once I notice it’s happening.  So I schedule my workouts in, I make sure I see people I care about a certain number of times a week or month, I say no to a lot of stuff because I know if I say yes to too many things in a week I fall into this hole of exhaustion that makes other things harder, and that is a more effective strategy both short-term and long-term, than waiting till I can’t go to work any more and then I’m like ugh, I’m done.”

 She says quitting a job just like that is a luxury, and it is. But as Dana said earlier, there’s also the feeling a lot of us have that we can’t give up on something…no matter how exhausted, cynical or negative we may feel…

“There is a part of my brain I suppose that hears my parents’ voice being, like, suck it up. And so I don’t think I allowed myself to stop doing something just because I was burnt out. I think I only allowed myself to stop doing something when a number of other conditions had been met.”

 That talk about quitting raised the question of options, or the lack of them.

AM-T: “We talk about this as if…the context in which it is discussed is generally the context of educated professionals, and having just produced a show on class, if you’re working in a factory doing the same thing for 30 years you may be burnt out but you’re not necessarily going to be able to do anything about it the same way somebody else who earns $100,000 a year might be able to.”

“For sure. There’s a lot of things tied up in this. It’s not just about the financial resources about doing it, it’s about the societal perception of doing it. In the same way creative professionals like to tell themselves oh I’m so busy, like it’s a status marker. We think of burnout as a status marker. We think about stress as a status marker. We think about complaining about how many meetings you’re in as a proxy for, well, you must be busy and important. And sometimes that just means you’re a bad manager and you don’t know how to delegate. But these are the kinds of stories professionals like to tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about how we’ve chosen to spend our lives, but they don’t have anything at all on their face to do with why people get burned out and the context in which that might happen.”

And speaking of context, when Stacy got burnt out in her last job, she says it was tied to the amount of emotional labor she put in on a daily basis. Something a lot of you will probably recognize.

“One of my responsibilities as manger is making sure my team is OK, and making sure my team is ok is doing a lot of that kind of emotional work which gets exhausting – and that is something female mangers are expected to do at much higher rate and more profoundly than men in most contexts.”

AM-T: “Yeah, that’s really interesting, I’d love you to tell me a story, can you just pick one example, can you actually tell a story…”

“Yeah, I mean 2015, 2016 is a super tough time in news, right? You’ve had the Paris attacks, attacks on Brussels, you had the EU referendum by the UK, you had a really, really ugly campaign that started in the primaries where a republican debate would include jokes about genitalia size…it was just a very unpleasant environment for people having to write about these things all the time. And if you are in a newsroom and you’re from say an under-represented minority, so say you are a Muslim reporter, and you are seeing a significant uptick in anti-Islam sentiment based on some of these news events, and you’re running the social media channels…and people are saying ugly things on social that you have to moderate and are responsible for, or you just have to read in your job, that is horrifying experience.

And one of my responsibilities as a manager and news editor is to realize there are people on my team who are disproportionately affected by the kinds of things that we have to cover, by the kinds of things we need to send push notifications about, and to build in time to sit with those people and say look, I know this is hard for you, are there specific things I can help you with, are there kinds of stories you need a break from? Do you need this afternoon off? Talk to me, what’s going on? And that’s something I had to do a lot.”

 And some readers of her weekly newsletter, Awesome Women – we noticed when she was feeling overwhelmed. It came out in what she wrote. She says that’s the great thing about doing the newsletter – readers are often better than she is at recognizing when she’s pushing herself too hard.

“And so sometimes, and you’ve definitely done this, like if I write a newsletter and it seems like I’m really stressed out, I’ll get a bunch of email saying you need to take a break, have you gone to yoga this week?” [laughs]

AM-T: “That’s why I thought of you for this show, because that sounded like a great job you stepped into but boy did it ever sound stressful and taxing.”

“Yeah, and that’s the key thing, you know. I have extremely high achieving friends who are running big things and saving lives who rarely get burned out because they are so much better than I am at taking care of themselves…and setting up situations where they don’t have to take care of those around them all the time. And then I have friends who are in jobs that on their face are much less stressful. One is a jewelry designer, and she’s burned out constantly. Because she is much less good at saying no to things and at recognizing when it’s time to take a break. So despite what people in, with the C suite titles would like to tell themselves, it’s not so much how important you are, how much you get paid, or how many people report to you, that is the primary determinant of whether you get burned out. It’s mostly what are your coping mechanisms and what do you do once you recognize that you have a problem.”

Stacy-Marie Ishmael. Problem recognized.

Thanks to her and Dana Campbell for being my guests on this show.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

You can give feedback on this episode at The Broad Experience.com or on the show’s Facebook page. I’d love to hear if any of this resonates with your experience.

And if you haven’t reviewed the show on iTunes and you have a few spare minutes it would mean a lot to me if you did. Reviews help the show gain notice and I could always do with more listeners.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time. 

 

 

 

Episode 95: Better in Scandinavia

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success.  I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

 This time, America may not have elected a female head of state. But most Scandinavian countries have. And these countries have excellent reputations for gender equality. 

“This is something that’s talked about in the government and then it’s talked about down to the pre-school or school level – and then amongst parents.”

But despite that, the number of women in senior roles isn’t that different from the US.

 “Actually more women do have a good education but still we see the problem that it’s men who are getting the highest salaries.”

Coming up – we take a look at life for working women in the Nordic countries.


I live in the workaholic US. Hours are long, parental leave is often non-existent, and good, affordable childcare can be hard to find. And during the years I’ve been doing the show I’ve often thought enviously about women in Scandinavia. They seem to have it so good – there’s the state-funded childcare, the shorter working week, what seems like a huge number of men who take an active part at home. It sounds great. These countries usually top lists of best places to be a working woman.

But here’s the paradox: despite this wonderful approach to work/life balance, few women in Scandinavia are in positions of power, especially in the private sector.

You could say that doesn’t matter – after all these societies are so much more equal than many others. Working class women are far better off in the Nordic countries than they are in America. Still, I wanted to probe a bit more.  So I got in touch with three professional women in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Bronwyn Griffith is a curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm – it’s called Magasin III (three). She’s American by birth but she’s lived abroad for years. First she was in France, and for the last 11 years she’s been in Sweden. Her husband is Swedish and they have two kids, a 13–year-old boy and a 10-year old girl. Her husband is a musician. She says they live in one of those former working class neighborhoods that’s now full of artists and writers.

We began our conversation on Skype. She can’t imagine working and bringing up kids in the US, after living in Sweden…

“Childcare is heavily subsidized for example, healthcare is heavily subsidized, so some of these things stress out my friends in the US aren’t there. A lot of women are working fulltime.”

Including her. And this is largely because they need to – Sweden and its neighbors have generous welfare states but they are funded by high taxes. Governments want as many people as possible to work and pay into the system. Most families need two incomes to keep up their households.

Bronwyn says equality is in the air here. There’s a real attempt to erase gender bias. She says her kids’ school holds meetings where the parents all discuss attitudes to gender in the classroom. They talk about how the school can prevent boys and girls getting siphoned off into different groups with different activities.

Sweden has introduced a new gender-free pronoun so people can avoid using ‘he’ or ‘she’.

So that’s what’s going on in public. But when it comes to men and women, old attitudes and expectations linger in private…

“It’s common for both people in the couple to cook, both do laundry, those things are evenly divided, but there are certain things that still default to the mothers consistently: buying birthday presents, booking doctors’ appointments, setting up playdates is often still on the mother, and those all take time and organization and energy away from other things – it’s outside of the workplace but it still relates because it’s what you do during the evenings when you come home after a long day’s work or on the weekend…”

AM-T: “When you say mothers, are you including yourself in this? Are you saying YOU do the doctors’ appointments, and…”

“Yup! [laughs] We’re working on it, it’s an ongoing discussion – and you know, it’s clothes that the children have outgrown, and giving away those things, sometimes it’s just not on my husband’s radar, he’s wonderful about sharing other tasks but it’s an ongoing conversation. I feel like I’ve had a minor victory today. He sent out the birthday invitation to our daughter’s birthday party. So he’s gonna be, you know, he had to look for all the email addresses and he’ll be sorting through all the RSVPs, and that for me was a small liberation.”

Still, she admits some of who does what – that comes down to her being able to let her husband take it on. To delegate. To give up control.

She’s working on that as well. She says her husband sometimes tells her he wishes he could slow her brain down. He says she can’t relax, she’s always planning the next thing they have to do, or making some kind of list.

“And that it’s’ important to be able to wind down and have those empty moments and not feel you have to constantly fill it. That’s something that you see here, they call it, there’s something, they called it in Swedish - to hit the wall, when people are getting burned out. It’s actually a medical diagnosis here, and it’s mostly women I know who have got this diagnosis, where they’re so stressed the doctor thinks they’re showing medical signs of being too stressed and so then they get put on sick leave to have time to rest up and re-coup. But most doctors think it’s because women are going on all fronts. They’re working really hard and fulltime, and then they’re trying to be the perfect mother and have the perfect home. There’s a lot of pressure here to have very tidy, very stylishly decorated homes, and all of that takes energy. There’s also a phrase here called to be a good girl – you’re a perfectionist, you’re trying the very hardest to be the best at everything you’re involved in.”

What Bronwyn says about homes is worth dwelling on for a minute. Because women in the Nordic countries don’t outsource housework the way a lot of people do in America or Britain. Professional couples in those countries often have a cleaner or a nanny, or both. But in Scandinavia with its high taxes, help with the house is seen as one expense too many. Research on the Nordic countries shows women still take on the vast majority of housework. And that leaves less time for a career.

Bronwyn recently took a stand on a domestic matter – preparation for the school bake sale. An email goes out to all the parents saying, ‘Let’s do this – who’s in?’

“When the email thread starts it’s nearly always a mother who initiates it and it’s a conversation between the mothers. And recently when this happened I got really irritated about it because I noticed all the fathers were on the thread and not responding. And all the mothers were saying oh, I can bake this, I can stand between 2 and 4. And none of the fathers were bothering to respond at all. So at home with my husband we got into a heated conversation about it. I said you’re also on this thread, you haven’t answered. It doesn’t seem fair that if I haven’t answered I feel like a neglectful mother, but with men, you don’t seem like you need to deign it with a response…your partner’s taking care of it, and you know, you’re gonna bake and you’re gonna respond, and we’ll see what happens. I bet some fathers will respond. And so he did, he wrote and said I will be happy to contribute, I can bake, and within two minutes two other fathers answered.”

AM-T: “Wow, that’s telling.”

“It is, and so often we say you need to talk about girls standing up for themselves but you do also need to talk to the boys. It’s so much what you model at home. The kids also really pick up on the fact that, if dad’s making dinner a lot they know dad also makes dinner. Or if the dad is picking them up from school or whatever. So they see that becomes the norm – not the lip service that we’re equal but because they see us living according to those principles.”

My next guest would agree. She lives outside Oslo, the Norwegian capital.

“My name is Katrine Gjaerum – my last name is a bit challenging for Americans I guess.”

AMT: “That is true.”

 “Yar-um, you can say.”

Katrine is a videographer. She started her own business several years ago.

 “I do everything from shooting, or planning shooting, and publishing, and also I do the marketing for people afterwards.”

And it wasn’t easy, starting a business. Entrepreneurship isn’t common among Norwegian women. She didn’t qualify for any subsidies to get her started. And Katrine’s female friends were quite negative about her choice.  

“I didn’t get very much support I must say. I didn’t because we have here in Norway...a kind of law, the law of ‘you shall not think that you are something.’

In other words, you shall not think you’re anything special – you mustn’t show off. Which is a bit tricky if you’re going into business for yourself. And of course the total opposite of the American attitude to entrepreneurship.

“We’re taught up to be kind of humble and you know, don’t put yourself first. But I think it’s stepping forward here at least amongst entrepreneurs in Norway it is…they’re looking at American online courses – I’m doing that myself. And I think it’s stepping out of your comfort zone that really does get you forward.”

 She did that in a big way when she set out to create her business in 2012. Her career had been up and down before that. She and her husband have twin girls -- they’re 14 now. And when she had them she took advantage of the maximum parental leave on offer for two kids.

She was working in the public sector when she became a parent; it was mainly an administrative role with some IT support thrown in…

“I’m glad I got the chance to stay with them for such a long time. I had them with me till they were 3 years old…I still kept my job, I kept the position at that job in the public section then but I couldn’t choose when I came back after three years, I couldn’t choose my tasks, so they put me to work on the switchboard at that time.”

It wasn’t ideal. She had a degree in a computer-related field. Still she was struggling just to get herself and the twins into Oslo each day, find parking, put them into daycare and then do the whole thing in reverse. Ultimately she quit to pursue another degree in digital media. She landed another part-time job during that time. Quite a few women in Norway work part-time.

AM-T: “Norway has this great participation rate. Women’s participation rate in the workforce is 75% of women are in the workforce. Which again is much greater than many other western countries. I mean how does that feel? Are you proud of that? Are there any compromises that come with that, with having a lot of women in the workforce? Are these satisfying jobs? Were you satisfied?”

“Yes and no. I think it’s great to have such a large amount of women in work but of course it’s a paradox because you mentioned part-time work, and it’s like me, that wasn’t, in the long run it wouldn’t have been satisfying but of course would give more flexibility, and the other thing is that, in what kind of work do we find the women? It’s mostly in very women-oriented work, – like teachers, nurses. I think that should be balanced even better.”

This is common across the Scandinavian countries – men work in typically male jobs, women in typically female ones – there’s less gender balance in professions than in many other countries. Women flock to the public sector with its generous benefits, but lower pay.

“And also it’s hard to get the top job, we can see more women have a good education, but still we see the problem that it’s men who are getting the highest salaries, and that’s kind of the struggle we have here, but how do you find the balance? I mean you want to spend time with your kids. What we are fighting a lot about here now is the fathers should also stay at home more with the kids.”

Fathers do have a quota of 10 weeks’ parental leave – if they don’t take it, it’s subtracted from the overall leave the couple can share. But what happens most often is they take the 10 weeks and go back to work. The mother takes many months more.

Still Katrine appreciates her country’s investment in early childcare and its parental leave policies – a lot. She says yes, it all helps keep women in work, and it keeps the fertility rate from plunging like it has in countries like Italy. But there’s more than that…

“Actually it has led to…the number of divorce has gone a little bit down in Norway – because if you take care of your family it is better for all the parts. I think it’s better for both men and women and keeping families together should be something that must be interesting for the countries because then it’s better stability.”

Norway’s childcare system seems to have long-term benefits as well. I was at a panel on universal childcare last week. We heard from an economist with Norway’s official statistics body…she said kids who have been through the Norwegian state-funded system pursue more education and earn more later in life. 

Bronwyn Griffith has only good things to say about Sweden’s childcare system. She says it’s fantastic care and it’s affordable. You’re charged based on your income and if you use your state child benefit as well, you can pay as little as $40 a month for daycare. That includes food and diapers.

As for parental leave, she did take most of it. A full year. Her husband took two and a half months.

“I know in some couples, there were some couples who have had long conversations about who gets to be at home with the child…because both parents really want to do it. And I have a number of colleagues, male colleagues who took 6 months to be at home with their child and they were very determined about that, there was absolutely no discussion that they were not going to have those 6 months off. And I think that it allows the father to have a really nice relationship with their child.”

