Episode 149: Forgiveness at Work

Show transcript:

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

This time, how much should we forgive at work…

“If you’re constantly internalizing dozens of these interactions in a day, you have to have an outlet, you have to have a way to let that go.”

Work can be the source of plenty of slights and upset. My guest today says she’s thrived by making forgiveness a career tactic.

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

A couple of shows ago you heard an episode called Forced Out, about leaving a job in bad circumstances. In that show we discussed ways of dealing with painful situations at work from being fired to just having a really poor relationship with your manager. But today the more under the radar stuff gets a lot of attention too – not that they haven’t been around for a while - micro-aggressions, the little things someone will say or do that can make someone feel distinctly like they don’t belong.

Christie Lindor is something of an expert in dealing with them. She describes herself as first generation everything.

“First generation American,, first college grad of my family, first corporate professional.”

Christie’s parents are from Haiti, and Christie was raised in Boston.

“We grew up speaking 3 languages at home, so when you’re always context switching, we spoke French, we spoke Creole, which is a local dialect in Haiti, as well as English, and I hear this happens a lot in bilingual or multigenerational families, we’ll speak one or two sentences and we’ll speak 3 languages together…and we understand eachother, but outside sometimes people are like, you have your own language!”

Her parents entertained the immigrant parents’ dream: that their girl would become a doctor or a lawyer or maybe an engineer. But Christie, once she got to college…she found out about this thing called…a management consultant. And that’s what she ended up becoming after she graduated. She loved the idea of helping clients solve problems, working as part of a team. She’s been at it now for close to 20 years.

I told her I’ve met a lot of recovering consultants over the years.  

“Most people on average don’t last more than 2, 3 years in the business. I had no idea going into it that was the case at first, I just knew it was incredibly hard. There was kind of an elitist club to it – you were either in or you were out. If you were in that meant you had opportunities for apprenticeship, for mentors, for exposure to really cool projects and if you were out, it took a lot more for you to be able to really prove your worth, be able to get a seat at the table, and I had to learn that the hard way.”

She tried not to feel intimidated by the Ivy League graduates around her with their sparkling pedigrees. And she put up with a lot as she started to crack consulting’s culture.  

“In consulting, I usually spend most of my days being the only woman and sometimes the only person of color in the room, and with that comes a lot of subtle but not so subtle acts of whether it’s sexism or racism or ageism…when I was younger there was an ageism thing…there was a lot of biases that just came with my mere existence coming into this space.”

Back in the day, when she first started out, she was just concentrating on being the best she could be, getting the work done. But one incident really took her aback. She had interviewed to be involved on a particular client project. She says in consulting you interview with the client to make sure the role is the right fit for you.  

“So I remember I had a really great interview over with phone with the client and with the engagement manager, I’d had a series of conversations with them, sounds like it was a great fit,  I was really excited about the opportunity I think this was my third or fourth project into my career so right out the gate, within my first two years starting in this type of work. So I flew out to the client site it’s my, first day on project, I was really excited, I was supposed to meet the engagement manager at the security desk, to give me access to the building.”

Now this was in the days before everyone had a photo attached to their online profile. The manager had described himself and what he was wearing that day. So Christie’s standing there in the busy lobby and she knows what she’s looking for.  

“So I remember him getting off the elevator, and I saw him, and he was kind of looking up and down, looking for me to be able to meet up. Since I recognized him from his description and I naturally went up to him, said hey, my name is Christie, I’m so excited to meet you, and I put out my hand to shake his hand. And I distinctly remember, Ashley, the facial expressions he had – his face transitioned from being really upbeat and excited to him being surprised, to being a little confused, to being disappointed, in like less than ten seconds. And then he kind of blurted out, ‘oh, you’re Christie!’”

She says she was clearly NOT what he was expecting. This was about 15 years ago now. Still…

“I’ll never forget it because it was such an awkward elevator ride up to the client site. I’m uncomfortable because he’s uncomfortable, and while you think about that instant, he didn’t really do anything to me. He didn’t harm me. But his non-verbal cues were felt and on a subconscious level. And that really played out. It was a three-month engagement and I had to mentally push that out of my head.  I remember I said to myself you know Christie, you gotta move on and it’s your first day on the project you gotta make a great impression. But deep down that was always nagging and it really affected my experience with him and with the client. And I can think of literally thousands of different types of examples like that, that happened to me on a regular basis. So for me forgiveness became a survival technique. It became something I had to lean on to be able to focus on what mattered, to pivot my energy, for me to be able to kind of not let people’s biases or their stereotypes about me, affect me.”

We’ll talk more about forgiveness in a minute, but first…I wondered, did that awkward situation ever resolve?

“It never really did resolve. I think he got over the fact that I am who I am. He never said anything out of the ordinary to me…I moved it out of my head as I mentioned and focused on the day and the work. But that initial reaction did impact my ability to trust him. So from the get I never really trusted him, and he was a nice guy, I learned a lot on the three months that I worked with him, and I think by the end things were fine, we delivered the work, things were great, but I walked away from the experience not really trusting him, there was never a reason to bring it up. It was early in my career so it wasn’t like I had that kind of courage to bring that situation up to him and honestly Ashley at the time I didn’t really have mentors or anyone to talk to about it.” 

She says internalized it. She did the same with subsequent situations like the time a leader she admired acknowledged everyone else in the room’s ideas…but didn’t even make eye contact with her. Or the time she found out a colleague with 8 years less experience than her was making almost 50% more. 

“I wasn’t sharing as much of myself, sharing ideas, bringing those to the table, I was already an introvert but certain situations I experienced made me even more introverted, made me more quiet. Which obviously in a very collaborative career like consulting being quiet and not being able to share your thoughts and ideas on a particular solution is actually not the best thing to do. So when I caught myself being more internal, even though I was dealing with different things, I realized I had to come up with a different paradigm of how I was interacting with the world in order for me to thrive.”

So she came up with this idea of forgiveness to make lemons out of lemonade, as she puts it. She had to have an outlet, a way to let go, otherwise she says she might just have quit consulting altogether. But one big blow put the whole forgiveness thing to the test. She had worked like crazy all year – as usual – she was always the most knowledgeable, most prepared person in the room. She was expecting a top performance rating and a promotion at the end of the fiscal year.

But she didn’t get one.

She was crushed. And after wallowing for a few days in shock, anger, grief…she decided to take a new tack. She calls it ‘release’ – where you take control of your hurt and upset and use it to move forward. In her case, she realized she had been spending all her energy trying to get ahead within her organization – but no one outside it knew who she was. She couldn’t control what happened at work – at least not as much as she’d like. But she could control what she did next. She set about building her own brand outside of her company – in just over a year she wrote articles, a book, she did a TEDx talk, launched a podcast…and the year after that she even got that promotion. But it didn’t matter as much any more. Because by that time she felt powerful in her own right.

She says too many people still cleave to the idea that if you forgive, you’re letting someone off the hook.

 “There’s a story or belief that’s out there that forgiveness means that everything is OK – or if you’re forgiving someone it means there’s an absolute, someone was absolutely wrong or right in a particular scenario. I’ve had to look at forgiveness in a different light. I’ve had to almost redefine what forgives means for me, and for me it’s more about self-care. There’s a saying out there that I really love – if you don’t forgive someone it’s like you’re drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That’s essentially what happens if you’ve gone through something and you’re holding onto something, it doesn’t serve you a purpose.” 

I relate to that. A painful work experience for me came out of me being pitted against a younger colleague in another city for a job I really wanted and felt I deserved after years of building up to it. I did not get the job. It was a small office, and of course this new person was gonna be around me all day. I was smarting with indignation. Part of me…there was nothing I wanted more than to be snarky or cool with this person because I was feeling aggrieved that they got ‘my’ job. The other part was more mature. I thought, bitter as I feel about what’s happened (and there was a whole history to this), who am I helping by playing to my worst instincts? Management made this decision. I’m just making myself look bad and getting a little petty satisfaction for a while, perhaps…but in the end being mean wasn’t going to serve me any purpose whatsoever. But I did have to swallow hard to do this. Then after being friendly for a while it just became normal. And I did take matters into my own hands and tell the company I needed more money if I was going to stay there. I got a 20 percent raise. So ultimately I came away from the situation feeling that I had channeled my bitter feelings into something more rewarding.

Circling back to a situation Christie outlines in her new workbook, Release – Use the Power of Forgiveness to Get Unstuck and Thrive in your Career. She knows this woman called Quinn. And maybe this rings bells for some of you, but Quinn was an up and coming leader in her 20s, she was promoted to manage a 20-person team. But after that promotion her longtime supervisor, Martha – who’d been with the company ten years – suddenly turned on her. She was verbally abusive, she belittled her in front of the staff. It was awful. After trying HR, with no effect, Quinn thought OK – what do I really want out of this situation? Martha clearly feels threatened by me. But I want her as a mentor, I can learn a lot from her if she’ll only treat me like a human being and be collaborative.

“She said you know what, she said I really want to have a relationship with this individual. I have a lot to learn. Martha will be a great mentor to me even though I’ve come to this supervisory role. So even though she’d gone through a lot with this individual she felt she was at a place where it would be more beneficial to her to repair the relationship and start over, but start over from a lens of ‘let me share what really happened, how it made me feel and what kind of relationship I want with you.’”

Quinn did just that. She approached Martha, told her she wanted to learn from her, she wasn’t trying to take her job. And it worked. The older woman was totally disarmed by her words, and they went on to have a fruitful relationship.

That feels like a very mature approach and it’s one that again it can be hard for us to take when we’re clouded by emotions like anger and hurt and resentment. But it’s worth pausing to think about what you want at the end of the day – not just how aggrieved you feel.  

Finally I asked Christie if she doesn’t at least sometimes take someone to task for something they’ve said or done. She does. Like the time a colleague of hers casually dissed Haitians because he’d had a bad experience with someone. She took him aside, explained to him among other things that Haitians weren’t monolithic; she says she was satisfied with his apology. But she’s careful about who she speaks to.

“I think it’s situational. There have been times I have said something to an individual. There has to be a care factor – I have to care enough about really creating, maintaining, strengthening a relationship with another person to want to be vulnerable and share that, but that’s a choice I decide that I make. It has to be resolved in a way that is mutually beneficial. I have to walk away having voiced my opinion and being heard and the other person walks away hearing a different perspective.”

Christie Lindor is the author most recently of a workbook called Release – Use the Power of Forgiveness to Get Unstuck and Thrive in Your Career.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time, and this is the last episode you’ll heard for a while…I’m putting the show on hiatus for the first time in seven and a half years.

I have a big work project that’s going to dominate much of my time for the next several months. I know I can’t do that and this show well – at the same time – so I’m gonna take a break, and use the time I’m not producing the show to think about where it should go in the future.

In the meantime, there is a large archive for you to delve into. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for your support…and thanks for listening.

Episode 148: So Many Incompetent Leaders

Show transcript:

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

This time…why are so many leaders bad at their jobs, and could their sex have anything to do with that?

“When you ask people, who wants to do something, who wants to be in charge, be successful…the people who raise their hands may or may not have talent. For sure more men than women are gonna raise their hands. So instead of blaming women for not leaning in, how about we stop falling for people, usually men, who lean in when they don’t have the talents to back it up?”

 Most of us give our leaders a failing grade…would that change if more of them were women? Coming up on The Broad Experience.

A few months ago one of my guests was Financial Times writer Pilita Clark. When we spoke in our episode about women and mediocrity, she brought up a book she’d read and I’d heard about. Its title…Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it).

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the author of that book. He’s also chief talent scientist for Manpower Group, a huge staffing firm.

“Mostly my remit is pretty sensible, it’s to ensure we can apply latest science and technology for understanding people – their strengths, talents and skills, to help them find relevant jobs…companies or employers tell you, I need A, B or C, how can you work out whether somebody has that talent and potential? That includes also predicting whether someone can be good manager or a good leader.”

Science and technology – we’ll come back to this later, but Tomas says rather than using these methods to determine who could be a promising leader, we keep falling back on old stereotypes we can detect with our own eyes and ears – people, usually men, who are bursting with confidence and charisma, who have a pretty high opinion of their talents, and often turn out not to be nearly as good as they think they are.

Tomas came to his current role by way of academia and clinical practice. He’s a psychologist by training. And he says growing up where he did in Buenos Aires, that career choice was almost inevitable. His neighborhood, Villa Freud, was bursting with therapists – and their clients.

“The reality is that when I was growing up everyone went to the psychoanalyst, or had a shrink, even our dog at home had a psychoanalyst, who was obviously treating us, not the dog. The dog looked pretty embarrassed while we were describing the problems it had. So it was natural almost by default that I went on and studied psychology.”

He says he got interested in the topic of leadership early on, again, because of where he lived.  

“Growing up in Argentina you could see at any point in time the problems incompetent leadership causes. 150 years ago Argentina was the future, it was one of the richest countries in the world with a GDP higher than Germany’s and France, today it’s the only perpetually declining nation in the world, why? Because we keep electing inept leaders, who tend to be mostly charismatic, over-confident narcissists.”

These outward traits seduce us – or a lot of us anyway. Studies show more men than women are over-confident (and do we really even need a study to tell us that?), and that quality often disguises a lack of competence.

Meanwhile, he says, stereotypical female traits like self-awareness and emotional intelligence and empathy are seen as soft, not seen as leadership traits.

“It’s a bit like when you tell women oh, you’re too kind and caring to be a leader… first that’s patronizing, secondly, we need leaders who are kind and caring.”

Which leads me to my first question.

AM-T: “I remember years ago reading your piece with that same title, ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?’ in the Harvard Business review and I remember you referencing Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, because that had just come out. Can you just talk a little bit about, now that article has become a book, what prompted you to write that piece?” 

“So the original idea for the article was actually my editor’s – I always say behind every incompetent man there is a competent woman. Because Sarah Greene, who was my editor at the time, she was the editor for the book, sent me this link on Sheryl’s new book and the beginning of the movement if you like, and said, what do you think? I said, it doesn’t make much sense to me. In the rich world today there’s no evidence that women don’t want to be managers or leaders. They should have lower levels of motivation given they have fewer options and choices. And yet their willingness or desire to lead is as high as that you find in men.

Secondly, the Lean In argument does seem to be pointing the finger at women and telling them we need to fix you, there’s something wrong with you, you are responsible for your inadequate levels of success…oh, just look at me, I made it just by leaning in. And that’s the last part I wanted to tackle with the article and the main argument underpinning book. So in any area of competence or talent there has never been a correlation between people wanting to do something and people being good at something. That applies to leadership as well, when you ask people who wants to do something, who wants to be in charge, be successful? The people who raise their hands may or may not have talent, the correlation is almost zero. For sure more men than women are gonna raise their hands. So argument I made was, instead of blaming women for not leaning in, how about we stop falling for people, usually men, who lean in when they don’t have the talents to back it up?”

AM-T: “Talk about, well you call it the female advantage, and I always feel we’re getting into slightly murky waters when we begin to talk about male and female traits, but maybe you could tell people, you make the point that on so many measures men and women are actually really similar…”

“Yeah, men and women are similar in most regards. You have to first understand that even when we talk about personality traits that are stereotypically more feminine, things like emotional intelligence, altruism, friendliness, sensitivity, caring, self-awareness, self-criticism, humility and integrity – each of these traits is normally distributed, so much like height…you can imagine if you plot height across gender on average men are taller than women, but we all know women who a taller than a lot of men and vice versa. Same applies to these traits. We all know men who are more humble, caring, empathetic than many women, but I think it’s still accurate to say that these are feminine traits because they are on average displayed more frequently by women than by men.”

Still, he knows not everyone will appreciate that description.

“Feminists don’t like this argument because their view, the traditional feminist view is we are the same and there aren’t any gender differences and in essence androgyny is the reality. It is true culturally we are gravitating towards androgyny - so if you compare chauvinistic countries like Japan and Argentina to egalitarian countries like Iceland and Sweden, you’ll see more androgynous displays of behavior, so fewer gender differences in the latter. But today, still there are these gender differences. What I’m arguing is not to have more women in charge but I’m trying to highlight the benefits of a more feminine leadership style.  Because after decades of selecting too much on hyper masculinity, and putting people in charge because they are kick-ass aggressive, fearless, over-confident, and quite greedy at times, there is more of a need than there ever was to have people who have altruism, integrity, humility, empathy and caring – so that’s the female advantage and that’s why my conclusion is that if it’s your goal to increase the representation of women in leadership, the best gender diversity intervention to achieve that is to focus on talent, not on gender. If you focus on talent you won’t just get more women in leadership roles, you’ll get slightly more women than men in leadership roles.

By the way, today many competent men are overlooked or ignored for leadership roles because they are more feminine than our archetypes like to think leaders should be like.”

He stresses this: he’s not saying that all men are terrible leaders or that all women are amazing leaders. He’s saying that if only more organizations – and electorates – would revise what we thought of as desirable leadership traits we’d have a lot more competent leadership everywhere.

And another thing, he says…the idea of leadership itself is often misunderstood.

“…often it focuses not on whether you’re truly interested in turning a group of people into a high performing team but the question almost is diluted to, would you like to be successful? Because if you want to be successful you almost certainly have to manage people, have responsibilities and be a leader. Too many people equate being a leader with the pinnacle of individual of career success. In fact leadership is a psychological role that enables people to be part of a unit to work together and achieve something they can’t achieve individually.”

Now those of you who are leaders will know that already. But I have to admit that I hadn’t thought about it that carefully before and I sort of fell into that trap of equating leadership with this personal goal of…being a leader means being someone at the top of the pile. Rather than thinking of it as the person who’s meant to inspire people, help everyone else do their jobs better.

And of course a lot of people with a leadership title DON’T do that. 

“They have negative effects on their teams, on their subordinates, their followers, meaning they cause low levels of engagement, job satisfaction, productivity, trust, morale…and high levels of anxiety, burnout, stress. They’re the main reason why people quit not just their jobs but their organizations, and in some instances traditional employment altogether. Most people who enter self-employment have been traumatized by their previous bosses.”

I’m guessing some of you are among them.

The beginning of Tomas’s book focuses on over-confidence and narcissism and how damaging those traits can be in a leader. And how over-confident people so often overshadow more modest people with plenty of skills to do the job.

And I flatter myself that I can spot an over-confident narcissist a mile off. But when I got to the chapter on the myth of charisma…and how we rely on that far too much when we pick someone for a job…that’s when I thought, hmm…I could be part of the problem. Because I am a sucker for charisma. And I wanted to know why – why do I feel drawn to someone whose character sparkles right out of the gate?

Tomas says if you think back a few millennia to when we all lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers. We had to assess our fellow humans on physical traits like strength – could they defeat a predator? Run away quickly? We just looked at them and drew our conclusion.

“Fast forward thousands of years, and we’re living in world where talent is abstract, hard to judge, how do you know if someone can put in place digital transformation or come up with good innovation strategy? It requires a lot of expertise, it requires competence to spot competence and to spot incompetence…but we’re still living under this illusion that we interact with someone for a few minutes, we can tell. It’s why we value charisma so much…you’re not necessarily a bad person when you’re charismatic, but if you’re a bad person charisma will make you a lot more destructive…right, these are extreme examples but Stalin, Mao, Hitler, name your dictator, would have been a lot less harmful had they not been charismatic.”

Of course we don’t all fall for charisma all the time. He says German premier Angela Merkel, re-elected multiple times? No one’s going to want to make a movie about her. Mary Barra, CEO of GM? Her personality has apparently been described as ‘vanilla’. Both leaders have been uncommonly successful at their jobs. They’re competent without the outward show.

But he says we often make snap decisions about people’s potential because, basically…we’re lazy.

“We’re much more efficient if we don’t have to spend a lot of time working out what somebody else is like.”

And as humans we need to maintain high levels of self-esteem – at work and elsewhere. We don’t want to be wrong. So he says even if we are…we’re usually loath to admit it.

“So I make inferences about you and arrive at the rapid conclusion that you’re boring, nasty, stupid, I’ll then attend to any information that supports that initial inference and ignore anything that contradicts this. Why, because I want to feel good about myself. Think about the implications of this at work, say I interview you for a job and I think you’re great, 6 months later even if you suck at that job, I will still want to think that you are great, otherwise I look like an idiot.

So we are intellectually lazy, we want to make decisions on others in split seconds, we don’t want to prove ourselves wrong so we are stubborn and love ourselves too much to admit to mistakes. And then finally there is the ever growing complexity of the world of talent, the world of work, where you need a science and a methodology to work out what people are good at. It’s crazy to think in world awash with data, where you can have live Twitter feeds fact checking anything politicians say online, that doesn’t change people’s votes. It’s whether someone is sweaty or looks good or has a nice suit or makes a joke is more important determining whether we vote for that person or not…in America today the number one predictor of who wins the presidency other than height is, would you like to have a beer with this person? So we love to live in a world where our gut feelings and instincts drive our decisions, and we love to ignore evidence even when there is an overwhelming amount of it.”

When Tomas talks to CEOs and other executives – which he does pretty much every day, and asks them how they tell if someone has good leadership potential…

“More often than not the answer is, you just know, or, you know it when you see it, or I know it when I see it.”

But he says the reality is that’s far from the case for most people.

“So we have to have the humility and self-criticism to distrust our instincts, focus on the right traits and use the right tools, ideally science-based tools, to identify those traits, and it’s frustrating because we’ve known this to be the case for three or four decades.”

But what he calls the unstructured interview where it’s really more of a conversation…it’s still prevalent. And he says this type of interview is a classic way for the interviewer to fall back on old biases and end up choosing someone who’s a lot like him or her.  

But I have to say I don’t like the idea of these psychometric tests…

AM-T: “I’m one of these people, I would worry I would mis-perform on a test, and I’d hope they’d meet me…I’d hope I can impress them with my personality, and it’s interesting that I’m fearful of the method you say is far better at measuring how we are.”

“Yes, historically the interview has mostly been a chat, I mean we met, we established a rapport, but imagine actually that determines whether you get a job or not and imagine there are alternatives that in essence follow the same approach, which is to try to find relevant signal of potential, which is to try to correlate things you do that make you different from others with performance indicators. Because that’s how you decide as a human, whether you trust someone, whether they’re interesting, but we can’t do it at scale, and we can’t do it really rigorously. Especially if you want a world that is more egalitarian and fairer towards minorities, vulnerable populations, especially if you’re saying we should ignore things like whether somebody is female and attractive, old, poor, etcetera…humans are not very good at ignoring information, we can’t unlearn things.”

He says as the digital world evolves…there will be more and better data and technology to help us determine people’s potential for top jobs. We just have to use it.

Before Tomas and I ended our conversation I wanted to get back to female leaders. I was thinking of one in particular and wondering what Tomas, her fellow countryman, thought of her leadership style. I wasn’t sure she displayed many of those female traits he described earlier. So how does he rate former Argentine president Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner…

“She is exceptional in many ways – ironically there have been more female heads of state in South America, more than in more egalitarian places, but these women have tended to out-male males in masculinity. So she definitely displays a lot of antagonistic and anti-social tendencies, she is very abrasive, over confident and quite brash and reckless. Although I don’t have her personality assessment, it is fair to guess, to infer that there are some narcissistic tendencies there.”

None of which he says is that surprising given her rise in a macho culture…

“So often you can be a biological female but you’re part of the same system and you rise to the top with the same rules of the game. Now Theresa May is gone, but for…” 

AM-T: “I was just gonna get to her. A lot of people would say she’s not charismatic, and I was one of the people who thought at the time phew, someone who’s boring and sensible, but she’s turned out to not be a very good leader.”

“Correct, so a lot of people – which I think you could have predicted, right, given where she came from, and the fact nobody wanted that job, but when the book came out a lot of men wrote to me saying, there are also incompetent women, look at Theresa May… well first, incompetent women don’t rise to the top as frequently as incompetent men. And secondly, even though she is probably incompetent or was incompetent, the impossible problem she was asked to solve was caused by incompetent men, or men who behaved, or had incompetent lapses at least for some time.”

He’s talking about former British prime minster David Cameron, who ushered in a national referendum on EU membership fully expecting voters to want to stay IN the EU, not leave it, as the majority voted to do.  

“Things for sure from an individual career standpoint had been good for him and the country to the extent even people who disliked the Conservatives couldn’t complain too much about him. Suddenly one really bad over-confident decision led to the problem we are still trying to solve today. And sometimes people take issue with this, they don’t like it because they assume I am taking a remainer’s point of view, and people still voted for Brexit and that is true, people voted for Brexit, but from his own view point or vantage point, it was a big mistake.”

As I release this episode Theresa May is on her way out…and her likely successor is an over-confident, charismatic…you know the rest…

“…and I am a British citizen so I can speak to this as well, I think the prospects of her successors are going to be not just worse but fully aligned with the characters I describe in my book. So it’s the return of the incompetent men on steroids I think.”

I think the prospects of Britain’s new prime minister opening Tomas’s book are slim, but I do recommend it for anyone who wants a thoughtful take on what constitutes good leadership and what will lead to more of it. 

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic for being my guest on this show.

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

Episode 147: Forced Out (re-boot)

Show transcript:

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

This time we’re re-visiting a show I first put out about 4 years ago now. But the topic feels as relevant as ever – what it feels like to leave a job in less than ideal circumstances, and how to recover from that.

You might be fired, you might be pressured to leave, you might choose to leave because of a personality clash…

“I don’t understand the psychology of it, what was happening between her and me. But there was undermining and erosion of my spirit. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

And losing a job can leave you reeling.   

“Whereas I think the first time I was fired I’d had this series of transgressions, this time I absolutely didn’t see it coming at all. And there was a physical reaction to it. I felt completely sick.”

Coming up – two women, two stories, and some advice on how to get your mojo back after a bad breakup with work.  

I’m actually planning on upcoming show in 2019 about forgiveness at work, and this seems like a good precursor to that. Because for many of us work is not just business – it’s personal. If we feel slighted or insulted or ignored…it can be really hard to get over that. As Marion Kane can attest.

Marion is a food writer who lives in Toronto. Actually she calls herself a food sleuth. For years she wrote for Canada’s daily newspapers. She spent 18 of those at one of the big Toronto dailies. First she was the food editor. And she had quite a career during that time. She became friends with the legendary food writer Julia Child, she says she was the first person in Canada to interview a young Jamie Oliver back in the ‘90s…she interviewed a member of the mob – he’d brought out a Mafia cookbook.

She and I spoke on Skype.

AM-T: So you had a really exciting time, it sounds like.

“Yes, I loved it! And the ‘90s were the heyday of newspapers. There was money around to send me to conferences, to have breakfast with Julia Child, to go to the Napa Valley to be wined and dined by chefs in a vineyard on Thanksgiving - it was amazing. But meanwhile I don’t want to ignore the fact newsrooms are grinders. They are very hectic places, you have deadlines, and I was producing the whole food section every week.”

It was a lot of work for one person. Ultimately she ended up getting run down, getting sick and taking some time off. When she came back she said she didn’t want to be the food editor any more – the pace was too relentless. The paper asked what she did want to do and she said, I’d love to write a column. They said yes. So Marion was able to leave that hectic pace behind. She had less responsibility overall. She should have been happy. But she had this editor…

“And this person was already gunning for me, I could tell. I didn’t know why and I don’t know why to this day. I’m guessing she felt threatened that I had a fiefdom of my own. The food section was very successful, it was very popular. So I don’t understand the psychology of it, what was happening between her and me. But there was undermining and erosion of my spirit, that’s the only way I can describe it.” 

She says to take one example, the editor would consult much younger members of the newsroom about Marion’s beat – right in front of Marion.

“She would call me in and with a copy editor person who was handling the copy – and say, what do you think we should do with the food section, turning her back to me. I was one of the many people in that newsroom who spent a fair amount of time weeping in the toilet. You know newsrooms are brutal places, there’s a lot of addiction, a lot of alcoholism in newsrooms. I’m not going to badmouth them because they’re one of the most exciting places. I mean you’re in the thick of it. And I love that.”

But she hated feeling this editor didn’t support her or her work. Now maybe some of you are thinking she was being overly sensitive. And that’s always possible. But if you’ve been in a similar situation you know how hard it is to put your finger on some of this inter-personal stuff that goes on at work. It’s a lot of tiny things that add up over time. 

One day Marion found her food column had been moved from a prominent spot – buried, she says, right next to the religion page.

AM-T: Now I’m just curious, did you ever consider confronting her and saying look, why are you doing these things?

“That’s a good point. I don’t know if I ever did. You didn’t do that in the newspaper business. I tried leaving – oh, I know what I did. I used to leave her phone messages before work. And I used to write columns, I guess this was passive/aggressive of me. But I’d learned the hard way it wouldn’t work to confront her. So I wrote a couple of columns about how miserable I was. And she called me in and said you know, that’s enough with those columns about how miserable you are. I did go to the union, I consulted doctors because my anxiety level was very high. And I couldn’t sleep and I was taking sleeping pills. And I’ve written about how that story ended.”

AM-T: Right. And before we get onto that just tell me what ultimately…how did you make your exit?

“In 2007, the spring, I got an email from the powers that be or actually the person they’d hired at the newspaper to downsize. And I’d heard people were getting emails to offer buyouts and I thought oh God, that’s terrible for them. And then I got one. I got an email saying we’re happy to offer you this and that, and it was a lot of money actually. And I was so outraged by this because I felt I was a marquee writer and I think I was, I had a following, I’d never missed a deadline, and I answered in a huff: ‘thank you for thinking of me but I don’t want to accept the offer.’”

AM-T: Hmm, wounded pride.

“Yeah, in a huff, you know? It was illogical and wrong and I didn’t seek advice; I should have legal advice actually. Other colleagues of mine did.”

She says the paper was sending out these notices to everyone around her age – she had turned 60 recently. But at the time she was so offended she reacted emotionally rather than rationally. She had second thoughts later. She wrote back to the paper saying she’d had a re-think and she’d like to take the buyout. They said no. So Marion decided to resign. She felt it was time. And her tenure ended on a high note. The paper gave her a good sendoff and she wrote a farewell column. 

“I don’t have many regrets. My bank account would be far larger. That’s the advice I would give to people: Don’t stay in a toxic situation, however. Don’t let a boss bully you. Stand up for yourself. And I think if it’s impossible to stand up…oh, here’s a good irony…my boss was demoted shortly after I resigned.”

AM-T: That must have felt very satisfying.

“I have to say it did. I’d like to think it was because she had mistreated me, which was known in the newsroom, but I don’t know if that’s the case.”

It’s been about 8 years now, but all the feelings she had about that editor – they haven’t entirely left her.

“I still see her on occasion on the street. And I’ve had a fantasy of confronting her now about this. And I was in a grocery store recently and she was there and I said to another friend that I came across in that store, ‘I have to the urge to tell her what I think of her and what she did to me.’ And my friend said no, those things never work out the way you think.” 

AM-T: Very wise advice.


Marion says whatever went wrong with that personal relationship, it was time to leave the paper.  

AM-T: Because that was 2007, I was going to ask has it worked out and have you been happy in what you’ve been doing since then?

“Well I had a period of dealing with a cross addiction to sleeping pills, Lorazopam, and alcohol, that was partly brought on by stress, but I’d say it was a childhood thing that may have happened anyway. But I hit bottom in 2008 and have been in recovery for 6 and a half years. And you know the gift of an addiction and having to face your demons is that you can re-build your life in a healthier, healing way.”

Marion wrote to me after the interview and said if there’s one thing she wants to get across it’s that if you’re in a toxic situation it is better to leave before you get burned out and make some bad decisions. Now of course she was lucky that she could quit without anything to go to. She was close to retirement age anyway, and she had a nest egg. Most people will need to search for another job while they’re grinning and bearing it at work.

You can hear Marion on her podcast, it’s called Sittin’ in the Kitchen. You can find it on all the usual podcast apps. A show she did at the end of 2018 about a Toronto drop-in shelter for homeless women is a finalist for the Association of Food Journalist awards.

Next, a guest some of you will know from past shows. I interviewed her several times during the early years of the podcast. Today, Heather McGregor is executive dean of Edinburgh Business School in Scotland.  When I met her for this interview she was still running a headhunting firm in London – Taylor Bennett. She’s still non-executive chairman of the firm. For many years she also write for the Financial Times under the pen name Mrs. Moneypenny.

Heather is no stranger to job loss.  

“I was fired from my first ever job actually, my first proper job, which I was placed into by the company I now own. It was slightly unfortunate. I seemed to enter into a whole series of disastrous decisions at that company, and the final straw in their view was when I made an error of judgment in wearing an inappropriate dress to a client dinner.”

Her bosses at the ad agency deemed the dress too revealing. She says she’s learned a lot since that time – it was the mid-‘80s. Still, it was a dinner, not the office. And what really got to her was her boss’s comment that someone like Heather should not reveal too much skin because he said, ‘we have secretaries for that.’

“I was more furious about the comment that we have secretaries for that kind of thing. I thought to tell me that we employed secretaries I the office for the purposes of looking decorative was very insulting to the women that worked there.”

Heather and I had emailed a bit about all this before we met and I thought she’d been fired twice in all.

AM-T: “And what about the next time, or the final time you got laid off?”

“No, there was one in between. So when I went part-time to do my MBA I also took some contracts on.”

Just to jump in here – in her late 20s Heather decided she really wanted to do an MBA. She was working for a biotech company and her boss at the time wouldn’t pay for it, but he did let her go part-time so she could manage the MBA work a bit better. But as as soon as the MBA work scaled down at certain times of year she sought extra work.

“And I took on a 6-month part-time contract….which interestingly my current company also found for me. And I did it for 6 months and literally the night before the final day I was working late and the boss called me in and she said I’m sorry to tell you we’re not renewing your contract. We think you’re too big a personality to work here.”

AM-T: What does that mean?