But some outsiders don’t recognize that relationship when they see it. Bronwyn has a friend who works at another museum in Stockholm. And a group of Italian curators was in town, and she was showing them around to exhibitions…

“….one of the Italian curators leaned over to her and said, what is it with all these gay nannies? Because there were all of these men walking around with prams. And they thought these were gay nannies instead of the fathers of the children that were on parental leave. It was really funny.”


My next guest lives in Copenhagen. Lynn Roseberry qualified as a lawyer in the US. She met her Danish husband at Harvard Law School. 22 years ago she followed him to Denmark and she’s been there ever since. She’s just wrapping up a longtime job as a professor at Copenhagen Business School. She’s about to go into business for herself as a diversity consultant.

AM-T: “One of the things I think is so interesting about the Scandinavian countries, and I did want to ask you about this, is I know that the number of women in these top jobs…in these kinds of professions, like law and finance, aren’t any higher in Denmark, Sweden or Norway than they are in the states. And I wonder why you think that is?”

“That is so ironic. I think there are lots of reasons. The very general reason is that in Denmark it seems to me the conversation about gender and careers stopped in the 70s. And there’s an assumption we are all equal now and everyone has the same opportunities, and if women aren’t progressing into the upper reaches of the hierarchy that’s because of their own choice. Of course you have some of that in the States too but it’s my impression there is still quite a bit of conversation around it, and that there are women who find ways of progressing -- and it also seems to be especially in well paying positions, which is what all of these are, it’s quite acceptable to hire fulltime nannies, live-at-home nannies, and that’s not quite acceptable here.

It’s certainly more expensive to hire a nanny in Denmark. But the other thing is the social piece…

"It’s that there are some women who look down their noses at women who don’t pick up their kids early from daycare, and don’t bake, and don’t do all the kinds of things you’re supposed to do to show you’re involved with your kids, and this is a standard that applies to women.”

A standard many women strive to meet. And she says there’s another thing - corporate Denmark has blinders on. 

“Companies here have been very slow to take up diversity management and practices; they hardly want to talk about it…”

AMT: “Really?”

“Yeah, you raise hackles when you start talking about it. So you can ask me why am I doing this business with inclusion and diversity consulting. But I mean there are – the companies that are active in doing something with diversity and inclusion are the big multinationals that have headquarters in the States.”

Which is so interesting to me. That American women look at Denmark and its neighbors as beacons of equality…but Danish companies are actually lagging American ones on trying to pull more women up.  

AMT: “Given so much of the discussion here in the US does revolves around the lack of affordable childcare, the fact the system in the US simply isn’t geared around people having families. Politicians give lots of lip service to family being the most important thing but America is all about work, work, work…now Britain is better but I still hear a lot of complaints and concerns about the cost of childcare in Britain and it’s still a more workaholic culture than many of its neighboring counties. Given that Denmark has taken care of this huge slice, which is the childcare part, what are some of the things you think are hampering the advance of women into these higher roles?”

“I think it’s our socialization. The anxiety that gets provoked when you deviate just a little bit from gender roles and gendered behavior. It triggers anxiety and criticism. So you tend to choose the path of least resistance. You have to be really goal-oriented and committed to put up with that. And just not care about it.”

AM-T: “And I think, is it worth saying because it’s something I’ve noted a little bit on my visits to Denmark and talking to a good friend of mine in Denmark…it is quite a conformist society isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. I’ve lived in a small town in the US and I compare it to that. Denmark is a very small country. People don’t move around very much, so in the little town I came from people didn’t move around much either…I mean there were people who were born and raised there and couldn’t dream of leaving. And it’s the same thing here. There were very definite expectations of how you behave, and if you don’t, you feel it. You feel there is some kind of social sanction and there’s a tremendous pressure to confirm. And that’s how it is here.”

Now of course there are some high profile women executives in Denmark, including the head of Microsoft Denmark. Presumably they don’t bake much or make it to the school gates by 4.30. And for four years until 2015 the country had a female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She formed a coalition government with two other parties.

“They were all headed up by women. And then the PM chose several women to be ministers. And suddenly everyone was talking about how women were taking over and we didn’t have to worry about women in government any more because look, we have all these women at the top – and now it’s just flipped.”

She says the current government has far fewer women ministers.  

I wondered if the former prime minster championed women’s progress…

 AMT: “Did she ever speak about these kinds of things or was she one of the women who just wanted to shut up about the whole thing?”

“Well that was one of the big disappointments of that government. They went into government – one of their promises was they were going to introduce earmarked paternity leave, so right now it’s not earmarked for men. Moms and dads have to split it but that can split it however they want to or they don’t have to split it.  Women can take all the leave if they want, and that is what most of them do. They went into government with this promise and they completely dropped it. And the person she appointed to be the gender equality minister was so unknowledgeable about all of this, I heard him speak a number of times. He was probably one of the least impressive ministers in the government… on the gender thing he was completely without a clue. There was some survey at some point that women suffer more from stress than men…taking care of kids, house, job, they’re stressing out totally, and he came out and said publicly ‘well, it’s just a question of prioritizing – sometimes you just can’t go to Yoga.’ [Laughs]. This was our gender equality minister!”

AMT: “How did that go down?”

“Under Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She had nothing to say about this, she just let him say these things. The impression most of us who are interested in this got was that she didn’t want to get too far into this because it wasn’t a popular position. It’s not regarded as important, not regarded as strategically important. So that just got sacrificed for political reasons.”

Pop culture isn’t always that evolved either. A few years ago Danish public television aired a show where men studied and critiqued a naked woman’s body. The woman had to stand there silently while the guys offered comments. The show’s creator said Danish society needed this…

“He thought that we need to, sort of like Justin Timberlake’s song, we had to get sexy back. And for him sexy means men admiring women’s bodies and men being manly and this was part of being masculine.”

It sparked plenty of outrage. But Lynn says the fact it made it to air tells you the whole equality thing – it’s not quite as ingrained as you might think in Denmark.

“So, you know, we’re a progressive backward country…or a backward progressive country, I don’t know.”

Lynn Roseberry. She’s the co-author of a book called Bridging the Gender Gap. Thanks to Lynn, Katrine Gjaerum and Bronwyn Griffith for being my guests on this show. 

If you’re listening to this in one of the Nordic countries and you have something to add I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me via the show’s website or on Twitter at ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen. Or you can leave a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to all those of you who have supported this one-woman show with one-off donations or monthly donations. If you’d like to join them go to The Broad Experience.com and hit the support tab on the homepage.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.  

Episode 94: Class and Career

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, career and class. Because even if we don’t talk about it…

“It absolutely is clearly a part of how people think about themselves, how people understand eachother and as our study showed, how people get ahead or don’t.”

And having a different background from everyone else at work can leave you feeling isolated…

“The people that I deal with now, they’ve probably never met anyone from where I grew up. They probably would live their whole lives and would never meet anybody like I was when I was a young child.”

Coming up…social mobility is possible, especially with a good education. But what’s it like when your career and your background don’t match?

Julie O’Heir works for an adult education program at a university in the American Midwest. She wrote to me a couple of months ago and said have you ever thought about doing a show on being in the professional world when you come from a working class background? She said a lot of her colleagues had a toolkit for the workplace that she didn’t, because of her upbringing…  

“My mother was a teacher at a Catholic school and my dad worked for a construction company. And most people in the area I grew up in in the Midwest were either police officers or firemen.”

The women were crossing guards, teachers, nurses, or they pieced together part-time jobs around looking after their kids. When Julie’s mother retired, she was earning less than 30 thousand dollars a year.

But Julie and her siblings were able to go to college. And when she got there she found herself surrounded by students who had their own cars, credit cards…

“I had to work my entire time at university and that’s when I found you miss out at college if you have to work. I could not take an unpaid internship, I couldn’t spend an extended period of time volunteering. You know when it came to the end of college and I was trying to figure out what the next steps are I thought it might be hard to get a professional reference because I never had a job where I wasn’t waiting tables or dong service-oriented work.”

AM-T: “Before we go on I want to dial back to what you said about how you grew up because a lot of people I think would say teaching, nursing, being a firefighter or a cop, that those were middle class professions.”

“I definitely understand that perspective. I guess I mean more culturally. Aside from nurses I guess, but most firefighters I knew, police officers, didn’t have college degrees. My mom had a degree from a teaching college, my dad didn’t have a degree – what I mean more is I didn’t know anyone who had developed a profession. I didn’t know any lawyers, doctors, university professors, anyone who was an accountant. People who had gone to school for a specific profession outside of a vocation.”

And she says not coming from that world left her with a knowledge gap. She says she just didn’t realize until she’d been in academia for a while that there was so much invisible stuff involved in having a career – take the idea of professional development…

“Things that are part of your job – or, perhaps a better way of talking about it would be networking. It took me a very long time to understand what networking is and why you would do it. Part of that was, culturally growing up if someone is a police officer you just apply to be a police officer.”

There was none of this business of courting people over drinks in a cacophonous hotel conference room. It took a question from her boss one day to make her realize she was missing something.

“My supervisor and I were at a conference, and we had been there a couple of days and he said ‘what kind of connections are you making?’ And I had no idea what he was talking about. And I thought, oh, we’re just all here talking about the fact we all do the same type of higher education work. It didn’t make sense to me to think oh, these people have been in my profession for a long time, and …I could very much learn things from them in the workplace. Those kind of things didn’t cross my mind.”

Like a lot of people she recoiled from the idea of networking at first.

“It feels very much like self-promotion, and…the reason I say there’s a connection to class is I think when I was much younger perhaps in high school or early days in college I thought it was like you were sucking up to someone, and that went against every cultural norm that I knew. And I’ve always thought that was related to class. Maybe it’s an American thing or maybe it’s a universal thing. But now I know it’s about inviting them into your professional life…but you know, trying to build a vocabulary for your work skills or professional goals, that takes time for everyone, but if you didn’t know about that type of vocabulary then just trying to define everything is much more difficult.”

Sometimes she feels her vocabulary is off. She says she didn’t know talking about money – or the lack of it – wasn’t done in academic circles. But whenever she’s brought money up, she says people go quiet. She doesn’t do it any more.

There are still work occasions when she squirms.

“If it is a professional happy hour, a networking event with a social piece to it, I am very uncomfortable in those situations because I think that…For example, a few months ago I was out with some faculty members at the university and I was the only staff person there. Politics came up and I mentioned how my brother and my brother-in-law, both are in different trade unions, and how those unions were having disagreements about which presidential candidate to back, and the faculty member I was talking to said oh, are they in a teachers’ union? And I said no, one is an insulator, the other is a building engineer. And she said ‘Oh, I’ve never met someone whose union was not a teacher’s union.’”

Julie had grown up with men in unions, men who worked with their hands. And this woman didn’t know anyone who did that kind of thing?

She could feel this weird imposter syndrome swimming over her, that feeling of not belonging, of not being quite up to par.

AM-T: “I mean did she seem amused, bemused? I’m just curious, I mean I wonder how she felt versus about how you felt.”

“I don’t know – I think this is another professional difference. She seemed very good at keeping it a low emotional conversation whereas I wanted to say how do you not know anyone in a union? I was much more interested in her experience. But she just seemed very surprised – like, oh, it’s so interesting that you would know someone like that. And I thought, I think it’s interesting I know all these people who have PhDs now.”

She’s 32 now and she says she is getting more comfortable in this rarified world. And she feels lucky to have had such a good education herself, including graduate school. At the moment a quarter of her salary goes to paying off her student loans. But she says it could be worse.

My next guest has a PhD himself. Daniel Laurison is a professor of sociology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Before that, he spent three years at the London School of Economics doing research on class and inequality in the UK.

And I couldn’t do a show about class without talking about Britain.

AM-T: “First of all, before we talk about the study you did with Sam Friedman, you are an American and you plunged into British society – to what extent to you think Britain is still a place where class matters?”

“Oh, I think it absolutely matters in Britain, it matters in the US as well. People say it’s less obvious or less overt here and I think that’s true but it’s clearly a part of how people think about themselves, how people understand eachother and as our study showed, how people get ahead or don’t.”

Daniel and his LSE colleague Sam Friedman did this study on people in high-status professions like law, medicine, and finance – and they looked at their backgrounds.  

“We were interested in the question of how much class origin matters for the success of people who have been what sociologists call upwardly socially mobile – for people who have gotten into high status professional or managerial jobs but who come from working class backgrounds, are they at any disadvantage or once they enter those professions or does class go away? Are they just like everybody else?”

What they found suggests class doesn’t entirely go away. They examined labor force data that showed what these high-status employees’ parents did for a living back when the employees  were 14 – they used that information to determine class origin. Then they looked at what these employees were earning now as adult lawyers, doctors and so on.

“There’s a 17% difference between working class origin people and privileged origin people in these top jobs. When you control for everything you can control for in these models that difference gets smaller, but it’s still about 9 or 10% in annual earnings.”

So people who now worked in high status jobs, but had grown up with less privileged backgrounds - they were earning less than their peers who’d grown up with professional parents. Or as a British newspaper put it when the research was published last year, ‘it pays to be posh at work.’

There’s a gender piece to this too. And remember ‘long range upwardly mobile’ means a person from a household where the parents did low skilled jobs…

“If you just look at women versus women and men versus men, the gaps were about the same, but if you look at long range upwardly mobile women versus men from privileged backgrounds, the gap is about twice as big, right, because they have both a gender pay gap and a class origin pay gap.”

So what Daniel and his co-author call the class ceiling seems to be that bit higher for women. They’re now doing follow-up research and interviews to find out more about why these income gaps exist.

But what about America? He says no one has done an identical study here, but similar studies and books have come to similar conclusions.

AM-T: “What do you think the difference or differences are in attitudes to class in the US versus the UK?”

“I think the big difference is it’s subtler here in the US. We read people’s class when we interact with them but we’re less aware that we’re doing it. And we’re less explicit about it with eachother and with ourselves. In the UK as you well know, you know an awful lot about someone when they open their mouth based on their accent. Their accent ties people to regions and to a fairly large extent as I understand it, ties people to class origins as well. In the US it’s not quite so cut and dried, you know, America more or less from its founding has had a myth of being a pure meritocracy where class doesn’t matter at all. That stems from the fact that we got here and nobody was a noble...so there was some difference in how much class there was. But there have still always been differences in the amount of economic resources people have and cultures they have and all the things that come together to advantage people or disadvantage people.”

Add race, and class acquires another layer of complexity. 

Denise McKenzie is a patent lawyer at an international law firm. She’s based in LA. She’s in her fifties now and she’s been a lawyer for about 20 years. She grew up in Los Angeles too, but in very different circumstances from most of her colleagues.

Denise has a packed schedule so I got her on the phone between meetings.

“I am the first person in my family to go to college. My mom was a teenage mom—she had her first child at 15 and she had me at 17. And my dad was a technician. He worked with engineers. His big thing was getting me into math and science. He wanted me to be a scientist or engineer because those are the people he worked with and admired. So when I was little he’d make flash cards for me to teach me my math facts.”

She worked hard, did well at school and got into UCLA. She commuted an hour and a half each way to the university and back and held a job on top of her studies. She majored in mathematics and electrical engineering.

“And I ended up working at Hughes Aircraft as an engineer in their missile design group.”