“I think it means that I can be very divisive. I think that’s probably true of me even at 53.  Some people enjoy working with me and other people find that I’m too outspoken. And I was much younger, I was 29 at the time. But I was absolutely devastated. I had not seen it coming. Whereas I think in my, the first time I’d had this series of transgressions, which culminated in the dress but there had been other transgressions…so you could see the pattern emerging, the dress was just the final straw really. But this time I absolutely didn’t see it coming at all. First of all there was a physical reaction to it – I felt completely sick. And I didn’t even want to go out of the front door of the building. I went back to my desk and I cried. And then I phoned my husband and asked him to meet me at the goods lift. And I took my things out via the goods lift because I didn’t want to go out by the main reception, I was so upset.”

She couldn’t bear to bump into anyone she’d been working with. She was much more of a mess than she’d been that first time.

“I was upset for lots of reasons. I’d got the job through a referral from people I liked, trusted and wanted to be proud of me. So to get sacked from it was really hard. I put everything into it. I was actually to help this company start a new business stream, so I’d been the architect of new business stream, I’d brought in lots of revenue. On an economic basis there was no justification. It was a personality thing. And I thought if I’d failed for a technical reason or a financial reason I could understand. But just to be told just my face didn’t fit was really hard.”

AM-T: How did you recover from that?

“I have to say that was very tough. As I anticipated the recruiter who had put me in gave me the most enormous bollocking as well. Which I was expecting. They were very disappointed in me. They had put me into a short-term contract hoping there would be a renewal. They couldn’t believe I’d managed to get myself fired, again in their eyes through being too outspoken, having too big a personality. It was a big learning lesson for me about the importance of managing how you come across. I’ve talked before about all the visual signals but it also includes how you come across in what you say – if you’ve got a point to make it’s important to make it, but think about how you make it.”

Losing that job that way really dented her confidence. And she probably she hardly strikes you as lacking in that department, but she says she has plenty of self-doubt at times. She believes lack of confidence is one of the biggest things that holds women back. And when you leave in challenging circumstances, it’s often hard to market yourself effectively because you feel so low…

“I spoke to a friend recently who came to me for careers advice. She is leaving her job under very difficult circumstances, but she hasn’t been fired. She has 2 children and one of them very sadly died of meningitis last year. And this was a wonderful teenage boy, incredibly gifted. And she feels she needs a slightly different life, she needs to move house, she needs to move job, she needs start life again in a different form. She doesn’t feel at the moment she’s on 100 percent form. So my suggestion to her was do something with a friend, something that isn’t necessarily at the top of your intellectual capabilities, doing something where you can contribute where you know that what you are doing is appreciated.”

Something she says that will build your confidence again. And that goes for everyone, not just people who have gone through a tragedy.

AM-T: “Yeah, because I think that’s the worst thing, is that you may have felt extremely confident previously and then this happens and it just puts you on the ground. Everything you thought you knew about yourself you start to question even though there is a sensible voice in your head telling you look, you’ve had this career. Just that rejection is so – I mean we were talking about this on email, it can feel like being dumped. It can feel like a relationship ending.”

 “Yes, so for lots of people their work is much more to them than they sometimes realize.  So your work is your affirmation, your work is your social life in many cases, a lot of your friends will be at work, it’s a means to pay the bills so it’s keeping the show on the road. So your job is so many things to you and to be told that you are not wanted any more, it’s hard enough in a relationship but in a job it can be devastating.”

AM-T: And it’s funny I mean when I left a job…hmm, it was my doing but it was because I didn’t feel – it was a contract job that had gone on for years and I didn’t really feel appreciated enough and I remember – I’ll never forget this, being told I wasn’t ‘distinctive enough’. That was my stab to the heart. And it honestly, it felt like a loss. In the same year my dad died, and all these things happened in the same year.  But it felt like another loss along with the other actual losses of people that were happening.”

“And all of the grief cycle that you go through in a loss is the same grief cycle you go through with the loss of a job – the shock, the denial, and then the recovery. But just as there are things you can do when you are bereaved or you have a relationship breakup so there are things you can do when you have a breakup with an employer. As I said I would definitely find the thing you know you are good at and where you can make a contribution and where someone is going to say thank you. The important thing is to start to believe in yourself again.”

Sometimes that breakup can get legally messy. How you handle a perceived unfair dismissal will depend on where you live in the world and what the law is. Heather says if you feel you’re being edged out, suddenly getting bad reviews after a perfect record, have a conversation with your boss about what’s going on…

“…because sometimes it’s best to walk away with your head held high and say if you want me to go, I’ll go. And just as when people in divorces are so bitter that they drag the whole thing through the courts, it costs everyone a lot of money, it costs a lot of time and energy and you have to say sometimes what is the point? So I would say with people being dismissed from jobs. Yes, people shouldn’t get away with dismissing you unfairly, of course they shouldn’t. So there’s a place for tribunals. But if you think you’ve only got half a chance of wining and frankly your time, effort and energy would be better spent doing something else, I would encourage you to do that.”

AM-T: Mmm, right…

“And I think the important thing about anger and bitterness, these are emotions, and emotions take energy. I would always encourage people to channel that energy into someone else. I prefer not to get mad but to get even. And every time I’ve been dumped by a man I’ve made sure I’ve upgraded the next time I’ve gone out with one, and every time I’ve been sacked I’ve made sure I’ve gone out and got a better job next.”

Something to aspire to – no matter who dumped you or who you’re working for.

Heather McGregor is the author of Mrs. Moneypenny’s Financial Advice for Independent Women and Mrs. Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Women.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.  

I’ll post some show notes about my guests under this episode at The Broad Experience.com.

As usual I’d love to hear from you – you can reach me at ashley at thebroadexperience.com or on Twitter or Facebook. If you are able to support this show with a 50 dollar donation I will send you the official Broad Experience T-shirt – ladies cut – you can see a picture of that on the website at the ‘support’ tab.

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

Episode 146: Ageism, or Prejudice Against Our Future Selves

Show transcript:

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

This time…the second of two shows about aging in the workplace. Perceptions of women as workers often change as they get older…

“They're not seen as attractive as they were before. And I mean that both physically as well as in terms of the skills that they have, or they're seen as behind the times…”

“So if we have a wrinkle that’s a defeat, if we have grey hair that’s a defeat. Increasingly I think women in the workplace feel they need to hide these signs of aging just to maintain a sense that they are still relevant.”

But having lived a little can pay off, career-wise…

“In many ways all the life experience I had beforehand helps to inform my practice now and makes my job more enjoyable, and makes it easier to understand my clients.”

Three perspectives on aging and work, plus ideas for combating ageism…coming up on The Broad Experience.

I don’t want this show to be depressing but at the same time I do – as usual – want it to be real. And the reality is there seems to be more bias against older women in the workplace than there does against older men – now I know that men face age discrimination too. But what little research exists points to the fact that a combination of factors hits older women who either want a new job, or want to keep an old one.

 “So there is this paradox that goes on when women are younger.”

That’s Terri Boyer. She directs the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women's Leadership at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Terri has appeared on the show before – a very early episode – and I knew if anyone was following the research on women and aging at work, it would be her.

“Workplaces are obsessed with their potential to be mothers or the fact that if they're going to be mothers they're not going to be as dedicated to their career despite the fact that many women don't actually become mothers at all. But then what you see happening about the mid-thirties and later in women's lives is the opposite starts to happen.”

Suddenly, just as many women begin to feel a little freer of home responsibilities than they did …work begins to lose confidence in them for a different reason…  

“…because they're not seen as attractive as they were before. And I mean that both physically as well as in terms of the skills that they have, or they're seen as behind the times or not as committed to their work. So despite the fact that in the beginning we may have discriminated against women because of their potential to be mothers and be distracted and not as committed, now as they age, we're discriminating against them because they're perceived as maybe not as qualified or less likely to be flexible, et cetera.

And the research plays this out for sure. We see that women are experiencing an intersection of ageism and gender discrimination that men don't seem to experience in the same ways, and particularly around their physical appearance and their health and their perceptions of skill, particularly when it comes to technical skills, and their ability to learn and contribute.”

AM-T: “That’s so interesting, so are you saying that men, I mean I know age discrimination can happen to anyone, and lots of men have experienced it, are you saying women are more likely to be thought less likely to be technically savvy at say, 50, than a guy at the same age?”

“Yes. Women are definitely seen as less tech savvy and less likely to be able to learn the skill. So this is a really interesting piece. Women are in general perceived as less technically skilled as men or more fearful of technology or technophobe if you will. But as they age. That's definitely something that employers may hold against them where they say, mmm, she might not be able to be as responsive or up on the latest technologies that we definitely need in our workplace. And so you see that coming back to women and being used as an excuse for their lack of employment or not hiring them or demoting them.” 

The Institute Terri heads actually has a program called ‘transitions’ where they work with women to help them navigate some of what hits them later in their careers – whether that’s demotions, downsizing, not being able to get back into the workforce after a break. Terri says a company will often assume…

“Oh, she’s 45, 50, she’s gonna want a much higher salary level than the entry level I’m able to offer her, or maybe looking for a kind of compensation package we can’t give and so I’m not gonna hire her here because she’s not looking for the same things I am, I want someone fresh out who’s moldable, who’s still young and looking to build their career.”

Age discrimination is illegal in many countries but it happens all the time. A Broad Experience listener in Canada responded to a callout I did on Facebook, and she described a conversation just like the one Terri just talked about. She’s in tech, got a call from a recruiter at a global company – but for technical reasons…the woman hadn’t been able to view the candidate’s CV ahead of time. When the recruiter found out my listener had 25 years of experience…her tone changed right away. She told her she was over-qualified and out of their salary range – without even asking her what her salary expectations were. She mentioned wanting someone ‘young’ and trainable…then when she finally viewed her CV she realized what a good match she was…but my listener said she was so upset by the call she decided not to continue with the hiring process. She says she’s been working since she left high school, and she’s guessing the recruiter thought she was quite a bit older than she is. But the woman’s attitude left its mark. The candidate knew that at least at first, she’d been a victim of age bias.

I asked Terri Boyer…

AM-T: “Has it always been this way, I know your knowledge goes back a long way especially as concerns women in the workplace in the US…I’m just wondering, obviously there were many fewer women in the workforce in the 1960s, you were more of an outlier if you’d had a career beginning in the 1940s or 50s and carried into the 60s or 70s or 80s, but do you think this attitude to aging women has always been the same or do you think it’s more intense now than it was decades ago?”

“I think it's likely more intense now than it was decades ago. And that's because women's, the share of older women in the paid labor force is actually growing. So by 2024 you're looking at women over the age of 55 representing about a quarter of women in the labor force. So women, older women in particular, are growing in numbers in the workforce. And so you're seeing a change, that increase has only been in the past decade and a half. And so you're seeing a change in the perception of employers and workplaces on how women are in these workplaces and what their skills look like, et cetera. So I guess by their virtue of their greater numbers in the workforce you're seeing more reaction coming from employers and co-workers.”

I told Terri about the conversations I’d had for the last show, the menopause show, and about how surprised I was that the UK was all over this idea of de-stigmatizing menopause at work. They seem way ahead of the US.

“I think in the States we see menopause and women’s transition from fertile to infertile as something that is a negative. You know we're so focused on the youth culture here, particularly for women, right, that menopause is seen as one of those weakness aspects that would highlight your gender and because of that, because we still don't tie women to the identity of leader, that highlighting something that's about their gender identity would breathe fresh in people's minds that they aren't ready to be leaders or they aren't fitting our ideal of a leader.

I think that you know, our focus on youth contrasts directly with the idea that you may be aging and that there's physical proof of it. We want to hide that. We don't want any physical proof of our aging in the workforce.”

Still, Rachel Lankester of British-based online community Magnificent Midlife, says it’s not like British women don’t face prejudice.

“There’s a lot of shame associated with both menopause and with aging. If you look at the difference between men and women, men are silver foxes as they age, men don’t fight aging as women are encouraged to do –  yet everything about aging for women is seen as negative, and that applies in life in general but also in the workplace, so if we have a wrinkle that’s a defeat, if we have grey hair that’s a defeat. Increasingly I think women in workplace feel they need to hide these signs of aging just to maintain a sense that they are still relevant.”

When I first met Rachel in London a few years ago she was running just one aspect of her business – a website called The Mutton Club. In case some of you aren’t familiar with the expression ‘mutton dressed as lamb’…  

“Certainly in the UK women are very, very scared of becoming mutton as they get older and that goes back to being mutton dressed as lamb…so trying to be younger than you actually are, and I wanted to turn that on its head and make women feel quite pleased actually to be mutton…so the whole idea of Mutton Club was you had to be mutton to get into it, you couldn’t be in it if you were younger.”

Rachel started the Mutton Club in part because of her own experience going through menopause at the early age of 41. She found herself completely unprepared for how that experience would make her feel – but ultimately, it led her to view her life in a completely different, more positive way, and we’ll get into more of that later.

She is a great admirer of writer and anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite – maybe some of you know her work. You can check it out at thischairrocks.com. Rachel says we nearly all have negative feelings about ageing, as women. How can we help but imbibe what’s all around us?  

“We buy into those narratives, we’ve been fed those narratives for so long. We’re fed anti-aging products in our 20s…and young girls now are having that so it’s about changing it not just for the women suffering ageism in workplace now but the women coming up. Because if they’re looking at older women in the workplace and perhaps not even seeing them, because if we dye our hair we’re contributing to making ourselves invisible…it’s not obvious to see us because we’re trying to look younger, than those younger women aren’t seeing older women flourishing in the workplace and they buy into that ageist narrative, but as Ashton says, ageism is prejudice against our future selves.”

AM-T: “I know, that’s such a great way to put it.”

“It’s fantastic, because we’re all going to age.”

AM-T: “…the tricky thing is, it’s so hard when you’re younger to see yourself as older, because you’re in your life now…and you can think maybe 5 years into the future but to think 20 years into the future is really tough, isn’t it?” 

“Well I did it even at 41, when I went through early menopause the biggest problem for me was feeling catapulted into middle age. Because I associated menopause with being a much older woman, I had no idea it could impact me at 41, and then over time I realized that yes, I was being prejudiced, because at 41 yes of course I was middle aged. I was in the middle of my life.”

“I like the word mid-life, middle aged does sound a little old to me but now I have a completely different approach, I am really proud to be a midlife woman.”

 AM-T: “Why?”

“Because it’s brought so much to me actually, and this is part of the narrative I want to get across. For example, we feel we are losing our value in the workplace and the world, we may feel in competition with younger women, we feel we’re struggling to keep up with certain things. But all of that is actually within our control; most of it is in our head, because ageism starts between our ears. If we can re-frame our own narrative about ageing that’s in our heads, and acknowledge things like, for example, we have a second creative peak in our 50s, who knew that? We have - lot of women talk about a surge in energy post-menopause. And women don’t know about that. When we’ve gone through menopause we have a different hormonal profile and that means we’re actually hormonally on more of a level playing field with men, and therefore why can’t we just go out, start believing in ourselves and start upping the impact we can have – it’s just that so many of us, and society tells us to do this, thinks of it as negative and I don’t believe it is. So I’m really pleased because midlife has brought amazing things to me and amazing knowledge, and opportunities, capabilities, new people I’m meeting, so that’s good.”

She’s not the only one. Stay tuned.

A couple of months ago a reader responded to a comment I’d made about ageism in one of my newsletters. She’s from New Zealand and her name is Kate Wiseman. She wrote:

As an older newcomer to the law, I find my age works in my favour. People seem to assume I’ve been doing this for a long time and give me credit far beyond that which I deserve!”

Which I suppose you could say is a sort of ageism in reverse…but I asked Kate to record a voice memo telling me a bit more about her later-in-life career. She was at her holiday home by the beach when she did this so you may hear a bit of extraneous beach noise.

Kate got married pretty young, had a son, and rather than going back to her old area of sales and marketing thought she’d really like to do a law degree. So when her little boy was one, she started studying law.

“But his dad didn’t like me being out of the house and not earning money so I only did one year o my law degree then and then I went back to work.”

That was more than 25 years ago. Kate had another son, got divorced, worked some more, married again, helped her husband run a business, had twin daughters who are now 16. And when they went off to kindergarten…she decided she wanted to take up her law degree again.

“So I started that long process, took me about 8 years in the end to finish…but it was good time, because I studied, slowly at first and then I increased the number of papers I did as the children got older.” 

She worked part time in law as she went along. And a few years ago she qualified as a barrister.

“It’s taken hard work to get here but I’ve also been extraordinarily lucky in ending up in a good place, and in a good role, which I love. I have great clients and interesting work, and one of the things and the reason I’m doing this interview in the first place, is one of the things I find is people assume I’ve been doing this job for a long time because  I’ve got wrinkles, I’m in my fifties, early fifties, and I understand a huge range of the issues facing my clients because I do a lot of work in the family law area…and often with people with companies. I’ve had my own business, I know what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. I know what it’s like to be an employee…to be the manager of a group of people. I’ve had 4 children of my own and a stepdaughter. I’ve been through two divorces and I’m married for the third time, which some people say  is a triumph of hope over experience but so far, so very good…and I find that most of the time people just assume that I’ve been working in the field for a long time. No one ever questions my experience.”

In fact, she says, quite the opposite – sometimes her own confidence has lagged that of her client. She was in court for the first time as a newly minted lawyer a few years ago, quaking with nerves…

“…and the judge had asked some tricky questions right at the start of the hearing, and my heart had sunk, but I happily was able to get up and answer the question and my client said to me afterwards that he’d listened to the judge and thought, oh no, what are we gonna do next? And then he said, and then my lawyer got up and saved the day! And that was such a wonderful thing to hear, especially after my very first hearing. But he didn’t know it was my very first hearing, and he still doesn’t know to this day, as far as I’m aware.”

She loves the work she does now.

“A lot of the time I’m older than my clients and I suppose again they assume I know what I’m doing, and more and more I feel as if perhaps I do know quite a bit of it, certainly not all of it…”

But she loves that about the law – that there’s always more to learn.

“I’ve been lucky. Coming late has just been a good thing. It’s not a handicap at all, and in many ways all the life experience I had beforehand helps to inform my practice now and makes my job my enjoyable and makes it easier to understand my clients.” 

Kate Wiseman in New Zealand.

So one thing we haven’t touched on so far is of course that ageism affects women’s ability to earn a living. Research shows that women are far less prepared for retirement than men are, they don’t have nearly as much saved. And plenty of women in their older years are single. Here’s Rachel Lankester again…

“The pay gap kicks in early, it gets worse as we age. We are penalized for caregiving whether that’s children or older parents. Everything comes at midlife, we are caring up and down. But in Australia apparently the biggest group experiencing homelessness is older, single women – and that is just scary. We need to do something about it to enable women to keep earning in later life. We can’t stop otherwise we will absolutely be in poverty in older age.”

We keep reading about how much longer we’re all going to live and how in some countries we’ll need to work into our 70s or older…but how can we work if companies won’t hire us or won’t keep us on?

I asked Terri Boyer for some suggestions.

AM-T: “I mean is there anything we can do about this, it’s so depressing to think about this especially if you are in your forties and suddenly thinking about this next push into your fifties…is there anything people can do to combat age discrimination other than getting Botox and stuff like that?”

“Well, right, if we keep getting Botox then we're not going to combat the age discrimination because we're going to keep conforming to people's standards of perceived youth as beautiful and the highest level of contribution that we can make.

I think there are definitely a few things that women can do in particular to build employers’ perceptions of their worth in the workplace. And the first is to know your worth, to be able to confidently articulate the sorts of things that you can contribute to your workplace. And that's going to require a little bit of self-reflection and understanding of what you can contribute in the workplace. A lot of times women in particular, they may be able to articulate very well the mission and value of their organization or their department, etc. but they don't tend to think of their own leadership value, or their own skills that they contribute. And so being really sharp and building into your own professional development, regularly self-reflecting on what your worth is and being able to articulate that in a manner that comes off very quickly and confidently is something that can be very helpful.

The second is to make sure that you're making connections across generations. One of the things that that Transitions program that I mentioned earlier that we're doing out of our institute does, is helps women build connections across the generations. So we have young students, young professionals, as well as women who are mid to late career or even retired, talking with each other and showing that you're able to communicate across generations and understanding the perspectives of others in the workplace. So making sure that you're not attracting yourself only to people who are like you, that you are building those connections across different generations would be really helpful to you.”

She says those connections should include mentors and sponsors who are willing to champion you and your work.

Rachel Lankester agrees…

“…it’s really important to get people mixing both in life and the workplace and it would be really nice to have more mentoring relationships, I think. And the mentoring can work both ways, I have a mentor who is much younger than me who helps me on stuff and similarly I’m mentored by people older than me, so it can work all ways. And I think having that conversation where younger women in particular are aware of older women thriving, it helps them relax about getting older and it also enables all those discussions to come about.”

 AM-T: “Yeah, that’s something I think about a lot because I’m sure there have been times in my life at work where I have thought uncharitable thoughts about an older woman. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head but I can totally imagine me doing it.”

 “I can too, and I think I did it, and then you get to the age you were being disparaging about or at least thinking negatively about, and it’s a completely different picture.”  

 Empathy is everything.

 That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Terri Boyer, Rachel Lankester, and Kate Wiseman for being my guests on this show.

And I’ll just acknowledge here that I know age bias works the other way too – I’ve heard from several of you talking about being passed over for jobs because you’ve been told you’re too young, and people wouldn’t take you seriously in the role. And I don’t want to minimize that experience – but I believe the ageism at the other end of the spectrum is more damaging because it hits women in their prime earning years just as they’re trying to save for retirement.

I will post show notes under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com and as usual I would love to hear from you – you can always email me at ashley at thebroadexperience.com or track me down on social media.

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

Episode 145: Working through Menopause

Show transcript:

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

This time…the first of a couple of shows on getting older in the workplace.

“You know it's crazy that the majority of women are going to go through menopause and yet it can seem like a really lonely place. It's not a topic that's discussed enough even amongst friends.”

At work, traditionally, menopause has been something to be borne – but not talked about. But maybe that’s part of the problem…

“We play at being superhuman all the time. And I think if more of us can have these honest conversations then there's less chance of us being discriminated against.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

So I honestly don’t think I’d ever heard the word peri-menopause until the end of last year. That’s when I came across an article in the New York Times called Puberty for the Middle Aged. In it the author talked about all the weird things that happen to your body on your way to having your last period, which for most women will happen in their early 50s. So perimenopause is sort of the lead up to menopause, if you will.

And I have to admit – and I am betting I am not alone here – that I always kind of thought menopause wouldn’t happen to me. It just seemed so far off…and I had no idea my body would start to prepare itself while I was still in my forties. I had no idea because it seems like no one talks about this. Periods have had a bit of a re-brand in the past couple of years – think all those new menstrual products you’ve heard about, some of them on this show. A new generation of female entrepreneurs has punctured some of the taboo around menstruation. But menopause? Not really. So far I’m not seeing any feminist marketing around menopause. It’s still largely spoken about in whispers – at least in the youth-obsessed US.

But in the UK, things are different.

“My name is Julie Dennis and I am a menopause coach and trainer. And I work with organizations across the UK to help improve the experience of women working through menopause.”

Because of course lots of women going through menopause are working.

And while some of us won’t feel many changes at all as our hormones fluctuate, others will feel a lot. Ever since women have worked outside the home we have carried on, even when we’ve felt exhausted or suddenly become drenched with sweat…but Julie says with an aging workforce in the UK and many women in their 40s and 50s working…it’s time employers learned how to support their female staff through this transition. By doing so she says they’re likely to keep more women in the workplace.

Initially her workshops were more about the women themselves than anyone else – they’d share stories and tips. It was warm and fuzzy but it didn’t really lead anywhere. Now, that’s changing.

“What we're now seeing in the UK is that organisations are looking at menopause policy and guidelines, they’re training line managers so that they're in a position to be able to support staff members working through menopause.”

We’ll talk more about what that looks like in a minute. I wanted to know what the women in Julie’s workshops want to talk about once she gets there. First, she says they want to know how long their various symptoms are going to last.

“And actually I think it's also important that we should point out that one in four, one in five women actually don't notice any symptoms at all, three out of four do. One out of four have experienced symptoms to such a degree they've actually considered leaving the workforce because of the impact that it's had on their career. But typically what women want to know is how long is this going to last, and what they really want to be able to do is to talk. You know it's crazy that the majority of women are going to go through menopause and yet it can seem like a really lonely place. It's not a topic that's discussed enough even amongst friends. So if you can get a roomful of women together at work and get a couple of them just to share their personal stories, there's this kind of massive sigh of relief from everybody in the room, going, Oh my God, it's not just me.”

Typically she says, women who are really feeling those hormonal changes play out…they’re hanging on to their jobs. But they feel like they’re suffering and there’s no support from their workplace – even if they do decide to talk to a manager about what’s going on.

“So for example, there was one lady in a workshop once and…Did you ever commute in London, Ashley?”

AM-T: “Yes.”

“Yes. So you know what the tubes are like, right. So by the time she got to work every morning she was absolutely drenched because of her, her hot flushes were that bad. So she'd get to work, she worked in a wealthy organization so she was able to have a shower when she arrived on the premises but then she'd be late to her desk. So her boss wanted her to get an earlier train to cope with that. Other ladies – I know, right?

Really heavy periods are another symptom that we don't hear talked about quite so much and I've spoken to a couple of ladies who've actually ruined office chairs as a result of having a really heavy period, and just the mortification and embarrassment of having to deal with that. And it's not just the male bosses who don't understand, it is the younger women too, just because they haven't experienced it yet. So I think sometimes we also get a lot of you know, the guys don't understand what's going on, the male line managers, but it's the female line managers who have just as little information about it too.”

AMT: “That bleeding through… it’s something everyone dreads.”

“Just absolutely awful, so one company I've worked with recently, whenever they replace chairs now, or they recover chairs they're recovering them in black. So if anybody ever does have an accident it's not going to be so obvious.”

“We talk about reasonable adjustments both with the women themselves and with the line managers, and all they are, are changes that can be put in place to improve the experience of the employee, and they can be something simple like USB desk fan so you can control your own temperature, environment temperature, without impacting everybody else. It can be something larger like the recovering of office chairs or it can be something like an like an honesty box in the bathroom that's filled with sanitary products. So again anyone who suddenly has an unexpected period can go to the bathroom and know that there’ll be free protection available there to put in place immediately.”

All this sounds feasible in a white-collar workplace where you may sit at a desk all day. But what about women who work in factories or on shifts where they’re on the go all the time? Julie says it’s difficult to break away from a serving position you’re meant to be at for hours, or to leave your desk at a call center other than on set breaks. But some organizations she’s worked with have nixed the need for permission to leave a work station, or provided employees on the go with water bottles, or established a network of so-called ‘menopause champions’ in the workplace.

I was interested to know more about who attends her workshops, and especially whether men show up. She says it’s important not to separate out the women because the whole point of what she does is to de-mystify menopause for everyone…

“…however, they fare much better if they're in their own workshop in a room amongst themselves where they're much more comfortable sharing stories. So we'll do a workshop that’s specifically to support the women experiencing menopause. We'll do another one that's specifically for line managers, talking to them about how to spot symptoms, about what reasonable adjustments could work, what their company’s already got in place, how to have a supportive conversation. You know what you don't do is pull somebody aside and say you know I've noticed this is going on, are you menopausal? You know what it’s like, when you're looking for a red car right, you see red cars everywhere. So when you've been on a course on  menopause you see menopause everywhere. But actually just because the woman is in her late 40s or early 50s and her behavior has changed at work, it's not always going to be menopause. You know it could be bereavement, divorce, there could be anything going on. So it's being aware of the language that you use, and then the third training is a colleague awareness session, and that's where anybody could come to the session so you get men and women, older guys, younger guys in the room…”

AMT: I'm also curious with these sessions are the companies, do they encourage their employees to go or do they say hey you're going to that session because I can see some people, it is a topic that makes a lot of people squeamish.”

“Yeah, I think so too. So it's not a compliance issue at organizations at all, they’re always voluntary, and in the mixed sessions and the colleague awareness sessions it would usually be 90 percent women and 10 percent men. So there's still not many men turning up. And often that's because they think they're not going to be welcome or they are feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed. So that's something that needs to be worked on. And again that's about company culture and sometimes something like a poster campaign can work better than a workshop, you know, just having posters up around the building in places where people will stop and read just some basic facts and advice.”

So just ten percent men…that seems tiny. But Julie says it is a start.

Finally, I wanted to bring up something I often think about.

AM-T: “What interests me and I wonder if this will ever happen, would be to have quite a senior woman, someone who is quite well known, to talk about this, I think that would go a huge way to opening up conversation about menopause, don’t you?”

“Oh, I agree. Absolutely. Be an absolutely marvelous thing to have. What we have got in the U.K. is the rise of celebrity menopause. So we've had quite a few major celebrities and minor celebrities actually, women in their 50s who still are regularly seen on TV, to talk about their menopause experience, and actually over in the States you've got Gwyneth Paltrow doing it as well haven't you? So, and I think you know it's easier for them because they're a personal brand and that's the choice they make. But for the very senior women it is a lot a lot harder. I think still if you are a woman in a very senior leadership position, you don't want to talk about anything that could be perceived as a weakness. So I think it's much harder for them to talk about it. However, what would be great to be great would be to have a senior female leader who said yes, this is what I was struggling with, but this is what I've done and now everything's fine. But I think it's still that, you know, they're reluctant to share any perceived weaknesses, which is unfortunate.”

Because while we are still such a minority in top roles, it seems like women have to keep making out that we’re just like men. Coming up…someone who is bringing radical honestly – and a small fan – into her workplace.

Rebekah Bostan lives and works in London – she’s been in the global energy field for almost 20 years.

And last year she began to notice little things about herself changing. Like how she felt on her commute…

 “…I was on the tube, I started feeling quite hot, I assumed I was developing claustrophobia, you know. I was more irritated than usual with my children and my partner but I assumed that obviously they were just being more irritating than normal. Um, I would forget words in meetings, and I would just think oh, I'm just really tired, I must just take some more time for myself and when I started developing more and more symptoms I started slowly piecing them together and then I think when I started developing day and night sweats that's when it really, I just thought huh what is going on here. This is obviously not normal.”

But Rebekah was only 40. Menopause was far from her mind.

“And I just happened to mention to my mum that I was sleeping really badly and I was waking up quite hot. I was having to open the window. And she just laughed and she was like, oh, that's just perimenopause. And then she kind of dropped the bomb because obviously I was like, well, it can't be perimenopause I'm only just turned 40. And she was like, oh no, I had I was in full blown menopause at 41. And your grandmother was 43.”

Rebecca it seemed was following in their footsteps. She was so relieved to know what was going on – because like a lot of women who start experiencing these things, she had begun to worry about her mental health. Because the stuff we don’t hear much about – until it happens to us – that was what bothered Rebekah most: mood swings, increased anxiety about her job, and memory loss or brain fog. Never ideal, but especially at work, where as Julie Dennis put it, we’re always trying to show the most polished version of ourselves.

“So I think that the memory fog has really hit me since January and is to the point where you know it can be simple words like a fork or a knife to you know obviously much more complicated terminology that I use in my job. And I just you know there is literally a gap and you know it's not like you know you're trying to remember you know your second cousin twice removed kind of you know where obviously you would struggle you literally know that this is a word you commonly use and you can't find it in your head. And then that starts to make you feel quite anxious. You know especially if it happens you know in the world of work, you know I do have to use a lot of technical language and if I don't have those words you know I end up then having to make you know a 10 sentence…sentence in order to you know describe the word I’m trying to find. And that's not really what clients are paying me for, they're playing me to be concise, to give them really good advice. And that's really tricky when that starts to happen. I mean I happen to now use a lot of cheat sheets. So my son happens to have dyslexia and ADHD. So we use a lot of mind maps in my house, and I've actually started using mind maps before meetings, with kind of key words that I really, really don't want to forget before the meeting.”

Recently she was speaking at an event about women and sisterhood. So it was a sympathetic crowd…

“And I was making what I thought was a really good point until I couldn't remember the word that I was building up to. And we were talking actually about careers and how you progressed your careers and the word I was looking for was career pivot. So though I was looking for the word pivot and I was trying to point out that you know you don't always have to leave your job if you're unhappy, you can try and pivot your job to find more interesting tasks. And I could not find the word pivot in my mind and I just had to stop, and you know and that kind of disempowered me at that moment because you know I had been saying things for a few minutes. People were obviously engaged and then I lost that word, and just losing that word just really knocks your confidence.”

AMT: “So how did you come back from that?”

“So then you obviously have to start thinking of other words and then you have these moments of silence which you know I mean I understand that silence obviously feels so much worse to you than it does to other people, they probably think you're taking a breath or you’re thinking you know. You know but for you at that moment you think everyone is just like what is the matter with that woman? Why can't she continue her sentence? And you know so actually because I was in that sympathetic environment, I said you know what, I'm really sorry, I'm going through the perimenopause, I’ve forgotten the word. Can anyone help me out here?”

And they did. Someone came up with ‘pivot.’

But she’s always worried about what clients may think of her when she blanks on a word during a meeting. Rebekah’s been at her current company for 14 years. So she feels pretty comfortable there. And she often deals with her anxiety by asking colleagues for backup.  

“What I’ve started to do is when I have bad days where I wake up and feel like OK, today is gonna be a bit trickier, and I have client meetings, then now I war people I’m with in the meeting ad say if it looks like I’m forgetting a word, can you just try and jump in for me? I mean it’s tricky for the people, I’m asking them to help me in that situation. But I’d much rather they knew there was a risk something was going to happen, rather than that we all sit in silence while I try to remember a technical word.”

Rebekah told me just the other day that she’d had blanked on a technical phrase during a client call shortly after our interview – but while she felt the silence went on forever while she searched for another description, when she asked a colleague about it afterwards he said he hadn’t even noticed.

Meanwhile as you heard, she’s happy to introduce the idea of ‘perimenopause’ at work. And her workplace is 70 percent male.