Hughes Aircraft was a big defense contractor. Denise had met her dad’s expectations – and her own. She was now an engineer.

AM-T: “So from the get-go when you began in your first career, were there feelings of discomfort, how did it go?”

“Well my feelings of discomfort started when I went to UCLA – I went to an inner city school and that school didn’t really prepare me for what I was getting into, especially not for math and science. So when I went to UCLA I was in my calculus class – and at that time it was between 350 to 400 students in the class. I was so confused in that class…even though I’d been top at my high school…I had done everything at my high school, student council, top grades, I was a cheerleader, I was one of the best people. At UCLA in my calculus class I was so confused I didn’t even know how to ask a question, that’s how confused I was. I felt like a total failure.”

She was overwhelmed. But UCLA offered resources to students from less privileged backgrounds. They put her in touch with a tutor.

“I get a tutor in every class, I worked day and night and actually I didn’t do that well, my first quarter I did very poorly. The school sent me a letter and said get your grades up or you’re not gonna be able to go here. And I was devastated because from my home, from my school I was this best person who was supposed to be successful, and I just really was not prepared.”

But she kept at it, and the work did eventually pay off. She graduated and landed that engineering job. Still, she often felt ill at ease at work. A) she was an African-American woman among many white and Asian men. She says they really didn’t know how to talk to her. But the other thing was she didn’t know how to navigate this new environment. Take her first performance reviews.

“It was just very awkward, I just didn’t know how to handle myself. I didn’t know how to…I mean I should have been selling myself, telling them all the stuff that I achieved, and I didn’t do that. I didn’t do any of that.”

Because she didn’t know she was supposed to. Now it didn’t help that the person reviewing her was a man who wouldn’t even look her in the eye. And that she already felt like the odd one out.

“I just looked very different, right.  There’s no one there like me. And that’s even now, to be quite frank – when people meet me they’re just kind of shocked.”

And for Denise this is where it all gets mixed up – is she being judged on her gender, her background, her race, or all three? She is a true minority in her current workplace too. A black woman among many white men in a highly specialized area of law. She says few lawyers have her background in engineering technology.

But some people can’t seem to get past the surface. She tells the story of one encounter. She was meeting with another lawyer about a case. He was sitting opposite her, and she started to feel self-conscious…

“He kept staring at me and I kept thinking is something wrong with my clothing…I just felt very odd because he kept staring at me. And he said, the judge in our case, she’s just like you. And I didn’t know what he meant…I said, oh, is she an engineer and a lawyer? And he said no, she’s just like you in every way. And he said, she’s black, and I think if we put you on the case maybe you could talk to her because she doesn’t understand technology. And I was just so shocked that he said that and he said you know, she’s in Oakland, (which is an inner city area in California). I was so shocked he said this because he was not saying it in a mean way, he’s not a mean person, this was just what he was thinking. We were talking about very complex technical matters and I realized he was not really listening to what I was saying about the technology, he was focused on what I looked like, and who I was, an African-American woman. I really didn’t know that people focused on that first and almost solely.”

AM-T: “And what did you say in response?”

“Well what I said was I most judges, whether they are African-American or not, don’t understand technology – I said she’s just like every other judge, you know, she doesn’t need me to explain something to her. That’s what I said to him.”

He laughed – perhaps nervously. She’s not sure if he got it. And the incident made her feel so isolated – again.

She says in her world of corporate law virtually everyone she comes into contact with has parents who were white professionals…

“Some of the them the parents were lawyers, you know, doctors, so not just professionals but highly paid professionals, a lot of them went to private high schools and just had a different type of upbringing than I had. They had traveled the world more than I had. So in that situation, when you’re having a conversation, just a regular informal conversation, I felt excluded…not necessarily because they were intentionally excluding me, but because I couldn’t contribute to the conversation, if that makes sense.”

Daniel Laurison says that experience is common…

“Sam Friedman who’s my co-author on a lot of these studies has done a lot of research showing how much people feel out of place when have been long range upwardly mobile and how painful that can be for people, even if they’re simultaneously also happy with the job they’ve got, the career they’ve had, the opportunities to give to their children. A big part of what happens when people have long range social mobility is they end up in places that don’t feel comfortable to them and the norms are different from what they’re used to, the things people chat about are different, and it’s not through any fault of theirs, it’s just that the whole culture is so is dominated by people from privileged backgrounds who tend to have somewhat their own culture.”

“The people that I deal with now, they’ve probably never met anyone from where I grew up. They probably live their whole lives and would never meet anybody like I was when I was a young child. I myself only see people like that when I would look at my family. And it’s because I work a lot, and the world I’m in, it’s like it’s parallel to the world where I grew up in, it just doesn’t cross.”

AM-T: “How does that feel?”

“Well it’s, um…it’s not a good feeling because I often feel like an outsider. I feel like an outsider for a variety of reasons, a lot because I’m African-American, I’m a woman and working in an all- white male career, but then also from the people I grew up with as well. Because I’m different now, I’m different than them, we’ve had completely different experiences, and really it’s hard to relate. I mean my struggles, if I talk about my struggles they seem like nothing compared to someone who maybe can’t put food on the table…right?”

She is close to her family though – despite how different their lives are now. She says her parents have always been eager to understand her new world even if it does seem far removed from theirs. And they’ve always supported her.

Denise met her husband back at UCLA. She says their daughter is having a totally different experience than she did growing up. And Denise says that’s wonderful, but it’s also been unsettling sometimes. 

“My daughter, she goes to private school, so when I was looking for schools for her to go to when she was in kindergarten, we went to the interview, and they wanted her, she’s bright, whatever. And I cried after that meeting because I thought of all the little kids that go to the schools I went to, and I thought, how can they even compete in this world? If you have kids who go to these schools that cost like $25,000 a year for kindergarten, I mean that’s crazy, and then you have kids in the inner city, they don’t even have the books and pencils and desks they need, then how can they compete when it’s time to go to college? How are they going to get into the top schools? Most of them don’t. And for me just that realization, because I’d never seen that. Where my daughter went to school, I didn’t know that existed.”

Her daughter is now in college, studying computer science. Denise is thrilled things will be easier for her as she transitions to the professional world.

Because when she looks back at her own trajectory, she says she thinks of how difficult it was. And still is. 

“I mean this will sound funny but I feel like I wouldn’t advise it – this path that I was on, I wouldn’t advise it. It’s uphill. You have moments of pleasure you have to enjoy and appreciate, but it’s grueling.”

AM-T: “But you did it.”

“Yeah, somehow, by the grace of God. I mean I don’t know, I just think it’s um, it’s so unfair, it’s such an uneven playing field. When people evaluate you, when they look at you they don’t look at all that. They just think that everybody has the same opportunity and everybody doesn’t. To get where I am I worked day, night, weekends, holidays, vacations and birthdays. When my daughter was little she didn’t know when her birthday was, because I had to celebrate her birthday when I had a free moment. But I felt like I had to work like that just to sustain myself.”

AM-T: “You know what you said about lack of opportunity and how could kids in inner city schools possibly ever get to the same level as kids who went to a school like your daughter’s?  Was it your dad, I mean obviously you made this transition, and you’ve pointed out a lot of other people don’t, was it your dad and his coaching and your own intelligence and drive, a combination of those things?”

“Yeah, I think it was my family. My dad, he was like drilling me with the math facts but he also gave me the confidence that I could be like a scientist or engineer, right. Because most women have math phobia, and this is a whole big thing right now, about girls and math and that kind of stuff, well my dad before it was even popular was like, this is what you’re gonna do. So I never, ever doubted that I could do it. And then my family – even my grandmother, because I told you my mother was 15, and we lived next to my grandmother - my whole family just cheered for me, everything I did was just like oh my gosh, she’s gonna be the one that makes it. So I really think it was my family.”

She says her own perseverance played its part too, especially when it looked like she might get kicked out UCLA because she couldn’t keep up.

And even though she said she wouldn’t advise it, this journey through socio-economic layers, by the end of our conversation she’d remembered something a speaker at her high school had told the class back in the late ‘70s…

“This is all he said, he just said never, never, never give up, and I think that’s what I’d say – I know that’s simple but that’s really it - just don’t give up. And I think if you don’t give up you might not reach your goal, but you’ll be much better off than you were before you tried.”

Denise McKenzie. Thanks to her, Julie O’Heir and Daniel Laurison for being my guests on this show.

If you have something to say about the show I’d love to hear from you – you can reach me via the website or post your comment under this episode or on the show’s Facebook page. And I am reading those iTunes reviews so thanks for the ideas you’ve raised there, as well.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. If you’re not already a subscriber please sign up on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts – you will never miss an episode again – and tell your friends and colleagues about the show too.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. 

Episode 92: Illness and Secrecy

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, working with an illness…

“We have a stereotype of women as weak, or weaker. So I think that when you have a chronic illness and you’re sitting there thinking, I am weaker than my male colleagues, I do have more trouble with this, I think that part rankles in a way that would be very different than it would be for men.”

And how or whether to let the office know about it…

“Two people at work asked me oh, what happened to your arm? And I lied. I said oh, I just fell and sprained my wrist. And that’s when I really started thinking more about how am I gonna handle this at work? What am I going to say?”

Coming up, we look at our attitudes to health and strength at work.

Mary Ratliff lives in Virginia, just outside Washington DC. She was one of several listeners who wrote to me after the show I did on working with Asperger’s. I asked if you’d be interested to hear more about people working with some kind of health condition.

And part of the reason I wanted to talk to Mary was because of something she said about being in a creative field and having a chronic condition. She’s a documentary filmmaker, but like so many filmmakers that’s not how she earns all of her living. She handles social media for a Washington think tank 15 hours a week, and she does various other gigs. And her condition isn’t the kind of illness where people offer you immediate sympathy or understanding.

We spoke on Skype.

AM-T: “When you wrote to me you said you had a sleep disorder…”

“Yeah, so people with chronic illness are familiar with this – I have a diagnosis that is their best guess. I’ve had so many tests that have come up negative they’ve said OK we think you have idiopathic hypersomnia – which when you boil it down means you have extreme fatigue where we can’t find a primary cause…so I’ve been tested for apnea, narcolepsy, all those things. None of them are what my issue is.”

The first time she went to a doctor for this was when she was 14. She’s now in her mid-thirties. So she’s been dealing with this for years.

“I’ve had good months, bad months, that kind of thing, and like I’ve said I’ve been tested for apnea 3 times actually because I’m also overweight. And being an overweight woman in the American medical system means you have a tendency for doctors to discount what you’re telling them. And they have a tendency to be like, oh you’re just out of shape, you need to exercise, eat less…so I was wading through that for a very long time. But for me it started to come into a conclusion in 2012.”

She was doing post-production on her documentary and making silly mistakes. She was also working on a couple of friends’ films and just knew she was not doing as good a job as she could. Added to the built-up lack of sleep was the stress of bringing in these projects in good shape, on deadline. She says she’s had anxiety issues for some time…

“So the anxiety was at an all-time high. I spent 6 months, almost a year where I’d be awake for 30 to 36 hours and sleep for 14 hours. I was non-functional. I was no good to the rest of the world.”

She had to figure out what was going on. So she started seeking out specialists. She’s been through 3 sleep studies since then, received tons of suggestions – yes, she gave up caffeine years ago. Now she has a doctor she really likes – but no one’s really got to the bottom of what’s causing this - yet. Right now she’s doing better though. She’s on medication to help her stay awake, rather than to help her sleep.

“Once I started taking that and I’m awake for more of the day – you know, I used to get to a point where at 2 o’clock in the afternoon I could not keep my eyes open, and I would fall asleep and if I didn’t set an alarm I’d sleep for 2 or 3 hours in the middle of the afternoon, and that throws off your sleep cycle. Now I’m on this medicine during the day I’m sleeping better at night.”

AM-T: “You spoke to me specifically when you approached me about this, about your life as a creative, and you said there’s a lot of advice and rules for creative careers that can be hurtful or difficult when you have a chronic illness. What did you mean by that?”

“The one I think of first whenever people bring this up, is when you do anything to do with writing people say write every day…and when you have a chronic illness and you have bad days you can feel like the biggest failure in the world if you’re not able to do something everyone else acts like is so simple. Where they’re like, ‘you can’t be a writer if you don’t write every day. You don’t really mean it.’ They do this with art too – if you’re not working on your art every day, and if you’re a freelancer, if you’re not looking for jobs every day, you’re not committed, you’re not really doing it, you don’t really mean it.”

But there were days and still are days when she feels like she just can’t put finger to keyboard. Her brain’s in a total fog. And she knows she’s not the only one who’s struggling.

“Especially someone with a chronic illness like fibromyalgia that has a pain component and you can’t even sit up at the computer, how are you supposed to be looking for a job that day? But then you’ve got all of these little voices saying you don’t want it, you’re not chasing your passion, and that starts to wear you out, and that is where I started to get upset and resist my diagnosis and say it’s gotta be something that’s fixable, it’s got to be just me. And maybe if I just change this one thing, maybe if I just do this, I can be this creative like they say I’m supposed to be.”

She says it’s only been during the past few months that she’s been able to tell herself on bad days, she can’t do that particular task.

“And that doesn’t mean that I’m a failure. It just means I have a different situation.”

AM-T: “I was gonna say, how do you feel about this situation, I mean frustrated, guilty, less than, all of those things?”

“Yeah, it’s definitely all of those depending on the day, sometimes all at once, and to be a bit topical about it all the discussion in the past few weeks about Hillary Clinton’s health has really bothered me. Because I already feel there are already people looking at me thinking oh, she can’t do this. And to see someone who’s trying for the most powerful position in the country and because she likes to sit with a pillow behind her back, people think she can’t do it...”

And in case this Hillary pillow story passed you by, back in August there was a flurry of internet chatter about photos taken of Clinton using a pillow or leaning against a stool at public events. The question seemed to be – if she needed these props – could she lead?

Mary and I had this conversation right after Clinton revealed she had pneumonia, but she hadn’t let on about the illness for a couple of days after her diagnosis.

Mary isn’t surprised Clinton kept her mouth shut. She says it’s partly why she’s been so hard on herself. The image we’re supposed to present at work is one of strength – anything less and you can be branded not good enough.

“The rhetoric comes across as very derogatory towards people who aren’t perfectly able bodied. And so it does, it makes you start to feel so less than, that you have to say that’s a thing that’s beyond my abilities. I can’t do that.”

Just because she can’t work on a film set 6 days a week for 12 hours a day, she says that doesn’t mean she’s a less creative person, or someone who’s coasting, not making an effort…

“But that’s very hard to get through to people. My parents are both disabled so it’s something I’ve noticed for a very long time. Things like, when people think it’s funny to laugh at people who take the elevator up one flight of steps and to insult them and say they’re lazy. And it’s like, you don’t know them, you don’t know the challenges they’re facing, you don’t know why that person wanted to sit down on the subway. Maybe they just had knee surgery, you have no idea. Our society has some problems with that that they need to work out.”

And as we were talking about these perceptions of weakness and laziness, I was thinking about the other side of this story – men. In a way I wonder if this stuff is harder for men – after all the stereotype of the invincible alpha male is very much out there. So are you thought even less of if you’re a man who has some kind of condition you’re dealing with?

Mary doesn’t think so.