“So I mean most people actually now in my direct working circle know that I’m perimenopausal now, mainly because I go into most meeting rooms with a USB fan. So it’s kind of almost like my calling card. I don’t have a sign above my head but I have a little fan that follows me around, and either people pretend it’s not there and think curious thoughts, but mostly actually people have engaged with me and said oh, what’s that? Why have you brought that? My previous boss, we happened to be in a meeting last week and I brought my fan in and he was just like, you know, he made some joke about you know the Caribbean or the tropics or whatever. And I said oh, you know, it’s because I’m going through the perimenopause. And he was like, ‘oh my gosh, my wife’s going through the perimenopause and she has these and these symptoms.’ What can I do? What can I do to help her? And it was really interesting because we wouldn’t have had that conversation otherwise.”

Rebekah says it’s rare that she gets a negative reaction, but she was on a client call once, a conference call with others, and she had her fan going in the meeting room.

“Another colleague arrived late. He just said, oh, turn off that fan, it’s going to distract the client. And actually the other colleague who was with me, who was male, said no, Rebekah needs that fan, and we’re going to continue this meeting. You know so I didn’t have to explain myself, and it was really great to have somebody not standing up for me, but just saying, you know what, she’s not doing it because it’s so on-trend to have a USB fan, she’s obviously doing it for a reason.”

Experiencing menopause symptoms as early as Rebekah is can feel really lonely. She doesn’t have any friends going through the same thing. So she took a chance recently – she approached a colleague she didn’t know well, someone she suspected might be in a similar position.

“So I actually reached out to a lady who works in another division in my company today actually. And I very briefly went up to her and said, ‘I'm going to assume something, if I'm totally wrong, let's pretend this conversation didn't happen.’ And I said I think you might have gone through the perimenopause or be going through the perimenopause because she has a USB fan on her desk. And she was like, yes! And then you know, do you want to have lunch? And then we went and sat down and had lunch and that's the only way I could know that potentially she might be going through similar things to me is because she had a fan on her desk.”

AMT: “And how was it, did you talk about it?”

“It was really interesting. I mean she's 46 and she started about five years ago and she's still having you know, hot flashes and memory fog and anxiety and things like that. So obviously for me that made me a little bit anxious because I was thinking wow, I've got maybe five, 10 years of this, how very exciting…But at the same time it was really good to meet somebody who was going through the same thing. They can't always solve the issue you're going through. But to be able to know and see somebody else you know who you know is still at work, and she talked about for example, in her team, if she's had a really bad night her boss is absolutely happy for her to come in an hour or two late so she can catch up on sleep, and then she'll just stay later.”

So that woman also felt comfortable telling her boss about what was going on. But I can only imagine many women will not. Rebekah is a big believer in bringing your whole self to work. But as I said to her…

AMT: “The flipside of that whole bringing yourself to work thing, the culture in the US is very youth-focused…there will be women who would be terrified to let on about menopause because they’re very worried they’re going to be discriminated against. And the next time it comes time for some cuts they’ll be out because they’ve outed herself as someone who is, quote, aging. And that does happen.”

“I'm absolutely of no doubt it happens and I think also for example, I work in a very corporate environment, but for example if you work in an environment where you have to wear a uniform or something, where you literally do have to ask for an adjustment in order to continue your job, that must be a really scary conversation. But we've got to have these conversations as women. For example, we generally pretend in the workplace even if we're having a bad period for example that we're absolutely fine. We play at being superhuman all the time. And I think if more of us can have these honest conversations then there's less chance of us being discriminated against. If more conversations are happening. If it's just one here or there then it is easier to ignore us…you know and it's almost like we have to have those brave conversations individually and those brave conversations are not for everyone to have. I wouldn't say that should be everyone’s cup of tea, but we can't change your culture by just pretending it's not happening to us.”

AM-T: “I also think there are some people listening to this who will remain a bit squeamish about discussing their personal circumstances publicly also, I did a show about 3 years ago focused on our bodies at work, it around menstruation, menopause came into it but not deeply, endometriosis, and I know some people found that a tough show ‘cause they’re kind of like, ergh, I don’t talk about that stuff, it’s private, that is something that I have no wish to discuss with the wider world.”

“I mean I absolutely agree. I was actually talking to a colleague of mine who I was telling her that I was doing this show and she was like, Oh, I'm not sure. That seems like a very public thing to talk about. You know, she's currently having IVF to have children and she said you know I wouldn't want to go around you know telling people I'm doing IVF. And absolutely. That's her decision to make. But the reality is that very few people are going to have IVF but absolutely every single woman is going to go through perimenopause.”

Rebekah Bostan. Thanks to her and Julie Dennis for being my guests on this show.

You will find show notes and links under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. I don’t know about you but I feel like menopause is ripe for some disruption – it’s great that it’s being discussed so openly in the UK, but what about other countries?

I realize not everyone wants to talk about this but I do agree with my guests – women are not men, we’re a big part of the workforce, and organizations need to understand that we undergo different things when we are at work because our bodies do different things – so why not support us through this change?

Before we go, I want to let you know about a show I bet some of you have already discovered – it’s focused on a new generation working mothers and it’s called The Double Shift. It’s not about parenting or kids really.

Past episodes include an intimate audio documentary about what it’s really like to run for office with little kids, an reported episode on sex worker moms, and what it’s like to be a working mom when your office is a legal brothel and a profile of an amazing woman who runs an overnight daycare in Las Vegas. What these women have in common is that they’re not willing to accept the status quo for working moms in America. The show is hosted by Katherine Goldstein – check out The Double Shift wherever you get your podcasts.

 I always love to hear from you – you can email me at ashley at thebroadexperience.com, tweet me or post on the Facebook page.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening.

Episode 143: True Equality: When It's OK to be Mediocre

Show transcript:

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

 This time…we all love a bit of inspiration in the form of successful women. After all you can’t be what you can’t see, right? But maybe all that lionizing reveals an unpleasant truth…

“…that women need to be just utterly brilliant, utterly wonderful to get recognition…actually real equality boils down to not having to do that.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

 Before we get into the show, a quick word about a former guest. I know a lot of you lead a team.  When you’re a manager, your work is about more than just the work.  It’s about managing human relationships, and enabling your team to get things done, and thrive.  

It’s not always easy!  People Management is skill that you develop, over time, when you make the commitment to learn.

You can find Anne Libby’s free monthly newsletter On Management at people dot substack dot com.  Each month, you’ll learn about how good managers do their work, and ways you can practice and learn.  Noted management expert Anne Libby* also interviews experts and practitioners, and writes and curates recommended reading for you about people management and workplace trends.

The internet is full of advice.  Some of it is BS.  On Management is practical, topical, and smart -- it’s like getting a monthly email from an experienced mentor.  Or your cool aunt.  You can find it at people dot substack dot com.

The last episode I did on caring for a parent was pretty serious…and this week’s show is quite the change of tone. To give you a bit of context, for several years now I’ve received a lot of emails at my Broad Experience address often written by a PR person, asking me to interview some amazing sounding woman – she is often a coach, sometimes a startup CEO or a corporate executive – words like ‘empowering’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘killing it’ are sprinkled throughout the email. But instead of being inspired…I just feel tired.

So when I read a column by Pilita Clark in the Financial Times last month it hit home. The title? Women Must Demand the Right to be as Useless as Men. I knew I wanted to talk to her about the ideas in that piece, and she I spoke the other week.

Pilita is Australian by birth but she’s lived in the UK for 17 years. These days she writes about modern corporate life; she’s also covered aviation and the environment for the FT.  

And in the runup to International Women’s Day in March her inbox is flooded with emails singing the praises of high achieving females. Pilita has been urged to write about a woman who among other achievements has climbed Everest…

“…a visionary doctor/entrepreneur, this extraordinary woman who is a quadri-lingual vegan who floated a business in her 20s and she works in refugee camps with the UN in her spare time…is completely unstoppable, she was reading share prices to her father at the age of 4 and is a really extraordinary woman. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this at one level, and I am always pleased to see women doing brilliantly…there’s also no question obviously that there’s a long, long way to go, that we have not achieved equality by most measures…but I guess what I find this year is something that is increasingly annoying – it’s that tiring sense that women need to be utterly brilliant, utterly wonderful to get recognition, and that is actually something I’ve thought for a long time, that actually real equality boils down to not having to do that, to just being ordinary and just doing your job and in fact you could even be potentially quite mediocre.”

And just bumbling along and not worrying about your career too much. She says she began thinking about this topic intently when she came across a blog post by a senior woman in the UK…

“She’s a really experienced female director, an ex-McKinsey partner, Harvard MBA, she works, has served on a lot of boards. And she literally in a blog based on a speech she did about the dearth of female chairs…said, ‘at interview we need to be twice as good as the men to overcome the gaps in our CVs and the perceived risk in being different, and I don’t think we quite realize that.’ And I thought, ugh, OK, that’s reasonable, I’m sure that’s a sensible thing to be thinking about, but you know what? It’s really, really irritating in 2019 that we have to keep thinking about this.”

It got her thinking about those notes she gets encouraging her to write about various wonder women. Similar to the ones I get.

AM-T: “One of the things I have found that your article crystallized for me, it was hard for me to put my finger on it, was this thing of, why do I cringe a bit when I get these emails? Then I feel mean, I feel like a bad person that I’m cringing slightly at all this wondrous achievement.”

“I know, I completely sympathize with you on that one…I feel very much the same way. Part of the reason for me anyway is the thought that I have to be ultra-brilliant and incredibly wonderful and supremely generous and fair and terrific and spectacular. Really it makes me feel like having a drink and a lie down. I mean it’s just, it’s wearying – implicitly I think the suggestion lies there that in order to be taken seriously and to really achieve is just that you have to be an extraordinary woman.”

I agree – I think the reason my eyes glaze over is partly because the emails all sound the same now, but it’s also because I’m never going to be like that myself and I wonder how many other women can manage it. I resist the implication that achievement means firing on all cylinders and sleeping 4 hours a night.

I began The Broad Experience exactly seven years ago…and back then I rarely got pitches talking up professional women. So in a way it’s a sign of progress just being made aware that so many stellar women are out there, with publicists – starting businesses, writing books, overcoming obstacles…helping people. It was after one very famous book was published back in 2013 that I began getting all these emails… The book of course was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Before it came out I felt like I was here in my little corner talking about all these experiences women had at work, but no one was really listening. Then Sandberg came along and suddenly everyone was listening and talking and the amount of coverage on women at work exploded…to the extent that for me at least, it all began to run together…

“Mmm, interesting, well I think you’re absolutely right that Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, did have a huge impact, it stirred a lot of debate, but it divided a lot of people, and I’m one of the people who think why don’t men lean out, why is it always women who need to do the changing? Why can’t we just do what we feel like doing, and not having to be constantly thinking about our behavior and the impression we’re giving, if you think what life must be like if you don’t have to think about this all the time, it’s a very different way of viewing the world. That’s why I think this book, ‘Why do so Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?’, I’m not sure if a woman had written it that it would have had quite the same attention.”

And it would have attracted a whole bunch of haters. Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders is of course a provocative title. The author originally wrote a piece along the same lines in the Harvard Business Review back in 2013 – in fact it was partly in response to Lean In being published. In that article he said he was surprised to see Lean In encouraging women to adopt what he called dysfunctional leadership traits…

“I do think he puts his finger on a really important point that applies to women and men really, and that is that we have this annoying tendency to confuse confidence with leadership capacity, and his point is that very confident people who are often narcissistic…walk into a room, own the room, basically they have a huge amount of swagger and sway – they are statistically he says more likely to be men. But they find it a lot easier to get into top jobs. And that means they squeeze out equally or perhaps more able, more considerate, humble people and that includes men as well as women. So his point is that we need to think again about our ideas of what good leadership entails, and I think that’s absolutely right. It would undoubtedly help a lot of women but it would also help a lot of extremely pleasant and able men I can think of who are overlooked for jobs on a fairly regular basis, and really they’re the jobs that are often taken by – not entirely arrogant, loudmouth men, but I wouldn’t say I’ve not seen that either. It can be a fairly common occurrence in some offices.”

In fact, author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says, we might want to see swagger as something to avoid…

“We need to try to not be swayed, not to automatically think that just because someone is very loud and very confident and seems to be completely on top of things – these actually sometimes can be warning signs that this person is not necessarily going to be a great leader.”

And Pilita says he goes further. He says women should get first consideration for leadership roles.

“For whatever reason it may well be correct to say, as he says, that we should be giving preferential treatment to women…we should actively be discriminating in favor of female leaders.”

Then again…

“I dunno, I can’t help feeling a little uneasy about that, actually. There’s something I find a bit annoying about that – because again it’s kind of suggesting there is an intrinsic quality based on gender, which is not what feminism is about essentially. So I think no matter what one’s gender, if one can lead well then one should be rewarded for that.”

One much maligned leader who happens to be female is British Prime Minister Theresa May – or at least she was still prime minister when I recorded this. Pilita says until there are more women in top roles the urge to celebrate superwomen will persist…

“In many ways it’s just a numbers game, I think the more women go into places where they’re not necessarily in the minority then I think essentially things will change quite dramatically and women won’t feel they’re standing out, they won’t feel they have to be anything very special. They’ll just be there and people won’t notice – and in a way you kind of see that happening already here in the UK with a female prime minister, and quite a number of female cabinet ministers. Really it’s quite interesting at a time when people are paying more attention than ever to politics, because of the Brexit debate. I’m not saying there’s no sexism whatsoever being attached to the portrayal of various women in the spotlight at the moment but really it does feel as though there are so many now, people’s gender is not really coming into it in this debate as it might have done 10, 15, 20 years ago.”

AMT: “That’s interesting, and actually that makes me want to ask because I am removed from it over here, has there been any commentary on Theresa May’s sex going along with all the Brexit coverage…are people trying to interpret any of her actions through the lens of gender?”

“I’m sure there have been isolated instances of it, but I struggle to recall a prominent one. Late last year and early this year, when things were getting quite intense, there was a huge amount of commentary where people were describing her as resilient, she was so resilient, she was plowing on, she was very stubborn, she was refusing to be knocked over despite the adversity she was facing. And this word resilient kept being used again and again. At first I thought the unsaid words here were, she’s doing really well for a woman. But actually colleagues who were covering John Major when he was struggling with Euro-skeptics in his party said the same sorts of words and descriptions were being used about him. I don’t know, my sense is actually that really there’s been quite a lack of focus on whatever she’s wearing, what she looks like. Maybe because the issue, Brexit, is so enormous, and so important, and so all encompassing…”

That there’s no time or appetite for petty coverage around gender.

And finally to the last part of Pilita’s column asking why women can’t be allowed be as useless as men…

AM-T: “To sort of round out your piece you said you’ve always harbored an urge to see an International Crap Women’s Day. Why?”

“Alright, so this is basically a joke, but a semi-serious joke. So I just used to wonder what would it be like, if you had an International Crap Women’s Day where you were literally celebrating the right of women to be as rubbish as any man. At one end there’s a lot to choose from and you could have a lot of fun with it. There was a fantastic story here last year about a model here in the UK who went to Morocco, and she got so drunk on her way back, when she landed at Gatwick, she thought she was still in Morocco. And Elizabeth Holmes is just – she would be a complete pinup…”

Elizabeth Holmes in case you haven’t heard of her was a star of Silicon Valley – she quit Stanford University at 19 to start her blood testing company, Theranos. Over the next decade or so it raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. She was touted as the next Steve Jobs. Today, she stands accused of massive fraud. I just finished listening to the podcast The Dropout, which all about her rise and fall.

“…you know, having managed to persuade all of these enormously successful investors to put their money into her Theranos company, her blood-testing startup…she is now facing a series of fraud charges and the idea she’s the new female Steve jobs has taken a tumble recently. There is any number of women we could lionize in this way. The idea is to say we’re not perfect, or great, we can be just as bad, evil, hopeless and ridiculous as men, but so what? The point would be we need the freedom to be just people, really.”

On the other hand, many women want and need inspiration. They don’t necessarily want to see a former icon disparaged. I read a snarky piece about Holmes in Refinery29 earlier this year…

AM-T: “And it was very interesting to read the comments…and a couple of women had a good point. Because the writer had focused specifically on her hair color and the fact that she dyes her hair, and under that sleek blonde was a mousy-haired brunette…and it did actually come across as very sexist. And a couple of women commenters took the writer to task on that. But at least one other said, you know why are you focusing on this one bad apple, there are all these amazing women in Silicon Valley, why can’t you focus on them? Which brings you and I back to where we started.”

“Yeah, well, OK – the difficulty with all of this is as we know, when women go to get money from venture capital firms they really struggle, there’s that great case of those women who changed their names on letters and emails to male or ambiguous names, and suddenly started getting all these meetings with VC companies in Silicon Valley. On the one hand you can see why there is an urge to celebrate and publicize and promote these brilliant women. Because there’s an urge to say, look, stop thinking we are useless…but that trouble is I guess that in itself feeds into this idea that we’re gonna have to be twice or three or four times as good, constantly.”

The bar she says is just too high.

“…growing up in Australia in particular, when there were very few female leaders in politics, business, anywhere, and when one of them stumbled or did something shocking or got into trouble you felt it was a black mark, a problem for you, even though it had nothing to do with you, and you thought…why shouldn’t she stumble? It comes back to numbers and about the fact there were very few women in these positions. And the more we become very used to having female prime ministers the way we do in the UK now, the less we’re going to be thinking much about the fact that they’re female. That’s the point I am trying to make here, but anyway…if anybody does feel like setting up International Crap Women’s Day I am just a phone call away.”

Pilita Clark.

 I will post a few show notes under this episode at The Broad Experience.com, including Pilita’s original column. And as ever I’d love to hear from you – I’m sure she and I are not the only ones with opinions on this topic. Post a comment on the website, tweet me or email me or post to the Facebook page.

 You can help this show with a donation of any amount at the support tab at The Broad Experience.com. And if you can’t give just write a review on iTunes instead. Every little act of support helps.

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

Episode 142: Working Daughters: Your Career + Parent-care

Show transcript:

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

This time…when career and caring clash. Caring for parent, that is…

“It seemed inevitable that every time I flew to San Francisco where my company was headquartered, something would come up. The minute I touched down in San Francisco I'd have five voicemails from the nurse at the assisted living.”

“I just remember taking her to one doctor, and one doctor’s appointment took 5 hours and I was thinking, how am I ever gonna do this as one person because she needs to see ten doctors. So how do you do that and still balance your career or progress in your career?”

“It was so all encompassing. And I’d see my guitar in the corner of the room and see my friends and peers doing their lives, oh, a CD released, Grammy nomination here…”

Three women, in corporate and creative jobs on their careers plus caregiving…coming up on The Broad Experience.

If you’ve been listening to the show since the beginning you may remember an episode I did several years ago called Home as Career Killer. One of my guests in that show was Liz O’Donnell. She’d been writing about women and work for quite a while and she had just published a book called Mogul, Mom and Maid – Liz was her family’s sole breadwinner at the time.

A few years ago I noticed that she’d switched tack in what she was posting about online. She’d shifted to talking about the issues around being a working woman who’s caring not just for her kids – but for her parents. In 2016 she wrote a great piece in The Atlantic called The Crisis Facing America’s Working Daughters. I meant to get back in touch with her then – but it was only this past autumn, when I faced a crisis with my own mother back in London…that I really began to think about this issue properly. I wasn’t expecting to be hit with caregiving stuff in my forties – but in the fact the typical caregiver is a woman in her late forties or fifties. Usually she has kids and a job as well.  

Enter Liz. Liz founded an online community called Working Daughter – a website, a Facebook group – she also has an upcoming book of the same name. The subtitle: a guide to caring for your aging parents while making a living.  

And that’s all in her spare time. She works at a PR firm – she was fulltime until last year.

The working daughter stage of Liz’s life began in earnest several years ago. She was in her late forties, her parents were in their 80s. They lived fairly close to her in Massachusetts. One day in particular got her thinking about this group of women who are juggling work and parent care.  

“I had taken a day off from work so that I could take my mother to the doctor and I got up at 5:00 to send some work e-mails. Then at 6:00 I was getting the kids out the door to school. Then I drove, my mother’s about an hour away from me, drove down to take her to the doctor and she wasn't ready to go. I had to push the appointment back. The doctor that day asked me why I worked and didn't quit to spend more time with my mother? It was a brutal day.” 

Later that night…about 11p.m, as she drove home from a talk she’d given to a group of working mothers, she thought, why on earth isn’t there more attention to working daughters? The idea for an online community was born. 

Meanwhile, her own life was getting more complicated. Both her parents were failing in different ways…one weekend her sister – who doesn’t live nearby – called and told Liz that she’d been on the phone to their parents and something was wrong. Could Liz go over and check on them? That was a Sunday. Liz drove off…and didn’t come home till one week later. Much of that time was spent in hospitals trying to get diagnoses. Her father was very confused, her mother was ill and couldn’t be left alone. 

“And I was so busy and so overwhelmed by everything I was witnessing and handling that I never told work. I work remotely. I never even told work that I wasn't at work and I would just try to answer enough emails every night and in the morning so it looked like I was at work, and I wasn't trying to fool anyone, I just really couldn't stop and say ‘Whoa, this is what's happening.’ So if you fast forward to right before the day they were diagnosed, I remember I was at the hospital, my dad was then sent to, and I found a quiet space and there happened to be a wheelchair. And I sat down and I called my boss and said, here's what's going on in my life.”

And her boss was quite sympathetic.

“So her first thing she said was, ‘you know you need to take care of yourself,’ which are the six most annoying words I think that a caregiver can ever hear because we know we need to take care of ourselves but we don't know how to take care of ourselves. And she asked me how I wanted to handle the situation, and I as the breadwinner I said ‘I want to keep working. You know, I'll figure this out.’”

But that was before she received two diagnoses. On July 1st 2014, Liz was told her father had Alzheimer’s and her mother had ovarian cancer. A couple of weeks later she saw her boss in person.

“…and I walked into the hotel where we're meeting up to go see a client, and I just burst into tears. And I'd been trying not to get to that point with her because I knew what she was going to say which was you need to take a leave of absence. And I was terrified that she would say that because I couldn't afford to take a leave of absence. So I was trying to hide it. I knew she was right, but I also knew that it wasn't right for me. So we talked it through and I said I can do this, but I went part time, and we agreed that I would have a flexible schedule, and some days I would work in the morning and some days I would work at night, and I would let the team know day to day what I was doing.”

She says she lost out financially but at the time there was so much going on, it had to be that way. Liz’s mother opted not to be treated for the cancer and she died several months later. Liz went back to fulltime work right after the funeral. Meanwhile Liz’s dad was now living at an assisted living facility just down the street from Liz and her family – she’s married with two teenagers.

And for a couple of years she says things were pretty good. Her dad’s Alzheimer’s seemed to be under control; they had some good times as a family. But then things began to go downhill.

It seemed inevitable that every time I flew to San Francisco where my company was headquartered, something would come up. The minute I touched down in San Francisco I'd have five voicemails from the nurse at the assisted living. You know, he didn't seem well, can I take him to the doctor, or you know something came up.

We live in the Northeast and we had a really big snowfall one winter and my father kept stealing the shovels and going out and shoveling, because he didn't think the facility was doing a good enough job. And of course they didn't want this 89-year-old man who was a fall risk out shoveling. So they'd call me and say ‘you need to talk him,’ and I'd be across the country.”

That said, she knows she’s fortunate compared to many other employees who work day to day in an office or a factory. Where if they disappear to take a parent to the doctor or deal with a sudden crisis, they’re afraid of looking bad…or worse, losing their job.

“So absolutely, there are advantages to the fact that I'm remote and I have…you know there are also advantages to the fact that I'm fairly senior in my career and flexibility is born of building trust and seniority over time. On the other hand, I don't have the same camaraderie necessarily with my co-workers. I needed to lean on them quite a bit so that if I couldn't finish something and I was leaving in the morning I needed them to take over and I didn't quite have the same rhythms and relationships that you might have if you're sitting next to someone every day. So that was tough.”

Then, last year, the same year her father died, Liz’s job was downsized. She was moved to part-time. And she’s never going to know how much her caregiving had to do with that – or IF it had to do with that. But she can’t help thinking all the flextime she took over the years might have affected the company’s view of her.

“Part of it was circumstantial across what was happening in our industry and in the business. But, and part of this might be in my head, but I never felt Ashley like I got back to the status and the security and the influence that I had at work or in my career.”

She says a couple of things are at play when it comes to perceptions of professionals like her…

“One is that we don't tend to work at the same company for years like we used to. So where I earned my street cred and my ability to be flexible wasn't necessarily at the firm that I was at now. So the younger staff didn't know that I had already paid my dues, and they come in and they see this older woman and she's always leaving and she's not at her desk or she's not on Slack or instant message. They don't know how hard I've worked and what my abilities are, necessarily. So I think that's a factor for a lot of people who need to take flex is that we work at so many different companies, people don’t necessarily see the progression…and the other thing I think is that eldercare is invisible.

So when you have a new baby, your coworkers throw you a shower and your friends throw you a shower and everyone…you come in on your maternity leave and you bring the baby and everybody oohs and aahs, and then you bring pictures, and people expect that when you come back from that leave that you might have shifted a little bit or that you have other priorities in addition to your career, and it's talked about. But when you're caring for an aging parent you're really ultimately facing down dying and death and nobody wants you to bring that up in the office.”

Liz says life for working daughters can certainly improve…we will come back to that later in the show.

I’m meeting Maria Toropova in Brooklyn, in the empty apartment she just rented for her and her mum. She’s a member of Liz’s online community, Working Daughter, and we’d spoken by phone before I showed up at her new place. It’s new construction, and the apartment isn’t large by non-New York standards, but it has two floors. The upstairs bathroom is sleek but compact…

“This is the tiniest sink you’ll ever see in your life…”

Maria’s bedroom is downstairs in the basement…

“The only thing that kills me is that there are no windows…[laughs] it’s actually a really decent size for New York…half bath, separate entrance…” [Fade under trax…]

Until last summer Maria was like a lot of other young professionals in New York. She was 29, sharing a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village with a roommate, putting in long hours at the office. Seeing friends after work, going for long runs along the Hudson River to de-stress.

Her mum was living in St. Louis, where Maria grew up. Maria and her parents emigrated to the US from Russia when she was 12 years old. They’re originally from Azerbaijan. Her father died a year after they arrived in America. Ever since, it’s been just Maria and her mum.

Her mother used to work as a computer engineer…since arriving in the US, she’s worked long hours as a home health aide.

Maria works for a big financial services company. She’s in training and development. And she was at the office last August when she got a call that changed her life.

She works in a building with terrible cell phone reception. And the summer is a really busy time for her. So when she noticed a voicemail from her mom’s friend back home, she thought, I’ll pick it up later. 

“I got a voicemail from her friend, I didn’t think anything of it, a few hours later it was still there. I went into a room to listen, I couldn’t get whole voicemail as the reception was so poor, I just heard words like hospital and stroke, so I called her friend back but I couldn’t get the full picture, so I had to get on a landline in a private office, obviously at that point quite emotional and trying to find out what happened, and that’s when I found out she had a stroke the night before.” 

Maria’s mother had been able to call her friend the following morning and say, please go to work for me, there’s something wrong. But because she’d waited half a day before she got help, the stroke did quite a bit of damage. 

Maria’s boss took her home from the office and she flew out to St. Louis that evening…

“She was in the ICU when I got there, she was in the ICU quite a bit, then in hospital and in rehab, so I was completely off the grid…took 2 weeks of time off. And as she transferred to in-patient rehab, I said I thought I could go back to working remotely. And I have said this a lot, I’m incredibly lucky, I have an incredible boss, he’s the most incredible human being I’ve ever met, professionally and otherwise, the kindest human, he stood behind me and so did the company, and that meant the world and still does. With that we were able to work out a remote work arrangement.”

Maria had a ton on her plate. She was visiting her mother in rehab, talking to doctors, handling reams of paperwork. Then her mother came home and Maria was taking care of her and working flexible hours from the house. In the fall, she felt herself crumbling.

“At first I started to get a lot of bad anxiety, panic attacks, I thought I was having a stroke, as time moved on I fell into, I think the diagnosis was severe depression, so… but at first I think I was functioning on adrenalin but it caught up to me in November/December time, and that’s when I took a leave of absence from work.”

Maria went on disability leave. She found a good psychiatrist in St. Louis and she’s been seeing her ever since. She says any kind of therapy is frowned upon in her immigrant community, but she thinks it’s saved her life – her words.

She says again, her workplace and her manager in particular have been supportive over everything she’s been through…

“…even with that said I still found myself struggling, because I do have a demanding job, and trying to balance it all, first you get this influx of information and bills, I think I took 2 boxes of paperwork here with me [to New York]. So it was balancing that and still making sure I was always – putting my job family first and making sure I am giving that 150% and at some point I just felt like it wasn’t possible.”

No kidding. Maria was putting a lot of pressure on herself. And when her mother came home, that was when she realized just how intense her new role was going to be. 

“…and once she was home and I was her sole 24/7 caregiver, she was fine for periods of time and I had friends helping out, but I just remember taking her to one doctor, and one doctor’s appointment took 5 hours and I was thinking, how am I ever gonna do this as one person because she needs to see ten doctors, and it just literally took half of my day. So how do you do that and still balance your career or progress in your career?”

She honestly doesn’t know. She’s still at the start of all this.

She says her mom has recovered well from the stroke in many ways – she’s walking and talking. But she has cognitive difficulties now, like a much older person might. Her mum is 65. Maria says her mom is dying to go back to work as a home health aide, but Maria’s not sure that’ll happen. 

She has a big support network in St. Louis, but she’s just sold the family home, and rented this place in Brooklyn for the two of them.

AM-T: “Why did you decide to move back here to this difficult city?”

“Yes, so I think unfortunately my mom has literally worked 70 hour weeks, every single week, she’s taken one vacation in the last 17 years…due to the fact we are an immigrant family, I knew this time would come where I would fully support her, so it was just…I didn’t necessarily expect it to come in the way that it did…and financially we need assistance…she has no income except for very small social security checks…so it’s imperative that I keep my job, which is obviously here, and I found out through resources available to me through work that New York is one of the best states for public assistance for healthcare. That largely drove my decision.”

She says back in Missouri she was told the most economical option would be to have her mother live in a nursing home. Something Maria can barely contemplate.

AM-T: “Talk a bit about that – you talked about this on the phone, about culture and how you would never have your mum living other than where you are.” 

“Yeah, so I think a lot of my personal struggles and relationship with my mom have been driven by that cultural gap – so she just turned 65, I’m about to be 30, so we have a very different age gap as well as a cultural gap, she grew up in the Soviet Union in a very conservative country within the Soviet Union, I largely grew up here so my ideas are very much American, but the value set is still rooted in me from that Eastern European society, so I’ve always struggled with that ‘cause in Russia or any other Eastern European cultures back in the day and still now, it’s common to have multi-generational households, and a lot of the parents’ happiness and sense of self comes from their children…and in America it’s very much centered around the individual…so growing up here, and I’ve always struggled with that. What would make my mom happy versus what would make me happy? And so now having lived with her under same roof and having lived with her having gone through this illness those issues have surfaced even more…in terms of, even here I’m gonna be moving into the basement, how much privacy will I have because privacy is not something that’s really valued, at least in the culture that I grew up whereas in America it very much is…um…and so I think that will kind of play into it, at the same time I can’t imagine, just because she’s very young, she’s only 65, and again it’s a very personal choice, I have no judgment, everyone has to make the right choice for them, but for me personally, I can’t imagine leaving her in a nursing home right now…even though that’s what she’s saying I should be doing because she’s worried I’m giving up my life to take care of her.” 

Maria says life in New York with her mum – it’s going to be different from the old, relatively carefree days before last August. She used to joke with her colleagues with kids, how do you look after them after a hard day at work? Now, she’ll be in a similar position. 

AM-T: “What do you think about the prospect of going back to work? When you think about that what do you think?”

“I think it’s a two-parter – I think equally excited and overwhelmed. Excited, when I was talking about whether I move back or not, in a way it’s survivalist instinct where I get parts of my own life back, the ones that I could, and work was a huge element of that, and going back into the environment that I know, and I love my team, the people I work with, so I’m looking forward to that and daily interactions. Overwhelmed, where I know how seriously I took my job and how I’ll likely feel when I return. I had the luxury of staying late when I needed to and coming in early, and now I’ll pretty much have limitations around that. Sort of figuring out how that’s gonna play into my job function and just career, long-term, I wonder will I able to go on a business trip again and how that’s gonna affect my career prospects. I think I mentioned I was set on international career opportunities, and recognizing that’s no longer an option, so figuring out what that means for my career going forward. 

AM-T: “Yeah, didn’t you say you’d been hoping to go to London?”

“I did, yes, so I did share that with my boss and he was obviously very supportive, and ironically I was thinking of the timeline to do that right around the time she got sick, so just, I guess, trying to figure out what that means for my career in the long-term.”

She’s taking things one day at a time. She knows her mum will have trouble adjusting to the change once she moves here, but she hopes they’ll gradually find their feet together. She feels the responsibility of being the sole wage earner and carer, still, she says she can make it work.

“Part of the beauty of the city is it is so full of different possibilities, there’s no tunnel vision, there’s still artists and musicians and struggling artists, quote unquote, that are surviving here, so I don’t think it’s impossible, I just think it’s gonna be a little bit different…”

Maria and her mother have already been through a lot together. And Maria has good friends and supportive colleagues. She hopes with help, the two of them can weather this change as well.

You met Kate Schutt in the first of two shows I did recently on the coaching industry. Kate is a coach, but she’s also trained as a musician and her long-time career has been as a singer/songwriter. Not an easy career at the best of times.

Like Maria, she became a carer unexpectedly. In her case, she was in her late 30s. And just about to leave on a work trip she was quite excited about…

“I was headed to an extended gig in the middle east, in Doha, Qatar, I was gonna play guitar and sing in a fancy hotel there, I had negotiated my contract…I had my two guitars in my duffel bag packed and would be there for at least a month, maybe more…I went home to say goodbye to my parents, it was a Friday, I was leaving on a Monday, got out of the car and my mom did not look well at all. And just from the expression on her face I knew something was up, and that’s when she told me she’d been having these symptoms, she had had a CAT scan and was waiting for the results of that CAT scan to come in.”

While Kate was there, the results came back. Her mother had a tumor in her abdomen and a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Kate decided then and there that her work trip was off.

“I asked my dad to take me back to the train station, I took a train back to New York, I unpacked, I re-packed, took one guitar and a small bag back to Pennsylvania where my family home is, and moved into a childhood bedroom and became my mom’s primary caregiver.”

Kate says she adored her mother. She wanted to be with her while she went through what they all knew would be grueling treatment. She says it was absolutely her choice to do this. Unlike Maria who has to support her mother financially, Kate’s family could support her while she took care of her mother, interacted with doctors, and ferried her to and from hospital visits.

I asked what role her father played.

“My dad was my wingman, he was her loving partner of decades of marriage but I like to just say he’s an old school dad, he was incapable of quarter-backing this care. It was extremely complicated as anybody who has been through anything like this or any dealings with the western medical system, it was…there were lots of decisions to make constantly with half or less than half information.”

She says he just wasn’t the person to handle all that.

Kate says handling it was a fulltime job. She had less and less time to even think about her own life, her own career.

“It was so all encompassing. And I’d see my guitar in the corner of the room and see my friends and peers and mates, doing their lives, oh, a CD released, oh, Grammy nomination here, oh, new body of music, tour with this person…it was a very strange experience. I guess the thing I would say was I did not feel like myself. That’s what I kept saying to my partner; I said, I don’t recognize myself. And for me certainly in the beginning there was so much to do…to get her through the major de-bulking surgery, front line chemo, I would literally put her to bed at night and face plant on the bed, and if I had an hour free, which would be early morning before she woke up, I had to exercise because that’s how I process my stress. So it was like exercise and process my stress, or pick up my guitar, and at that point I was unable to pick up my guitar.”

Kate and her family knew the cancer would end her mother’s life. But they strove to give her as good a life as she could have while she was going through treatment. Kate says it was a privilege to take care of her. Their relationship deepened as time went on.

“I had years to talk about the most important questions in life: like where do you think you go when you die, do you think you go anywhere? What does living a good life mean to you? Who do you want to spend your time with now it’s so precious, and why does that person get more of your time than not? What do you really care about getting done before you die?”

Kate’s mum lived for four years after that diagnosis, and Kate was there the whole time. By the end, she was totally spent. Exhausted mentally and physically.

Both she and her dad took some time to recover. She says it took another year to get her dad’s life back on track, not to mention her own.

AM-T: “And when you got back on the other side of that when you were strong enough to function as a working person…did you really feel that, were you like, yup, I really have lost 4 years and I notice that?”

“Yeah, I feel it every day when I sit down to practice my guitar. I mean I spent 5 years not practicing daily. Everyone who plays an instrument knows you can’t expect yourself to perform as an instrumentalist or a musician and not be working on your craft…when I wasn’t doing that…and you know my story a little, so you know eventually I started writing notes toward writing songs…so it wasn’t like for the whole 4 years it was just fixing meals and going to the hospital. Sure there was, after I got my feet under me a year and a half into it… I started to be able to make notes towards the thing I’m now working on, which is making this album, but this morning, sitting down to practice my guitar, that’s why I say I have to remind myself I can’t be upset at myself, that’s a choice I made, if I’m frustrated with where I am as a player partly it’s because for five years I didn’t do anything on my instrument.”

She says her earning power as a musician has taken a hit too…

“Earning power and earning potential is real—I mean you’re only young enough to have verve and energy to pursue your career…I mean hopefully we’re all living longer and with a lot of energy, but I believe in that stuff. If I wanted to go out and get a job even now, I’m 43 about to be 44, that’s an old age to be starting something new. So I felt like, yeah, I wasn’t building anything publicly, let’s put it that way, I was writing notes toward songs -- gee whiz, good for you…nothing that anybody would look at and say that has value, in our world today. I mean the thing I know, and I’m getting choked up, is I know what kind of a person it takes to do that work…and that’s probably where your listeners will meet me, is because it’s a very different person who says yes to that challenge, and I have to believe, I have to, otherwise I might as well go off myself, I have to believe there was a meaning for my music, for my soul, for my friends and loved ones, that me going through that experience was meant for, quote unquote, was teaching me something about what it means to live.”

Kate did a TED talk last year about how to help someone cope with a loss – I will link you to that under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

If you’re in the position of caring for a parent while holding down a job, much will depend on where you work. Or who your manager is. Maria Toropova has been lucky in that regard. Liz O’Donnell of Working Daughter says women in her community have experiences that are all over the place. She says American employers are getting better at trying to offer some formal help…

“We're seeing more and more companies crop up here in the U.S. that are selling into employers, we will help your employee find backup care. We will help your employees sort through the checklist of things that they need to do to provide care. So companies are now starting to contract these companies and offer these services, so that’s part of it."

Then there’s the cultural part. She says if we could just talk about all this a bit more…

“And I don't believe we should all go in and share our personal information in the workplace every day, but if we at least give the space if somebody wants to talk about it or learn not to run away in horror if somebody brings up, ‘I just came from hospice before I showed up for work’ or ‘I'm heading to hospice you know on my way home tonight,’ if we just started to normalize that, give it some space then I think that would help and we see working parent groups all the time at large corporations and small ones too. I don't know that we have many formalized support groups for people who have parents.”

And in a work-centric culture like America’s, many carers are forced to decide: Work, or family?

“There are a number of women that I can think of who have told us in the group that they've lost their job as a result of caregiving or not necessarily that they were fired as a result of caregiving, but they didn't feel that they could manage both work and care. I think one of the things that people don't realize also about caregiving is how many medical tasks caregivers can be doing. Not all of us but some people are going to work whether it's a desk job or a shift job and then coming home and they're giving injections, they're changing colostomy bags, they're sorting 14 pills at a time. This is stuff that you think you need to have medical training, the nursing school or medical school for, and daughters and sons are doing it every day. So that's a huge responsibility and a huge stress. So how do you go to work on top of all of that?”

And Liz says there’s another part of all this. Something that’s beyond the realm of HR…

“And that’s the part companies can’t necessarily help with, right – the emotional part, and there’s a huge emotional part, because you're having to come to terms with the fact that your parent isn't able to do what they used to do, and you have to come to terms with the fact that that also means that they may not be there for you in the way you're used to them being there for you. It definitely, definitely shakes your identity. And people talk a lot about this idea of it's a role reversal. And I like to shy away, move away from that term. I mean in a sense it is a role reversal, I'm caring for you versus you caring for me. But the reason I'm not crazy about that term is I prefer to think of it just as a natural stage in life. You know when you're young you have a child parent relationship and then as an adult you hope you can have an adult-adult relationship with your parents and then as they get older I just like to think of it as yet another phase…”

A phase where the relationship naturally shifts –and why not normalize it, she says, because it’s going to happen to us.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time…thanks to Liz O’Donnell, Maria Toropova and Kate Schutt for being my guests on this show. I will link you to Liz’s community Working Daughter and to Kate’s TED talk under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

 As ever I am keen to hear from you – if you have anything you’d like to add to the discussion you can comment under this episode on the website or tweet me or email or post on the Facebook page.

 And if you can afford to kick in to support the show that would be much appreciated. Thanks again to those of you who have done this and especially to my monthly sustainers.

 If you can’t give, write a review on Apple Podcasts instead. It all helps the show get noticed in our increasingly crowded podcast world.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening, see you next time.

Episode 141: When I'm 85 - an interview with Madeleine Kunin

Show transcript:

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

This time, a woman with a long career in public life reflects on what it means to be in her 80s…

“You can still enjoy a sunset at 85 so I try to dwell on things of beauty. When you know there’s not much time left you have to focus on what really gives you joy and what makes life meaningful.”

Retired politician Madeleine Kunin comes of age. Coming up on The Broad Experience.

We rarely hear the voices of older people in the media. And a lot of us don’t have a person in their 70s or 80r or 90s with whom we spent any amount of time. That’s a really different situation from the one we had for centuries, when we all lived in our hometowns in tight family groups.

Some of you will remember I interviewed Madeleine Kunin back in 2015 – she was one of two guests in a show called Politics is Power. She is a former governor of Vermont, a university professor and an author. If you haven’t heard that show I recommend it – you’ll find out much more about Madeleine’s political career there. She is intelligent and thoughtful and a great talker. When I heard she had a new memoir out about growing old, I jumped at the chance to talk to her again.

Her book is called Coming of Age – My Journey to the Eighties. 

AM-T: “You may allude to this in the text but…just picking my age…when you were in your forties did you think at all about being in your 80s?”

“No, it seemed miles away – I think until you begin to feel old and reach your 70s or 80s you still think you’re gonna live forever and that old age is a very distant mirage you don’t really believe is real. Of course I thought of it in terms of my mother and other relatives but I felt invincible in my forties.”

AM-T: “When did you start…did you start to feel a little less invincible in the last decade or so?”

“Yes, I guess so, I can’t pinpoint a date or a time. I guess when I began to feel my knees going up and down stairs I realized something new was happening – and maybe it’s bits of memory, you walk into a room and when you get there you can’t remember what you were looking for. So bits and pieces that make you feel your age. And then just the number. I remember I felt at 70, 70 felt very old, and when I reached 85, which is my present age, 85 didn’t seem related to me – 85 was somebody else, not me. But in the process of writing this book I took responsibility for my age.”

AM-T: “Yeah, well that brings me to my next question which is why did you decide to write about being in your 80s?”

“Well, I felt myself changing – my body, my mind, my emotions, and I also felt like a somewhat different person, it’s like I opened a new door like I could walk in and be more self- revealing. Having lived a public life for so many years where what I said and what I did was carefully scrutinized, and a politician develops a certain defense mechanism, you screen your words through a sieve so that you can omit anything controversial or that can get you into trouble.

As I approached my 80s I became more flamboyant and figured what have I got to lose? And I could explore my inner thinking and write poetry. I had written poetry off and on but very sporadically and suddenly the poetry muse sat on my shoulder, there she was, and poetry requires time and quiet and sustained thinking, something you can’t do ever in public life because you’re on a 15 minute chopped up schedule and you have to go onto the next thing and you also have to be careful, so I sort of enjoy being at the stage I’m in where I can be more free and self-revealing.”

AMT: “I wonder now watching the…a number of women have declared for Democratic candidates for president in 2020 and do you think that’s changed at all, do you think politicians can be a bit more real these days, or not really?”

“Well, I think that is to be seen. The good news is there are now four Democratic women…running for the Democratic nomination for president and they can’t be targets in the same way Hillary was. They still have to be somewhat careful but I don’t think they are as easily attacked. People said to me when Hillary was running I would vote for a woman but just not Hillary, I don’t like Hillary. Well now there are four women you can choose from and if you don’t like them all that makes you prejudiced. I think the variety is healthy. But I did know Kamala Harris wore a black suit, she may wear a black suit throughout the campaign because there’s only so much you can say about a black suit. The others will find their own comfort zone but the hope is they’ll stop talking about shoes and stockings and hair and fingernail polish and whatever it is they zone in on. I mean men just don’t get that attention about their attire, because it’s assumed what a man will wear, a dark suit, red tie, or a blue tie, that’s the end of the conversation. And I think one of the reasons people focus so much on how women look is they’re trying to find out who this woman is who’s competing for a man’s job…is she like a man, is she like a woman, is she tough enough, is she likeable enough? There’s still some extra baggage that women candidates for president have to carry.”

AMT: “I want to go back to you because I want make sure I cover some of the parts of your book I was most interested in and curious about. Well, I guess you can tell me if this is too personal, but when you parted from your first husband you’d been married for about 35 years, right?”


“And I remember you telling me before when I interviewed you that he was a supportive spouse when you were in public office, you probably couldn’t have done it without him…” 


“You were sixtyish when you parted ways, was it hard to be on your own or was it a relief or both?”

“Well I think it was hard to be on my own and somewhat a relief, but I think the actual parting of the ways is never easy in any divorce and I was very fortunate to have a wonderful second marriage, but my first husband was supportive of my getting into politics which I think is essential. It’s hard for a woman to be all on her own through the rigors of a campaign. You’re doing something very demanding and somewhat unusual still, so a partner has to be with you. But as I said my second husband also supported my writing and I couldn’t have written this book, Coming of Age, without my husband’s support. He was my backup and it also allowed me to take more risks in what I wrote about.”

She says she and her husband John made a great team. We’ll come back to their late-life partnership in a few minutes.

When Madelene became single for the first time in decades she was in her early sixties. She had finished her three terms as governor of Vermont. She had also taken on the role of US deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration. After she divorced, she was appointed US ambassador to Switzerland, the country where she was born in the early 1930s.

She was excited to go back, but when she got to her formal residence in Bern, she realized being an ambassador without a partner could be rather lonely.

“It was a new experience…in a way I had everything one could want – I had staff, maids, chauffeur, chef, but at the end of the day you are alone. As time went on I did find some good friends, swiss friends, I could pick up the phone and say do you want to go to a movie? I also had cousins…that was a source of strength there.”

Still, being a single woman felt awkward at times, especially in such a social role. She writes about a time when there was no available male ambassador to dance with at an annual ball she threw at the US embassy, so a Marine politely made himself available. She left early.

“I think my almost embarrassment applies to women in many situations and I was more self-conscious than anyone else. That was a hard night but most of my stay in Switzerland was happy. It was great to come back to the country where I was born. My mother brought my brother and I to America at the outbreak of WWII and we didn’t know whether Switzerland would be pulled into the War and occupied by Hitler. And we had the American dream, my mother was very optimistic, she said anything is possible in America and that carried me forward, I believed it when we got to the shores of America.”

AM-T: “Yeah, I’d read a little bit about your childhood but to read about what your mother went to when you were too young to remember, your father killed himself, he was depressed, and your mother was left with you and your brother to shepherd through the rest of your childhoods on her own.”

 “Well yes as I got older I grew in my appreciation of my mother’s courage and sense of adventure. She took us both on the ship that was vastly overcrowded as everyone was trying to leave Europe, and brought us to America. She was a gutsy woman and unfortunately she never lived to see me in public life.”

AM-T: “You talk a little bit about your relationship with money and how careful your mother was with money. Now obviously you weren’t destitute or you couldn’t have come to America, she must have had some money to live on but she parsed it out very carefully, is that right?

“Yes, that’s about right. we weren’t living in poverty but we didn’t have a big nest egg. My father had been a successful businessman. He imported shoes from the United States and elsewhere and so there was no panic, no suffering but she knew there was a limited amount and we were just missing little things I wished I had but weren’t essentials, like I wished I had piano lessons, I wished I’d had ballet. I was not really expected to go to college because my mother and the family didn’t go to university in Europe, but I knew I wanted to go – I found my way, there were no loans but you could work as a waitress for the summer and learn enough to get you through.

Which is just what she did. Madeleine says she felt relieved about money when she married a doctor…even though she’d supported herself until then, the pressure was off. She worried about money again when they split up. In fact she sometimes fantasized about stealing a loo roll from a public place, just in case. And she’s not the only one.

“I actually met somebody who said I did that, she stole or was tempted to steal a roll of toilet paper, you suddenly feel maybe I won’t have enough money to buy the essentials, of course I didn’t but the feeling your funds are limited, your options are limited, strikes a lot of women who are newly divorced, maybe I have to fend for myself…”

When Madeleine returned from her time Switzerland she settled back in Vermont. But she didn’t retire. She taught at the University of Vermont and elsewhere, she started Emerge Vermont, an organization to recruit and train Democratic women to run for office, she wrote…and she toyed with the idea of internet dating. She’d heard good things about it, but it felt uncomfortable, being a former governor putting up a dating profile. She never did it.

Then one day about ten years into being single, she met someone. He was someone she knew of – in fact they’d met years before. His name was John Hennessey and he’d been the dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He was a widower, and he and his wife had donated to Madeleine’s campaigns in the past. In the mid-2000s, he asked her if she’d like to get involved with an organization called Americans for Campaign Reform.

Now that doesn’t sound very romantic, but…

“Best decision I ever made to say yes to that invitation. And I hate to use ‘love at first sight,’ it’s such a cliché, but he met two of my criteria – one he was a Democrat, he and his wife had been very active Democrats in New Hampshire. And two he was a feminist, he referred to God as she, and I hadn’t developed that habit but it thrilled me of course when he said that, so we were very well matched and when we met again later for lunch I happened to have 2 tickets to the Vermont Symphony. I asked him if he’d like to come to the symphony that night and he prudently asked, what’s the program? And I said Beethoven’s Ninth, and that did it. So I really have to thank Beethoven.”  

AM-T: “What did it feel like falling in love again probably 50 years after you did it the first time?”

“It just felt natural, I don’t know, it was so easy, we moved in together, shared our furniture, we had no arguments, just as if we were on the same wavelength. The only thing was I had to give up my dog, my dog was not a very well-behaved dog and didn’t seem to like John, she’d jump up on him. She was a Swiss dog, a herding dog, not the ideal house pet, so I faced this quandary, John or the dog…obviously it was not much of a quandary, she went to a lovely farm in Montana where she lived happily ever after.”

Madeleine and John got married when she was 72 and he was 80. They traveled to India, England, Egypt, Italy—and lots of other places, enjoying eachother’s company and the fact they were so well matched, it was almost like they’d always known eachother. He’d come with her on all her book tours and take notes each time, keeping tabs on reactions to her speeches. People who saw them out together often assumed they’d been together for years.

They eventually downsized their home to an apartment in a retirement community in Vermont. That became especially convenient when John’s health began to go downhill. He had physical ailments but he also began to suffer from bouts of depression.

AM-T: “How did you find being a carer at the end of his life? A lot of your time was spent caring and worrying that he might fall and worrying about his health…”

“Well the first 8 or so years we saw the world together, we traveled, he was fine, he had never been depressed, so this happened near the end. He was a very upbeat person and he was a person who took women seriously; listened to them, questioned them and also advocated for them. He wouldn’t accept the deanship of the Tuck School unless they allowed women to be accepted at the school, and he got that. That was the proviso the school agreed with.

But being a carer is, it really depends on the two people involved. Love helps. If you really love someone you want to help them get better, you want to be with them, and that gave me strength that we had this love for eachother. But it’s also frustrating at times because there’s only so much you can do even as a loving caregiver. You can’t shake off depression, much as you try. You can for a moment distract and touch and be close but it’s a very hard thing to deal with. I think the most important thing is you don’t give up, that you’re close to the person you’re caring for and you get some respite. I was lucky that we live in a continuing care community, so I had help, which was very important.”

John died at the beginning of last year. He was 92.

Madeleine feels incredibly lucky to have had him in her life. She enjoys good health herself, which she admits is one of the key components of having a good old age.

 “A lot of your ability to enjoy life as you get older is dependent on your financial situation and on your health. Though some people conquer both but it’s true it’s much harder if you’ve got financial worries or a debilitating health situation, but even then you can still work around it. I see people in wheelchairs who give me a big smile. So I think the idea is carpe diem, enjoy the day, and my husband and I used to say that to eachother, carpe diem, and it’s inscribed in my wedding band.”

I asked Madeleine to elaborate on something she said earlier, about noticing how much she was changing in her 80s…how so?

“I’m just more thoughtful, I’m more internal rather than external, I’m writing serious poetry and to write poetry you have to dig deep, you can’t just talk about the obvious, you have to find words. I’m also more introspective. What I try to do but don’t always succeed is to live in the moment, to try to – you can still enjoy a sunset at 85 so I try to dwell on things of beauty, I still read a lot, l am lucky to have good friends. So when you know there’s not much time left you have to focus on what really gives you joy and what makes life meaningful. You can’t do it every day 24/7 but you can pinch yourself every once in a while when you get depressed and say stop, look what you’ve got, you’re so fortunate.” 

AM-T: “Is there anything you didn’t expect that you love about being in your 80s?”

“Well, that I can still be creative, that I can still enjoy things – it’s not what I had pictured in my mind. I remember going to an 80 year old man’s birthday party and thinking wow, that’s really old, and expecting him to be decrepit, and need help walking…and I see a lot of that, old people with some disability where I live, but I see others old people here who are lively, doing things, good conversationalists, so I think it doesn’t end at 80 or 85, as long as you’re still curious, as long as you’re still interested in new things, you can be happy.”

Madeleine Kunin. Her new book is called Coming of Age – My Journey to the Eighties.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I will link you to more information about Madeleine and her husband and to that last show I did with her under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

I said this a few years ago in a blog post and I’ve completely failed to do it…but I would love to interview more older women. Maybe you know someone in her 80s or 90s who comes from a totally different background than Madeleine who might be a good guest on the show. I’m always open to your suggestions – shoot me an email at ashley@thebroadexperience.com

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


Episode 140: The Coaching Cure, part 2: The Coachee

Show transcript:

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

This time, the second of two shows looking at women and the coaching industry.

How does a client pick a good coach?

“Even if somebody has all the certifications they still might not be very good, or they might be great. They might not have any certifications and they might be brilliant.”

And once you have chosen someone, you want that investment to work out.

“If you are paying more money, for the most part people tend to take things more seriously. They tend to trust the advice more, and they also tend to be more likely to follow through on it.”

Which is all very well if the coach is effective and ethical.

And we follow up on a coachee’s first experience of being coached at work.

“Getting curious about my emotions at work has changed the way I experience work, because it’s helped me be less emotional and diffuse the emotion that can pile up if I don’t address it.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

 So last time you heard the first of a two-part show on the coaching industry, and that show focused on the coaches themselves. If you haven’t heard that episode I recommend you start there – this show will just make a bit more sense if you listen to that one first.

Now I said last time that I have had a lot of questions about the coaching industry. I’ve wondered why it’s been growing so fast, why so many women are involved both as coaches and clients, and frankly I’ve wondered if some of it isn’t just too good to be true – self-improvement jargon sold to people who want change in some aspect of their lives.  

That said I’m also genuinely curious about what coaching can potentially do.  

You first met Anne Libby in a show that came out at the beginning of last year called A Year For Women. And you heard me teasing her newsletter in a promotion on a recent show. Now Anne is a management expert and consultant on all things management. I had a feeling she would have noticed the growth of coaching as an occupation, and I was right. In fact, it turns out she’s trained as a coach herself, even if she doesn’t coach that often. She says when it comes to the growing numbers of coaches out there…

“There are no barriers to entry. You know, I mean you can get a WordPress website up and running or you know a Squarespace or whatever, in less than three hours. You know, buy a domain name, put your coaching website up there and you're open for business. Now that doesn't mean that you're gonna be able to run it as a business. And again, like why are more women doing this? Because I also think that the path to feeling certified at it, which would be the next step, to get some training and whatnot, is something that we are attracted to. We want to be the best at school. And it's a prescribed series of steps that you can take in order to theoretically be able to do something like this as part of your living, or as a living.”

Not to mention the desire to help other people using your own hard won experience.

Still she says when she started working in banking in the ‘80s, helping employees grow and reach their potential…it was a given. Something that happened on the job.

“Coaching was a thing that your manager did for you. It wasn't like there was a coaching engagement. It wasn't like there was a separate person who was going to coach you. I would say sometimes I probably got coaching from H.R. executives as well. Having a problem employee, how should I handle this? I've never had to deal with this before. How should I handle it? So you've got coaching from a variety of people in an organization…”

But these days…

“… because corporations have skinnied out their sort of cadre of middle managers and H.R. exacts for that matter, the kind of people who were functionally coaching and developing me…”

Are just not there in the same numbers. The journalism site Pro Publica has been looking at the numbers of people in their 50s being laid off and not being able to find another, permanent job in the US workforce. Anne works with young leaders in her consulting practice, but she suspects there are far fewer 50 and 60-somethings around today to provide the kind of on-site coaching she got as a young employee.    

“And yet this seasoning that you get between age 40 and age 55 both in life and beyond, in life and in your professional experience is a rich thing to bring to younger people and share with them. And the expectation back in the day was you would do that. And people did do that. People invested hundreds and thousands of hours in helping me to develop as a manager.”

“I have not really had that experience with managers in my career. There have been very few people who have coached me while I worked for them.”

That’s Danielle Sauve. She started working in the early 2000s. You met her at the end of the last show and in a few minutes we’ll hear what happened during her own coaching engagement. But to Anne’s point, Danielle says that kind of encouraging, open relationship with a manager isn’t anything she’s ever had.  

And the reason for that isn’t just down to the fact there are fewer middle managers than there used to be. You heard Terry Maltbia of Columbia University’s coaching program in the last show. He says the workplace has changed in many ways in the last few decades…

“As I observe what’s happening in the world of work, most recently 2008, but I noticed even from the early 80s when I started work to the 90s to the early 2000s that with each passing decade there were fewer and fewer resources and focus on development, people and human and organizational development.  A lot of that was being outsourced. There were fewer and fewer internal resources for developing managers, developing people therefore, and so I think what has happened, is, one of the things that makes coaching popular is it’s filling a void.” 

Perhaps especially for women. A few of you have brought this up with me. You’ve pointed out women traditionally haven’t had a lot of mentorship, or sponsorship. They haven’t had as many people looking out for them at work as their male colleagues. So no wonder we look to outside sources for support and advice.

And I’ll add to that and say I bet coaching is also meeting a need for independent workers like me. Huge numbers of people today are not traditionally employed…many of us are freelance or own our own businesses. We’re on our own. We don’t have a manager or a colleague to consult if we’re flailing around in our careers. In previous reporting I’ve done I spoke to a small business owner who swore by her coach. She said without that person to hold her to account and keep her on track, her business just would not be as successful.

But how do any of us who are paying for our own coach – how do we choose the right person? Conventional wisdom says you should check the coach has certifications. But Terry Maltbia of Columbia University told me none of the coaches who teach on his prestigious coaching program have certificates. They’ve been it as too long. Before there were many training programs out there. Plus, nowadays there are so many training programs, so many different certificates, it’s dizzying. Anne agrees.

“Even if somebody has all the certifications they still might not be very good, or they might be great. They might not have any certifications and they might be brilliant. I mean I think the most important thing is that if you are thinking about engaging with somebody who calls themself a coach they should be able to explain their process to you. They should be able to answer questions for you about what you are going to get out of it. The coach should be able to tell you how you will spend time together and what kind of work you will be doing during that time and what kind of work you'll be doing in the off hours, and in the case of people who are being coached through their workplaces, there should be a transparent and clear idea of how the different stakeholders will be involved in the entire process of coaching. That’s what I would say to anybody who is thinking about getting a coach who's cynical about it, because there are good coaches out there and you can have good results from it. But if you are discouraged from asking questions about how the coach plans for you to achieve those results and what those results will be and look like, then you probably should move on to the next one and you should probably be allowed to talk to people who’ve work with that coach as well, not just the reference on the website, but to actually talk with them.”

The International Coach Federation urges people to interview at least three coaches before you decide on one to work with. I will link you to their checklist under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

Christine Whelan is a clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among other things, she’s a longtime researcher on the self-help industry.

I got on the phone with her recently. She says coaching can be a great experience, but there are some caveats.  

“The danger with coaching that I think is also a danger of self-help in general is that after a certain point, you have done the work with the client that you know how to do. And then of course you want to keep working with them. Then you may overreach in terms of what your skill set allows you to do. So when a coach who does not have a psychotherapy background or a marriage and family therapy background oversteps into realms that they're really not qualified to talk about there could be some detrimental results. Now on the other hand think about the close friendships you have. Most of the time our best friends can often act as our coaches and we full well know that they have no official expertise in a lot of the things they're saying. But good advice from somebody who is simply listening and reflecting back to you is very valuable as well.”

Christine isn’t surprised that coaching has become such a part of workplace culture. 

“For centuries, and probably millennia, the most powerful and elite have always had coaches. If you think about elite athletes, if you think about successful business folks at the highest echelons, having somebody who can be your sounding board, having somebody who can offer you advice on your ascent to power is really very, very valuable. So I think two things happened in the last 15 or so years. There has been a democratization of that process to try to bring coaching to as many people as possible, to make it more affordable, to make it less and less of something that is only offered within the C suite and something that is more for everybody. And then there is also the element of a more potentially business socially acceptable approach to self-improvement. So yes, this is where it does intersect with self-help a bit. There are many men in particular who would not be caught dead reading a self-help book, but they would be happy to tell you that they're meeting with their coach.” 

And another thing that’s interesting about our relationship with a coach versus say, a self-help book…is the price difference, and how that affects our behavior.

“So in behavioral psychology we look at this as credible and costly commitments to behavior change. So if you are buying a ten dollar book that is a lower cost commitment to actually changing your behavior than if you are paying up to several thousand dollars for a one on one coaching session, and if you are paying more money, for the most part people tend to take things more seriously. They tend to trust the advice more. They also tend to be more likely to follow through on it because otherwise you're just throwing money down the drain.” 

She says this isn’t always true of course. Think of all the gym memberships that start in January and then it’s direct debit for months, often with little use. But on the whole she says if we pay for a seminar or hire a coach we’re gonna be much keener to incorporate what we learn into our lives.

And that’s great, IF the relationship is healthy and the coach sticks to ethical practices. But it’s not so good if a coachee is vulnerable and desperate for help and picks a coach who wants to make a sale - but doesn’t have their best interests at heart. And this does sometimes happen. Christine says any client should be wary of a coach who has a ‘my way or the highway’ approach. For anyone looking to invest in any type of self-help-related activity, she recommends checking out a site called Seek Safely – she’s on the board on the organization.

“So yes, it can absolutely prey on vulnerable people. All industries can. But if we have some of these guidelines to educate consumers, to help consumers ask and answer the questions about whether they are being kept safe emotionally and physically in the process, then I think we can really minimize a lot of the shysters out there and their effect on people.”

And there’s no indication that our interest in coaching is going away. Almost everyone wants to live a better life, be a better person at home and at work. And Christine says talking about that is more acceptable than it’s ever been.

“There are some fundamental assumptions that we have that are very different than those our great grandparents would have had, which is that everybody has problems and it's not bad to have problems but it's bad to not talk about them, that by acknowledging your problems you are a stronger, a better person and we should all really be open talk about our challenges and work toward improving them. Really this is part of the air we breathe now to the point where when I lay these before my students they say, well of course that's true. And so often I try to send them back to their oldest living relatives, to ask them whether that relative would indeed say, of course that's true. And they come back rather perplexed when they say, Well, my great grandmother said no, you shouldn't talk about your problems and you should always put on a face of competency and just go about your work and don't think too much about it. And they were just utterly perplexed that anybody would have such an idea.

So yes, we have had a real cultural change in terms of how we look at personal improvement. When I did my doctoral work on the self-help industry I showed in numeric terms that self-help books have doubled as a percentage of all books in print in the United States since 1970. There is a huge interest out there and coaching and all the, the rise of so many different kinds of coaches of all walks of life, that’s a product of that as well.”

Christine Whelan.  

In a minute we find out what happened when Danielle Sauvé took up her company’s offer of leadership coaching.  Stay tuned.  

When she was in her twenties Danielle Sauvé had been hoping for a life in theater – her job as an assistant in marketing, it was just that. A job. She definitely was not leaning in.  

“I haven’t been the kind of person to ever plan a quote-unquote career. For me working was for many years just a day job and then I realized I had to double down in one area of my life and not spread myself so thin, and so started to put more effort and commitment into my work…but I never planned any of those moves, I may have had ideas, and I may have said to the CEO in the elevator once, I’d love to work for you one day, and he took me up on that. But for me that’s not a plan, that’s an opportunistic move.”

So she’s beavering away at a good marketing job at a big company in the Midwest. And one day a senior woman she admires offers to fix her up with an executive coach. She’s starting a pilot program to coach promising women, and she thinks Danielle has a lot of potential. Danielle thinks, sure, why not?

AM-T: “Just one thing I want to check on…was this coaching, was it presented to you as we’re offering this in part to help you serve the company better? Like the new, improved you will be a better worker?” VOICE

“No, it was never about helping me serve the company better. That was made clear to me from the beginning and as part of the objectives of our pilot, the company recognized it was taking a risk specifically by developing women who were leaders, and giving them more tools or developing them as people to be better leaders, period. That to me is definitely very important. Another way they put it in the pitch, was that coaching is really aimed at women navigating all the stress they’re feeling when they’re in a workplace because they have so many more stresses typically with domestic duties and family responsibilities than men experience in the workplace, not to mention any type of discrimination or harassment they may be facing.”

So Danielle starts sessions with her coach, a woman called Annie. They have an hour call once every two weeks. And once she starts talking about work with her coach, her coach begins to challenge her on some of the ways she’s been thinking.   

“The best thing for me was identifying the inner critic which is that little voice in your head that tells you careful, your skirt might be too short, or did you forget to brush your teeth this morning? Anything that makes you feel less than up to the task of the day. Realizing, for me, that that little voice is something that I can turn off or ignore, and it’s not something that’s helping me so I should not listen to it, was really helpful in boosting my confidence and helping me feel like I was less emotionally susceptible to the things that happened to me at the office whether that was receiving feedback I didn’t want to get, or bad news, or extra work, or someone slighting me. By learning to quiet that voice, and remind myself of truths about my capabilities and my skills, that really was what changed the way I started to interact with my colleagues, and my boss, and even the people that reported to me.”

For example, she approached her boss one day and started asking about what might come next for her at the company. Something she’d never done in the past. 

“I simply got curious about what a next move might mean for me and I said so how does this work, do I need to wait to be tapped on the shoulder by you to say Danielle, we think there’s something else we think the business needs you to do that would be more valuable for the business? Or do I need to tell you I would like to do something new and here are some ideas I have, I’m not unhappy, I just need to know how this works. And I don’t think I would even have had this conversation if I had not gone through this coaching. Because I would have just waited for something to come to me. So to me that was a big change. And I’ll give you one more example. I think this coaching has made me much more aware of my feelings and helped me stop just pushing aside my feelings, my emotions, that I think many women are told to do at the office, just put your feelings aside, it’s not about how you feel…but instead by using the opposite approach of why do I feel these feelings, why do I feel so overwhelmed right now, what is bothering me, did someone say something to me, am I really upset about this thing? Getting curious about my emotions at work has changed the way I experience work, because it’s helped me be less emotional and diffuse the emotion that can pile up if I don’t address it. So I actually get way fewer headaches than I used to have, I used to get headaches every week. Which is a real benefit honestly for my quality of life. So that would be a big thing.”