“You know there’s this idea that if a woman wants to be successful in the workplace she has to be twice as successful. So you’re already coming from this disadvantaged place where people don’t have the same expectations of you. Again going back to Hillary Clinton, if a male candidate had said he felt overheated, people probably wouldn’t have thought that far into it. But with her, there’s amateur people saying she has Parkinson’s and trying to diagnose her from random things. And I think a little bit of that is that idea that we have a stereotype of women as weak or weaker, that women are weaker, physically. So I think that when you have a chronic illness and you’re sitting there thinking, I am weaker than my male colleagues, I do have more trouble with this, I can’t lift that box…I do have to go get help. I think that part rankles in a way that would be very different than it would be for men.”

If you have a different opinion, let me know – especially if you’re a man who’s had his own experience of illness at work. 

When Mary first got her part-time social media job she wasn’t comfortable letting on to managers or colleagues that she had any kind of health issue. She’d do her utmost to make sure she was ‘on’ the whole time she was at work. She’d arrange therapy sessions or doctor’s appointments around that.

But later, when she’d been there a while, she was put on an experimental regime to limit her sleep, and this was going to interfere with her work. The idea was to re-train her body and mind…

“Trying to re-set your body and re-set your body clock, so I was trying to function on even less sleep than I’d been getting, and I finally realized I’d have to tell them…and I was like, ‘right now my brain is Swiss cheese because I’m not getting any sleep, and it’s on purpose, I’m under doctor’s supervision…but I just need you to be patient with me and to help me, like if I ask you go back over my work, try not to judge me for it.’ And they were perfectly understanding, I have amazing co-workers, I love my job.”

She realizes that compared to a lot of people she is lucky.

My next guest isn’t using her name. You’ll find out why a little later. She can say what she does for a living.

“I’m a human resources professional, I am a generalist, and I work in a large corporation.”

She just turned 35. She’s been married since she was in her late 20s. No kids. Back in April of this year she went on vacation.

“And I went to a tropical location, and even walking on the beach was painful – my knees were just bothering me so much and it really worried me, also because there was swimming pool and I realized I couldn’t tread water any more, there was no strength in my legs. I’ve always been a strong swimmer.”

She says the pain wasn’t like anything else she’d experienced.

“It felt really heavy, almost like I had a bag of hot coals tied around my knees, it was just extremely uncomfortable.”

This wasn’t the first time she’d noticed something amiss. About ten years before she’d had some issues with her balance and had to be hospitalized for a while. Then lately she’d begun feeling odd sensations in her body; she was tired, she had go to the bathroom more often. But none of it really seemed like a big deal until what happened on that beach.

When she got back from vacation she saw a doctor, had a bunch of tests.

And one day she’s at work – and the phone rings. It’s her doctor. So she’s sitting there, no privacy…

“We have open plan cubicles, and I stepped away into a conference room, I have a conference room near my cubicle. He said based on what you’ve described and some of the tests, we did MRIs, and some lab work, based on all that I think that you have MS.”

Multiple Sclerosis.

“He was pretty confident, pretty sure it was MS. I just knew in my gut he was right, you just get that feeling, you know. I knew that it was MS. I still had to get a confirmation from a neurologist, but I knew that was it. I was just in a conference room by myself on the phone with him, I just sort of started crying, and then I called my husband, and then I cleaned myself up and got back to work, because I was in the office. And then just kind of processing that for the rest of the day and the day and weeks to come.”

On the one hand she thought, how can this be me? I can’t have this disease. On the other something at the back of her brain told her, yup, this is what’s wrong – it all fits. And the thing about MS is, people have quite different experiences with the disease, so she’s not sure how things will pan out for her long term.

“For some people it’s their eyesight, and for some it’s their balance, and for some like with me, odd sensations and trouble walking. So they really don’t know what you can expect, everyone is different. From what I’ve read online there’s a percentage, maybe 20% of people that do end up wheelchair-bound – so that part has probably been the scariest, is thinking about the future and not knowing.”

AM-T: “I mean you were at work when you got the diagnosis which is typical that this should happen in a place where we’re trying to maintain our privacy. Talk about how you’ve handled this at work because you mentioned you’ve had some trouble walking and some people are going to notice that.”

“Yes, one person did notice and she said are you OK, what’s happening, your walking…and I just said oh, my knees are a little stiff today, I’ll be fine, I said something very quickly, in the hallway, I didn’t know how to react. Up to that point I really hadn’t thought about how to react to questions at work. I didn’t prepare, I shrugged it off, she wished me well and we went on our way.

But I needed some treatment that required an IV on my arm, so I had a bandage on my arm for 5 days. And 2 people at work asked me oh, what happened to your arm? And I lied. I said oh, I just fell and sprained my wrist. Again I just didn’t know what to say. So I did lie. And that’s when I really started thinking more about how am I gonna handle this at work? What am I going to say? Because lying, and keeping that secret, just started to make me feel really uncomfortable.”

After all she sees these people every day. And they’re well intentioned. But…

I do have some concerns about the consequences of disclosure.”

Now she works in HR. She says she’s not worried about losing her job over this revelation – in fact the law would be on her side.

She wanted to be anonymous on this show for slightly different reasons. For one thing her boss doesn’t know yet that she has MS. And her boss may sympathize for all she knows…but it’s more complicated than that.   

“Thinking about promotions and opportunities, would I be held back from those because I might be seen as less competent or less able to handle stress because I have multiple sclerosis and so that really is my main concern. And I know this because I am an HR professional, I know that biases exist.”

AM-T: “Well I thought that was so interesting to me, that you wrote you work in HR and you know how things really work, you said. Because we’re all presented with this idea that HR in America at least is terribly fair, and there are all these rules, and American companies have to jump through all these hoops if they want to get rid of somebody, so what’s it really like?”

“Well what I mean by that is all these rules do exist – the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act, protects against discriminating in hiring and promotions at work, and that’s all true – but again if a hiring manger is faced with that decision, he or she could simply say I am not the most qualified candidate for whatever reason, maybe I don’t have enough experience, or I don’t have the right certification, it could be anything else, and I’d have no way to prove that’s because the manager is aware that I have MS.”

She’s been reading a lot online. And she says even the MS Society advises you may not want to say anything at work because of just these things – the possibility being treated differently, losing out on better positions. Again, this whole thing of being seen as weak and not up to the job.

Still, she wonders…should she tell people? After all…

“There’s a lot of talk nowadays about authenticity at work, right, bringing your authentic self to work. And so that’s something I’ve been thinking about, OK, I need to get more comfortable. And I know I will over time. This is who I am, I have multiple sclerosis and that is my authentic self now, and it’s different from who I was just a few months ago, and just getting comfortable with that and saying that if need be.”

But at the same time I don’t think she should be under any pressure to tell because of an overblown management trend around being authentic. But you may have other ideas. I told my listener I’d ask – is there anyone out there in a similar boat who has any advice for her? Let me know if so.

I wondered how much her diagnosis is affecting her outlook on life.

“It’s amazing how in a few short months it’s impacting everything – the way I see the world and especially in my interactions at work, and maybe that’s a silver lining, right, it makes us more empathetic and more open to that. We just don’t know what someone is going through at work. It’s impossible to separate what’s going on in your personal life from work. And that’s been one of my biggest takeaways is I just don’t know what someone’s going through.”

AM-T: “What about your thoughts about your future career? Some people when they get a diagnosis, they say it’s changed my view of what I think is important, somebody who was wildly ambitious now wants to spend more time with their family. It’s a bit of a cliché but you know what I mean. I wonder, are you thinking at all differently about career versus the rest of your life, or not really?”

“I am a little bit and I’m not superbly ambitious or anything like that, not to this point. One thing I am thinking about is um, the stress level. If I wanted to be in a leadership position or a management position that comes with a lot of stress. And stress can make my condition, can cause a relapse or exacerbation.”

Which obviously she wants to avoid.   

“What has not changed is wanting to be a solid performer. Because now that I’m ill, obviously I’ve always needed my job, we all need our jobs. But now I really need my job. I have short-term disability with my job, and long-term disability, and that has become just crucial in my thinking. OK, if I become severely disabled or anything I know I have this security at work, and that’s a comfort. So I don’t want to do anything to risk that. So whatever the future holds I don’t know, but being a solid performer, that hasn’t changed.”

Thanks to my listener for sharing her experience on the podcast.

And as I said earlier if any of you want to contribute to this discussion, particularly about how and whether to come clean about an illness or other condition at work, let me know. You can post on the Facebook page, at the Broad Experience dot com, or you can email me via the website.

And my first guest, Mary Ratliff, does her own podcast called Introductions Necessary – it’s all about women in STEM fields, most of whom we’ve never heard of.

I am getting married at the end of this week and I’m a bit busy so you won’t be getting a new show in two weeks – but I promise the one you will get is relevant to our current times.

And I get that not everyone can contribute with a donation to the show but maybe you can write a positive review on iTunes – I’d love it if you did.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. 

Episode 91: Sandberg vs. Slaughter

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, we look at two influential women – Sheryl Sandberg…

“To tell women who are bumping up against these intractable and structural problems that it’s all about you…is just extremely frustrating in the end because it’s not all about you.”

And Anne-Marie Slaughter…

“How can we effect change so that everybody can have this blend of care and competition so the world is more integrated?”

Coming up – will change come through individual efforts, or is it more about the system?

Back in July I released a show called Selling Empowerment – it was all about the cult of the women’s conference. We asked whether those conferences really had any positive effect for women long-term.

During my interviews for that show two women’s names kept coming up – Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter.  You’re probably familiar with them. Sandberg of course became famous after publishing her book Lean In in 2013. It’s a call to arms for women to push themselves forward at work. Anne-Marie Slaughter is a former US State Department official who wrote an article for The Atlantic in 2012 called Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Last year she published a book that grew out of that article – it’s called Unfinished Business – Women, Men, Work, Family.

It’s hard to exist in this world of women and work without hearing these women’s names bandied about all the time. And Sandberg in particular evokes strong feelings – even among people who haven’t read her book. Many women resent a woman of Sandberg’s background and wealth apparently telling them how to tackle their work lives.

What I got from Lean In was take some of it, leave the rest. For instance, for me, it was a bit annoying that Sandberg seemed to be talking only to women who had partners who could help them out. She seemed to assume every grown woman had one. I didn’t. But I found plenty of other stuff in the book useful.

And of course now Sandberg doesn’t have a partner herself. Her husband died in an accident last year. They have two children.

I asked you to tell me how you felt about Sandberg and Slaughter and their messages. And I discussed it with business journalist Sheelah Kolhatkar when we spoke for the show on women’s conferences.  

“Well I think both Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter are really important and I admire them personally, what they’ve accomplished and done, in terms of making this issue part of the conversation, and we needed that, I’m thankful to both of them for that…I think they also on some level represent these two ways or approaching this problem, of women’s lack of progress in different parts of the modern world. Sheryl was really preaching individualism, self- improvement, I’m gonna work on myself, I mean that whole idea of leaning in, she wasn’t saying the whole office should lean in, she wants you personally to lean in harder and do what you need to do, and not leave before you leave, and just take the big job, and push push push. I think those are important points but they’re not going to solve the problem. And I think yes, she’s obviously immensely wealthy…and I’m sure she’s a billionaire many times over because of Facebook, but to tell women who are bumping up against these intractable and structural problems that it’s all about you – and you through personal behavior change and self- improvement can plow your way through is just extremely frustrating in the end. Because it’s not just about you. It’s about a whole bunch of other things that have nothing to do with you.”

And Sandberg didn’t address those – the limits of your particular workplace or bosses and the system as a whole – which after all was designed by and for men. There was a lot about you changing your approach to things…and I think this is really interesting because it’s my theory that the older you are the more OK you are with making some personal tweaks. The younger you are the more it rankles – this idea of fitting in with an existing, male-dominated structure.

I heard from one of my listeners on this, Aesha Williams. She’s in Chicago.

“I strongly believe that institutions need to change and it really rubs met the wrong way if I’m listening to a show or reading a blog or whatever and it suggests women should just suck it up and maybe change their way of dressing or their way of being because men won’t take them seriously.  That’s a real problem for me. I don’t understand how anything is gonna change if we have to continue forcing ourselves into a male world instead of the world changing to accept women and their habits and their behaviors.”

 I hear her. But I also think at least some of the advice in Lean In is worth a try if it’s going to get you more money or something else you want.

I asked Claudia Chan about Sandberg’s message too. She was my other guest in that show on women’s conferences. She’s a longtime entrepreneur.

“I see Sheryl, even in reading Lean In, obviously she has a very traditional – like Harvard, right, to State Department I believe, to Google, to Facebook…and so she’s had this very traditional corporate upbringing. So her story in many ways probably will resonate with more corporate women. But to me Sheryl did not have to do the book, she did not have to do any of it. She was rich enough. She already had enough recognition and fame. So I believe it was really generous of her to share that story.  And really she’s young, she’s beautiful, she runs one of the coolest companies in the world. So she had the microphone to attract all that media attention, right, and she really did in many ways resuscitate this modern conversation around feminism – or the conversation around modern feminism.”

It’s true. When I started this show the year before Sandberg published Lean In, women in the workplace felt like a niche topic. Now, it’s huge.

Dawn Edmiston teaches at William and Mary College and she’s a former guest on the show. She was galvanized by Sandberg’s message.

“Did I agree with everything that was said in her book? No. But we rarely agree with everything that is said by others. As a college professor I have had the privilege of teaching hundreds of women who of course are very fortunate to even have the opportunity to have a college education. But they’re also very fortunate to have a woman like Sheryl Sandberg who is creating her own path and empowering women to think differently about their own lives and how they choose to define themselves.”

But many women’s ire grew from the fact they’ve been leaning in, sometimes for years – and they still aren’t where they’d like to be. Who was the privileged, highly connected Sheryl Sandberg to tell them how to climb the ladder? People got up in arms about the parenting side of the book because of course Sandberg and her late husband had plenty of help at home. Help a lot of people can’t afford.

And since Sandberg became a widow last year she has said, I didn’t get it before – I had no idea how hard it was to keep all the balls in the air at work when you are the only parent. It was an admission that she had been in a bit of a bubble.

And especially if you work in America, you need help. It’s a workaholic culture. There’s very little government or company support for working couples with kids or single parents. Here’s Sheelah again.

“And that’s where Anne-Marie offered a more relatable, more honest assessment, or philosophy. She said, that’s all good but in fact there are these structural problems, we in fact have a barbaric policy system with regard to family leave. We’re telling women to leave, if they’re lucky enough to get 12 weeks of unpaid time off, which very few people do in an economy where most people’s salaries have not gone up since 1990 and the cost of living has soared – to tell these women to take your 12 weeks of time off and then leave your 12-week- old baby in a ridiculously expensive daycare or in a totally unregulated black market nanny economy, is just barbaric.

And then they get to work and there’s no accommodation for the fact they’re new parents and there’s this sense they have to put in face time, and there are no women they can look at above them who managed to do this. And of course women get frustrated and quit when they can. We have this huge proportion of households headed by single mothers…who are in an impossible bind, and that’s even more acute if you go down the income ladder. So Anne-Marie at least was acknowledging these things we all know are true which is the system is not right. It’s not fair, it is stacked against women, it is not a reflection of the way the world is. It was all designed on a 1950s ideal of a man going to work every day, long hours at the office, and the women at home taking care of the home front. And that is just not the way the world is. And our policies and corporate culture have not changed.”