She says as well helping to lower her stress levels, the coaching helped her become more honest with herself about what she wanted…and that led to becoming more honest with other people as well.

“As a mom of four it’s very easy to not think of myself as the main thing – like I have all these responsibilities and obligations, oh, the laundry’s not done, there are so many ways to fill my mind with things I should be doing, or things I should want, all these other people’s expectations. The idea that I need to pay attention to my emotions and be honest with people about how I’m feeling and what I do want. There have been managers in my past who have asked well, what do you want to do?”

And she never had a good answer for them. She just wasn’t used to focusing on…her.

But she’s getting used to it, and that played out recently in a big way. She was approached with an offer to take on a new role.  

“…and I wasn’t actually very excited about it and I really couldn’t hide it because it was all over my face. But because of the coaching I was able to reframe the conversation and help the person making me the offer to see my perspective and in the past I might have just said OK, I’ll take that role and I’ll do what you want me to do even though it could feel like a step back or like I might not be learning something or I might not be very happy. And instead I was honest with the person giving me this offer and said, I just don’t think I would really learn anything but what about these other two ideas. So I suggested a couple of things I thought I would really enjoy to do. And one of them was a really big move for me. And he didn’t like the one, but he did like the other, he liked the big move for me, and that’s what I’m doing. So now I’ll be a vice president, I’ll be on the executive team, I’ll be the first female business leader on the executive team, next to HR, and that’s a really, really big move for me, I’m moving from managing a team of a couple of people in strategy into real operational management for marketing, with  a team of close to 40 people…and it’s in another country!”

Danielle and her entire family – husband, 4 kids, the eldest is a teenager, they’re moving to Belgium this summer, where her new job will be based. And she’s not sure any of this would have happened without the confidence she gained during coaching.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Danielle Sauvé, Anne Libby, Terry Maltbia and Christine Whelan for being my guests on this show. Thanks also to Abby Heverin of the International Coach Federation for answering my endless questions via email.  

I will be posting show notes under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com because there’s actually some stuff about coaching we didn’t get to in these shows, believe it or not. And I’d love to hear about your experience of coaching. You can email me via the website or tweet me or post on the Facebook page.

Thanks again to all those of you who have contributed to this one-woman show. If you can afford to give 50 bucks I will send you the official Broad Experience T-shirt. Ladies cut. You can view that on the website.

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

Episode 138: Focus Amidst the Chaos

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 us have an idea – a project – something we want to get off the ground alongside our regular work life. But so often, we can’t quite make it happen.   

“It is absolutely possible to make this year the year that you make the big thing, that everything changes for you. But YOU have to make those changes. You can’t just wish it or decide it, you have to actually take action.”

How to prioritize that idea you’re always talking about…coming up on The Broad Experience. 

Before we get into the show, a quick word about a former guest. I know a lot of you lead a team.  When you’re a manager, your work is about more than just the work.  It’s about managing human relationships, and enabling your team to get things done, and thrive.  

It’s not always easy!  People Management is skill that you develop, over time, when you make the commitment to learn.

You can find Anne Libby’s free monthly newsletter On Management at people dot substack dot com.  Each month, you’ll learn about how good managers do their work, and ways you can practice and learn.  Noted management expert Anne Libby* also interviews experts and practitioners, and writes and curates recommended reading for you about people management and workplace trends.

The internet is full of advice.  Some of it is BS.  On Management is practical, topical, and smart -- it’s like getting a monthly email from an experienced mentor.  Or your cool aunt.  You can find it at people dot substack dot com.      

At the start of a new year a lot of us are thinking about clearing the decks of old habits, forging new ones. We’re thinking about ways we want to improve our lives – we tell ourselves we really WILL launch that business on the side this year, or start writing that book we’ve been thinking about, or launch that podcast, or just make an old-fashioned photo album – something for us. Something WE really want to do.  

Yet it can be so hard to make those creative projects happen in the midst of work and life, and other people’s needs. I have had my photos printed out for a year. I have not made the album. Often our good intentions fall by the wayside amidst all the demands coming from the outside world. My guest this week knows all about that. 

“I am Jessica Abel, and I am a cartoonist, I’m also the author of a number of books, both prose and comics.”

Jessica is a fully fledged professional creative. On top of her writing and drawing she teaches as well, and she coaches people on how to actually make space in their lives to achieve their creative dreams, whether that’s starting a new business or writing a novel. She’s also married and has two kids. 

Most of her clients are also women.

“I do work with a majority of women and I think women have this issue more strongly than men do…this feeling of obligation to everyone else in their lives more than themselves. They don’t think they have the right to spend time on their book or their paining or whatever it is until they’ve checked all the boxes and everyone is OK. And the fact is no one is ever gonna be OK. There’s always gonna be something else to do. Why do we feel that way, well I think there’s a lot of socialization that goes into that but I feel we also reinforce it ourselves. We tell ourselves this. It’s easier to do something that feels like you’re fulfilling an obligation to someone else than it is to truly believe that your own work is important. To truly feel like that’s the thing – that you deserve equal weight.”

Again, this goes back to what can be a major difference between the sexes – confidence and the belief that you deserve things. That holing up in your study or your lab or your studio, being away from other obligations…it will bring its own rewards.

“This kind of thinking applies both in the professional realm and what we think of as the personal realm. So if your goal on the professional side is to grow your consulting business, you still have to think of the strategic things you should be doing, you need to get your head out of the day to day clamour of email and demands and responding to what people are asking of you…and spend time on what you think of as important and strategic and have to move things forward. That is the same process as you want to start painting again because it makes you happy, and you have to decide that time spent on your painting is as important as organizing your children’s lunchboxes or whatever…that it’s OK for you to let them be disorganized.”

And we’ll come back to that idea of letting things go in a minute.

I’d recently read one of Jessica’s blog posts on her own sometimes frenzied existence. And she described this situation which is probably familiar to a lot of other freelance creatives. You like creating things – so you make something, complete a project, and almost instantly you move on and start creating something else. You don’t implement a marketing plan for the last self-published book you wrote or course you designed – you just jump right into the next thing. You don’t allow yourself any time to sit and ponder what’s important about the project you just completed, or what maybe didn’t work and shouldn’t be repeated.

Jessica says for her, this rushing into the next thing, the lack of reflection…

“…that all comes out of scarcity and scarcity thinking - scarcity of time and money. So it’s not so much that I’m deeply inspired by the next project…maybe I really wanna do it, but my frenzy to jump into the next thing comes from if I’m not working, if I’m not killing myself, I’m gonna end up a bag lady. Things are gonna fall apart. You know, this is anxiety that comes out of a sense of what I’m doing is not enough, it’s not gonna be OK, so I have to keep running as fast as I can. And allowing yourself the space to be creative and to think and to be strategic and to figure out what the end result of one thing is before you move onto the next thing is super scary, really scary, because you have to allow white space in your life and in your calendar.”

Think about that for a minute. To so many of us the mere idea of white space sounds like a luxury. But she’s right. It’s something anyone who has to come up with ideas needs in their life. It’s why we shouldn’t over-schedule ourselves. But only we can put that empty block on our calendars. And doing that probably means NOT doing something else. And that’s where it gets tricky.

Jessica says there are lots of ways our creative endeavors or side hustles can go off track. She’s borrowed a couple of terms from other writers.

“…this term that I got from Kazu Kibuishi …’idea debt.’ All the things you have stored up, you start working on one and the other one jumps up and distracts you from it, so you never get to focus on any one thing. Then you have open loops…and that’s all the little commitments you’ve made to yourself and to other people, they’re literally sitting around your space right now, like just look down and you’ve got some. Tabs on your browser, stuff you wanted to buy but haven’t, emails, little notes. I’m looking at my computer right now and there’s a post-it on my computer telling me what to do today…which is open loops, right? So if you haven’t decided which of those things you’re gonna do and which of these things you’re not gonna do, because I’m sorry to tell you, but you are never gonna finish your to do list. It’s sad but true. It will never happen.”

AMT: “Yeah, I hate that, I love ticking boxes.”

“Yes. It’s deeply satisfying. So that’s one of the biggest problems. I could spend my morning ticking off all these boxes and feeling so efficient. Or I could spend 2 hours sitting with myself and considering what my next step is.”

AMT: “It’s easier to check off the boxes, frankly.”

“It absolutely is. But if you don’t spend the time thinking about what you want to be doing you’re gonna spend time doing whatever is thrown at you and nothing more than that.”

I have been a prime example of this lately. Prioritizing the daily things that come at me via email, or that I put on my to-do list…telling myself I’ll get to my creative project – otherwise known as this show – later in the afternoon…but somehow the daily stuff is still being dealt with at 5p.m. Then another day goes by, more stuff comes in, I tackle that, and so on.

Jessica says one way to escape this trap is to edit your to-do list.  

“If you have a to-do list that is too full for your day, that you cannot do all the things on your to-do list, and by the way I have that every single day…I do it to myself constantly. If you do that you will feel like a failure at the end of the day. If you don’t get control of that, if you don’t decide what you plan to do, what your top three things for tomorrow are the night before, and cut your list down to a doable amount of things, you’re gonna end the day feeling like you suck. So why are you doing that to yourself? So this triage and sorting and conscious decision making is step one of taking control of all this stuff, and it doesn’t matter how busy you are, you still only have 168 hours a week, so if you’re putting 200 hours of stuff on your list…it won’t happen. Just decide, which things really will and which won’t. Decide - it’ll put you in the driver’s seat in way you have not been in the past.”

Jessica says once you begin to take control of your time and make time for the project you’ve set your sights on, it helps you believe in the work and believe it’s real. And you’re more likely to keep doing it. That’s not to say that it’s easy.

“Anyone may be in a situation where you may desperately want write a novel or start a podcast and you only have a couple of hours to work on it per week, probably broken up into bits. And it’s gonna go slow, it’s gonna be really hard. But at least if you decide this is my time, I have this, you can use it as a base to move forward.”

AMT: “And part of that, part of the first thing you talked about is also this business of particularly with women, valuing ourselves and valuing the work we want to do – because so many times there will be that voice in your head saying that you’re selfish, these other things and these other people are more important than your dream project.”

“Yes, exactly. So I think it’s incredibly common especially for women…imagine the scenario. Having a Saturday say, and Saturday afternoon your kid has a ballgame of some kind. You can go to the ballgame which is what’s required of you by society or you can stay home and work on your book. How does it feel to you to say no, I’m not gonna go to your ballgame, I’m gonna stay and work on my book? Everyone’s gonna be fine but you feel like you suck as a mother. Or you need to lower the standards for cleanliness in your home…that’s tough for a lot of people. I’m failing as an adult woman if my house isn’t sparkling. These are moments where you’ll say, who am I to say this book means anything? Nobody’s asking for it, nobody knows it exists. How can you stand in your strength and say no, writing this book is the most important thing I can do for myself, and I’m going to let everything else fall by the wayside for this time when nobody’s telling you it’s any good or that they need it? It’s an incredibly difficult conundrum. It starts by acknowledging that it’s happening. It feels wrong but intellectually you know it’s right, so you’re just gonna go with it.”

AMT: “Hearing you talk about this, I mean some people will think…whether it’s a novel or another project, well but what if this doesn’t pay off for me? Let’s face it, many novels do not sell well, especially when you’re a first time author…many people’s fears I assume will be what if I do lay aside this time and then ultimately I spend hours and hours and what will add up to weeks and weeks over some years, and then the project doesn’t really work out…I can imagine a lot of people thinking that.” 

“Absolutely. I think that’s absolutely true that people do think about that end result. The answer to that is asking yourself the question of what is your goal here? Is it to sell a lot of books, is it to be famous? If it is, that’s legit, you can have that goal. But you have to be aware that you don’t have total control over that. If you want to sell a lot of books you can do a lot towards that goal to do with marketing. And then you can set yourself the task of writing the book and marketing it. But you don’t have control over that. If the action of writing the book is not something that’s going to satisfy something in you that’s really important, then maybe you don’t want to do it, maybe you don’t want to do this thing. You have to find that internal motivation for doing the work, you have to feel the work itself is important enough to do it. Being a professional creative is incredibly hard. I mean you know this, right? It’s unbelievably hard to do this for a living. If you can do anything else and be happy with it, then do that. It’s easier to do almost anything else than this, professionally speaking. But if you feel in yourself the deep desire to make the work you have to separate that from the piece of becoming professional. Making the work is one thing, but is it enough, yes or no? Either answer is fine, but you need to know. And then you want to become professional at it? That’s a separate project. So many people want to make something creative and they imagine if you make it they will come, and it will just translate into being a professional, because it’s so excellent. Which is just not true. The job of making the work support you is huge…and in some ways even bigger than making the work itself.”

What she just said about deciding the work is important enough to do regardless of outcome – that’s what I decided when I began this show. But I often struggle to get it out on time when family commitments and other work take over. Or am I just letting them take over? I don’t teach all year but when I do I’m always surprised by how much time that work takes up. And I told Jessica, I feel I have to put this other work first because it pays me so much more than the podcast. And I would not be popular at home if I spent my weekends tending to my podcast baby the way I used to when I lived by myself.  

“No, that’s a real thing. That’s the kind of painful no you have to face. If you say no to a freelance assignment you say no to money. No can be saying no to your husband or stepchild, I can’t hang out today…no can be to your podcast because you’re doing other things, all of those things are painful, those are tradeoffs that are really hard. So the second piece of this is the calendar piece, it’s looking at how are you spending your time, what are your priorities depending on how you’re spending your time. One of the biggest things that’s transformational for my students and clients is time tracking, it is literally writing down what are you doing all day, then getting conscious and making decisions. Teaching, when you talk about that taking up more time than you think it takes, well, if you tracked it you’d know how much time it took…and then you could account for it going forward instead of looking backward saying oh man, that really came out of left field. That’s kind of the other piece.”

Jessica says we don’t have to do it all at once – we can start taking control of small things one at a time. She says in the end we CAN do what we want with our lives.

“I say that knowing there’s all sorts of people yelling at whatever they’re listening on, saying no, it’s not true for me, I have three children, I have a chronic illness, it’s not possible. I completely acknowledge there are differences between lots of people’s life circumstances and a lot of stuff is not fair, there are lots of circumstances we need to deal with, it’s not an even playing field. But within your own life structure you can move things forward within the limits of what’s in your life, and you can change then what it’s made of.”

But you taking control of some of the chaos is key. Intending to do so isn’t enough.

“A lot of people are gonna be thinking about resolutions and trying to make big changes in your life…clean slate, start over, make everything better, but unless you are actually taking steps to change your engagement with the things on your list, the things you intend to do, the things you’ve been doing, nothing changes – you can’t just decide you’re gonna make this big project this year and not change the structure of how your life works. If you intended to do it last year and it didn’t happen, something happened. You have to say no to other stuff, or nothing changes. I want your listeners to understand it is possible to make this year the year you make the big thing, that everything changes for you, but it’s you who has to make those changes, you can’t wish it or decide it, you have to actually take action.”

AMT: “Affirmations in the morning just won’t cut it.”

“No, I mean there’s nothing wrong with a good gratitude practice. That is a good idea but that is the starting point. Then you actually have to face the hard stuff. Which is making decisions about what you want to do and more importantly what you do not want to do, what you are not going to do. Make those decisions. Then put that in a calendar that actually conforms to the time/space continuum.”

Jessica Abel. She is the author of many books including her latest, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. I will link you to more information about Jessica and some of her writing under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

That’s the last show of 2018. Thanks as ever for listening. If you’d like to kick in to support this one-woman show I would really appreciate it. Just click on the ‘support’ tab at TheBroadExperience.com. Thanks so much to all of you who have done that this year, including my sustaining members who pledge something every single month. Some of you have been doing this for years. I’m very grateful.

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

Episode 139: The Coaching Cure, part 1: The Coach

Show transcript:

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

This time…the coaching industry has exploded in recent years. And it’s dominated by women.

“Women in our corporations are dealing with a lot of bias that men are not dealing with. So they seek out help to acknowledge what they’re experiencing, whether it’s ‘I got fired on maternity leave,’ or ‘I am being overlooked for this promotion.”

And as anyone who’s sought out a coach knows, their services are an investment…

“I never really thought about hiring an executive coach, I’ve met executive coaches, but it always appeared to me they were very, very expensive, and I had excluded myself mentally from being the kind of person who would enlist an executive coach myself.”

But what value do we place on improving our lives – in and out of work?

“Sometimes, when people are skeptical of price there is always this thing to me of like well, what's the value of spending an hour or more a week with a person whose sole focus it is, is on you and what you want from your life. That's not nothing.”

Today, the first of two shows looking at women and the coaching industry.  

A few years ago when I still was in the habit of blogging regularly…I wrote a post called Everyone’s a Coach. Because that’s how it felt to me. Ever since I’d started doing the show in 2012 and spent more time plugged into this world of women and the workplace, I’d noticed just how many social media profiles of women there were saying they were a coach – very often, specializing in helping women realize their full potential. Now I have nothing against helping women realize their potential – of course. But as the months and years went by I was struck by the sheer numbers of women I was meeting in person or online who introduced themselves with the title ‘coach.’ I thought, but how can all these women be coaches? Is there enough demand for their services, and if so, why?   

 I’ll also admit that some of the relentless positivity of those profiles as well the pitches I was getting from coaches…it just didn’t sit well with me. It seemed too woo-woo for this cynical Brit. It was hard for me to buy into a lot of that personal growth industry lingo. That said I AM someone who believes in paying for help or advice if I need it. I don’t think I can solve all my own problems or issues. I do believe it’s helpful to have a total outsider’s point of view.

 The coaching industry is growing fast all around the world – the International Coach Federation estimates coaching brought in more than two billion dollars in global revenue in 2015, the last year for which figures are available—that was up almost 20 percent from a few years earlier. The industry is unregulated. And anyone can call themselves a coach regardless of whether they’ve done any training or not.

ICF defines coaching as the process of partnering with clients to help them maximize their personal and professional potential. And who wouldn’t want to do that?

Women it turns out are especially keen. We are the majority of coaches and the majority of clients. Many of us are paying out of our own pockets for a coach’s services and coaching does not come cheap.

But being a coach isn’t necessarily easy either – it can be incredibly rewarding work, but doing it for a living means developing serious sales skills and having a lot of happy clients to recommend your services.

I know from asking about this on the Facebook page that some you have hired coaches and benefited tremendously from the relationship. Meanwhile others are wary.

There’s a lot to discuss so I’m breaking this topic into two shows.

 In this first show we’re going to focus on a couple of women who do coaching work – one part-time, one full-time. We are going to meet a trainer of coaches. And I am going to ask everyone rude questions about money.

Kate Schutt is a musician by training and by trade. And for the last several years, she’s also been a coach. She was a serious athlete in college so the whole concept of having a coach to help you do better, it’s something she’s very familiar with. She lives in New York City.

Now Kate isn’t a business coach or an executive coach – she’s not focusing exclusively on a client’s performance at work…

“So I like to call myself, the easiest explanation is a life coach but I've kind of narrowed it a little bit to saying I'm a change coach.”

AMT: “And what does that mean?”

“I help people who are at a transition point in their life figure out what comes next. Or in fact I'd like to change that wording. I like to help them create what comes next.”

About ten years ago Kate stumbled across the term life coach online. She hadn’t heard it before. But it resonated with her.

“That really made sense to me because I had spent most of my life being coached and I knew the difference between a good coach and a bad coach. Everybody does. And you know as I started to explore it for myself it became something that I thought hmmm, I think I’d like to try this with other people.”

AMT: “Something you said just there, you said everyone knows the difference between a good and a bad coach, I disagree. I don’t think everyone does. Tell me from your perspective what is the difference between a good and a bad coach?” 

“Good catch, of course, I’m thinking from my own perspective. I projected that. What is the difference between a good and a bad coach? Challenge you, challenge you to think differently about how you’re showing up in the world. Challenge you to take action. I think that would probably be the biggest thing is taking action in your life towards the goals and things that you say you want.”

In 2010 Kate was at a crossroads. Struggling as a musician and feeling she was working like crazy but not seeing any progress. She says she needed someone to give her an outsider’s perspective and some guidance on how to think about what she was trying to do. She found a coach who turned out to be great for her. She says he helped her step back from all the negative thoughts and self-hatred she often had about not being where she thought she should be in her music career, her fears about not being a devoted enough musician. He encouraged her to see herself in a different light. And as she kept working with him she began to think, I’m getting so much out of this. How do I become this same kind of coach? She felt she was cut out for the work.

“I had always been and still am to a large extent the person in my world who people come to for advice about aspects of their life, their career, I’d like to think I have a very level head. I’ve done a lot of seeking in my life, I’ve had a lot of experiences. I’ve tested myself in many ways, so that…I bring everything to the table.”

When Kate started her coaching practice she worked mostly with women clients…which is typical for a lot of coaches.

“…and then through my conversations with people and just doing it for longer I have had more men come on board which is, I love it. It's very challenging. It's different. I find it very different.”

AMT: “How?”

“The question. The questions, to me…this is gonna be a blanket statement which we will probably get some comments about but women seem to be able to answer more readily the tough questions or the challenging questions or the questions that are like…

Maybe I ask them to take an action or something and they didn't do it or something like that and I say you know, what scared you about that?

Sometimes women seem to be able to answer that question or at least be willing to try and work with me through that and usually the men I work with…it takes a little longer to get there and I'm patient. We'll get there. But I don't think they're as good at off-the-cuff seeing themselves. Is this a terribly gendered response that I'm going to wish I never said?”

AMT: “I don’t think we’re gonna be shouted out of town. I hope not. But yeah, that speaks to the whole idea of self-reflection and self-examination. And I do think on the whole women, and I’m just gonna say that, on the whole women spend more time in their heads looking at themselves and their lives than men do.”

It’s interesting when you look at the statistics collected by ICF – the International Coach Federation. Their last survey showed that almost 70 percent of life coaching clients are women.

So after imploring her coach to get her started on the road to becoming a coach herself, he began giving Kate books to read, and more books – all of which she devoured.

“…and finally after that when he could see I was so eager he just said you should go take the Creativity Coaching Association's courses. I said Okay, great, what's that? So I Googled it, looked good, I signed up for the courses, I started taking them, and to be honest I never finished. I took all the courses you could take and the only thing I had to hand in to get my piece of paper from the Creativity Coaching Association was a book report on a number of books. Now I read anywhere between 80 to over 100 books a year. And for some reason or other I just couldn't make myself do that book report. So I actually never got a certificate from the Creativity Coaching Association but I think that, to me it doesn’t have to do with a piece of paper. It has to do with the coach’s outlook on life and how they view the world and how they propose to get you to where you say you want to go. And are they doing it in their own life? Is their own life a reflection of that?”

Which to be fair, may be a little bit hard for a prospective client to work out. Not all clients will ask those kinds of questions. They may feel they need help – NOW – and just plunge into the relationship.

Talking of plunging in, coaching is a one-on-one engagement and as such it tends to be quite pricey for an individual. Kate doesn’t coach full-time, she’s still busy as a singer/songwriter. And clients usually need to pay at least a few thousand dollars to work with her.

Kate says this whole business of rates and how much to charge can certainly be fraught. But she thinks most independent professionals – including her when she started her coaching practice – undervalue themselves and the work they do. 

“I'd say that our culture has this fantasy that everybody should do everything on their own and that you know advice isn't something you should necessarily pay for. And there's this element I guess when sometimes, when people are skeptical of price or that's shocking to them or whatever it is to them, there is always this thing to me of like well, what's the value of spending an hour or more a week with a person whose sole focus it is on you and what you want from your life. That's not nothing.”

Plus she says think about how many different types of professionals have coaches to help them perform at their peak.

“Coaches have always existed in some form, like, you would never become an Olympian without a coach, you would never become a great violinist, or the greatest musicians we love, they have coaches they just don't…they’re not called coaches they're called teachers, but that's a coach. If you want to be better at being yourself and doing your life, it costs something.”

Rachel Garrett is a women’s leadership coach, also based in New York City. She worked in the corporate world for 15 years and like Kate, she was the person friends and colleagues turned to for career advice. Unlike Kate, Rachel does coaching full-time. It’s her bread and butter. She and I met up in Brooklyn recently.

AMT: “When you left your company what level were you at?”

“I was director of digital marketing. The director level worked well for me, and yet I had two small children at the time, so I saw some of the folks who were more senior were having a hard time juggling their parenting and their career. That was one of the challenges, and that’s one of the challenges that my clients face, is that when they get to the destination of the more senior roles they find it hard to put the time in with their families. And that’s been the most exciting work I’m doing with clients is let’s change the destination, let’s show how you can create different boundaries, how you can prioritize your family, and it’s not just about you and your family, it’s modeling it for the other women who are coming up in your organization as well.”

AMT: “It is a little bit ironic that you were a senior woman in corporate and you’re now coaching women to try and help them get to that position, but you left your position to do that. So you’re one less senior woman in corporate now.”

“It’s true. And that’s something I think about a lot with my clients, you need to find what works for you. I knew building a business was always something I wanted to do…whereas a lot of my clients are really thrilled to be part of an organization, they want to build that structure. So what we do is figure out what is important to you and what does success look like.”

One of the questions I’ve been pondering over the last few years is why so many women are interested in hiring a coach. The majority of coaching clients all over the world are female, according to the International Coach Federation – except in Asia.

I’m guessing part of it is that women are perhaps more apt than men to ask for help with their lives and careers when they feel they need it. Rachel thinks it’s more than that…

 “What I realize about my clients is, they are the supports for everyone else in their life and that’s what we do as women, and they don’t have a lot of support in their lives for themselves. The mentors they might go to are so are busy themselves, friends have busy lives, many of my clients are not only mothers but they’re caring for a sick or elderly mother or father. And they just sit with me and we talk about here’s some permission to relax for a minute, you don’t have to do it all, and here’s permission to do it your way.”

 She says so many of the women she works with are stressed, guilty, they feel they can’t say no to things at work and a home. Plus she says…

“Women in our corporations are dealing with a lot of bias that men are not dealing with. So they seek out help to acknowledge what they’re experiencing, whether it’s ‘I got fired on maternity leave,’ or ‘I am being overlooked for this promotion’ to really get a reality check and then support to help them through these situations. My take on why women are reaching out for help more often is they’re dealing with the imbalance in the institutions we’re in.”

But what about career prospects for the coach herself? Because the more social media profiles I see of female coaches, the more gauzy websites I look at, and the more pitches I get in my inbox from women saying they’re a coach…the more I wonder…how can all these coaches find enough work? It can feel like there’s a coach for every woman in America.  

A few years ago I interviewed Terry Maltbia for a radio story – he directs the Columbia Coaching Certification Program at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. This is a prestigious coach training program at an Ivy League University; it’s always oversubscribed. I caught up with Terry again on the phone recently, but when we met he agreed, the market for coaches is ever more crowded…

“…if you talk to coaches they’re experiencing increased competition. So the supply and demand is a little tricky. It’s true the demand for coaching is increasing compared to when I entered this field in 2006…however the supply of coaches both trained and untrained is actually higher than that.”

And it keeps growing. In the last five years membership of the International Coach Federation has shot up by a third. And that’s just coaches who have a certain amount of formal training and certifications.

The number of coaches out there is something to bear in mind for anyone considering going into coaching. How will you distinguish yourself and make a living with so much competition?   

“I can’t tell you how many people in our first few cohorts were successful people in an organizational environment, often corporate, who for whatever reason decided to be a coach and left their day job in the course of this process. That was alarming to me because they had thought through the passion part of coaching but they hadn’t thought through the business side of coaching…and I think that there are 3 factors that contribute to a sustainable business…one is developing coaching capabilities, so going somewhere and understanding what coaching is, having a clear process, a clear set of ethical standards…most people who enter coaching do that. The other side is getting really clear about the economics for you. Not only individual fees, but are you only gonna do only individual coaching work and how are you gonna scale that? If you’re leaving a corporate job at the vice president level where you’re making a six-figure salary, to make that up in individual sessions is something that requires some thought.”

Now this is something Rachel Garrett did think through before she started coaching a few years ago. And she has now matched her corporate paycheck.

“I was lucky enough to have the marketing skills to get up and running fairly quickly. So I think that was a skillset that was really important for setting up the infrastructure, website and brand. Of course in the first year I was not making same money, but I am able to make the same money now and there’s potential for me to make a lot more than I was as a digital marketer in corporate.”

That’s because she doesn’t just stick to individual clients. She also works with coaching companies, and she’s drafted by corporations to teach workshops in-house. She loves the variety of it.

“I can take on different kinds of projects and scale up in a different way. I’m in charge. I get to choose the kinds of client, the kinds of project, there is no one I have to ask about what to do next. I think I was hungry for that while I was in corporate.”

Rachel is articulating something a lot of other women love about going into coaching or any other solo business – flexibility. Not only the ability to pick clients but the ability to build a business around their and their family’s lives. She loves that she can be a chaperone on her daughters’ school trips without feeling guilty about taking time off work.

Living in New York isn’t cheap. Her husband works full-time but Rachel always wanted to do well financially while helping people at the same time. And that means charging hundreds of dollars an hour.

“It’s taken me a while to continually raise my rates, I started much lower than I should have, but I was gaining confidence that first year out. I quickly realized I needed to raise my rates and my practice is so booked that I continue to do so. I always take on low cost pro bono clients, that’s important to me, I want to be able to make a bigger impact, but especially with corporate clients I am able to make a really good salary.”

AMT: “I think a lot of people listening might say, great, how nice to have a coach, but I can’t pay three, four, five hundred an hour for a coach. So explain from your perspective what you do as a coach that merits what sounds like more than what a lot of therapists would charge.”

“Yes, so for my coaching practice I focus on people creating a personal brand, finding confidence, advocating for themselves, negotiating the kinds of salaries they feel they deserve, asking for promotions, and stepping into the leaders they want to be. So it’s leading their team powerfully and rising through the ranks in their organization. That does change their lives.” 

Rachel says it’s not just New Yorkers who are signing up, either. She’s had clients as far afield as Texas and Oklahoma who meet with her on Skype or Zoom.

If you’re lucky enough to be sponsored for coaching, you won’t pay a penny. 

“I never really thought about hiring an executive coach, I’ve met executive coaches, but it always appeared to me they were very, very expensive. I had excluded myself mentally from being the kind of person who would enlist an executive coach myself.”

That’s Danielle Sauve. She works in marketing at a big company based in the Midwest. She says she kind of stumbled into her career. She started out as an assistant, it was just a day job while she devoted her evenings to working in the theater. But ultimately she gave up the idea of being a stage director and moved up the ranks at work. Last year she was invited to a meeting stuffed with executives and she spotted a senior woman she really admired. Like Danielle this woman had a bunch of kids and worked full-time.  

“I made a joke while we were heading to the rest room, like, oh my goodness, there’s a lot of women filling up the stalls, we’re usually feeling kind of lonely in these executive meetings, and she kind of laughed with me and at some point we ended up talking about how self-conscious we can feel in executive meetings…in this conversation something must have sparked in her mind because the next day she said to me, you know, I’m thinking about starting a pilot program to have women receive some executive coaching and I think you’d be a great  person to do this if you would like to. I’m making the funds available from my department, so it wouldn’t cost you and your department anything. It would be 7 to 10 sessions, there’s a book we go through. And I just said yes.”

 Next time we find out how Danielle’s coaching went, and we look at the past…

“Coaching was a thing your manager did for you.”

As we consider how and why coaching has become so big.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I will post show notes under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. You can find out more about Kate Schutt and Rachel Garrett there. You’ll be hearing more from Kate on a totally different topic in an upcoming show. Thanks to Kate, Rachel, and Terry Maltbia for being my guests on this show.

If you enjoy the podcast please go and write a quick review on iTunes or Apple Podcasts. The podcast world is awfully crowded these days and an indy show can easily stay beneath everyone’s radar. Reviews do help the show get noticed by others who might not find it otherwise.

I welcome feedback as always – you can hit me up via the website or on Twitter or post on the Facebook page.

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

Episode 137: Pregnancy Loss and Work

Show transcript:

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

This time…it happens to so many women, but we rarely talk about it. You’re pregnant – you’re excited – then it all goes wrong…

“It is one of those things that from the outside just for practical reasons you have to keep it secret, but then you also can't be like grieving or emotionally affected outwardly in any way.”

And even if you confide in your boss about what’s happened…

“I remember Googling what to say when you experience a miscarriage at work. And all the advice was all about what do you tell your manager. I found absolutely no advice anywhere on what to do about people you actually manage.”

And when a colleague suffers a pregnancy loss or the loss of a baby…how can the rest of us do the right thing?   

“One of the concerns that I've had other women share with me is that when the most painful things for them in their work environment is even when there's support there at the beginning, people say well, you know, it's been three weeks, like, now it's time to get back on board.”

Pregnancy loss and the workplace – coming up on The Broad Experience.

Early last year I heard from a listener in London. She was a pediatrician at a big hospital and she said she’d just had the tables turned and become a patient. She’d been pregnant for the first time but it had ended in miscarriage. She said the whole experience was distressing and anxiety provoking. I’m gonna read you part of her email. She said…

“Even as a doctor, working in a large, prestigious public hospital, I did not feel comfortable telling my colleagues what was going on, and instead hid behind the excuse that I had to have 'gynaecological surgery'. Why? Lots of reasons. A generally distant relationship with colleagues and a lack of pastoral care within the workplace. A fear of being labelled 'just another 30-something woman trying to fall pregnant', shafted to the 'no ambition' sideheap. Self-consciousness that the main reason for needing time off work was in fact emotional, rather than physical, and a fear that that is perceived as indulgent or lazy...”

She is not alone. There are varying statistics on pregnancy loss – but it seems anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Usually this happens within the first 12 weeks. But not always. Within weeks of getting that email, I had my own first miscarriage.

I kept the idea for a show on this topic in my back pocket but to be honest I wasn’t sure it was gonna work. I thought people might be squeamish about it or just not interested because it hadn’t affected them.

But earlier this year I read a blog post on pregnancy loss and the workplace and I posted it to the Facebook page asking if anyone was interested in this topic. I got far more responses than I ever expected – two of the women who responded to that thread are in this show. A common theme emerged from many of you who did respond: you hadn’t told work you were pregnant so no one knew when you miscarried. If work knew you were planning a family they might not promote you, so why let on until you had to? But one of you mentioned just how hard it was to push through at work after a late miscarriage when no one else knew what was going on, and you just kept working.

In this show you’ll meet three women from three different countries. Each had a different experience, and a different work culture, but there are some common threads. And if you’ve just had a miscarriage or ever lost a child then some of this may be upsetting.

Also I want to say that I get that with a topic like this it can be quite jarring to hear ads in some of the breaks – I want to acknowledge that. I don’t have any control over the ad schedule but it is the holiday season as I’m putting this together so you’re likely to hear some.

With that, let’s meet my first guest.

Several years ago Jorli Pena was working in marketing for a big company you’ve all heard of. A corporate giant. She lived in New York City. She and her husband had a little boy who at the time was about three. They wanted a bigger family, and part of the reason Jorli had been so attracted to this company was that they had this program that let people work 4 days a week for 80 percent of their regular salary. Jorli’s manager was a director, and she was part of this program…

“…that was a huge plus for me because I hated the idea that like, wanting to have a family seemed like mutually exclusive in some people’s eyes with wanting to have a great career. So here were these women at this company who were getting promoted it seemed and were working four days a week. So my plan, and it turns out you can’t really plan these things…was  OK great, I’ll take this job and as soon as I have my second baby I’m gonna switch from the five day to the four day, and …it was this huge, it was just this lovely idea.”

She was 37, and she her husband set about trying to create that second baby. She got pregnant quickly, just as she had with her son. Everything was going well. Then, at 11 weeks, she went in for a scan, and there was no heartbeat. The baby had died. She could have had what in the US is called a D&C – the procedure basically where they go in and get everything out – but she was about to go on vacation, and she opted to wait until the miscarriage happened on its own. Which she says turned out to be a really bad idea…involving a trip to the emergency room while she was away.

So after all that – the physical toll, the psychological toll, she landed back in New York and went straight back to work.

“You’re dealing with sadness and also shame, and just embarrassment, and you come back to work and they had just been congratulating you, and you still sort of look pregnant, and nobody talks about it.”

Unlike a lot of people in early pregnancy Jorli had told her boss and some of her workmates she was pregnant. But no sooner than she had begun to adjust to what had happened, she got pregnant again…

“I got pregnant again very quickly after, maybe the first cycle after the miscarriage, which was again amazing. Great. You know I'm kind of an optimist, I thought this would work out, but I knew enough to keep it more under wraps that I didn't really tell a lot of people. I mean almost nobody. And then actually again at 11 weeks…so right when I was like quote ‘safe’ it happened again.”

Now her direct manager was in the know about this pregnancy. And Jorli says she was kind and empathetic after the miscarriage.

“But it is one of those things that from the outside just for practical reasons you have to keep it secret, but then you also can't be like grieving or emotionally affected outwardly in any way. You don't take time off. And it's is devastating.”

AMT: “Hang on. You say you don't take time off. Did you think about taking time off this time?”

“I mean it sounds crazy, but I didn't even consider it. I just, maybe I didn't want to ask or I didn't want to deal with it, I just, no, I mean I this time I did get a D and C which was actually much better for me in terms of the physical aspects. Yep. And so I wish I knew that the first time. But you know, I maybe took that day, the day that I had that procedure.”

 I wonder how much this tendency not to take time off Is tied to US work culture. I also found out through a scan that my pregnancy last year was in medical terms ‘non-viable’. After dissolving on the sidewalk outside the doctor’s office, I was in a dilemma because I had to travel for work in 6 days. There was no way I could jeopardize this trip by having a natural miscarriage. So I scheduled the D and C for the next day, a Saturday to give me what I thought was enough time to recover before heading out on a 5-hour flight on the Wednesday. And it kind of worked out. Except I ended up having some pretty intense pain while I was on the work trip – it was as if my body was saying to me, haha, you think you’ve dealt with me, you think you’ve arranged everything so perfectly around your schedule. But I’m here to remind you it’s not that simple. 

When Jorli had yet another miscarriage, this time at 6 weeks, it began at work. And this time she knew something had to change.

“…because in the midst of all of these losses I did have another child that…I said I may not ever have another kid, let me spend more time with him.”

She decided to go down to that four-day-a-week schedule.

“So I knew with certainty, I walked in on Monday and told my boss, this program I've heard about, like, sign me up. How do I do it? The four day. Which again was a big draw for me to be in the company, and I was told, oh, we've discontinued that program. Oh yeah. And I named this vice president and this director, and they were like, oh, they were grandfathered in. Not happening.”

She was gutted. And she began to think more and more about whether she really wanted to be there at all. She was trying to perform at her usual level but it was tough…

“To have worked at this company right for just over a year and to have had three miscarriages in nine months to like, that profoundly affected my productivity whether I wanted to admit it to myself or not.”

I wanted to go back to something she’d said earlier about coming back to work after her first miscarriage and how that felt.

AMT: “Also you mentioned the word shame when you talked about that, you said you felt shame. Why?”

 “I mean I don’t think shame is very rational. It is so, and it's funny that I said that word but it's probably more embarrassment than shame. But it's just you know it's just this overwhelming feeling of loss. And again, I do think a lot of women can…this wasn't the case with me, but like you know, people can blame their schedule, you know, and their stress and that's certainly a thing with when you're trying to get pregnant you're supposed to not be stressed and it's one of the most stressful experiences of your life and so it's very easy for people to beat themselves up that they're somehow the cause.”

Not long after that third miscarriage, Jorli was laid off. That might seem like the fourth terrible thing that happened to her but actually she was kind of relieved. She’d always been brimming with business ideas and she struck out on her own, first with a resume-writing business, now with a copywriting business. Her husband quit his job in retail and went to work for a small foundation. And the change has worked out well. She says back when she was still at the big company, losing pregnancy after pregnancy, she used to joke with friends that her body was rejecting working there.

“Not to fault this particular company but for me personally my work style didn't fit so well in that world and there is a part of me that, my body was rejecting working there. You know I mean who knows the miracles that happened behind you know getting and staying pregnant, but in retrospect it was not the best fit for me and it enabled me to become an advocate for myself and my family and my schedule and to carve my own path to showing that you can be ambitious and also want to have a family and that just may not look how, you know, a five day regular job.”

After those miscarriages Jorli went on to get pregnant again, and this time it stuck. She had another baby, and another one after that. Her three boys are now ages 9, 5 and 3.

Leaving a 9-5 job may have been the right choice for Jorli, but it’s not for everyone.

Ceri Napier lives in the south of England. She is deputy CEO of the MS International Federation. They help people with Multiple Sclerosis. She and I spoke on Skype. Like Jorli, she had been part of that Facebook thread on pregnancy loss earlier this year.

She’s in her late 30s now and about 5 years ago she and her husband started trying for a baby. They tried, and tried. Nothing happened…that ultimately led them down the road to IVF. And on the second round of treatment, Ceri got pregnant.

“Because it was IVF we'd had early scans, we'd had a scan at six weeks that had shown a heartbeat I was just over the moon it was the most wonderful feeling in the world after all that effort, all the injections everything, to hear that heartbeat was incredible.”

Ceri had some cysts on her ovaries and the staff asked her to come in for another scan a few weeks later, just to check a particular cyst.  

“So I went along to this second scan at around nine weeks without my husband. I was just so naïve I thought oh, it's just checking on the cyst and I went along and just…yeah, completely devastated, literally floor – it floored me. I was on the floor crying when I was told there was no longer a heartbeat and it was no longer viable. Yeah, absolutely. You know it was last year but it’s still…” 

AMT: “Really raw.”

“Yeah, absolutely. You don't forget. And my husband was luckily able to, he works in London. He was able to get the first train over and come and pick up the pieces and I just remember that day just lying on the sofa together holding each other. Yeah, really a very sad moment in my life.”

Meanwhile, she had to tell her manager what had happened.

 “I'd actually been very open with my boss about the IVF journey that we were on. I told him that afternoon because he knew I was going to a scan that day because I'd asked to work from home. I said, sadly it was a miscarriage, and he immediately says, don't come to work for the next week or so. So I did. I was able to take that time off which was incredibly valuable time for me and my husband to heal and to move through it.”

AM-T: “Yeah, no I can imagine and that’s so different from a lot of the posts I go on Facebook when I first posted about the idea of doing an episode on this topic. So many of the other posts were about people who hadn’t told anyone at work let alone their boss that they were pregnant. So when the miscarriage happened they’re going through all this but they’re completely covering up and most people weren’t taking any time off, either.” 

“Yeah, I think I'm extremely fortunate to have to work in an amazing organization with an incredibly supportive and open boss, maybe because of the nature of the work that we do we're about the right to work, and it is so important for people with disabilities, chronic disabilities like multiple sclerosis, that we like to practice what we preach. So my boss is a great believer in having that flexibility and the respect of the staff, to trust us. You know when we need that time we will come back and we'll be more loyal maybe, as a result.”

But even though her boss knew what was going on, she was a boss herself. And she hadn’t told anyone on her team about this aspect of her life.   

“I remember Googling what to say when you experience a miscarriage at work. And all the advice was all about what do you tell your manager. And I'd already moved beyond that and I was very open with my manager, which was a great support. But I found absolutely nothing or no advice anywhere on what to do about people you actually manage. So that left me in a quandary as well and I actually decided not to tell my team, and my boss let them know I was unwell but I was fine and I'd be coming back to work when I was ready, and left it a little vague which…I don't know. 

I sort of struggled with it at the time, and for several months afterwards what the right thing to do was. I'd actually gone on a senior management training course and that was a great, actually a great opportunity to be in a safe space to talk about miscarriage and my work and my career and my hopes for a baby in the future. The hope to get back on the IVF train as soon as possible, in a safe environment amongst peers and amongst other senior managers to work through this challenge together - and they all advised me to tell my team as well.”

But Ceri still wasn’t sure.

“…and I thought I'll go out for breakfast with them and if it feels right to tell them, I'll tell them. And if it doesn't, I won't. And one of those situations I started to say, I said, I'd like to tell you about why I was off work for two weeks, and they said, ‘you know what Ceri, you don't have to tell me, that's your private situation. I respect that you've had some difficult times recently and I'm here for you if you want to, but you don't need to go into it. Let's move on and know that I'm here and I can pick up the pieces if you want me to do that.’

So a really interesting response, and he was a male colleague and the other team member I ended up telling her and she was amazingly supportive and yeah, it was very freeing to do that, but it then didn't feel I needed to tell anyone else, and it's just personal. I had to follow my heart what felt right.”

And meanwhile she says she just kept working, kept achieving her goals at the office…

“…because there is another parallel universe in which I would never get pregnant, never have a child. And part of me was working very hard at work, at my career, because that could be all I had. So I was performing well and I wouldn't be surprised if you find a lot of high performing women having difficult personal lives and infertility throwing themselves into their work to have something to show for what they're doing at the end of the day.”

Now in her case it worked out. She gave birth to a little boy earlier this year. And she and her husband are thrilled. But her experience of pregnancy loss still feels fresh. Not to mention her experience of IVF. And she says the atmosphere at work can make a big difference in how you feel about being there when you’ve gone through something like this.

“The other thing I would add about the miscarriage and IVF was is the stigma and the things that people say because we don't talk about it, and the reason I wanted to talk about it on the show and just generally amongst friends, and I have since been open with the whole team at work, is because the less we talk about it the more people say the wrong things that upset people and hurt and make a difficult situation even harder.

And the common phrases that you hear when you have a miscarriage are, oh, but at least you got pregnant. Well that's a double whammy when you've got it through IVF for example. And it's just the kind of things that people say often with good intentions to try and make you feel better. Now the only way we change that talk, those things, is to educate people by being open and saying, well instead of saying this can you just say ‘I'm so sorry,’ can you just say’ is there anything I can do to help?’ or you know, more open ended support and empathy rather than, ‘why don't you adopt?’ or I heard, ‘Actually the world's overpopulated anyway.’ You know, the kind of hurtful things people say and that's the other reason I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about it in the workplace, because that sort of thing would make me burst into tears. And you've spoken a lot on your show about crying in the office. And how do you feel comfortable with that, especially as a senior manager, and getting that balance right between being real and being an emotional human being in the workplace, which I very much am in my office because I manage a lot of women as well, and men, and we all have emotions, we all have lives. You want to create an environment in which everyone feels happy being themselves because then they're more productive but also it's just a warmer in working environment. But on the flip side if it becomes too personal and you're breaking down every two minutes then that is maybe an unsettling place to work and can lead to a team feeling unsettled and maybe like they're not in safe hands to get on with their job.”

It is a tricky balance. We’ll talk more in a bit about how to support a colleague who’s gone through a loss.

Finally, Ceri raised something that came up with all three of my interviewees – the role of the partner in all this. 

“This wasn't something that I was going through alone. My husband also had to go back to work much sooner than I did. My return to work…I mean I was working by the end of that first week even though I was sort of signed off work. I did work from home. I did the odd phone call, answered the odd email as a distraction, and then I worked from home the second week and went to this strategy course, but my husband had to go back to work…I think he had some compassionate leave for a day, then went back two days later which is pretty rough.

And so men often get missed out of these topics. I know that The Broad Experience is focusing on women in the workplace but also a great part of what's helped me come to terms with and work through the miscarriage has been the support I've been able to get from my husband.” 

The same thing goes for a partner of any gender of course – often as the person who is not carrying the baby, their feelings are overlooked. 

Coming up…when the worst happens how does someone start to heal herself. And how  colleagues can help…or not.

“We have all of this discourse going around about the importance of vulnerability and the value of vulnerability. But I think you know the reality is that we're sometimes setting people up to almost kind of bare their soul in environments where it's not actually safe to.”

April Boyd wrote to me last year as well. She’s from Ontario, Canada. She’s a social work therapist by training – she used to work both in a hospital and her own private practice. Her work was with people going through some of life’s hardest times. But despite working in the field of trauma, she was not prepared for what happened to her almost six years ago.

“I had got pregnant, I had had a healthy, happy pregnancy, there was no known issues or concerns noted. And I had a little girl named Nora and she just stopped breathing when she was one day old.”

No one could ever tell her why Nora had died. She and her partner had to try and pick up the pieces of their lives.

“I remember somebody saying to me at one point in time you know April you're probably going to be better able to get through this because you're a therapist. And I just thought that's the craziest thing I've ever heard in my life because in no way have I felt trained to be able to survive the death of my daughter. But what I realized was you know as some time went by there was kind of some truth in what that person had said to me because what I realized was that all the clients I had worked with over the years really had taught me some really important things about how to get through the really intense traumas in our life and how to survive the hard stuff. And so I really felt compelled to start to share what it was that had got me through some of the darkest points of that time especially because when we're talking about infant loss and baby loss and pregnancy loss these really are incredible taboo topics in our culture.”

She runs the Love and Loss Project – it’s a website where you can find resources to help you if you’ve lost a baby or a pregnancy. She’s also in private practice as a coach and therapist for people who’ve experienced pregnancy loss.

In Canada, you’re entitled to a year’s maternity leave. As someone whose had baby had died, April was entitled to four months off work. Which she decided to take in full.

“And that was really challenging for me in a couple ways. So one, there were days when I felt like I could probably be at the at my work, right, or I could probably be doing OK and handling stuff. And it certainly was not my nature to kind of just sit on the bench. But I really wanted to honor my decision to give myself that time because I do believe that that's one of the things that my work with my previous clients had really taught me is I really understood the magnitude of what it was I was dealing with in my life and the significance and the ripples that this experience had in ways I could not even articulate or put my finger on. And so for me, I really wanted to honor that and I really did not want to be in a position where I was going to have to compartmentalize my process or my grief. 

She knew she’d do better when she did go back to work if she took some time to try to come to grips with what had happened to her. It was tricky financially – she wasn’t paid her fulltime salary when she was off. But she says before you decide to soldier on through your grief, think about whether you really have to.

“The reality is it going off work is never a good financial decision. But what I really had to weigh was the difference between the short term reduction in money coming in versus the long term that I didn't want to not be functional later on in some way. So for me that was a little bit of a long term plan, and I think that a lot of people really wrestle with that because there is so much pressure. But one of the things that I really encourage people to do is really kind of break apart you know, what is your reality really, between the fear and the fact? Right. The fear is that I might not have enough, but when you really kind of do the budget I think sometimes we can surprise ourselves by really what we could make work really when we need to. But it is making ourselves prioritize our own healing. And I think often that's the other part of that reality that is really challenging right especially as women we're not really used to giving our own care our own health and wellness that kind of treatment in our life.”

After she went back she says her boss was amazing – very understanding and supportive. And some other colleagues she’d barely known before approached her with offers of support. But she says there were triggers that would crop up during the day that other people didn’t even recognize. One day, a few months after coming back to the hospital, she was walking down the hallway…

“…and one of the women had brought in her newborn grandbaby. And so she is of course is very excited Grandma wanting to share and show off her new little one in the family, which is of course completely understandable. And usually this would be something that would be you know a beautiful bright light in the work day. Right, usually that's the kind of thing that we would get excited about and that would be a special treat.

But I remember walking by and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. It just knocked the wind out of me. And I remember like literally walking past her and she's calling me over like literally being like, April, come here, come here. And I truly just had to look at her say hi. And I just kept going and she called me over again and I just ignored her and kept walking down the hallway. I remember coming into the kitchen. That was the only room there, and I just started bawling.”

Now obviously the woman with the baby didn’t mean any harm. She just wasn’t seeing the world through April’s eyes. And that’s the problem when you come back to work after a terrible loss. Everyone else’s life seems to be going on as normal while yours has been turned upside down.

April was working with a woman recently who’d had a miscarriage. She found it really hard being around colleagues who kept talking about their kids. In her workplace that was what a lot of women did during their lunch hour. She didn’t want to look snobby by not hanging out at lunch, but she just couldn’t take it. She hadn’t told anyone about her pregnancy or the miscarriage…

“…she didn't feel comfortable really letting people know, you know, what had happened, for her that wasn't appropriate in her setting. So we talked about that idea of having an ally. So it's one person that she feels a little more safe with and that she can share, ‘Here's what my reality is, here's what I've gone through, and here's what it's like for me to be in that staff room,’ so that when she would be sitting there, because sometimes when we hear those triggers, right, those stories that people tell we kind of freeze and our speech kind of leaves us in that moment and we end up just being that deer in headlights, right. And so we had talked about that idea that if she had somebody who knew what she was going for that person could help change this topic, they could maybe even kind of follow her out of the room and go for a walk with her.”

Which is exactly what ended up happening. She confided in a colleague and asked that person to help her out. 

“…because at the end of the day I think her biggest fear really tends to boil down to if I lose my cool here, if I end up crying in the kitchen, if I end up kind of losing it, what if I end up being really judged, right, or what if I end up with that horrible awkward silence where people don't know what to say and then they kind of just avoid me?”

April says colleagues who know about the loss often feel awkward because they don’t know exactly how the woman feels herself. And women can feel quite differently about miscarriage.

She says to some women she’s spoken to, a 6-week miscarriage is devastating – they’d already been thinking about names and begun to plan ahead. Other women see it more as an act of nature they can move on from. But if a pregnancy loss of any kind has really thrown you, the workplace often doesn’t help.

April says only about 15 percent of her work comes from companies.

AMT: “Those clients who do come to you, on the workplace side of things, how do they hear about you and what do they want to talk about?”

“So mostly I’ve had contact from people who've said, you know, I know someone in my office has gone through this and I'd like to support them better. 

And so one of the key things that we talk about is really the idea of becoming more flexible with the concept of time, because I think there's often this notion that someone's going to grieve for a couple days and then they're going to be fine. But you know that's certainly one of the concerns that I've had other women share with me is that when the most painful things for them in their work environment is even when there's support there at the beginning, people say well, you know, it's been three weeks, now it's time to get back on board. And you know in many ways they feel like they've been very generous and very tolerant for somebody not being their go to gal anymore. But in reality it doesn't quite work like that all the time, right. There's the good days and bad days. And so some of that piece is it just comes down to really education of here's what this looks like behind the scenes for the person really. And again you know, I really encourage people to think about this in the context of just humanity in general.”

Because anyone can suffer a loss of any kind and find it hard to function at work. And going back to the topic of other people’s responses to your situation, April says it’s understandable that colleagues may feel nervous about saying anything, if they knew you were pregnant. But of course what some people do in that situation is simply say nothing. Which can feel hurtful and add to your isolation.

“So what I would encourage you to think about is I think we can just kind of open that up to say, Hey, I just want to let you know I was thinking about you, I know you've been having a really rough time lately. We're really not making any assumptions about what this means for that person exactly or where they're at. And we're also not prying. Because there's times when I know that people have wanted to show care and support by really asking me a lot of details about it that I really didn't want to get into at work for instance. You're like, I don't want to have this conversation here. So I would say that really the fact that you're even just stepping closer is going to be appreciated because you're identifying yourself as a safe person.”

Finally, she says, not everyone at work IS a safe person. They don’t deserve to hear about your situation. 

“We have all of this discourse going around about the importance of vulnerability and the value of vulnerability. But I think you know the reality is that I think we're sometimes setting people up to almost kind of bare their soul in environments where it's not actually safe to. So for instance I had a client one time that had was not doing her best at work and she actually got a really terrible performance evaluation, and she was really torn about how does she want to address that with her boss. And so what we had looked at was you know is it safe to really do that in that context because she was going to tell him the whole story. Right, as in like the whole details of it, and really this man had given her no indication ever before that he was somebody who was either interested in people's personal lives or willing to be compassionate to that. In fact he had actually been quite harsh with other people in other circumstances. So what we'd really looked at was not just this vulnerability because this feels like what we're supposed to do, but really intentional sharing. And I think that's where we can start to really protect our own hearts and protect our baby's memories. It's really with the idea of what am I choosing to share and with who, who has really earned the right to hear this story? And that's not everybody.” 

April Boyd. You can find out more about April’s work at LoveLossProject.com. Thanks to her, Jorli Peña and Ceri Napier for coming on the show and talking about this incredibly personal topic.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Of course I would like to know what you think. I hope the show has been helpful.

You know where to find me – you can email me via the website or tweet me or post to the Facebook page.

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

Episode 136: Loyalty Has Limits

Show transcript:

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

This time…why it can be so hard for women to leave a job they’ve held for a while… 

“I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t want to let not only my coworkers, who were my family, but the community, I didn’t want to let the community down.”

And later in the show, what part do emotions play in how women are perceived at work…

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

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much has changed since I started the podcast almost 7 years ago. Women and work wasn’t a big topic of conversation then – now, it is huge. Some of my first shows don’t sound as relevant any more because the topics have been so well covered since then. But some things feels just as relevant today as they did then. One of those topics, I think, is the complicated feelings a lot of women have about leaving a longtime job.

Back in 2013, I talked to Daniella Maveal. Danielle had worked for Etsy for years. She was one of its first employees when it was a scrappy startup. And as I said at the time, she felt really lucky to work there.  

But even when she started to feel restless, about four years in, she couldn’t bring herself to leave. Her job was to liaise with all the sellers who sold their goods through Etsy. Essentially she supported them and coached them on how to better promote their businesses through the site. It was a very public role.

“My face was on blog posts, my face was on the forums, I led live workshops, I traveled and met sellers in person. So people know me as Danielle XO…I’d go to a craft show and…

AM-T: “Just to be clear, that’s your Twitter handle…”

“That’s my Twitter handle and it’s also my Etsy user name and my admin name, it just was everything, Danielle XO, and I’d just picked it out of the blue when I started at Etsy and it was who I became and was recognized as. So I actually probably should have left a year, maybe more than a year before I did, and I just couldn’t imagine who I’d be if I wasn’t Danielle XO. And if I would – if ever again I’d be as important, as respected or listened to, really all of my, I don’t know, my identity, was this Danielle XO.”

So Danielle’s whole sense of herself was bound up in her job. She struggled with the idea of leaving everything she’d built in her role, even though she no longer felt challenged or even felt she fit in that well at the company any more. It had grown massively since she started. When she finally did leave Etsy she was struck by how many of her female friends had similar tales. They weren’t happy at work but couldn’t quite move on. She described this in a blog post she wrote last year as a new problem women have – this struggle to stay or go to the next thing.

“The reason why I say that is that I think men and women have historically been in one job for a very long time. So in terms of being a new problem a lot of people now are changing jobs every few years, especially men. But I think women still feel they have to prove themselves in a career, they have to move up some ladder, and they have to win, be as good as a man is, as strong as a man is, and they equate that to being in a position very long – I feel like it’s a winning thing, like I need to... I don’t know it’s like you never feel…or at least I didn’t…I never felt like I had proven myself enough. I felt like I still had somewhere to go. I think at the end that was the most frustrating part was I actually didn’t know where to go and I wasn’t given, sort of a path, you know, so I didn’t know what that next step was that I needed to conquer.”

I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence like this about women staying in jobs longer than men… and I’d also heard it said that this is another reason for the pay gap – that women move around less so they have fewer opportunities than men to increase their salaries.

But I wanted some hard facts. Terri Boyer is executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She says in the early months of a job, studies show women are likelier to quit than men. But this often has to do with family factors – like a situation suddenly arising to do with aging parents or kids. In those cases a woman is likelier to step away from a new job to deal with a crisis than a man is.

“However, as women stay in a job for a longer period of time they are less likely than their male counterparts to leave a job. And I think there’s a lot going on there. There is interesting information about job satisfaction and the external indicators of is my job good, will I have another opportunity, etc. But then there’s also this concept of the longer women stay in the labor market, the lower their expectations are for what is a good job and what their chances are for finding another quote unquote good job out there.”

So what is going on there?

“First of all, women tend to underrate their abilities and worth in the job market and men tend to overrate their abilities and worth in the job market. So when you put a job description in front of a man and a woman their reactions are very different as to whether or not they feel they are qualified and feel competitive with it. And there are different studies that say if you give a list of ten qualifications, a woman feels she has to meet all ten to apply for the job and a man feels like oh I’ve met about six, seven or so of these, therefore I can apply for the job. So of course when you’re thinking about leaving a job, if you don’t see a lot of jobs out there that you meet all of the criteria for, there’s going to be a difference there in thinking of what’s the next thing to move on to.”

As well as undervaluing their qualifications, she says, the longer women stay in the job market the more they factor in children, how they’re going to fit kids into their working lives. Terri says again, this influences their thoughts about where they work – they may think, I’m in a decent situation, it has its pitfalls, but that’s OK because this job fits around the rest of my life…and another job might not. Men are still less likely to think this way.

And there’s more. Listen to what Danielle Maveal said when I asked why she had stayed at Etsy even as she became more and more unhappy…and I should add that Danielle doesn’t have kids.

“Well, one big thing was that I felt I owed it to the company to be there. Like I…”

AM-T: “That sounds very female…”

“Right, it’s a very female perspective on a job. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t want to let not only my coworkers, who were my family, but the community, I didn’t want to let the community down. And if they were coming to look for me to say I need help with this, and I wasn’t there. That just – I mean even now it gets me emotional, it breaks my heart….and I don’t know if a man would ever be, ‘I can’t leave this job, it would break my heart.’ I mean maybe, but he’d have to be a unique guy at least to admit it.”

Ah, loyalty. Terri Boyer of Rutgers says on the whole, women are more likely to prioritize their relationships with colleagues and clients and it’s another reason why they’re slower to leave a job than men.

I asked Danielle what else she felt was holding women back from taking the plunge…

“I mean besides their own insecurities and fear I do think they’re not supported enough by friends, family, people in their lives to take big leaps. I don’t know why that is but the business coach that I was talking to when I wanted to leave Etsy, I was shocked that she said to me, ‘You should leave.’ Because most people, when I had talked to my mother, when I had talked to my friends, ‘You have a great job, you have a great salary, you have healthcare. Why would you leave this job?’ They didn’t ask me if I was challenged.”

Given the state of the economy perhaps it’s not surprising she got those kinds of reactions. Because she didn’t yet have a job to go to. But she wants to encourage other people to have more confidence than she did when she was on the fence, and value all the experience they’ve gained on the job...

“So I think that’s one thing that holds people back, they don’t really put together all that experience…all the ups and downs, even the mistakes you’ve made, really add value to who you are. So keep moving, keep moving forward, that’s something that’s important, and you’re going to be reaching another set of people. That’s something I didn’t realize. It’s like OK, I am leaving this job and these people, these people who rely on me, but I’m going to be going somewhere else where I’ll still have all this value and knowledge and experience and I’ll find other people who will need me as well. It’s OK to be needed.”

Which also struck me as something not a lot of men would say…

“I think it’s OK to be feminine in the workplace. You know to me, the downfall for me was I would take things personally. I would internalize, and I would hold on to…and that was not a positive. But there’s no way I will ever be a masculine worker…and I am OK with that. You know, I’ll cry at work. I’m OK with that. Just respecting myself and valuing myself I think was the big lesson for me.”

Something else I still think about – something that’s still being debated – is how women should be judged for showing emotion at work.

Several senior women who’ve been guests on the podcast have said women should really do their best NOT to cry openly at work. And this is the conventional wisdom, right? That by crying you’re displaying weakness and women should go to all lengths to avoid that if they want to be taken seriously.

But Anne Kreamer disputes that. She’s the author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace. I spoke to her in 2014.

“I found that there’s no what I call tissue ceiling, that people at all levels of management reported that they had in fact had cried in the workplace – and that other people viewed the expression of emotion at work as a humanizing force…as something that showed empathy and compassion, and that it was women who were the harshest critics of other women who cried in the workplace. When men saw a woman…and I did a statistical analysis with J Walter Thompson really tabulating all this…and when women saw other women cry they saw it as a personal failure, a moral failing on their part, like they let the home team down. Whereas when a man saw a woman cry at work he was like, oh, she cried, it happens. Next.”

She wrote the book in part because she wanted to work out why women felt so bad about themselves after crying at work. Her research led her to the science of tears.

“Women’s and men’s tear ducts are anatomically different. Men’s are larger than women’s so that a man and a woman might be feeling the exact same degree of emotional distress, and his eyes will only well up, whereas a woman’s tears will spill out and down her face and make her look as if she’s more out of control, whereas in fact it’s just an anatomical difference. It’s crazy. And then the second thing is women produce more prolactin, which is the hormone that triggers treas. So from the get-go women are kind of hard-wired to cry more frequently and when they do cry to have their tears be more visible.”

She too knows this first hand. In the ‘90s, she was an executive at the US children’s channel Nickelodeon. The company had just signed a big deal to distribute their video and audio products with Sony – a deal she and her team had brought to fruition.

And I was celebrating in my office with my colleagues who’d all spent 18 months putting this deal together. And the phone rang. And it was Sumner Redstone… 

Sumner Redstone is the American media magnate who owns Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon…

“And I sort of naively thought oh how awesome, he’s calling me for the first time ever to congratulate me on a great job…when instead he just started to berate me instantly for having failed to move the Viacom stock price with the announcement of this deal. So I went from cloud 9 to kind of abject misery literally within the space of 90 seconds over this man’s anger frothing out of the end of the telephone receiver at me.”

After he slammed the phone down, she burst into tears. And immediately felt ashamed. She stewed over the incident and her reaction to it for hours, days. But some years later, she made a discovery.

“When I wrote the book about emotion in the workplace I went back and interviewed everybody who’d been in the room at the time - actually I also  tried to interview Sumner Redstone, who amusingly declined the opportunity to talk with me – but I was the only one who remembered the incident with the clarity that I did. One other person said oh yeah, I kind of remember that. But what happens with emotion is that if you ruminate on it…you know I went home and I was chewing over this thing, they went home and had drinks or met their family or did whatever they did, and completely forgot about it. So that’s another one of the interesting little elements of this, is that we all take things far more seriously than the majority of people who happen to be observers of them.”

Sociologist Marianne Cooper says there’s no doubt women have more to contend with when it comes to showing their feelings at work. Marianne is with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She was also lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in.  She says both men and women see women in a certain light, and that influences our responses to female behavior…

“It really starts form a belief that women are just inherently more emotional than men. A man and woman can have the exact same response to something but it will be viewed differently because we are expecting that women are going to be more emotional. So a man and woman doing the same thing, she’s going to be viewed as emotional and out of control…but a man will maybe be seen as passionate or just having a bad day.”

Take anger. Yale University research has shown women who display anger in the workplace lose status in the eyes of observers – these women are seen as being less worthy of a raise and as less competent. Men who get angry? They’re seen as just as competent as usual – and sometimes they even gain status. Marianne Cooper says women face a double bind…

“If you don’t show emotion in some ways you can get higher status as a result of that…but then you’re not really conforming to how people expect you to behave as a woman. So you might be penalized for not being friendly or warm or nurturing… if you’re too friendly or too nurturing or too emotional then you’re penalized for something else, which is not being competent, not being even keeled, not being calm under pressure. So it is a tightrope that women do walk.”

I asked her about crying and the advice senior women still give – just try not to do it. That is, senior women with the notable exception of Sheryl Sandberg. She says we should be able to be authentic at work. Marianne says recommending that we curb our tears still makes sense given many workplaces are pretty buttoned-up.

“…but I think, ultimately you have to understand and I’m sure all of these  women do, there are going to be moments that are just human, we’re not automatons, we can’t regulate our emotions every second of our lives. My hope would be we can work towards a system where women don’t have to  work so hard just to be taken seriously, and that that’s the kind of change we need, where when people cry it’s not perceived as a weakness, as being too emotional, or poor performance under pressure, it’s just seen as being human.”

But for some women in particular, being human, being able to be themselves at work, is something that feels a long way off. When I put out a call on a LinkedIn professional women’s group about this topic I was inundated with responses.

One of the women who got back to me was Kim Norris. She works for a healthcare technology company in the southern US. She trains staff who work in medical coding.