And she says they won’t as long as women are trying to address these things through their personal behavior.

Another listener of mine, Karen Lock Kolp, says she’d barely followed Sandberg until recently. She read Lean In this summer and found a lot to like when it comes to self-advocacy. But she’s a bigger Slaughter fan.

“I love her emphasis on care.”

She likes the way Slaughter challenges traditional views about who should work and strive for promotions, and who should look after others…

“She suggests that people need to think more about care and competition together. So if we think of these two worlds as care has been the women’s purview and competition has been the men’s, we need to think about how those can blend. Because we live in world where care is extremely important and it’s not getting the kind of emphasis that it should be getting. Everyone needs to care for their families whether it’s aging parents or young children or spouses, friends, anything like that.”

She appreciates that Anne-Marie Slaughter has raised this question…

“How can we effect change so that everybody can have this blend of care and competition so the world is more integrated? And I just love that idea, I’m so completely taken with it.”

But of course to have that more integrated world…attitudes at the office need to change. Not to mention political attitudes.

Sheelah Kolhatkar says Slaughter could have done more in her book to tackle exactly how that change might come to pass. 

“I would have liked to see her go farther in terms of practical advice and suggestions and the fact that she didn’t I think reflects the fact that it’s actually really difficult to address.”

Also, as I see it from my perch as an ex-pat, not everyone in the US wants this kind of change. The whole country was founded on this idea that you help yourself. A lot of people look on government as a clunky, overweening force…something that’s far likelier to mess you up than help you out.  

AM-T: “And this is speaking as someone who didn’t grow up here, the cult of the individual is a very American thing. You know it’s not the same… I think the UK is closest to the US in terms of culture, of the European countries. But it’s a given there as in so many other European countries that you get some help from the government.”

“Right, no, sure, there’s obviously a strain of American culture that says I don’t want help from anyone. However, there are a lot of people getting help and big companies are certainly getting a lot of help. It always shocks me that women’s issues and childcare issues – I hate to just call them just women’s issues, but family issues, don’t become more prominent in political campaigns, and I think now with Hillary Clinton as the apparent Democratic nominee for president, I think this is going to become a bigger part of the conversation, but that’s what it took for it to even get talked about. Year after year I’d say why aren’t women organizing and demanding certain things? There are other groups of people pushing their rights forward, which is very good, but why are women not doing that too, why are they not saying no, we refuse to live with this situation anymore? And in fact there are many men who feel the same way. They want to have family lives, particularly younger men coming up into these companies now. They do not want the old system where they worked till 8p.m. and don’t ever see their children. Most of them do not want that. So it’s going to take everybody demanding that companies be more flexible and that public policy change to reflect the way the world has changed and not pretend we’re in a 1950s white male utopia. It’s just not like that any more.”

 Sheelah Kolhatkar – she’s now at the New Yorker.

I’m particularly interested to know what you think if you don’t live in the US – do you think the status quo here is crazy? Or does it also feel hard to have a sane existence as an ambitious female where you are, even if public policy is on your side?

As usual you can comment on the website or on the show’s Facebook page or you can email me – I’d love to hear from you.

And if you’re interested in Lean In – even if you’re a hater - you might want to download an early show I did called Leaning In – it was a 6-woman debate on Sandberg’s book and there were a lot of different opinions.

Thanks to all those of you who have given donations to this one-woman show – you are helping to keep it going. If you’d like to join them, go to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.  

Episode 88: Selling Empowerment

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, maybe you’ve noticed there are a lot of women’s conferences out there lately. They’re popping up everywhere…advertising empowerment, inspiration….and not just for women nearing the top…

“What about your average consumer who’s watching Kim Kardashian or who has like, no clue as to what even empowerment means and what feminism is or why it matters to them? So my goal is really to set out to create the world’s most accessible women’s conference.”

But are these events actually changing anything for women?

“They’re really based on this philosophy of you can just work to improve yourself, make yourself better, smarter, stronger. But the fact is as long as women are fighting these little solo battles I don’t think a lot is going to change.”

Coming up, we take a look at the growing business of women’s conferences and whether they’re anything more than a tonic.  

Sheelah Kolhatkar is a staff writer for the New Yorker. When we met a bit earlier this summer she was still at Business Week. And earlier this year she wrote a piece for that magazine that articulated so many things I’d been thinking about women’s conferences but hadn’t quite been able to put into words.

I asked Sheelah how she came to this topic in the first place.

“I noticed over the last couple of years I’d get invitations to these women’s conferences, it seemed to happen every month, it was women’s empowerment, it was women in science, women in STEM, the glass ceiling – there were dozens of them. And I was intrigued and of course I’m interested in women’s issues, it’s something I write about. So I started to go. The first thing I noticed was the way a lot of the women up on the stage look – they are very glamorous, most of them…this was the strong point I came away with. Often wearing these stylish little skits and dresses, they had these crazy high heels on…I’m not someone who can really wear heels though I think they look great…they’re all up there in these stiletto heels talking about feminism and women’s empowerment, and when you sit in the audience there’s this row of high stiletto heels right at your eye level, it’s all you see when you sit down below the stage – and I thought that was odd given the subject matter of these conferences, and so I started to wonder, what exactly were these conference achieving – they were clearly turning into a huge business for a lot of corporations and media companies and I started to wonder whether any of the women attending were coming away with what was advertised – which was empowerment, inspiration, changing the conversation, they were vague promises but I wondered if people were getting what they paid for.”

And that business about the shoes – that really struck me at the last couple of conferences I went to. And if you’re thinking well what does it matter what people wear on their feet, I guess to me the fact these women on the panels all looked so glamorous and were in these towering heels made me wonder, do I fit in here? Does my version of feminism belong here? I suppose I felt a little intimidated by the glamor level.

AM-T: “It became a game with myself when I went to one – is there anyone on a panel who isn’t wearing stilettos? And I think the last time I went to a conference who wasn’t actually wearing stilettos, nobody was wearing flats, they were wearing some kind of in between shoe. But I’ve also wondered about this – do you have to look like the best approximation of a model to be a panelist at this thing, and if so, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”

“I think that’s a good question. I should disclose I’ve participated in many of these conferences as a panelist and moderator, so I started to think about this myself. You want to look good, a lot of people are watching you, people are making videos, tweeting photos – of course we want to look good. And then you look around at what other people are wearing, and part of the aesthetic comes from the broadcast TV world because often these conferences go to TV anchors and reporters and ask them to do these live interviews, because those people are used to doing that. And the broadcast TV aesthetic is quite unforgiving for women in my opinion…typically it’s a very image conscious business and the women are very, very thin and wear these tiny sleeveless dresses as they report on the news all day, and they wear these high heels. So this has translated over to the conference world.”

But not completely. Sheelah points out there is one conference with quite a mix of guests – Tina Brown’s wildly successful Women in the World conference. It’s been held on a few continents. She has tons of celebrities from entertainment, politics and royalty. But she also features refugees and rape victims from Syria and India, women whose names we’d never know if we didn’t attend the conference and hear their stories. But the thing about hearing their stories is, you want to do something to help after the event is over. And you don’t really get the opportunity. Even if you come away awed by their bravery and determination.

AM-T: “With regard to whether these actually do anything, that was what was lurking in the back of my head. Like the people you talked to in the piece I’ve come away inspired with a lovely warm glow inside, thinking about all the achievements I’ve heard about, all the conquering hard times and all that, but at what point did you start to think…was it at the very first conference you attended where you thought, is this achieving anything? Or was it as a result of going to several that the warm glow began to wear off?”

“I had a moment of epiphany when I acted as moderator at one particular panel. It was at Advertising Week, and the subject of the discussion – it was called ‘the glass ladder’, and it was about women in creative professions, film, music, creative directors, it was group of very impressive women from different companies, very accomplished women.”

The event was held at a big theater on 42nd Street in New York, and the room was packed.

She says you could feel the excitement in the air. This topic was something these women really wanted to sink their teeth into – because there are so few women at the top in these creative industries. Sheelah says the session was a hit. And at the end, she glanced out across the room…

“So the house lights came up and it was all women, there wasn’t a single man there. And I guess that shouldn’t have really surprised me but I was still a little shocked to see how uniformly female the audience was. And I thought well, I’m glad that women are seeking out these kinds of experiences to help guide them or get advice but really men ae missing from these conversations about why there aren’t more women in certain industries, why their careers fall apart after children, why maternity leave is so far behind most advanced countries, and none of those things are really going to change unless men are involved. Because men still run most of these companies, they’re the ones setting the policies at these corporations where all these women are struggling to figure out how to move forward, and just that moment really crystalized it for me.”

I’ve had that feeling too. That said, one of the conferences I went to a few years ago, the SHE Summit in New York, had one panel where men talked about men’s part in this whole effort to bring more equality to the workplace and life in general. But there were almost no men in the audience. And one of the men on the panel even raised this. He said the names of these conferences put men off.  

AM-T: “He pointed out, how many men are going to attend something that has the word women in the title? And I think about that all the time I mean even the title of my show, I’m pretty sure, I know I have male listeners but they’re going to be a minority because most people are like, that’s not for me, because it has ‘women’ in it. And I think that’s a problem with these conferences.”

“I raised this with a lot of the conference organizers and they all acknowledged that yes, we need to get more men – but packaging these things and branding them as a women’s event is very effective. They are sold out – even though there’s a new one popping up every day there seems to be unlimited demand, which I concluded is a reflection of the fact women are very frustrated. They go charging into the workplace, they get their degrees, they get the best grades, and then they suddenly encounter all sorts of obstacles they weren’t anticipating. They look around, they’re thinking about starting a family or trying to move up or making less money than their male colleague and they’re kind of just bewildered, they did all the things we’re telling them to do and they’re feeling really frustrated. So as long as that exists as a problem in our society, these conferences are gonna fill up with women.

 Now getting more men involved is one important goal. I would say having spoken to a number of historians and social justice experts and activists, a few of them said you know if there was more follow through afterwards that might help too. Because the conferences are very individual, very focused on personal issues, personal improvement – they’re based on this philosophy that you can just work to improve yourself, make yourself better, smarter, stronger, lose a few pounds, get better footwear, ask for more raises. There’s a lot of advice about how women should ask for raises more often, which I think is true. But as long as women are fighting these little solo battles I don’t think a lot is going to change. I spoke with a few women studies professors, academics and historians who have studied social change, movements, and civil rights, the fact is things don’t happen on a big scale till people take collective action.  So people, women, need to group together and push for changes whether it’s in the political arena or within individual companies and I think so long as women are being preached at, being told they should constantly work harder to make themselves better, there’s just going to be a wall – there’s only so far you can go with just pure self-improvement advice.”

Or is there? We’ll come back to Sheelah again a little later in the show. In the meantime, we’ll hear from someone with a different take.

Claudia Chan is the founder and CEO of SHE Global Media. She and her organization put on a women’s conference every year in New York – one I’ve been to a few times. She says the aim is to bring together a group of women who want to be leaders – women who are part of what she calls the macro movement…

“Our core conference every year is SHE Summit, and it is a membership driven global empowerment conference and it's all about attracting, identifying, convening who these individuals are, to give them the role models and the education and the conversation and the activation to rise to their highest potential and lift other women.”

Heady stuff.  

Claudia started her conference right around the same time I launched The Broad Experience. It was 2012. And until former state department employee Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her famous ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’ article for the Atlantic that summer, women and the workplace definitely felt micro rather than macro. Her article and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In changed that. Suddenly it felt like everyone was talking about this stuff.

“Yeah. And it's great because it's almost like a crescendo has happened right, and we're all tackling different pieces of it, and so you know, I come from - my last company was another event company called Shecky’s, and we convened women and their girlfriend groups for shopping experiences, discovery. And so my whole background was convening mass crowds of women and figuring out what they would be attracted to. And so my whole goal was I wanted to mainstream women's empowerment – I’m like everything out there women’s conference-wise was elite, exclusive and expensive. And I'm like OK, well that's great and it's important to convene our most successful powerful people, you know female leaders, but what about your average consumer who's like watching Kim Kardashian or has no clue as to what even empowerment means and what feminism is, or you know, why it matters to them. So that's you know I my goal is really to set out to create the world's most accessible Women's Conference and to create an agenda that was that was very relatable and practical.”

Claudia’s had some fantastic speakers – including Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, Deeprak Chopra, and Marianne Pearl, the widow of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. And then there was that panel on men’s part in lifting women up that still sticks in my mind a couple of years later.

“I mean and this year we're actually going to have even more men and that's what it is right? It’s giving this audience – and we charge you know two hundred to five hundred dollars for access to the conference so it's super accessible for two days, and it's almost like a leadership curriculum that women will go through, but you're just getting this massive exposure to such a wide variety of role models and thought leaders.”

AM-T: “But the argument that was made in that Business Week piece was and then you get back to your desk, and the guy next to you is still being paid more. And there are all these structural issues that mean there’s only so far you can go with all that stuff that you took away from conferences because of the way that the American workplace works. You’re hitting a wall after a while no matter how empowered you feel when you leave a conference.”

“Yeah you know so it's interesting, I mean I'm doing this because I'm a product of consuming thought leadership, I'm a product of consuming inspiration. And whether or not I consume that inspiration through books or through conferences or my Sunday sermons when I go to church or my yoga meditation and immersions, and you know like I have my mixed bag of sort of what’s ignited me, what's activated me. But you know in order for people to really get activated we need to connect with other people, we need to get educated, right, we need to get inspired and it's that inspiration, it's that content that creates the consciousness and it's the consciousness that actually creates the change. And then we can say that you know these conferences are critical because in many ways, it’s hearing other people's stories, it’s seeing other role models. We cannot be what we cannot see, we cannot become what we do not believe, so you know we need exposure to these types of things, and there's something about the physicality right, I mean it's one thing to read some article in The New York Times and read a great compelling piece, or watch a really inspirational video, but it’s a whole other thing when you're physically energized - the power of a real life energy is so strong.”

It’s true. There is something about being in a room with all those other people who care about the same thing. And the panels are inspiring.

“…and the thing is that greatness and leadership and making a massive social change to actually change these structures that we’re pissed off about, we have to be the change we want to see. So we can’t just go to a conference and say, ‘Oh it's amazing’ and we go back to everyday life. You know we have to actually work harder unfortunately, you know, to actually do the more work so that OK, so what else am I going to do about that like that really pisses me off, that thing about blah blah blah policy, or this issue, or the fact my company doesn't have this, like can we be social entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs? We need to self-motivate.”

So for Claudia, self-motivation is key.

And the thing is, she’s got so much energy and she feels so passionately about making things better for women…you get all caught up in her enthusiasm when you hear her speak. There’s definitely a whiff of Oprah about her. Claudia genuinely wants change. She wants to help people. She’s not a cynical person. Unlike yours truly.

Talking of my dark side, what about what comes after the conference? Does anything change?

“What I typically see is people sort of up their game. If you're, whether or not you're, for example if you're starting a company or you're building a company, because a lot of what we teach is ‘obstacles are what create the opportunities’ right, and you know it's often easy to get discouraged, and we've seen people sort of up their game. One person launched a water company, Wellness Water for Women, out of coming out of SHE Summit. She personally said to me, you know this is inspired me so much, I'm going to do this. We've had a lot of those stories. A lot of women have actually met collaborators like assistants, made hires through connections at SHE Summit. We've had people that have met and created businesses together.”