“My experience has been that if you express any type of emotion, even at times elation, it can be detrimental for your reputation.”

Kim is African-American and Latina. She says being half Latina, she uses her hands a lot when she talks. And she says her whole clan is pretty loud. Generally, she’s not shy about expressing emotion. But often over the years at various jobs, she’s had to tamp down her feelings for fear of how she’ll be perceived…and what she says are stereotypes about her race…

“I mean even amongst my female peers, I think that there are times when they feel somewhat intimidated or that I’m going to display aggressive behavior because I am African-American. Just the other day my boss called me into the office and wanted to discuss some possibilities for training and things like that…and she asked me my opinion and as a started to give it to her, she said now wait a minute, before you go there. And I was like wait, before I go where? I hadn’t even said anything really, yet. And that kind of thing. So it’s like, I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Which gets pretty exhausting. Kim got her bachelor’s degree at 40. She’s now in her mid-forties and she’s about to get her master’s in business administration. She says she’s proud of what she’s achieved professionally and educationally. Yet despite her qualifications, work can still be fraught with small, everyday communication hiccups…

“I find myself at times even not contributing as I would if I had the freedom to not have that stereotype come before me. There are times when I feel that it’s better to not say anything at all than to say something and possibly be misunderstood, so you really choose your words very carefully. And I feel it hinders me professionally a lot of the times because it’s easier for me to perhaps send an email or write a memo rather than being in a room interacting with my peers.”

At least with an email she can work out exactly what she wants to say and how she wants to say it, ahead of time. But she wishes she didn’t have to.

McKinsey and Company and Lean In recently released their 2018 report on women and the workplace. It doesn’t specifically address communication issues and shows of emotion, but one of its conclusions is that women of color still find it harder to advance than white women and that black women get the least access of all to senior leaders. It also found that women of color are far more likely than white women to want to become a top executive. I’ll link you to a copy of that report under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

As ever I’d love to know if any of this jibes with your experiences at work. You can write to me at ashley @ TheBroadExperience.com or tweet me or hit up the Facebook page.

I appreciate every donation that comes into the show – this is a one-person production and your support really does matter. You can donate at the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com. And if you can’t give, write a review on iTunes instead – I’d love that too.

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

Episode 135: The Comeback

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 take a break at some point in their careers. Not always for the best reasons.

“I just looked to the short term and thought, ‘they don't value me, this isn't worth it, I'm leaving.’ And it's not always as extreme as that but I think often women don't play the long game enough.”

And getting back into the workforce after a few years out can be tough.  Coming up on the show: taking a break, the difficulty of re-starting your career – and how to change that.

A lot of women leave the workforce at some point or another, usually to look after their kids. Many leave for what they think is just a few years…just to get things under control…but they end up staying out a lot longer. Then they find it incredibly hard to get back in. Companies seem only to want people who’ve come directly from another job. It’s a competitive world. They fear anyone else will have lost their edge.

Lisa Unwin knows about this first hand. She’s the co-author of the book, She’s Back – Your Guide to Returning to Work. She’s Back is also a consultancy that helps women who have left the workforce re-ignite their careers.  

“I began life with very clear ambition – began my working life with very clear ambition. I joined Arthur Andersen as a new graduate, and I was determined to make partner there.”

And she did. For those who are too young to remember Arthur Anderson was a huge consulting firm that went under in the early 2000s. Lisa ended up working for another big, well known consulting firm as director of communication…

“And I still thought my career was on track until I found myself one day with children who were four and six a husband who was travelling away the whole time, a very demanding job, and I think there was one particular week when I didn't get a promotion I was expecting and my nanny resigned. I looked at the children and realized they were about to start full time school, and I just couldn't figure out how I could juggle and combine everything and so I took a break.”

She says she couldn’t see past the crisis she was in at the time. She was sore about not getting that promotion. Her kids were a handful, yes, but she didn’t really think about the fact they wouldn’t be that young forever…she didn’t have a plan for later on.

“So fast forward five years I found myself thinking, crikey, I had a 20 year career behind me but I've got 20 years ahead. What am I going to do with that next phase of my life? And I realized there was no easy answer.”

Now I had initially assumed that at this point when she was re-assessing, Lisa wanted to go back to work fulltime…

“No, you mentioned full time. I didn't want to go full time. I wanted to go back to work but I did what I've since learned a lot of people do in that situation: instead of thinking what I am is a management consultant with 20 years experience who has had played a large role as director of brand and comms of a multinational professional services firm, instead of approaching it in that way my approach was, oh, my kids might be 10 and 12 rather than four and six but I’ve still got two of them and therefore I need to look for part-time work. I started with my limitations rather than my ambition and the value that I had to offer, and so consequently when I started my search I just went on part-time jobs websites and the jobs advertised there are relatively low level, and that was just completely dispiriting. And that made me think there was no way I could go back. And I was approaching it in the wrong way.”

We will talk more about the right way to tackle re-entry in the second half of the show.

Lisa says so many women trying to get back into the workforce do what she did. They downplay what they can do. They feel less-than because they’ve been out for a while – or some for more than a while. And she says it’s easy to feel that way if your main job has been caring for your offspring…

“As a mother you are filled with guilt the whole time, and you've got far too much time to worry. So you know, you worrying that you're not feeding the kids properly and you’re worrying that they're not going to be in the top class for maths. And you think about the things you do during your day, they're all pretty mundane, important but mundane, and no one ever turns round and says, ‘well done, that was good. You know, you really helped me with my homework there Mum, that was fantastic,’ or, ‘you drove us safely to school, well done.’

So there's no feedback, and I know several people will come and they'll tell stories of their partner coming through the door and saying things like, I've emptied the dishwasher for you, as if now your whole role in life is to manage the cycle of washing and washing dishes and the house admin. And getting it right is just satisfactory, it's a disaster if you get it wrong but getting it right is just you know, anybody can do that, it's not particularly difficult, so you don't feel good about yourself. And I think that can be sapping of your confidence.” 

AM-T: “You mentioned just feeling like this, how can I do all this, my husband’s away all the time, how can I juggle it all? Was it the right thing to do, leaving work, do you feel that it was?”

“No, not at all. I mean one of the one of the…before we wrote the book we wrote a lot of articles and the most popular article we have ever written was called Why Women Need to Treat Motherhood and Career like a Game of Chess. And our point about that article is that very often women make short term decisions because they don’t think about the long game, and if you think about chess, in the early stages of the game, like career, everybody's got the same pieces on the board, we all make the same moves, we take professional qualifications, we get a new grad program and it’s relatively straightforward. Where it gets messy, chess, is in that middle phase of the game when you start to have to sacrifice pieces. But in chess you sacrifice pieces but you have a plan as to what are the pieces you’re going to put in place so that your next move is ultimately a winning move. The sacrifice I could have made when I flounced out of my wonderful career was I could have put up with the fact that I wasn't getting promoted and taken that knock to my ego in return for continuing to do valuable, interesting work with important clients and building my network. Or I could have chosen, if I'd had to give up permanent employment, perhaps I could have arranged to do some freelance work with the organisation so that I was keeping my hand in.”

When she quit, her firm had just won the bid to become a sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics…

“It was a massive contract and there was going to be a lot to do over the next four years, and I could have negotiated a way to stay involved in that. But I didn't. I just looked to the short term and thought, ‘they don't value me, this isn't worth it, I'm leaving.’ And it's not always as extreme as that but I think often women don't play the long game enough.”

I agree. It’s hard, but if you’ve ever been in a situation like that…the most sensible decision is sometimes to take a deep breath, put your pique aside and think about how you can make the place work for you over the long haul.

But Lisa didn’t know that back in 2008 when she walked out the door. When she decided to go back to work five years later, she knew she wanted something fulfilling, challenging – something where she could use her past skills, even if she didn’t have the fancy title to match.

And as she looked around she realized just how many other women were in the exact same position. It led her to start She’s Back and forge a different path around helping women – one of the things She’s Back does is partner with UK companies on returnship programmes to get qualified women back into their ranks.  

I told Lisa about an interview I did last year with Kathryn Sollman – it was show number 98, it’s called Leaning Back. Sollman is also the author of a new book, hers is called Ambition Redefined …she warns women off taking career breaks. She’s all about finding flexible work that fits around your family life and lets you bring in an income – even if it’s not stellar. Here she is:

KS: “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.”

Lisa Unwin: “I would wholeheartedly agree with that…and that is true, and women need to do that. But the flipside of that is that organisations need to recognise that when women do step back and maybe go part time or become consultants and are not seen as ambitious because they're not ambitious at that point in time, they’ve probably got too much on, that doesn't mean that their ambition has gone forever, and there has to be the opportunity to step back up again when you're ready, and that's missing. Too many organisations…you know, I grew up in Arthur Andersen, if you hadn't made partner by 35 I mean that was it, you were a failure. I mean Andersen doesn’t exist any more, but if you look around many law firms, big accountancy practices, I suspect that they still have the same structure where success means making partner, and if you've not made it by a particular age that's it. And actually in many of those firms you're not allowed to hang around at senior manager level or at director level for a long time because you clog up the system. So yes, women need to keep their hand in, but please don't write them off if they if they choose to do something different for a period of time.”

Coming up in a minute, how to persuade employers – and yourself – of your worth…when you’ve been out of the workforce.

 When Lisa and her co-author Deb Kahn were writing She’s Back, Lisa thought the first step they’d outline for women was what she calls ‘getting your story straight’ – meaning the story you tell employers about who you are and why you’re valuable.

“But actually when I first started speaking to people I realized this first step isn't that, the first step is getting your head sorted, really understanding what are the stories you’re telling yourself about why you can’t go back…”

She found this was a common theme. Women who wanted to go back to work on the one hand, but on the other kept telling themselves they couldn’t.

“…and in the book there’s a story of Jenny who was a teacher who’d been out for 12 years, and one of the things stopping her going back was this story going around in her head that she can’t be the teacher she used to be, and by that she meant she can’t be in at 7:00 with the caretaker and there till seven o'clock in the evening when he turned the lights out…which is what she used to be when she was a young teacher. Because now she’s got other demands on her time, but she realized in time that actually that was true, she couldn’t be the teacher she used to be, she would be different, and actually she's better and she teaches special needs, and her children have both had different types of special needs. And of course she's a much better teacher than she would have ever been before she had them because she's had the experience, she's had the life experience of bringing them up and knowing, understanding what their needs are. As an adviser to the parents of the children who now come through her class she's so much more valuable, but she was sat there with this story telling herself about how she can’t be what she used to be.”

And there was something else that had been holding Jenny back. She confided to Lisa… 

“I kept telling myself that the family would fall apart if I went back, and she said, ‘I had to tell myself that because if it didn't fall apart then what was the point of me, and what had I been doing all this time?’” 

AM-T: “What can people do, if they’re feeling negative…how can they break back into this world?”

“I think one of the things you need to do is really figure out your strengths and what value you've got to add. If I go back to my own experience, instead of defining myself as being a mum with two kids who wants some part time work, define yourself by the value that you've got to offer an organization, and I think that also means thinking about the time you've had, if you have taken a break, the time you've had as a parent or whatever it is you've been doing, and how that has added to your skillset and added to the contribution you can make to an organisation. So for example I took some time and volunteered as a magistrate which meant that I had to really get to know the community within which I live and the issues around law and order in East London, which are totally different from any issues I would ever come across getting on the tube and going to work in the City and coming back home in the evening again. So I think that makes me a more rounded person and have different contributions to offer.

So really understanding your value, and that could that could mean talking to a coach, it could mean pulling out your old performance appraisals, it could mean talking to friends who know you or people who used to work with you about what your strengths are and what you've got to add, but do something that's going to make you feel good about yourself.”

Because you may well have had a dip in confidence. You need other people to remind you of everything you can do. And talking of other people… 

AMT: “I mean we’ve talked about this on the show before, but the dreaded word, ‘networking’…”

“I do a lot of speaking to hundreds of women both in work and out of work and whenever I get to the slide on networking everybody cringes, and women hate the term networking. But actually we're really good at it. If you reframe networking as not standing in a stuffy room with business cards and horrible white wine…if you think about it as actually helping people, figuring out how what you've got that can help somebody else, rather than what they've got that can help you. Actually if you think about it women do it all the time. We're always looking to help people, find out what people are interested in, how we could be interesting to them, and your network is far greater than you ever imagine.

When we were doing our first piece of research we needed to get five organizations to sponsor us, and I had no idea before I set off She's Back that Christine, who happens to be Ollie’s mum, Ollie being my son's best friend, is actually, she was the chief technical officer at the Financial Times and she was about to move to be the chief technical officer at News International, which became one of my clients, and it is surprising who you know that might know someone who can introduce you to someone who might ultimately find you an interview.”

OK so talking to a lot of different people is key. But then what do you actually put down on a resume, a CV that hasn’t been updated in years? How do you explain your absence from the workplace?

“There’s two schools of thought. One is that when you are actually coming to write a CV you do not have to waste endless time explaining and justifying the fact that you took a break, just put ‘planned career break’. Leave it at that, and only describe any experience if it's relevant to the job in hand and it's going to help get you the interview. So that's the first point. When it comes to interview you've got to be prepared to answer the question, what did you do, why did you take it? But be aware that the person interviewing you has got a tick box that they're looking to tick off, and all they're really interested in is whether you've got the competencies to do the job they're looking for. So don't waste time warbling on about any volunteering experience unless it's relevant to the job in hand.

But then on the more positive note, I think compared to someone who's in work doing one job just looking to transfer to another organization…you have had to really think about this, if you're returning to work after a break you've got to be damn sure that you've got everything in place to make it work. You probably come really refreshed, you’re bringing some new ideas. You are motivated, you know it's going to be tough. So you are someone who has really thought through the decision to apply for this job and I think that enthusiasm has to come through.”

That was the case with a woman Lisa met early in her research for the book. She’s called Emma. She’d been a management consultant in her twenties and early 30s, but she’d stayed at home with her kids for years and done part-time project work.

“She got to 49, her husband was due to retire, her boys were 16 and 18 and she thought, right, I have got one big job left in me. And I met her for a coffee three or four years ago, and one year ago I got an e-mail from her to me and a number of other people saying thank you very much for the introductions you made. I've now got my dream job, and she's now working as a senior project manager for a law firm in the city. And when I when I first met her I said, of course you’re looking for flexibility, and she said ‘absolutely not! I don't want flexibility, I want to be on the 6:04 from Reading into London. I've done the flexible bit. I've been there at home looking after my kids, I'm not doing that anymore. I want to have this big job.’

Not only has she got the job, I was speaking to a partner in that firm on a different subject matter just yesterday, and he mentioned to me, ‘so you know Emma, don’t you? I said yes, and he said, she has completely transformed the way we tackle large transformational projects throughout the firm. She's an absolute asset.’”

Lisa was thrilled.

Now as she just pointed out, Emma the consultant had no desire for flexibility in her new work life – she wanted the whole shebang, commute included. But a lot of women DO want flexibility and they’re often very grateful if they get it.

“One of the things that I've been thinking a lot about lately is this issue of flexibility and when women work part time, because I have a hunch…Women obsess about needing to get permission for anything that goes beyond the normal working nine to five, being in an office, and therefore they go to great lengths to agree that for example they’re going to work an eighty percent week and they're contactable on these days at these hours and this is the day they're going to work from home. And they spend a lot of time putting it in writing and getting it all formalized. And I have a hunch that men just go ahead and do it and then the women that have had these highly formalized arrangements tend to get labelled as being less ambitious than the men, who just continue in business as usual…”

That’s true and some of you will remember we talked about this in my recent re-run show with Laura Vanderkam. A study of men and women at a US consulting firm showed just that – that men take the time they need away from their desks when they need it; they just don’t talk about it. Women make it all formal and ask permission and as a result they’re branded as less dedicated.  

“And it came home to me, when…there’s a woman, one of the women in our book, Emily, who works for PwC. She said she got a fantastic piece of advice from a mentor who took her to one side and said, for goodness sake stop talking about your hours, start talking about your ambition. And it made Emily realise that she just needed to stop drawing attention to the fact that she’d got this arrangement, and actually she's traveled with me along the journey of writing this book and we've done a couple of talks together, and it's given her extra confidence. Because just recently it was performance appraisal time and she was ranked at the top of her group. But when the bonuses were actually allocated and she was told what the number was going to be, it was the lowest amount in her group.”

And that was because the firm had prorata-d her bonus - they chopped down the amount to match her reduced hours. So Emily went to her bosses and pointed something out:

“Bonus is about outcomes. So the fact that I have a different working schedule is totally irrelevant and a bonus should be the bonus, and there's no need to pro rata of it. And my understanding is the firm have changed it because she was absolutely right. But sometimes I think we so grateful to be allowed to do something that's outside of the norm, we don’t argue.”


Finally, Lisa says if you want to take a career break and you’re able to…

“It’s absolutely fine to take your foot off the gas and to take a break, to step back at a point in time if that's what you need at that point in time, but it's equally fine to then want to step up again, and we were all going to be living for longer we've got a right to have the work we want, we've got a right to be able to fulfill our potential and not have boundaries put in our way.

And so I just would like people to be ambitions for the whole of their life and to find ways to go and get what they're looking for. If indeed that is more work and more money, because none of us, I don't know what it's like in the US, but none of us here have saved enough for our pensions.”

AM-T: “Oh no, it’s very much the same here. But you know what I realize as you said that, that I should ask about, is one obvious thing. Which is ageism. It’s out there.”

“Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I think it’s almost worse than sexism. And it goes back to the point I made about these firms where if you've not made it by 40 you’re classed as a failure and we have to tackle that. And I wrote another piece that was quite well received saying, this is what a 50 year old woman looks like. Because there was a chief executive of Marks and Spencer here in the UK a few years ago, he said he was going to rescue the company because he understood, he said, I know my Marks and Spencer's customer, she's a 50 year old woman who still shops at M&S. And I just thought, you have no idea what 50 year old woman looks like.

We've got tons of energy and we've got all this life experience behind us and we have got so much more to add often than a 24 year old grad, because we've come in…we’re sensible, we've got perspective, we've got judgment and we need to we need to own that, I think, and hold our heads high and put ourselves out there.”

Lisa Unwin. She’s the co-author of She’s Back – I’ll link you to more information about the book and the organization under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

We should probably do a whole show on ageism because some of you in tech have told me that in your industry it begins in your thirties.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I’d love to hear from you – you can comment under this episode on the website or tweet me or post a comment on the Facebook page.

 Thanks again to those of you who support this one-woman show. If you’d like to join them head over to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com. If you can kick in 50 bucks I will send you the official Broad Experience T-shirt. Ladies cut.

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

Episode 134: Running for Office

Show transcript:

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

This time…America’s midterm elections are coming up in a few weeks and plenty of women are running for political office for the first time. They’re stepping away from their regular jobs to campaign…

“A person of color and a Democrat has never won this seat – I don’t think anybody’s ever run for this seat.”

“Just because of my party affiliation people assume they know everything about me. But I am the next generation of Republicans, I’m not what we see right now.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

My first guest is part of a wave of black women running for office in a southern state known for its good ol’ boy network.

“My name is Suzanna Coleman and I am an attorney and I’m running for Alabama House District 15.”

Alabama played a big part in the US civil rights movement. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, the state capital. Then there were the Birmingham church bombings in the early ‘60s. Four young African-American girls were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in a backlash against civil rights.

Suzanna didn’t grow up in Alabama but it was her dad’s home state. Her parents spent their working lives in Ohio, and when they retired from Ohio to the warmth of Alabama, Suzanna went with them. She attended college there and she’s lived there ever since.

Suzanna’s district is about 28 miles from Birmingham. Suzanna describes it as pretty rural – or a combination of suburban and rural. She’s getting to know more and more people as she campaigns – something she says she enjoys partly because of what she used to do before she became a lawyer.  

“I’m also a licensed social worker, I did that for about 15 years before I started practicing.”

Suzanna just turned 46 as I was putting this show together. She’s been married for years – her husband is a truck driver.

“I have two kids.”

Her son is 21, her daughter is 15.

She says she never saw herself running for office…but like a lot of Democratic women who are running, she says the outcome of the 2016 election spurred her on. Alabama voted big for Donald Trump.

“It was difficult, but having kids you try to not take the negative, at least for me, trying to be a responsible parent is trying to see the brighter side of things. That was kind of hard to find. But I will say that I insisted, even on Facebook I said, we need to pray for this person. He’s in the position now…regardless of how it happened, this is what we have.”

Still, praying wasn’t enough. She was spending a lot of time on social media lamenting the Trump presidency when she realized…I’m not really doing anything here. I’m just talking. And social media was a swirl of negativity. She didn’t know what to tell her daughter in particular about the new president. He was already making blunt comments about immigrants, people with disabilities…the kinds of people who’d been Suzanna’s clients over the years.

“I didn’t know what much to say except we have to focus on our local community and do our part to make things better. Do our part to change things.”

That’s when she thought well…why not try to actually change things myself?

Suzanna would love to increase funding for the education system: Alabama comes near the bottom of the rankings when it comes to educational attainment. She says the infrastructure is in terrible shape in her area – ambulances and fire trucks have trouble getting to people because local roads can be so bad. She wants to improve healthcare, particularly mental healthcare.

She ran totally unchallenged in the primary earlier this year. No other Democrat was interested in running. Her opponent is a Republican 20 years older than her. He’s held the seat since 2010. She says the very fact that she is not the average candidate…has raised some interest and probably some gossip.

“’Cause you know, it’s historic, so a person or color and a Democrat has never won this seat, or run for this seat…so from that perspective you know that there has to be some backroom talk.”

She says she hasn’t heard anything nasty though. And she’s feeling increasingly confident about her campaign.  

“When I first started off I thought oh my gosh, what am I doing, what do I have to offer, but then I thought, I’m qualified, I have been able to go through some hurdles a lot of people haven’t, and why not me? So I could be at a disadvantage but I’m hopeful people are ready for change. They see what’s going on in our legislature, the people who have been indicted, the corruption, you know, everything that has happened…”

From a philandering governor who used state funds to try to cover up his affair, to a prominent politician jailed for corruption to the senate race last year where Republican candidate Roy Moore was accused of initiating sexual contact with minors years before. 

“…and I think that people may silently be ready for change. I’m not sure that outwardly they express that. we get the feeling – those of us democrats running – that people might be ready for new leadership…”

AM-T: “Well tell me, I want to ask a follow up question to that…but let me go back to  something you just mentioned which was going through some hurdles but it’s that that makes you qualified. What have you been through in life that you think helps set you up for this journey?

“Well, looking back there are a lot of things where I’m like, well, I had no idea I’d be doing this ten years ago. But that I can look back and say oh my gosh, well this is why this happened. My parents both passed away two years apart from eachother before we moved to Jefferson County…” 

Suzanna is an only child and she was very close to her parents, a mechanic and a food worker. Her father died when she was 29; her mother when she was 31. They used to offer emotional and practical help.

“…so just having to manage life without your biggest supporters has been enormously challenging. I went to grad school and had my son, my parents were very instrumental in making sure I got through my grad school program, because they watched him a lot while I was having to study. And I must be a glutton for punishment because there I go, I did the exact same thing through law school; I worked the entire time. I worked all four years, I was a therapist at a residential facility; I studied on weekends, I briefed cases…I had to study for the bar with a family. I think I’ve proven myself.”

Still, she is up against a longtime incumbent in a traditionally red state.

AM-T: “I mean how does it feel to be out there on the trail, knocking on doors, going up against this guy who’s been there for eight years? I mean how’s it going?”

“I think it’s going really well, we’ve had some positive feedback – it’s hot, it’s really hot!

When we spoke it was still high summer and temperatures in Alabama were in the mid-90s Fahrenheit. Suzanna and her team have tried to get out by 10a.m. for a few hours, and then again once the sun has started to go down.

“My volunteers have been great, and we just go door knock. I think the reception has been good, people are curious and people out here quite frankly are not used to people campaigning, so when you knock on their door they don’t answer, so I just hang a door hanger on their door, sorry we missed you. But everyone who opens the door, they’re shocked, they’re like are you the candidate? I’m hot and disgusting like everyone else. But it matters. I’ve had people come to the door and say you know I vote Republican and I can’t believe you came and asked for my vote personally and that really matters to me…I really want to connect with as many people as possible. I ask them to spread the word and to check me out. But I do ask for their support November 6th.”

As I said earlier, Suzanna is one of dozens of African-American women running for state or local office in Alabama this November – nearly every one of them is a Democrat. Hers is a majority white district in a conservative state…I couldn’t help wondering how much she thinks about her identity – or not – while she’s on the trail.  

“When I’m doing events, I mean I think in back of your mind you’re always cognizant of it, and that’s sad. So when I think that because I’m black, because I’m a woman I should feel uncomfortable…but I think that’s the barrier we’re trying to break, that’s what we’re trying to get past, that this is unusual. It shouldn’t be unusual.  I’ve been a registered voter since I was 18 years old. I live and work in the community, why is it unusual? I know each of us has our whole story and struggle with the whole identity thing, you know, you’re a black female, but we also know that we have to do this, just like with civil rights coming behind us… could be greater, is going to be greater and we know that. It’s not for me about being the black female candidate, it’s for me about being the most qualified candidate, the candidate who has a heart for people and I truly care about issues and I want to work with other people. Regardless of who’s in the legislature. I want to be able to work with them, I want to be able to accomplish things instead of wasting money or time.”

She says more and more, she thinks of herself as just the candidate…someone who can do this…

“…and I’ve had to grow into that. It doesn’t come easy every day, either. There are some days when I think oh my gosh, what am I doing, why am I doing this, these people are never going to accept me…to, yes, I can do this, look at what people have been able to accomplish before me. Why not me? And then all the while I’ve got these 15-year-old eyes looking at me wondering about how I’m going to react to the challenges every day. And she’s very wise my daughter is, she’s been with me most of the time and she’ll say, why did you even care about that person, or why did you even care about somebody saying this or that about you? You’re doing the right thing.”

Two thousand miles away in San Diego, California, Morgan Murtaugh is also running for office. She’s 26. She grew up in San Diego, and she’s running as a Republican. She’s campaigning for a seat that a Democratic congresswoman has held since Morgan was nine years old.

She says a lot of Californians are sick of what she describes as excessive spending and petty laws that interfere too much with people’s lives…

“It’s just a lot of bureaucracy and I think people are fed up of the government meticulously telling them what to do on every aspect of life. 

She’s taken a leave of absence from her job at One America News Network to run – it’s a conservative cable channel. When we spoke she’d just rushed from an event to visit her grandmother – she did the interview at her grandma’s house. And her grandmother was born and raised over the border…

“My grandparents immigrated to the US from Mexico 50 years ago, and because of that, I mean – I don’t look Latina, I am, I’m the whitest Mexican you’ll ever meet…well not the whitest, but I’m one of them. So I grew up with that culture, and my dad is a homicide detective for the sheriff’s department, he just retired recently. So I grew up with law enforcement background as well.”

Morgan went to Catholic school…then she attended a nearby community college…and while she was there she started working for the Navy. San Diego is a huge naval base.

“Basically I worked in the front office for a three-star admiral, I helped coordinate his events, I was the only civilian in that office – it was really eye-opening, I learned a lot about our navy in that position.”

Then she transferred to George Washington University in Washington DC…did a lot of internships on Capitol Hill…

“And that after that I worked on Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign, right out of college.”

Fiorina is one of her idols – Morgan would have loved to have seen her become president.  

She says her parents raised her to be open minded, to consider all sides of an issue, but as she got older she realized she was conservative in some areas, particularly about spending. Otherwise, she says…

“…especially as a millennial I grew up learning about the environment, and the impact we have on the environment, I grew up accepting everyone around me. My aunt is gay and married. So I grew up very socially accepting, but fiscally conservative.”

California is largely a blue state. And Morgan’s Democratic opponent on November 6th has been in her role for 17 years. She’s been re-elected time and again. But like Suzanna, Morgan thinks it may just take an energetic push from some new blood to change people’s minds. She’s local, she loves San Diego, she’s been active in politics since she was a teenager.

AM-T: “What’s the reception from your peers, and I’m really curious as a young woman if you get a different reception from men than from women?”

“My peers are very excited, millennials are excited to have a voice that understands them running for office. The biggest pushback I’m seeing is from older white men. Regardless of party that’s the general group that look at me and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, ‘are you even old enough to run for office?’ And to me you wouldn’t look at an old person and say you’re a little too old to still be running for office. So why would you look at someone who’s been qualified, who ran a race and made it past the primaries and look at them and say, are you even old enough to run for office?’”

AM-T: “I have to say, I know the incumbent has been there for a very long time, as you mention I mean, do you think you have what it takes to unseat such a longtime incumbent. I mean how hopeful are you?”

“I know it’s an uphill battle. But I’ve put my entire heart into this, I’ve been going door to door, I‘ve been taking to people, I’ve been going to concerts, farmers markets, I went to PRIDE, I’ve been out in the community constantly meeting people, constantly telling people who I am…and I’ve been getting a great response. And I know it’s an uphill battle and a long shot but I know it’s possible.”

When I last checked she had more than 52 thousand Twitter followers, and she’s not just getting out there in in the usual ways. She’s combined earning a bit of money to pay the bills with campaigning…she’s working for the food delivery service Postmates…

“I deliver people’s food and I say, by the way, I’m running to be your next congresswoman, here’s my card.”

Like Suzanna, says doesn’t focus on party when she meets people…

“I don’t ask people are you a Democrat or a Republican, I don’t ask people that and most people don’t ask that of me either. I go up to people, I tell them who I am, where I stand on issues that matter to them. I always ask people what their number one issue is and I tell them where I stand…I’d say less than 25% of people ask what my party affiliation is. But other than that no one asks, no one cares, it’s all about who you are as a person.”

But of course some issues really do divide people, and abortion is one of them. I assumed Morgan was anti-abortion…

“Yes. I believe that life begins at conception but then I also…it’s a very complicated issue. I also believe that if we put abortions under ground just like with any other thing, we’re putting a lot of people’s lives at risk as well…so there’s a fine balance, so even though I’m morally opposed to them and I believe it is murder, I also believe that we need to find a way to make sure that everyone is safe.”

She didn’t vote for Donald Trump in the last election – or Hillary Clinton. She cast her vote for a third party. She says she supports some of the presidents’ policies, like tax reform, but she doesn’t like the guy himself.

She says she’s running for two main reasons: one, she thinks the congresswoman she wants to replace is out of touch with a lot of San Diegans. But two, she wants more people in their twenties and thirties to run for office. Millennials will be the biggest voting block in the US before too long but there are very few young politicians.

Though you may have heard of one aspiring congresswoman…

“I mean she’s getting all this attention.”

Morgan is talking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She won an upset victory in the New York primaries over a much older, longtime congressman. Her district covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. She describes herself as a Democratic Socialist and she’s had a lot of press attention. She’s turning 29 this month.  

“Meanwhile I am the youngest person in the nation running for congress and if I win I’ll be the youngest woman ever elected to congress. But everyone wants to focus on New York. And the thing is, it’s a little frustrating to me, because of my party affiliation people assume everything about me. But I am the next generation of Republicans, I’m not what we see right now. I’m fiscally conservative but I’m socially liberal; I’m very environmentally friendly. We’re a new type of Republican and a lot of millennial Republicans are like this. My goal is to change people’s perspective on what it means and focus on issues like the economy and border security and national security and focus on what most people agree on…”

Instead of the social issues.

She doesn’t really have a plan B if she doesn’t win next month…

“I’ll see where life takes me next. But right now I’m focused on November.”

If she does, she will pack her bags and set out for DC again – this time as a congresswoman. Last time when she was there as a student she couldn’t afford a car, so she leased one through Uber and drove for them. She hopes she’ll have her own car if she makes it this time.

“That would be fun though, think about that, having a member of Congress picking you up in an Uber. Something I would do.”

Morgan Murtaugh.

Thanks to her and Suzanna Coleman for being my guests on this show. I’ll have photos of both candidates on the page for this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

And thanks to Andrew Yaeger for taping my interview with Suzanna Coleman, and Margot Wohl for taping the conversation with Morgan Murtaugh.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. If you have a comment you can post it via the website or email me or tweet me – I’d love to hear from you.

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

Episode 133: The Ambition Decisions

Show transcript:

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

This time…

“There’s this very classical way of channeling ambition or the way we think about channeling ambition, which is that it should all go into your career.”

But plenty of women steer their ambition into other areas – at least for a while. And if they can do that, why can’t men?

“True gender equality is acknowledging that men get to have dreams too, and that men don’t have to pursue a CEO-ship or a traditional career track just because they’ve been expected to their whole lives.”

Women, ambition and choices about career and relationships. Coming up on The Broad Experience.

When I first started out in the workforce I never thought of myself as being ambitious in the traditional sense. I had no desire to get to the corner office. I was what I called ambitious to be happy – I’d been a pretty miserable teenager. And for me that meant a fulfilling job and a good relationship and plenty of interests outside of work. Over the years I’ve watched with some envy and self-doubt as friends of mine have climbed the corporate ladder and my career has careened all over the place.

Both my guests were thinking along these same lines a few years ago as they approached their mid-forties. We’re exactly the same age.

“I’m Hana Schank, I work for a think tank and I’m a writer.”

“I’m Elizabeth Wallace, I’m also a writer for magazines and branded content and advertising.”

They’re are also co-authors of the book The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know about Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life.

Hana and Liz met in college and they’ve always kept in touch. Liz saw the print media industry shrink like crazy while she was in it. She found she was spending more time with her kids than she ever had before, and freelancing. Hana was running her own business and also working around her kids’ schedules. But were things perfect at home? No. And were these careers good enough? As Hana put it, she knew a lot of women with the word ‘global’ in their title. She and Liz didn’t have that.

“We found we were both at the same point in our lives of being dissatisfied with where we were with our careers, with our marriages, with our parenting – and trying to do all this stuff at the same time and feeling like we were not doing a good job or being where we wanted to be at any given moment. And wondering if there was this mythical woman out there who had this all figured out and was just doing a superb job at all of it.” 