She says she’s had women in corporate tell her they’re now determined to make changes at their workplace.

“And it's definitely one of those things where you know everybody always asks well what's the what's the next step out of this, we can’t just continue to bring people together, we have to have like more practical next step. And the truth is there's a lot of things that do happen, it's just a lot of that is hard, you know it's hard to track those things.”

 I can believe it. Doing this podcast I have the same feeling – I think and hope that in its own way it’s helping galvanize change…but frankly this show isn’t going to alter America’s lack of a maternity leave policy, for example.

But talking of impact, I wonder if Claudia has ever thought about this idea for her conference – it’s something Sheelah Kolhatkar brought up with me. All these conferences are sponsored by big corporate names. And you do wonder sometimes…are these sponsor companies walking the walk where women are concerned…or just talking the talk?

Here’s Sheelah again.

“I think companies who are involved in this world, particularly there are a lot of corporate sponsors who pay money to have their logos prominently displayed, if conference organizers wanted to push for change they could tell those companies, if you want to be affiliated with our women’s empowerment conference, you need to make a commitment to get 30% female board members at your company or to publish all the salaries of your employees so people can see whether they’re being paid less than their male counterparts…all these things they could do. And I think that’s happened in small ways around the margins but I think the people in this industry could really push for change by demanding that in exchange for the branding and public relations benefit you have to actually do something.”

AM-T: “Actually that reminds me of something you alluded to in the piece…you get these women from famous companies who are often panelists, guests, talking about their own experience but then you might read something 3 days later about that company that’s not flattering about how it treats its female employees…I ’ve often wondered, watching these women from companies that have a lot to lose about being too honest, how honest are you able to be up on the podium?”

 “Well I went to the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, which is a very interesting conference that’s been going on for 15 years or more, and it’s been very successful, I think they’re now charging $10,000 a head, this is the cream of the crop of corporate America, and I did certainly notice a lot of these women go on the stage and do these interviews but they are corporate actors, and they can be fired at any point like anyone else, and they have to think about their company and their company’s share price, and their PR department, they’re very restricted what they can say. They were often presenting I believe a rosier view, where they were glossing over some of the dirty details, and then you’d notice in between sessions, you’d have these off the record chats over wine at dinner with these power women, and they would just dish about how hard things were, their whole board was male, it was this incredible struggle, many of them have husbands who didn’t work outside the home and that’s how they’re managing to have families and do it all – but you just wouldn’t necessarily know that from the outside, they look like these superwomen who are doing all these things that seem really difficult when you actually try them yourself. And that was something Anne-Marie Slaughter mentioned when I spoke to her for this piece. She said if I were doing this, I would ask all the women to go up there and give us the warts and all description of what their domestic arrangement is like – I think it would be hard to get that kind of honesty, I don’t know why women are so scared of talking about it…but it has become a big stigma, you can’t go public with some of these things. But I think that would be more helpful, than presenting this glossy view that you can have the raise, and the big job, …nothing works that smoothly in reality and I think women get incredibly frustrating thinking they can have all this stuff that is in fact impossible to achieve without tremendous sacrifice, so a more honest conversation would be helpful.”

Finally, I wanted to ask her about something – that word that plays such a big role in any discussion around women.

AM-T: “What do you think of the word empowerment? How does that word make you feel?”

“Well it’s a complicated word. I think the concept behind it is very valid and important. There are a lot of women who don’t feel like they have the authority or self-confidence to speak their mind and ask for what they deserve and point out injustice when they see it. At the same time it’s been coopted by a lot of people selling us things, and it has maybe cheapened it a little bit, the power of that word has been diluted by the fact it’s being used by so many people to sell whatever it is they’re selling.”

She says take American’s National Football League – some of its players have been involved in notorious domestic violence cases and the League has been roundly criticized for its slow response. But even the NFL has launched a women’s summit with the tagline ‘empowerment through sport.’

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Sheelah Kolhatkar and Claudia Chan for being my guests on this show.

Now part of my discussion with both Sheelah and Claudia didn’t make it into this show. We got into a conversation about two women you could say are the unofficial leaders of the current women’s movement. They are Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter.  

And here’s where I’d like to hear from you.

Maybe you’ve read Lean In or Slaughter’s book, Unfinished Business. You know each woman comes from a different place – Sandberg is all about the individual making change, Slaughter is much more about institutions and structures needing to change.

If you have strong feelings about either woman’s message or how they’ve affected your attitude or your life and you’d like to be on the show, send me a voice memo with your thoughts. Please start off by telling me your name and where you live. I’m at ashley@thebroadexperience.com. And I’ll need those voice memos by August 15th.

As usual you can comment on this episode either on the show’s Facebook page or at TheBroadExperience.com – you can also sign up for my newsletter right there on the homepage.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time. 

Episode 87: Work and Intimacy (part 2)

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This is the second of two shows on work and intimacy…and the affect one has on the other.

“Culturally, what we see as really important is productivity, status, position, achievement – women are so achievement focused. And my feeling is you have to decide, how do you want to live your life?”

Coming up, the rest of my conversation with sexuality counselor and nurse/midwife Evelyn Resh.

Since I released the first of these two shows I’ve heard from a few listeners especially on that point where Evelyn said she’d get pushback – where she advised women to start having kids in their twenties. One 25-year-old listener said look, I’m in law school, I don’t even have time to have a boyfriend – I’m focusing on me.  And one of them said, I’m 31 and I’m single and I basically don’t have an intimate life. And now thanks to what your guest said, I’m worried about having a high-risk pregnancy.

When I was 31 I didn’t have an intimate life either. I felt like I was living in a culture that glorified sex, and I wasn’t part of that.

So these shows with Evelyn aren’t meant to be shaming single people. They’re aimed at people in a relationship, but I figured they’re worth listening to for everyone because most of us who are not in a relationship now probably will be at some point in the future.

And here’s something else I heard from a different listener. She wrote after the very first show I did with Evelyn a few years ago. She said, I liked hearing that show but you said absolutely nothing about gay relationships. She said I’m gay and I can tell you when you get two women together, two women focused on doing everything for everyone else, your sex life can suffer.

I asked Evelyn to talk about this.

“Sure, well this is handy because I am a lesbian and I’ve been with my same sex partner for 23 years. I think the woman who wrote to you and said how is this different with two women, I think there’s a hot mess component to this for precisely the reasons that she has brought up to you which is that generally speaking you’ve got women who are dedicated to family and to work and to advocating for everyone in their family and trying to do everything.

We both happen to have children we brought into our marriage…and we now have 3 granddaughters from my spouse’s oldest son. And so now, it’s funny we’re doing this interview today because just this past weekend the whole tribe was here and what were the two of us doing?  We were concentrating and focusing on having everything perfect for everyone there. And then we had to start the work week yesterday. And the two of us were like limp rags. And trying the entire weekend to say OK look it’s not all on our shoulders, these kids are all grown up now…let them take over more of this. And it was not very successful. So there we were cooking meals for 12 people, making sure that there was something everyone was going to enjoy, grocery shopping at the end of our workdays, it was insane.  And by the time we fell into bed we were just spent. And we had this whole tribe of perfectly competent adults who could have taken more of that on. But there’s this way of mothers and as women that we assumed it.”

I asked her if there were any other things that are specific to gay couples and she said people who are married or partnered, they tend to have a lot of the same issues – regardless of their sexuality. She sees about 80% heterosexual couples, 20% gay couples.

I wondered what happens to the dynamic in a same-sex female couple if one woman stays home and the other goes out to work. But Evelyn says she doesn’t see that much.

“I see less and less of that because so many families can’t survive on one income, and so I have very few people where either member of the couple is at home full time. What I do see is actually it’s more often men who are at home fulltime taking care of children and women who are sole breadwinners and still having to do so much work at home, because the way that men take care of children isn’t the way that women take care of children… and 9 times out of 10 women who are powerhouses in the workforce are going to come in and be powerhouses at home – and not let go of a lot of that responsibility.  They want it to be done their way, and so this creates a whole new set of problems. And in terms of intimacy also.”

AM-T: “In terms of intimacy, in what way?”

“Well there’s an interesting thing that has started to happen in my practice. And that is that women who are very competent and very high level professional women start to feel resentful of men that are staying home and doing more female traditional things, because they want to come home and they want their male partner to act and be more traditionally male – so I’ll give you an example. Women will say to me, I come home, I make all the decisions, I pay all the bills, we go out to dinner and I say, where are we going? and he says, well where would you like to go? Why can’t he just sometimes take charge of that and say, meet me at such and such a restaurant at 7p.m? And that’s that. And then I can just surrender. I feel like I’m in charge of everything and I want him to stay in a more masculine energy, linear thinking place. He’s become so feminine I can’t stand it.

And then I start to laugh and I say but this is the arrangement you’ve made and it doesn’t engender him with a lot of masculine energy. Well then he should find it somewhere. It’s fascinating what’s going on now with more and more women, if someone is a sole wage owner it’s not that uncommon that it’s the wife in the family who works. Men are in this weird place and they feel kind of emasculated – this is what men have said to me. And the impact it’s having on sex is very complex.”

She says the women want a traditional chest-thumping mate to pop up at their desire. Which tends not to happen. Meanwhile she says the guys often wonder what exactly their wife wants. Now I imagine this is not the case in every relationship where the woman is the sole wage earner in a heterosexual couple…but those people aren’t the ones calling Evelyn.

In the first show I did with Evelyn 3 years ago she focused quite a bit on the role children play in relationships. If you remember in that show I mentioned that Evelyn trained her daughter when she was ten to do her own laundry. This was so Evelyn wasn’t so overwhelmed between work and home. She reasoned if her daughter could operate a computer, she could operate a washing machine. This gave her a bit more freedom from housework, more time with her spouse.

She says one big problem with this whole work/family dynamic is that too many women put their kids before their partners. They do too much for them – as you heard earlier Evelyn isn’t totally immune from this even now; they worry about what’ll happen if the kids get less attention.

“While I don’t think it is always a good idea to put your partner first I do think it’s a good idea to put your partner first more times than to put your children first. Because children grow up and they leave. And what we want for our children is for them to have marriages where their partner loves them a lot and keeps them in mind as being a very important thing, perhaps the most important thing more of the time. And this is not to say when children are struggling or they’re sick but to say to your children we’re going have dinner on our own. You’re going to have dinner at 5.30 and we’re going to eat at 7 is not a mean thing. But this idea that families have to be pods that are moving together at all times and parents don’t take more time to themselves…I have many, many couples who come in in crisis and I say when was the last time you went away on your own? Oh, well before the children were born. How old are your children? Well, 8 and 10. And 11 and a half. And I’m thinking no wonder you’re in crisis. The two of you are managers. You’re family managers, you’re not lovers any more. So this is a big problem for people and they have some terror around leaving their children because their kids might get upset – well, kids get upset. What I’ve experienced is the thing they get most upset about is when they can sense their parents are not a united front. Because the fact is parents are the masters of their universe. And if there’s dissention among the parents the children will get symptomatic. So when parents say go away, I want your mother all to myself, even if kids protest in the beginning it’s very reassuring to them because their parents are not at odds with one another. And that’s what people have to understand is that parents being really unified, really together, really loving one another and expressing their exclusivity at the expense of children on some sort of regular basis is in their children’s better interest, and this is something that’s very hard to grasp.”

And on that same theme of putting your partner first, here’s a statistic I got from Ellevate, the women’s networking group; maybe some of you are members as well and saw this. In one of their recent surveys they asked which relationships their members spent the most time nurturing.

28% said it was relationships with their peers. 25 percent said it was relationships with clients. 11% said it was relationships with their partners. Well at least partners came before bosses –but still, 11%...it gives you an idea of how easy it is for us to take that particular relationship for granted.

AM-T: “Switching tack, because I want to talk about you. Because you wrote a really interesting email saying I have not been taking my own medicine, and now I’m living in a sexual Sahara, and I need to change this. And I’d like you to talk about what happened and how did things play out?”

“Well I think because we know one another and I’m not shy about anything, I’m perfectly comfortable with you asking such a specific and pointed question. And the best way I can answer this for you is by saying it’s an ongoing work in progress. I’m seeing that I’m still pushing against a tide of that sexual Sahara. And having to remind myself every day OK, look at the calendar – when was the last time you had sex? And people will say to me that is so contrived, I can’t imagine, you put on your calendar when you are intimate with your spouse? And I say yes, -- because time can go by and both of us feel exhausted, but as we become increasingly estranged from one another in that intimate realm that we only share with one another, it feels harder and harder to get back there. And so for me I do keep a calendar. I call it my sex hearts calendar. I put these red hearts on there and go oh lord, 5 weeks, this is not OK…it’s not OK based on my own values system. Where can I just let something go and say no, I don’t want to do that right now, I want to be with my spouse.  So it’s an ongoing work on progress and it’s very, very, challenging especially because of my fatigue level and many of us start to face physical challenges that interfere with being sexually active – we have a new knee, new hip, I don’t know, but it’s really the fatigue more than anything. So how do you work that into your life?”

AM-T: “You talked in some detail in that email about how mentally grueling your job can be.”

“Yeah, I come home and I’m not compos mentis. I can just sit and stare out my window, I live in a rural area, it’s very beautiful, sometimes I just sit and stare and I’m so grateful not to have to communicate with anyone by speech or anything else…because I’ve been doing that all day. On average I see 20, 22 people a day…very complex patients. I often work a 12-hour day and I feel that also in healthcare you take a lot of that work home with you, you worry about people, you want to make sure they’re OK, you want to come up with plans that might suit them better in terms of their care. So there’s a mental burden that I know others in my position feel as well. Speaking of dusting things off that needs to be dusted away and tidied up before I can enter into a realm that is so specific to my marriage and is something I share with just one person. So there’s a kind of mental clarity we need to be focused on our sexuality and I still find myself working on it; my spouse feels the same way. The one thing I believe saves us is that we talk about it all the time, even if we’re talking about how we haven’t had sex in four weeks, we’re talking about it, and we make an effort to be loving and affectionate, and not in this communal roommate sort of way, the kind you would only be with a partner.  Kissing one another on our lips, not just on our cheeks or on the top of our head on our way to bed because we’re so tired. That kind of thing. There are certain things that are reserved for my married life that I don’t share with anyone else, and I focus on those even when sexuality feels it’s so subterranean because of my workload.”

AM-T: “Well yes it was poignant…getting that email…because this is what you talk about all the time and certainly when you’re working with clients on their sex lives and what we talked about in our first show, you have to focus on pleasure…it’s an important part of life. I was going to ask you if you had your coffee this morning, sitting down, looking at the view [laughing] but you also say your spouse said she was going to rat you out to your public.”

“Yes, well that still is a threat. Periodically. Especially as I still send out my e-blast every 5 weeks or so…I really enjoy focusing on something pithy, in 450 words or less. Sometimes she’ll say to me really, how honest are you going to be with them, it’s been five weeks, and you’re going to be writing something about sex as if you’re an expert? So we have this humor that goes back and forth between us. And sometimes she’ll say OK, if you work on this email we’d better have sex pretty soon because you’re not going to have anything to write about, or you’re not going to make any sense. And it’s true. I pull a lot of content from the experience of having a loving marriage and being sexually alive and alert—and definitely the pleasure piece, and that experience of my coffee every morning, not in a paper cup, not while I’m driving, but sitting, having it in a real ceramic mug…it is something important, it makes me feel alert and alive and I cherish it every single day. So there are still those rules around pleasurable living and when I start to feel I’ve had no pleasure all day long I dial back and find a way to get it, because it helps me keep going.”

And for more on our relationship with pleasure – including Evelyn’s coffee habit – go back to show number 19 when I first met her.

But just going back to that whole idea of needing to make time for sex in your schedule…and how hard it can feel to do that.

AM-T: “I was thinking about this in terms of the busyness factor… especially with women, your brain is always buzzing with all those things you have to do. And I – I don’t know if I want to say this on my own podcast – but sometimes, if you have sex in the morning before work you risk being late for work.”

And you’re thinking OK, I’m probably gonna be late but it would be really nice to do this now…but which is more important, having sex, you know, being with my partner, or being on time? And you are a bit late. But it’s probably a good reminder that you need to prioritize sex sometimes if you want to have a happy relationship.

“Yes, that’s true. I mean people often say to me I want it to be spontaneous and I want it to flow… well it doesn’t, there’s not really anything that’s spontaneous. I mean once in a while we might start kissing and then move into something more intimate than that. But generally   speaking there’s not too much spontaneity in most people’s lives even when they’re on vacation. There’s planning that goes on. Even if they just say let’s take the morning and see where it leads us. OK, well I guess we could call that spontaneous. But it takes a lot of energy to be orgasmic, to stay focused, and with women’s minds being as busy as they are and multitasking, you have to do this mediation exercise. I mean women will say we’re starting to have sex and then I’m thinking about, oh God, did I write the bus note for the kids or oh no, I left my cashmere sweater in the wash.”

Or I forgot to send that email, or I need finish that report…

“And I say yes, that’s a mind, that is what minds do. And when that does happen, I mean there’s the meditation technique where thoughts come into your mind, you think about them and you drop them, and then you re-refocus back to where they are. There’s no crime in kissing your partner or touching your genitals or their genitals and thinking about your cashmere sweater is in the wash, you don’t have to admit those things. You can recognize them, they can be kind of comical. You can be like, oh well, I’ll get them later. This is what minds do. And this whole idea that with a meditation practice for example, you’re going to clear your mind completely – that doesn’t happen. It’s not the end of the world when those things happen, and you just keep going, you just keep having sex.”

OK.

Finally I told Evelyn about something that happened around the first time I spoke to her three years ago. I had written a blog post that I posted on the Broad Experience site…

AM-T: “… related to my feeling that whenever I read these articles about very successful women I always wondered, are they having sex? I’m nosy…I can’t help wondering about this aspect of their lives that of course is never mentioned in a Fortune Magazine article. I tweeted this blog post about it and somebody on Twitter got very angry…essentially accusing me of blaming women for one more thing they weren’t doing. It was an angry response suggesting that to talk about needing to have sex was kind of anti-women.”

“Yeah, well I think if somebody is attached to that concept of objectifying women then we have to look at that, or if they feel that way about being sexual, that’s it’s not a health practice…then I mean I work with them from that point. I don’t have this penchant for making sure people are sexually active on some kind of schedule. But what I get disturbed about is when people say I miss having sex, I don’t know why I feel so far away from it, help me get closer to it. Personally from doing this work for such a long time and with many high powered women that, you know, have been featured in those magazines, is the answer to your question is no, they’re not having sex. They aren’t. Because they’re doing a million other things. And they don’t have the energy for it and because they don’t see it as important, and part of why they don’t is because again, culturally, what we see as important is productivity, status, position, money, you know, achievement – women are so achievement focused. And my feeling is you have to decide, how do you want to live your life? What is going to be important? Yes, it’s important to live a life that is intellectually satisfying and where you’re contributing to the world, however you work is not going to miss you if something happens, but your spouse will, and your family will. Your spouse, their life will be forever changed, because there will never be another you.”

Evelyn Resh. You can check out her site at EvelynResh.com. She’s the author of the books Women, Sex, Power and Pleasure and The Secret Lives of Teen Girls. She also does counseling sessions via Skype.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

Two shows in a row about sex – you’re probably dying for a rest. And you’ll get one because I need a bit of time before I can put some new shows together so there’ll be a longer than usual break before the next one in July.

If you like what you hear on the show please consider kicking in a few bucks to support my work. Some of you do that already and I’m very grateful. If you can part with $50 you will get the official Broad Experience T-shirt – you can see a photo of that on the site under the support tab.

And if you can’t give just rate the show and write a review on iTunes – it’s quick and easy and it helps The Broad Experience get noticed.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.  See you in a few weeks. 

Episode 86: Work and Intimacy (part 1)

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time we re-visit a guest some of you first met three years ago. She is eloquent on a topic most of us don’t discuss – and you certainly won’t read about it in books or articles on professional women…

“Yes we’ve gained ground, and yes we have more important positions and we’re more influential. But the price is that we are working more and many of us are working for less money, and that takes a toll on people’s self-practices including paying attention to their intimate lives.”

Yup – Evelyn Resh is back to talk about the negative affect our work culture can have on our relationships, and what we can do about it.

So if you didn’t hear my original show with sexuality counselor and author Evelyn Resh I’m actually going suggest you hit pause on this show and go and download or play that original show first – it’s number 19, I repeated it as show 38, and it’s called Women, Work, and Sex. It’s a great introduction to Evelyn to why I wanted to talk about sex in the context of a podcast like this one.

But the thing with this show is it’s not just about our working lives, it’s about our lives. And work affects so many aspects of life – including our sex lives. And for the more reticent among you, no, this isn’t about to turn into the Dan Savage sex podcast. Evelyn is a nurse-midwife and she comes at this from her position as someone who cares deeply about women’s health and also women’s ability to take pleasure in life. All types of pleasure. And she says our 24/7 culture has pretty much eroded our relationship to slow enjoyment of everyday things, something as simple as sitting with your coffee rather than grabbing it on the go.

We had a long conversation and what I’m doing is dividing it into two shows. So I’ll release the next part of our discussion next week so you won’t have to wait a full two weeks for that one.

And just to let you know I spoke to Evelyn by phone which isn’t my usual practice because the quality isn’t great. Evelyn lives in a rural part of Massachusetts and there’s no cell service so she didn’t have an iPhone to tape her end of the conversation, we tried Skype a few times but there was a ringing on the line that would have driven you mad. So in the end we used her landline.

I started off by asking her to describe her work. It has changed a bit since I last spoke to her. She recently got her second master’s degree in nursing education. And these days she’s taking care of pregnant women and women needing gynecological care. And quite a few of them have drug problems.

“I have a very large percentage of people, actually 30%, who are opioid addicted and need an enormous amount of health education – and that’s just from my maternity caseload, not even from my gynecological case load. So I’m doing a lot of addiction medicine, a lot of primary care, a lot of health education, every single day on a myriad of subjects. And sexual health is tied into just all of it. And then the remainder of my practice is very mixed between professional people, working class clientele and a working poor.”

She commutes an hour each way by car. And she is pretty wiped out when she gets home. So she does understand how much work can take out of you. I reminded her of what we’d discussed last time – the fact that a lot women give too much to our work…

AM-T: “...and you talked about their sense of obligation to their jobs…and how we could all feel less responsible to work and probably not be fired, but then I know you yourself have fallen into that trap in recent years, right?”

“Yes, it’s been very stressful. And it’s been interesting to live the experience of women who’ve come to see me for care…and then write about it from my own perspective as well as have it seasoned and sprinkled and adorned by their own experience. I feel what’s happening in the workplace for professional women is yes we’ve gained ground, yes we have more important positions and are more influential…but there’s a price to be paid with that. And the price is we are working more and many of us are working for less money, even if our status has shifted and gotten higher, and that takes a toll on people’s self-care practices…including paying attention to their intimate lives. Because what women will do is prune and snip and take away from that seat of power which is their primary relationship, their loving relationship. Because they’ll feel often – and sometimes this is true but after a certain point it isn’t – that with that sturdy seat of power, they can afford to do that. But if they do it for too long and they do it too often their sense of gravity starts to shift.”   

AM-T: “Yeah, I re-listened to the show we did a few years ago and it’s still so fresh. Everything you talked about is so true and I’m sure it’s true of a lot of people listening who perhaps have jobs, and kids, and a partner, and as you said in that show, the partner gets less, they end up putting the partner last.”

“They do, and what’s interesting about this and difficult is that it impacts the quality of life across the board for women. One of the things that also gets interfered with consistently are self-care practices and I see their intimate life as an aspect of self-care. Because generally speaking women will say to me you know when we are intimate I feel so much better and ask myself over and over again why don’t we do this more often…I feel good the next day, reenergized, connected, they go off and they feel more positive, and then more and more days go by and it becomes a month and it becomes six week and people haven’t tended to their intimate lives, and the cycle starts all over again.”

AM-T: “And then – for instance, OK, I know somebody who has said…'I just, sex, it’s the last thing on my list.' She has a really busy job here in New York. She has a husband, she has two below the age of ten children, and she’s like, 'yep, I can’t be bothered, I don’t want it.'”

“I hear this from people often, then they’ll come to me, they’ll want some sort of magic bullet about how do I resurrect this, how do I want this more, how do I engage more? And I say in order to do this, you have to prioritize it. And it’s a disciplined practice. Just like your exercise schedule is or paying attention to having a sound diet or getting to bed early enough or turning off your communication device – you have to decide how important is it to you…and then they say oh, it’s very important, but it’s not as important as they identified it as being. And then they wonder 2 or 3 years afterwards why has their relationship fallen to pieces. They say oh, I had no idea, I didn’t see this coming – and I say, yeah, you did, you came to me 3 years ago, you knew this was an important piece. And this isn’t to say – in any relationship whether same sex or heterosexual – I’ll often hear from heterosexual women well that’s all he wants, he’s constantly coming after me. And I have worked with too many men to believe that’s the case for most men. Most men I have worked with who are heterosexual deeply love their partner, are not chasing them down like wild dogs, what they’re doing is saying I really miss you, I miss this contact…and I want you to pay more attention to me than you’re paying to work, to our children, to your girlfriends, to your family and oh, postscript, your mate.”

AM-T: “And I suppose I should say or we should say that for instance after the last show ran I got a comment from a guy saying, you should know it’s not just women who feel this way because of work.”

“Oh, I think that’s true and the other factor that’s involved in this since you and I first spoke is I too am older I’m 57, I’m really feeling it, and my age-match peers who are professional people are feeling it, and we often talk about how at the end of the day all we have anything left for is to come home, think about what do we want to put on our toast for dinner and then decide what we need to zone out on for an hour and a half of TV before we go to sleep and start all over again. And men are absolutely feeling this way. But what has happened in the American culture is work has taken such a central stage and the second stage is children, that American couples are living in sexless marriages everywhere. And my feeling is it’s not good for families, it’s not good for children and it’s definitely not good in terms of how we perceive our work. Because what ends up happening is people crack and they say I can’t do this any more. And you lose an entire pool of talented people because the system that they’re trying to function in is really not a system that is health promoting or joyful. It’s productivity promoting, it’s focused on getting the job done, but that’s not the only thing that’s happening in people’s lives. And when they start taking these hits at the end of the day when they come home or when they start the day and they leave the house after they’ve had so much bickering or some big blowup, it doesn’t make for a very productive worker.”

AM-T: “Right, and you know as you were talking and talking about America in particular, I have quite a lot of listeners in other countries, I mean I wonder if my listeners in Sweden have sexier marriages than American couples for instance, because of course work cultures are different in different parts of the world and they’re not as intense in France and some of the Scandinavian countries that have shorter work days and more of an emphasis on family life.”           

“Well and what’s interesting is not only do they have shorter work day and more time for holiday time, they also have more productivity. So what’s fascinating to me is we have so much research-based evidence to confirm that workers are more productive when they have more time off and shorter work weeks, and yet in the American system of work we see people put in 12, 14, 15 hour days. And because I work in the ob/gyn world and clinical medicine in general, I’m very familiar with people needing to take call.”

Meaning being on call.

“And I took call for years. And what comes on call is catastrophic, and I see my ob/gyn colleagues working incredibly hard, making life and death decisions when they’re on call. It’s very serious work, and they’re exhausted. And they do get more time off than I do because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function at all. But even if you’re not on call and you’re working 10-15 hours a day every day and you only get 3 weeks off a year, that’s just plain wrong, and it’s unhealthy. So it’s a curious thing that goes on in the Unites States, because we have lots of good evidence from other parts of the world that productivity would improve, and family life would improve, and yet we persist with this two or three weeks off a year and people working long days and long hours.”

That discussion about European attitudes led us down a side route, talking about how much more evolved countries like the Netherlands are in educating their young about sex – the result is many fewer teenage pregnancies compared to the US. And she says that lack of sex education in America – it raises its head even when she’s working with middle-aged patients…

“These are professional women I’ll work with sometimes who are CEOs of companies, and my population is quite diversified, I still actually work at work at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, which is a destination wellness spa, a very elite population, very upper class, these people are very bright, well educated, and they’ll have conversations with me that are positively confounding. I’ll think to myself how is it you’ve had your whole life to learn this and still at 52 you have no idea really of what you’re talking about?”

AM-T: “Can you give me an example?”

“OK, so I’ll give you a perfect example. I had a woman who was the CEO of a very large company, she had a very demanding, serious job. She had been recently divorced and had reentered the dating scene and she had multiple partners now, she was taking a more recreational approach to her sexual activity than she had when she was married and earlier in life. And she was not post-menopausal so she absolutely needed contraception still and she wasn’t using a condom and she asked me well, why would I do that. And I said, well your risk of being exposed to sexually transmitted infections is significantly higher, and you could get pregnant. And she said, well I’m not gonna get pregnant, I’m 50. And I said well, that is actually not the case, and this could be a crisis for you, in terms of your heath, your wellness and the stability of your life. And she had absolutely no idea. And in that regard in terms of condom use I see a lot more wisdom amongst my teenagers than I do amongst my middle aged women who are professional people.”

And that discussion about knowledge and planning reminded her of something else…

“And you know this leads us down a different tributary around women and work and I think you’ll get considerable pushback from this statement I’m about to make but I feel really compelled to make it, because it’s really a women’s health issue and it affects work dramatically. And that is that we have more and more women who are delaying their reproductive lives, who are starting their pregnancies, first pregnancies, at 38, 39, 41 which is very complicated, and puts them at significantly higher risk. And now what I’m doing in my work is something I never imagined. Which is I’m saying to women in their 20s, what are your plans for having a family?” 

They respond, oh, I’m not gonna be thinking about that for ages. And Evelyn pushes back…

“Because I need you to consider starting your family in your mid-twenties, so a) you have time for child spacing…”

b) you can be sure your fertility is at its best…

 “And c) you’re not so exhausted. You need your stamina. And they’re absolutely stunned. And the reason I say this is that I work with professional women who have very demanding jobs, they have their first baby at 34 and they’re ready to fall over in a heap, between dealing with the responsibilities of their children, dealing with the demands of their job and trying to attend to their marriages. So there’s a planning problem here that people aren’t recognizing, because they say, well, I want to get really established in my career. And while I’m sensitive to that I also know that people can be established in their career or be reestablished in their career at pretty much any point in their lives. But they cannot rely on their eggs nor their stamina at any point in their lives.”

I’m not sure how easy it is to reestablish yourself in a career, actually – and I think that’s why so many women wait.

Now I have to admit I was squirming when Evelyn was talking about this. Not because of the career part but because not all of us have partners when we’re in our twenties. Or even in our thirties. How many of us have been in that situation where you thought perhaps you could see family life on the horizon and then…something happens, and you break up.

AM-T: “I always say this, we don’t all have neat and tidy lives that fit into this pretty box where everything’s done and dusted when you’re 29. I certainly never wanted to put off having a kid but life happens to some of us and you don’t have the opportunity to have children when you’re even 34.”

“Oh, it’s absolutely true and this is the complexity of raising this issue when I see them. But this has become a cultural shift in terms of priority also. The priority has been in educated women becoming increasingly educated and focusing more and more on their professions and less and less on motherhood or on marriages, and I’m not saying this is good or bad, I’m saying one of the consequences of that is what I’m talking about. Which is I’m seeing women at 34, or 35 who are starting their families and up against an enormous constellation of risk factors. And it’s an interesting tradeoff.

At 57 I so remember when Ms. Magazine first hit the newsstand, and the feminist movement was gaining ground. You know, what I heard from the feminist movement was not that I needed to everything I wanted to do, but that now I had a choice to do what I wanted to do. And I think what’s happened for a lot of women is the message they’ve gotten is well, you can do it all, you can do everything, and my contention is, not really, and be able to maintain the most important pieces and parts. Because it’s too splitting to us. And our work environment in the United States doesn’t help us do many things except for work. So women are faced with a really complex choice.”

I’m going to let you give the feedback on that. I’m curious to hear from people who did have children later about how that’s working out – and especially how much you and your partner divide all the kid and home responsibilities. That’s something else Evelyn and I touched on last time.

Next time, things get personal. Evelyn’s work has been intense lately, and she has not been taking her own advice about tending to her relationship. She still sends out a regular email blast to her followers about all things sexual, but her spouse is not impressed…

“Sometimes she’ll say to me really, how honest are you gonna be with them? It’s been five weeks - and you’re gonna be writing something about sex as if you’re an expert?”

That’s next time on The Broad Experience. Along with a lot of other stuff.

Evelyn is the author of two books – the Secret Lives of Teen Girls and Women, Sex, Power and Pleasure.

She and I will be back next week.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you then.

Episode 85: Far From Home - Women in Aid

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success.

This time…when you’re doing your job far from home, culture clash is almost inevitable. But in disaster zones in developing countries…

“You have to go into that and act as a woman, in many cases act as a manager, in situations or cultures where that’s really very rare or completely unheard of.’

Which can be uncomfortable for both parties.

A lot of us donate to charities or nonprofits. Depending on which causes you care about some of that money may go to a group like Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders -- an NGO that helps people in desperate situations, usually abroad. But how often do any of us think about the workers at those organizations? The people who work in the refugee camps or help get fresh water to remote communities? If I ever hear the words “aid worker” on the news it’s usually because one of them has been kidnapped or killed on the job.

Aid work – like other helping professions – is female-dominated. And a couple of months ago I heard from one of these women. She’s a listener and she said you know, we hear a lot about women CEOs, we even hear about women in the military, but we never hear about women in aid. And there is a lot to talk about.

We’re not using her real name because she doesn’t want to hurt her chances of landing her next job.

“I’m Jessica and I’m an aid worker. So I work in humanitarian response which kind of means working in emergency situations.”

Jessica is 28 now. She started her career in South Sudan, working with displaced people, then after a few years she went on to Jordan, then back to South Sudan, then to Sierra Leone. Sometimes the work can be dangerous – she has hidden in a bunker for hours while under bombardment – sometimes it’s more pedestrian…

“In Sierra Leone I was distributing hygiene kits to schools – going to rural villages and trying to organize how is this going to work in terms of the cars, and what we put in there, and on what days you do what.”

When we spoke she was on a break in London, between contracts. She says that’s how it works for most aid workers who go abroad for their jobs. You’re gone for 6 or 9 months. The work is intense. Then you go back home to flop for a while before starting a new gig.

“When I come back to London and I’m there for 2 weeks what I want to do is eat a lot of cheese, and lie down, see my friends and watch a lot of Netflix.”

But this time she’s taking a longer break. She’s thinking hard about what to do next. Because she says one of the tough things about this work is the utter lack of work/life balance.

“When I first entered the sector I was very naïve, it was my first proper job, I’d just come to South Sudan, and it was 2 days after independence and it was all very exciting. And I had dinner with a woman in her late 40s who basically sat me down and said, you be careful entering into this sector because what happens to a lot of women is they have a lot of fun, then when they get to their mid 30s they realize they don’t have a husband or children or any stability, and they want it, and by that time it’s too late for them to get it because by that time all the men in the sector are dating younger women. And obviously that’s a generalization and some people don’t do that, but that’s definitely a feeling, and I’m aware there are a lot of women older than me who’ve been in the sector for longer who feel that it’s challenging and maybe have enjoyed some aspects of their lifestyle but feel there is a cost.”

Jessica says because of that conversation, she’s been thinking about her priorities from the get-go. She says she’s turned down jobs because she’s put her relationship first…

“And trying to have a relationship even when you both work in this sector can be quite difficult particularly at the beginning where maybe you have fewer job opportunities available to you.”

She’s been in a relationship for three years. And in all that time they’ve lived in the same place for a whopping two months. She says she’s back in London now in part because that’s where her partner is at the moment, and she decided she had to give things a chance.

“Of course you get regular holidays. But it’s not like a long distance relationship where you can drive for 3 or 4 hours to see somebody, it’s one where you need to take a UN helicopter to go to the place where they are. It’s not something you can do regularly. And I just felt if I want to continue this and not just have a relationship via Skype, and by Skype chat because often the internet isn’t good enough to support video…then I need to really consider what I want to do. And I think a lot of people, you see they’ll have a relationship with someone in a certain location and when one or the other leaves they will end up breaking up. Not all of them. Some do manage to go to the next location and find jobs in similar locations. I mean of course for people who are not straight, cisgender people it’s much more complicated. You may be working in countries for example where being a homosexual is illegal, and that’s also something a lot of organizations struggle with how to deal with that. I’ve known people who’ve felt they have to hide that for security reasons. I’ve known lots of colleagues who are gay, and I haven’t come across any trans people and I think it’s because it must be very challenging for them. My gay colleagues, they’re fine, they deal with it but it’s more challenging and there’s also confusion to an extent about what is the policy and how much is it the organization’s…how much of it is it a personal issue versus a work issue. Because in those situations then it can bring negative things against the organization itself, etcetera…it’s a very thorny issue and I think one the sector is trying to address. There’s definitely still a lot more work to be done on that.”

What she has to contend with on a personal level is much more benign. It’s just this question of how are they going to make things work long-term, let alone with children, given the distances involved and the work they do? She says it’s not just her who’s doing the thinking.

“We sat down and each wrote down the top 10 countries we’d be interested in working in and then got together and saw which ones overlapped. We’ve done this a couple of times. It does look like a very strange list. At the moment Afghanistan is on three, Nigeria is on there, any of the countries involved in the Burundi crisis…so any of the countries where they have refugees at the moment. Myanmar, Iraq, Pakistan…and Central African Republic and DRC…”

The Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Which is perhaps not where most people might think about setting up a love nest together.”

But she says those places – that’s where the two of them both have an interest and where they’re likely to get jobs they’re both qualified for.

Given how demanding the work can be, I wanted to know what she loved about it.  

“I mean it’s very complicated, obviously I’m doing it because I have a desire to help, and I think the work I do is useful and makes a difference. I’m also aware it’s very complicated, and there are a lot of issues going on there, and that it’s not as simple as me going and helping people. But also I like the adventure, l like meeting people from new countries, I like being thrown into the middle of very difficult circumstances and always having the adrenaline of changing situations and having to adapt to that.”    

London can feel quite sedate by comparison.

So as she says she likes the difficult-ness of her job in many ways. But one of the things she mentioned when she first emailed me was what a big problem sexual assault and sexual harassment are in the aid world. Jessica says the worst thing that’s happened to her is a wildly inappropriate comment. But she says talk to female aid workers and many of them have horror stories about lecherous bosses who feel they have complete impunity to behave that way. Others have been raped by colleagues. You can check out the site reporttheabuse.org to get a sense of these stories. The URL is https://reporttheabuse.org/

Jessica says dealing with sexual harassment is trickier than it might be if you were in your home country. For one thing, the local culture could be very male-centric...

“And of course it’s further complicated by fact you’re working with so many different cultures than your own. Not just the people from the country you’re working with. The ex-pats come from all over the world…it’s not like all the expats are European, you get expats from other countries who also may have different perceptions of gender, dating, what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, so you have to fit into that to a certain extent. You have to be culturally sensitive to your colleagues as well. But that kind of complicates the issue.”

Because what’s normal male-to-female behavior to some is insulting to others. And the environment they all work in can exacerbate this stuff.

“I do think there’s a culture of machoness within the sector caused by people being very stressed and being like, well, we’re in this disaster zone, all bets are off. So that can make it difficult. And also you’re in a place where you’re entirely dependent on your organization in a lot of places. There is no active local police force or government that would have the capacity or laws to protect you that you might expect in your own country so you’re entirely dependent on your organization for that kind of support.”

And that support doesn’t always come. She says at least the topic is now being discussed more openly in the aid community. It’s a start.

Onto a more minor difficulty. I did a whole show last year on menstruation at work, and society’s attitudes to women’s bodily functions. Jessica says you think it’s bad having a period at your office? Try the delights of menstruating in a remote area. Local women have no access to tampons or pads. So neither to you.

“In terms of sanitary equipment you have to bring your own stuff…so if you’re packing for 3 or 6 months or you don’t know how long, then you have to bring all that with you. You often also have squat toilets, and often they’re not that clean because you just can’t be clean within that situation. When you have a squat toilet that’s, there’s no concrete walls, it’s made of grass, or maybe plastic sheeting, you are going to get flies and lizards and everything like that around. In some places of course it’s difficult to buy toilet paper. That is obviously something that people try to provide because culturally it’s difficult for some people not to have that around. But it’s also something that especially if you’re traveling around, you just get used to. And yes, having periods is difficult. And I have had the situation once where I drove two and a half hours to a field location, went to the loo, realized I had my period, and literally my only option was to drive 2.5 hours back the other way.

I guess I could have asked the women who lived there but unfortunately the reality for a lot of women in the world is they use grass or bits of old cloth. And I feel very bad that’s something they have to do, but it’s not something I think I could deal with myself. But that was very awkward telling the driver, ‘I have to go back, now. I cannot stay here for the rest of the day as planned.’ And after that I learnt to always be prepared. Because it’s not like in countries where I’m used to where there’s always some kind of solution.”

That made me think about just how different her work life is from most of her friends back home. She says she has a good, close group of friends, particularly women friends, but talking about work can feel weird.

“How can you really explain to somebody what it’s like to work surrounded by 70,000 refugees or to be in a position where you see people without enough food, or everyone around you is absolutely desperate and has had to leave their homes and has lost relatives? It is quite an overwhelming experience that does change you. And I’m sure that’s the same for other contexts as well.

Within the sector you make jokes about it, well about funny things that happen, and I think that’s kind of a coping mechanism, but within normal people conversation, or normal among the people I grew up amongst, it can seem that you’re bringing in all these giant, serious things to the conversation they wouldn’t necessarily normally think about except if they’re watching the news for half an hour they’d go, oh, that’s terrible, and turn it off. So you can feel you are bringing an uncomfortable subject into a very comfortable position. And it does feel like others will struggle to understand that aspect of you.”

She says it’s totally different with other aid workers – they get it.  

Still, despite the difficulties and discomfort that can come with the job, she says she’s learned so much.

“It does expose you to different ways of being a woman. You get exposed to all these different cultures where femininity or what that means is expressed very differently…you have to go as a woman, act as a manger, in situations or cultures where that’s very rare or completely unheard of for the people living there. What do you do if you’re a manager for a group of 20 people where you’ve tried to hire as many women as you could, but very few women applied because there’s a cultural barrier against that, so the majority are men with maybe a couple of younger women who have never married. And none of these men have ever been in a situation where they’ve ever had a woman in a position of authority over them. And you have to navigate that. It’s a fine line between you don’t want to be the random foreigner who’s coming in, bossing people about and being horrible, and not sensitive to the nuances of the situation, but also you don’t want to be a pushover. So that’s an interesting dynamic.”

She says she has had criticism from local staff, but she thinks of it as part of the job. She says navigating those social relationships is a challenge – but she likes it. And she didn’t articulate this but I will. She’s a young, white woman often managing people of a different race who are often older than her. Which surely adds to that dynamic.

She says the local staff, they’re working in their own country, and that country has undergone a disaster, so they’re stressed out, just like the people they’re all trying to help. Jessica says you have to handle each situation with sensitivity – particularly if you’re female.

“Some people do it without much sensitivity but just get respected for being leaders or for being macho. So I think some men in the sector play up to that macho-ness that might be found more in that area or in that country…that’s how then they act as a leader. But as a woman you have to go in and create your own way to try and get the work done and to solve interpersonal conflicts between your staff members, which may have strange and difficult cultural aspects that are quite alien to you, while being an effective manager. I once had to deal with 2 male staff, one of whom was accusing the other of threatening to kill him using witchcraft…which I personally don’t believe in but I have to take it seriously and not disregard that person’s feelings and fears. And also be aware that normally they probably wouldn’t be going to a woman who’s younger than them to solve a dispute between them. In that case I tried to facilitate dialogue between the two and then said that was something they needed to discuss among their families and the community.

But that’s just one example. I have lots of other examples. I had one issue where some male staff were accusing a female staff member of having premarital sex. Which was difficult obviously because that’s something me and all my friends do, and don’t think is wrong. But it’s not really my place to say that and say they’re being stupid without acknowledging the fact that accusation in their world has a very different meaning than what it does to me.”

On the one hand she wanted to be a feminist and tell these guys to stop slut-shaming. On the other hand she knew that would backfire. Again, she says she had to try to respect the local culture. So she told the men there should be a distinction between work life and private life – that it wasn’t appropriate to bring stuff about this woman’s private life into the workplace unless it affected the work.

She says to this day she doesn’t know if she handled it the right way.

And she says after all these are only her experiences. She’s a highly educated woman from the west. Women from different backgrounds will have other experiences.

She’s grateful to have lived and worked with some of them. She says it’s one of the best things about the job.

In what other sector would I spend five months literally living in the same room as a Kenyan woman in her 40s or 50s, and trying to sneak in a bit drunk on Saturday night…but also seeing her and her missing her children back in Kenya, but feeling that this opportunity was a good one for her professionally. I don’t think there’s any other sector where I could have that experience of being so close to so many people, but also so many women of different ages and different cultures to me.”

Jessica is still considering her next career move. And I’m setting up an interview with her Kenyan roommate to hear her side of the women-in-aid story.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.