The two of them had met at Northwestern, back in 1989. They’d been in a sorority together. They remembered their friends in that sorority as ambitious to a woman – everyone had big plans for her future. They decided to track down those women, over 40 of them, including those they’d lost touch with, and interview them – about what their lives were like now, and how they compared to their early dreams. Basically, how were they making it work? Because surely they WERE making it work?

Hana: “The start of this was to talk to the women we had known in college and to find somebody who just proved to ourselves the point that it’s actually us, we’re the ones who can’t handle it, somebody out there has it all figured out.”

AM-T: “It’s all perfect. Somebody out there has the perfect life…I was gonna say quite early on in the ambition chapter you say, we started this project trying to find women who’d figured it all out, instead we found a lot of our friends had lives more or less like ours and were figuring it out in real time every day. And you found this out after interviewing four stay at home mothers in a row. And you were quite surprised, right?”

Liz: “We were, because before that I think we’d interviewed several what we’d later call ‘high achievers’, who were C suite executives or marketing execs who were the primary breadwinners in the family who had never taken a break from their career, and been really, really gung ho about it, very type A. So when we started these interviews we thought oh, we’ll see a lot of that…and then when we did interview several stay at home moms in a row, they seemed happy and content and confident in the decision they had made. And at that time I’d given up my childcare, I had not given up my work but I had compromised to only do my work at the time my children were in school…so I empathized in some ways with the stay at home moms, but also I had this tugging feeling inside of me of wow, you had so much potential, why did you give that up?”

Liz says she was quite judgy at first. But that was before they dug into these women’s lives and found out more about why they made the choices they had. Liz and Hana’s friends were from a mix of backgrounds – some were the first members of their family to go to college, others grew up in privilege, many were in between. Some, like Liz, were daughters of first-generation immigrants. Most were white and most were in heterosexual relationships.

In the book Liz and Hana divide the women they talked to into three groups: the high achievers, the flex-lifers, and the opt-outers. More on all these in a bit.

AM-T: “Yeah, what was  what was so interesting was reading about all the ways in which ambition goes down a slightly different path…whether it’s women who gave up their careers for their kids or what you call ‘flex-lifers,’ so they are working but they perhaps work fewer hours or they work a normal 40-hour week in order to have a life, since most of them have families.”

Hana: “What was striking to us about the stay at home mothers was they didn’t seem like people who were not ambitious. They continued to be ambitious…in addition to taking care of their children, they all did things like they were all the president of the PTA or the neighborhood association, they were still out there and running things and clearly driven and wanting to be in charge of stuff and wanting to channel their ambition in ways that didn’t happen to be work. And that’s also true of the flex-lifers…”

Again, this group is made up of what I imagine to be the majority of women – people who want a career but a career that doesn’t eat their life. But Hana and Liz both live in New York and we are surrounded by high achievers in these parts. So at first they weren’t sure what to make of this group. They wondered, were these women just phoning it in at work? Then finally they realized…

Hana: “What this actually is, is a conscious decision of ‘I’m good where I am but I want to do other things, like I want to have a hobby or I want to meet my kid at 3p.m every day or I want to do trail running.’ Whatever it is. And that they had different ways they wanted to channel their ambition. And one of the things we talk about in the book is there’s this very classical way of channeling ambition or the way we think about channeling ambition, which is that it should all go into your career and that if you are an ambitious person you have this very high-flying career and this is what ambition looks like.”

AM-T: “It's outward.”

“Right, it’s outward and it’s career directed, it’s ‘you are killing it at work and you are recognized for killing it at work.”

And the high achievers – they were able to power ahead because they didn’t mind not being the most ‘present’ parent in the world. Most of them had kids and most of those had a stay-at-home spouse. They felt they could stay late or go in early because they knew their spouse or their nanny had it covered. They ceded control at home to achieve at work. And they didn’t feel bad about it.

The majority of the women featured in the book are married with children, because by the time you hit your forties…most women ARE. But not all of us.

AM-T: “You’re mostly talking about people who are in a partnership, but I really wonder as someone who was single for a long time, if some of the women you spoke to were single – maybe they were divorced or maybe they’d always been single. But maybe single without kids, and what their lives were like? I mean were they all hard charging? Because I’m always saying gosh, just because you don’t have kids it doesn’t mean you want to work 20 hours a day, you want a life just as much as anyone else.”

“Yeah, no, so there were definitely women who were not married, two women actually got married while we were in the process of doing this, so in their 40s, two women got divorced while we were in process of interviewing, and the women who were single were not all people who constantly worked. Some of them were very successful but others had desires beyond work just as people in a partnership would. So there was one woman who had a management consulting career and at some point said this is not for me, I want to live in Colorado, and she moved to a small town in Colorado and started a business so she could hike in the mountains and ski and have that kind of life…”

For me one story in particular stood out.

AM-T: “I remember one story that I read toward the end of the book, a sorority member who had married later, she’d married a guy who had a son, as I have, and it was really interesting because it’s very similar to my feelings. She said something to you like, well now I’ve got this partner and I want to do things with him, I want to spend time with him because she hadn’t had that for quite a while before. And that’s exactly how I feel. I mean I have so much less time to work now, even though I’m not a biological mother, my stepson is with us half the week and so much more of my time is going to other humans than it used to. And productivity-wise it’s not great, but it’s great in every other way. And I want to spend time with these people I didn’t have in my life before.”

“Yeah, we loved her story for that reason. because I think especially if you are somebody who from the early days of childhood was told you’re gonna go out and do big stuff and this is what your life is gonna look like, and you’re surrounded by others who are climbing the corporate ladder who are having a lot of career success, this is internal guilt and internal criticism around well, isn’t that what my life should look like? I think that was part of the starting point of this book – looking at that and saying well these other people are top executives, and how come that didn’t happen to me? And that some of that is a choice and a perfectly fine and legitimate choice to make. And we loved that woman’s story in particular because she was someone who was very ambitious, had started her own company, was doing really well and was wresting with, now I have the opportunity to have this piece of my life that I didn’t have before, and am I quitting if I give up the career piece which I’ve worked so hard for? But at the same time struggling with, is it OK to be the kind of person who just wants to have a personal life?” 

AM-T: “You focus a lot in the book on people being so busy, people’s lives are bursting at the seams, I bet a lot of these women don’t get 7 hours sleep a night, you know, they are burning the candle at both ends when it comes to whatever they’re doing for their children, their jobs, most of them are doing more in the home than their male partners. It really jumped out at me from these pages – control, control, control. Women really love to control things. Can you talk a little bit about that, because this is part of the reason why we’re so exhausted.”

Liz: “Well we…yes, it is. One of the things we talk about specifically with relation to parenting and control, is that a lot of these women – well, two things: they said they wanted to control everything and that when it came to parenting they felt like they had to be the one to do everything – to make the pediatrician appointments, and you know as you read the book, Ashley, that one hundred percent of our friends who had children make the pediatrician appointments, even if they don’t take them to the appointments, they wanted to be the one to put it on the calendar, that for them, part of the control issue was focused around the things they did as a mother that made them feel essentially like a mother.

So we talk about identifying the things that are inherently important to you as a mother and also identifying the things that aren’t as important to you, that you can delegate to someone else or just not do. Like do you really need to do laundry three times a week, maybe not.…or can you drop the ball and not make lunch one or two days a week? Do you need to be making a homemade bento box lunch every day for your kids? Give yourself a break two days a week. The relinquishing of the control of those things, I mean it seems really minor but for me personally I mean I live this every day of my life and we talk about things – things I can really let go of. There’ll be times like, ‘oh, I’m so stressed, I’m so tired,’ and Hana’s like, why don’t you order in tonight, Liz? And I’m like, we don’t order in, we don’t do that, we’re not that family! And I feel bad and beat myself if I’m not making a homemade meal even if it’s just some steamed vegetables and sautéed chicken.”

She does do takeout a bit more often these days. And I have to say here that it’s not just women who feel this way about their parenting. My husband makes gourmet breakfasts and school lunches for his son too - crepes with Nutella, anyone? Pasta with homemade pesto?

Liz and Hana also heard from a lot of women who didn’t want their male partners doing various stuff at home or with the kids…because they didn’t do it right…

“Our big takeaway there was for the sake of making yourself sane, for the sake of moving toward gender equality in marriages and smashing the patriarchy and giving yourself more time to really kill it at work or get more sleep, or exercise, or self-care, the things you also want to do well in your life – let your husband empty the dishwasher and don’t complain about how he does it…the dishes are gonna get clean or not, will it kill you to eat on a not perfectly clean dish? Get comfortable with things not being done the exact way you want them to. It’s gonna give you more time and create more harmony in a marriage. I mean we’ve talked about this endlessly. Do you want to add to that?

Hana: “I think the other part is figuring out the things you absolutely have to be in control of. So we have one story in the book which is one of my favorites about a woman who asked her husband to take their daughter to a specialist, and she said when he came back the report she got was so unsatisfactory that she had to go make a second appointment and get a second opinion to do it herself.”

AM-T: “Men can be quite concise in their descriptions.”

Hana: “Yes, well, obviously she felt this has to be done this very specific way. So either she had to change her feeling on that or she had to say, you know this is just a thing that it’s not possible for me to delegate. And I’m gonna do it.”

AM-T: “ I’m just curious, Liz…you are married to a woman, and you are largely writing about people in heterosexual relationships, did you marvel at this? Is your life perfectly balanced?”

Liz: “None of our lives are perfectly balanced and mine certainly is not. But I did marvel at it a lot and Hana and I have talked about this a lot and I want to write something about how emotional labor is different in my same sex relationship. I’m not technically married but I’ve been with my partner for 21 years, and that some of the issues around emotional labor and the breakdown of domestic duties among a lot of the friends we interviewed did resonate with me, and feeling the need to control everything in the household and with the kids 100% is an affliction I grapple with. However, the breakdown of parenting duties, domestic duties and responsibilities is really arbitrary in my house and it’s based on who has more time, who has more interest and who might be better at something…”

And talking about who does what or who should do what – as Liz just said, in her house that stuff doesn’t fall along traditional gender lines because they’re two women. But she and Hana found that most of their friends who were married to men, these women in their forties, they had pretty traditional views, and not just about the home front.

 Hana: “In a lot of our friends’ relationships the default was, ‘my husband’s career takes priority,’ even if that didn’t actually make sense for the two careers people had. So we had a couple of cases where…and one woman in particular, she was a rabbi, a mid-level rabbi, and she kept waiting for her husband’s career to take off, and that they’d talked about how he was gonna be the one, and she was gonna be more of the supporting role, bolstering his career. And at some point they realized actually he didn’t want his career to take off, and she was more interested in having a more demanding career. So once they had that conversation they could adjust, and that’s what happened. She ended up getting up a senior rabbi position and the family moved for her work, and he is more responsible on the home front. But the degree to which even these women who I think are pretty feminist women just defaulted to well, he’s a man, so therefore it’s his career that we’re focused on.”

AM-T: “I want to jump ahead to money because I love the fact that you focus on this piece of advice that women take to heart more than men, which is do what you love, follow your passion. Can you talk about that?”

Hana: “We noticed that in our friend group there were women who felt very strongly that they needed to support themselves and others who did not feel that way. The women who felt they needed to support themselves ended up supporting themselves. And they didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about what’s my passion and what do I love, they thought how do I make money doing something that is intellectually interesting to me and that I don’t hate going to every day.”

She says the whole ‘do what you love’ gathered steam right around the time we all graduated from college in the early 90s, and it’s only gained strength since then. The co-working space We Work – they use it as their mantra.

“Really, does everybody at WeWork go in and love absolutely every minute of what they’re doing? It’s such a burden to put on people. And we, in the course of looking at our data, felt like this disproportionately affects women. Because on top of being told ‘do what you love’ women are not told ‘do something that pays the bills,’ they don’t get the message that they need to be the breadwinner.”

Now this certainly has been the case traditionally. Just as it’s been the case that families generally didn’t talk to their girls about money – because, why bother? You were just going to get married and be supported by some nice man. Any job you had would be secondary to his. But I wonder how true this still is. I’d love to hear from young listeners about how you were raised to think about a career.

Hana says the thing is…

“It’s fine to have a job that is low paying that you love, when you don’t have kids, but then a lot of women talked about as soon as they had their first child they were making less than the nanny and it didn’t make sense for them to keep working. Which we, somewhat snarkily perhaps, were like, what did you expect? You know how much you’re making, you know you’re gonna have a baby, you know you’ve chosen a career that isn’t lucrative. If you haven’t got the message of, this income isn’t just fun money, this income is to support yourself, it’s easy to just step away from it and say, ‘well, I want to be home with the baby anyway.’ And then women on top of that have this added pressure of ‘is your job valuable enough to be away from your child?’ which is really the thing you should be craving to be with.” 

But when it comes to that, ‘well, there’s no point me working when all my salary would just go to pay for childcare…’

First, Liz says…

Liz: “Why do you think of childcare as a line item only on the woman’s salary? Childcare is a line item on a family’s salary. Childcare should come from both partners’ salaries if both partners are working because it’s something that benefits both partners.”

And second, you’ve heard this before, but having childcare even if it does eat your salary – having that childcare can allow you to progress in your career and earn far more later on. Look at it as an investment. But for a number of reasons, women tend not to think that way…

Liz: “That combination of feeling like your career isn’t worth it because it’s not earning enough, it’s not worth it because you really should be home with your children, or because you don’t earn as much as your partner and you feel their career is inherently for whatever reason is more important as yours. I have felt it in my own career and I’ve seen it with so many friends. It can be such a career killer for women.”

Something to think about.

Finally, Liz says, before you commit to a relationship consider what your expectations are…for each of you. And question them.

Liz: “True gender equality is acknowledging that men get to have dreams too, and that men don’t have to pursue a CEO-ship or a traditional career track just because they’ve been expected to their whole lives…if they want to be a flex -lifer or an opt-outer and partner with someone who has a different configuration, if they want to stay home and raise children they should be able to do that, or if they want to pursue a creative career and have a partner who has a more stable, high earning job so they can have this ambition balance in their lives, they should be able to do that.

It really is my hope that this younger generation, men and women, will talk together about what they want their lives to look like. But it’s really important for both men and women to specifically articulate this – it’s not gonna happen by accident, you have to talk about these things in relationships and not expect it to just flush out a certain way just because you’re both devoted to gender equality. I mean maybe for some it will, but in our experience, the women we talked to, the women who specifically had these conversations and continued to have them over course of their relationships and careers were the ones who seemed better be able to actualize what they wanted in marriages and in their careers and in their parenting.”

Elizabeth Wallace. Thanks to her and Hana Schank for being my guests on this show.

Before they wrote The Ambition Decisions Hana and Liz wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic on the same topic – I will link you to those pieces at TheBroadExperience.com.

That’s the show for this time. As always I am keen to hear from you. You can email me at ashley at TheBroadExperience.com, tweet me or post on the Facebook page.

 And if you’d like to become a supporter of this one-woman show, head over to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com.

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

Episode 131: Would You Work in a Women-Only Space?

Show transcript: 

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

This time, female-only workspaces are becoming more popular. To fans, they’re a haven for professional women…

“What’s happening here is people are feeling comfortable and not drowned out, and like they’re being heard.”

But others aren’t keen on the idea of a male-free environment…

“We're supposed to be championing diversity, and women have done so much to do that. And this felt like we were going a little bit backwards.”

Coming up – the pros and cons of women-only workspaces.

So about a year and a half ago I heard about this female only workspace slash social club that was opening in New York. The founders were two young women, glamourous and well connected. The place was called The Wing. And I remember thinking, wow, what a good idea – a women-only space that looks like it’s beautiful, comfortable, and all about supporting women in their work. You had to apply to get in and like a lot of freelancers I was already using a co-working space, so I never applied. But I liked the idea.

Now The Wing is not the only female co-working space out there – there are quite a few others in cities around the US and abroad as well. What’s different about this space is the amount of investment the two founders have received to grow the business – The Wing is expanding to cities on the west coast and Toronto and London. It doesn’t let men in, even as guests. And the space debuted at a particular moment in the culture.

A moment when a lot of American women were looking forward to the first ever female president. And then they got Donald Trump. The idea of a women-only club and workspace seemed more attractive than ever to a lot of applicants. There’s a waiting list to join.

“So yeah, it’s all color-coded books, as you can see, which is quite beautiful…”

I visited a branch of The Wing in Brooklyn recently and met a member, fellow podcaster Mallory Kasdan. She showed me around the light-filled, pastel-toned office space…complete with mid-century modern furniture and color-coordinated bookshelves packed with books by and for women.

“So this is a little bookcase that doubles as a phone booth. So it’s awesome, you can go in here…and you can talk on the phone…” 

“Oh, and it’s a retro phone, as well…” 

There’s a café and plenty of other amenities as well – showers, a meditation room, a lactation room, a podcast studio…and my personal favorite…

“…the little room where you can get ready, there’s lots of products.”

“Yeah, there are hairdryers, and hair straighteners…”

“Lots of products…sometimes I just put on some hand lotion because I can.”

All these features are pretty appealing, I have to say. Especially if your hair reacts to the weather like mine does.

But for Mallory joining the space wasn’t really about this. She’s a voiceover artist – you’ll have heard her in lots of ads – and she hosts a podcast called the MILK Podcast - stands for Moms I’d Like to Know. When she’s not in a radio studio she spends a lot of time working at home. She joined this workspace for a few reasons.  

“Primarily it was to get out of house, secondarily because it looked beautiful and third, it was to network and use it for what it’s meant to be which is, you meet someone in the bathroom and they say, cute clogs, and you say, thanks, what’s your name, what do you do? It really is like that, I’ve had that conversation with a couple of women. It’s nice. I think people want to connect, especially people who are freelancers…and maybe don’t have an office space to go to where they have those water cooler-y conversations. I think people want that a little bit.”

AMT: “And how does it feel when you’re here, being surrounded by other women?”

“It feels great. I mean I walked outside a few weeks after it opened…there was a guy walking his dog and he was on the phone with his headpiece in, and he was just shouting, like unnecessarily, taking up space in public for no reason. And I felt like that just wouldn’t happen here, people are just aware of eachother. And I’m not saying that all men are loud talkers on the street and take up a lot of space with their phone calls. But that reminded me of why it was nice to not have to deal with that, it has never happened here. I’ve never felt like anyone’s ever irresponsible with their voice or body. It’s just respectful. And that to me is really lovely.”

OK….so that’s not to say women can’t be annoying on their phones too. We undoubtedly can. But Mallory’s getting at something another guest echoed.

You’ve met Leigh Stringer before, in a show I did last year on putting yourself first. Leigh is an architect and an expert on our physical workspaces and how they can work better for us – and how we can get the most out of them. She joined the Washington DC branch of The Wing and this spring she wrote a piece for Slate in which she interviewed women in DC and New York about why they had joined this female-only workspace.

“A lot of people said they were inspired to join something like this after the election, the 2016 election. A lot of people said it was the #MeToo movement, the need to feel safe in an environment that just made them feel like, there would never be any sort of harassment issue right? That's not to say women don't harass women occasionally, but it's not nearly to the level that being in an environment perhaps with all men…A lot of them felt like they, especially in D.C., a lot of people who work for the Defense Department, who work for companies that are all technology companies, that are just all men, and they don't have any community. They're really missing…even in New York, a litigator saying, ‘I really miss having women around me but I work crazy hours I don't have time to do that.’ And you know I hadn't, until, you know, in this one litigator’s case she quit her job and joined The Wing and was trying to re-evaluate, and was just, like, it's just been so nice to be around other women and look at other models of working.”

So for a lot of women, working in a women-only space is about camaraderie. But it’s also about not having to feel like you don’t fit in with the culture. Mallory puts it this way.

“What’s happening here is people are feeling comfortable and not drowned out, and like they’re being heard.”

And she says the current political climate in the US – it’s another reason she’s drawn to the unabashedly feminist vibe at The Wing.

“Just politically and what’s been happening the last couple of years, I think people are really tired and aggravated and angry and scared, and want to fight against what’s happening, against what I see as kind of a terrifying government and culture, and a split culture, and feeling like I have to fight for what I believe is right within that. So I think having said all that, I think this is just a peaceful and lovely place to feel like everyone agrees with you – and maybe that’s a problem right now that we’re having in this country, that we only want to listen to voices that we agree with, and we’re only reading what we want to hear…”

And that’s true for a lot of us. Depending on where you live, you can easily find yourself in a cultural and political bubble – you might well seek it out. And if any of the women at The Wing’s current branches in New York and DC are Trump supporters, they’re not letting on. So for most members, it really does feel like a safe space.

But whether it’s world views or work styles, my next guest isn’t sure we should want complete consensus when we’re at the office.

“In real life you have to speak to lots of people that you don’t necessarily identify with who irritate the hell out of you, and by creating this sort of sanitised environment where we are all in agreement, were all one big happy family, I think that can kind of become a breed a breeding ground for seething resentment, and its unrealistic, the rest of the world isn’t like that. So why would you want to do it nine to five?”

Coming up in a moment.

Amy Rowe is the same age as the founders of The Wing – early 30s. She lives and works in Brighton, in the south of England. She’s the co-founder of a content marketing agency and everyone at her small company works out of a co-working space – complete with its own coffee shop…

“…funky cushions, nice lighting. It’s like you’re walking into an IKEA catalog.”

Her workspace also has plenty of men. I’d corresponded with Amy over Twitter and email before we spoke. So I knew she didn’t love the idea of women-only workspaces.

“No. And I'm prepared for the backlash that might ensue from me saying this, but my reaction was actually disappointment. And there are loads and loads of reasons for this, but very personally I am big on diversity in workspaces. I'm half deaf. I wear hearing aids, so it's something that, as well as my day job I work for a deaf charity, I talk to businesses about how they can improve diversity and how diversity in a business can really help creativity within the workplace. And I just thought, gosh, if we're having workplaces that are female only and no males, I mean what is that doing? Is that creating a sort of cookie cutter generation of workers? And I like working with men, what can I say. I like working with all sorts of different people and I've learnt a lot from doing that. So I felt that this was, first of all I just thought it was a very odd step. We're supposed to be championing diversity, and women have done so much to do that. And this felt like we were going a little bit backwards.”

She is not alone. When I tweeted about this several people got back to me saying the whole idea was retro; not helpful to the cause of equality. Though one man said he understood perfectly.

But what about what many founders of female-only spaces have said…that they’re creating somewhere where it’s easy for women to network and help other women get ahead? This is especially relevant for women entrepreneurs who are often shut out of male-heavy networks.

“I completely agree with creating spaces for women to interact with other women. And as you say if you are a founder it's really important that you are being put in touch or in the same space as women-friendly investors. And we all know that there's a big problem with the money flowing into women-run companies, so that's definitely a problem. I don't think a female-only coworking space is going to solve that problem. I don't think it's necessary. One of the reasons I don't think it's necessary is because I just felt, feel like these places sort of echo the elitism that you find in men only spaces.”

A lot of people agree. Why create a girls’ club when everyone should be striving for equality?

“Let's remember that we've been fighting for a very long time, women, to be at a table with everybody, right? Not to create another one and keep others off, so this just feels very elitist.”

Elitist in more ways than one, she says. These spaces aren’t free. Membership fees at The Wing are $215 a month and while that is relatively cheap rent for a workspace in a major city…

“It feels like it’s only targeted at a certain number of women who already enjoy a good socio-economic status. So it just feels like another club, and I have to say I've enjoyed all the trappings of being, I'm going to be honest, a middle class white woman, right. I have people I can talk to. I had a mentor. I was given all sorts of opportunities. And these are the things that I don't think are being addressed for other women that really need a leg up.”

The Wing is sensitive to this criticism. It’s started a scholarship program to try to diversify its membership from a socio-economic standpoint. It says it has a mixture of women of different ethnic backgrounds and increasingly of different ages as well (although I would say it’s mostly millennials). And you could argue any workspace outside of your living room is an investment.

Amy has said she enjoys working alongside men. But some women jump at the chance to work with other women. My friend Molly joined The Wing a few months ago but when we last spoke she hadn’t had the chance to use it yet because she’d just had her second child. But she emailed me about why she’d joined.

I just really like the company of women but on top of that I think it makes for a better work environment. At my former co-working space (We work) there were so many gross dudes. One guy in particular would walk around one of the common areas I liked to work in and talk loudly on his phone about all the sex he'd had the previous weekend. It was SO GROSS and weirdly aggressive. 

I said to Amy, let’s talk about this aspect of a female-only space: Dumping the bros.

“Okay, so dumping the bros, I mean we'd all like to dump the bros. It's not something I enjoy, I've certainly been in the position where I have been working somewhere and I've been interrupted by the loud braying of an older gentleman talking about his antics on a Saturday night. I mean we've all been there. Nobody enjoys that. But I'd still say that the introduction of female-only workplaces isn't not a solution. I think what is a better solution is making the current situation, the workplaces that we have better environments, and working on sort of creating either some rules, or some code of ethics or, and I don't really have the answer as to how it's done. But there's all sorts of things that can be done to promote women in workplaces and also address the chauvinistic environment. I don’t think it needs to be done with the segregation of women basically, and it kind of reminded me this whole thing of something that was happening in London. And bear with me but there was I think a rise of sexual crime on the tube. And so there was a voice rising to say that we should have female only spaces. Female only carriages. But the obvious backlash, which I agree with, says if we do that we just push women into safe spaces. We put them in again in the role of being the vulnerable party, and I just I just think again this is very like what's happening with female only workplaces. I think we can celebrate and support women without segregating them.”

But what about the women who love female-only spaces, who’ve come from a workplace full of men? They love how relaxed they are compared to a testosterone-filled office, or they love how the place is designed with women in mind, with chairs designed for our bodies, rooms that let us primp if we want to before going to a meeting or just going out for dinner. It feels like a nice change. 

“I’m sure it is a nice change from somewhere like a lawyer's office. Certainly I work in finance so I've experienced more than my fair share of male dominated spaces. I think what would be the most positive outcome of all is the fact that maybe we're going to see a rise in lawyers’ offices, financial institutions, really thinking about the design of their spaces and whether they are catering for women who you know want to have a hairdryer in the washroom and want to have a big mirror so they can they can get ready for an event and make sure they can see everything they're wearing, you know all the kind of stuff that these spaces are providing are important. So it would be a lovely thing if we see a shift in the way buildings and office spaces are designed…”

To accommodate more women workers. But for now, these women-only spaces are fairly few in number, even if they are popping up in more and more cities. And they cater to non-traditional workers to begin with. It’s questionable whether anything that happens there will translate to a corporate workplace.

Finally, I asked Amy, does she see these female spaces that don’t allow men in…as discriminating against men? The Wing’s policy is something the New York City Commission on Human Rights has been looking into.

“I think it is discriminating against men. Although I'm not going to be walking down the street protesting anytime soon, because I feel that it's probably about time that men came across some friction in the workplace, to be to be frank. Ultimately I wouldn't like to see these spaces banned. I don't think there's any point in going down that road. I think the better thing to do would be that workspaces that are male-dominated learnt from some of the practices that are going on in places like The Wing, and make their spaces more inclusive.”

After Amy and I spoke, I asked the same question of Leigh Stringer.

AM-T: “What do you think of the flip side of this…the point of view of, oh my gosh, if men went off and started male-only workspaces, women would be up in arms. This is discriminatory.”

“Well the truth is that they still do have male-only spaces. And you know all kinds of institutions… or maybe they don't advertise it. But they still are. It's funny, I was having a conversation just last week with one of the parents in my kid's class and he is he's gay and he works for the Department of Defense, and he was at Hooters.”

For non-US listeners Hooters is a restaurant chain where scantily clad waitresses are a trademark.

“You know, his team wanted to meet at Hooters, and he's like what's the point of that kind of thing for him? But you know, it was all guys. And that's where they chose to go. And I think even if it's not officially a club, that happens in the workplace even when, I mean this was like two months ago, right? So I think that this need for escape or this need to be in an all- female place, there are just not nearly as many of them as there still are male-only institutions or other sorts of environments that just put you out of your comfort zone.”

And why shouldn’t women have a comfort zone of their own, if they want one? I’d love to try one of these spaces myself.

And Leigh says we shouldn’t underestimate the role harassment and assault play in some women’s decision to work with other women. She writes a lot about the workplace environment. She wondered what the post-Harvey-Weinstein world might mean for the layout of workplaces.

“I was really curious obviously about #MeToo. I was like you know, there's a lot of discussion about policy and HR policy but what about the physical workplace. You know, are there ways that we can create an environment that helps victims of trauma feel better. But also, anyone who's suffered from sexual harassment and other sorts of traumatic events, what does that look like? And a lot of them when they describe them, the benefits, when I talk to experts and those who've counseled a lot of women, a lot of what they said was having a choice about where you go. Having a place that's maybe more open which, I found The Wing and some of the other spaces like it much more open, and not having a predator in the room with you is actually the most helpful sometimes for being productive at work. And so you know these third party or these environments that are only women, there are some just fight or flight responses that are eased and are lowered when people are in them. And I think we need to be respectful of that.”

Leigh Stringer. Thanks to her, Amy Rowe and Mallory Kasdan for being my guests on this show.

As ever, I am curious about what you think. Are you a freelancer or an entrepreneur or anyone else who loves the idea of a female only workspace? Or like Amy Rowe, does it seem backwards to you? I’d love to hear from you. You can post beneath this episode at TheBroadExperience.com, or tweet me at ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen – or post on the show’s Facebook page.

And I’ll include a photo or two related to this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

You know all those credits you hear at the end of other podcasts? You won’t hear that here, because it is just me who produces this show from start to finish. If you can support this one-woman production with a donation of any amount, it would be much appreciated. Head over to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com. And if you can’t, write a review on iTunes instead – I’d love that too.

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

Episode 129: Will They Still Like Me? The Power of Negotiation (part 2)

Show transcript: 

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

This time, part two of our show on negotiation.

“I was worried that if I am negotiating on behalf of myself that I will be viewed as pushy or aggressive, or it will somehow make me less likeable.”

A lot of you will know exactly what she’s talking about.

Coming up.  

In the last show you met negotiation trainer Natalie Reynolds. I loved her practical advice and positive attitude. But I always knew that to do a show on this I wanted to talk to a regular person – not just a professional negotiator. I wanted to talk to someone like me. Someone who’s often found negotiating pretty excruciating but was keen to get better at it.

Neda Frayha is just that person. She’s a medical doctor; she works near Baltimore. After finishing her training she worked in academic medicine for almost 8 years – so seeing patients, but also teaching and doing quite a bit of administration as well. Then last year, at age 40, she underwent a big career change. Like the women in my recent show on women in medicine, Neda felt burnt out. She wanted a change of pace. Today, she works one day a week doing primary care, and the other days, she’s the editor of a continuing education podcast for physicians.

It was a big deal to switch things up that much, but Neda says…

“It’s been a very positive life change in so many ways.”

She loves the work. And we’ll come back to her negotiation for that job in a bit.

I wanted to start by going back to her first job offer as a young doctor. She was applying for a role at the same institution where she’d done her training.

AM-T: “So with that very first job, they offer you a job, with a package. Did you just say great, thank you? Or did you attempt to negotiate that?”

“So I did much to my own dismay – not long afterwards and many years afterwards, I did just say great, thank you, when it came to the salary. Part of the reason for that was that one person who was gonna be one of my bosses in the new arrangement – she told me that if I made any more than that starting salary I’d be making more than some of her more her senior people, who I loved and respected as a trainee. So I thought well I can’t make more than they do, they’re my role models. And so that was a huge reason why right off the bat I never even thought to negotiate the salary or any of the benefits, I truly just accepted it.”

She says another reason she didn’t negotiate?  As someone finishing up her residency and taking her first official job, the salary was a huge jump from what she had been on.  

“And I think it’s very easy to say, oh my gosh, this is so much more than I made as a resident, who am I to complain about this?”

AM-T: “You say you later regretted it, and not long afterwards regretted not negotiating, now why? I was gonna ask you, do you think the person who said if you got more you’d be getting more than your teachers, basically, do you think she was dissembling a little bit, I mean why did you regret it?”

“Because I discovered I was behind the eight ball from the very beginning. And now when I give advice to medical residents coming up behind me, I tell people that first salary you make out of training will serve as the foundation for every salary you’ll make afterwards. And so when I started off, with what I learned later to be lower than many of my peers, I had to work so much harder to make up that ground and that led for me to what felt like uncomfortable negotiations later to make even what my peers were earning.”

AM-T: “So even though she had told you that you were earning the top rate…do you think she was lying or what, because I think if it was me I’d have thought the same thing, ‘I can’t possibly earn more than them.’”

“Absolutely. Part of the situation too was that I was staying where I had trained. There’s a certain psyche where if you’re at that same place you went to school to do your training, you’re in that people pleasing mode. More senior people may see you as very junior even though you’re an official attending physician. So I felt that sense of deference to everyone around me.

All these years later I truly don’t think she was lying, I think I was making something comparable to a few people I knew and respected, but they were being savvy in their careers and over the years they negotiated fantastic salaries for themselves. And these things are not really public, we don’t talk about these things. 

So years later, I learned these same people who’d served as the benchmark for my starting salary were hustling and earning more of an income for themselves by careful and thoughtful negotiations, by proving their worth within the organization. And I was just floating along, realizing all of a sudden I’m really behind.”

That thing of realizing what someone else earns, someone on the same level as you – it was a big motivator for me too. Like Neda, I was floating along, assuming everything was fair. It didn’t even occur to me that someone in the same job would be getting paid more. Finding out they were shocked me out of my complacency and had me making calls to ask to have my pay adjusted. Which it was. And after that first incident I was much more aware of that need to keep on top of what others were earning.

In the last show you heard Natalie talk about how important it is for us to do our research before a negotiation. To find out how much others in the same job – or the job we want – are getting paid.

I asked Neda if she’d embarked on this prior to job discussions later in her career. What did she say?  

“In some cases when the person was very close to me or a close friend I would outright ask. I put it in the context of, ‘I’m worried I’m not earning the same as my peers, would you mind giving me a range of where you are?’ And most of the time my close friends would tell me point blank what they earned.

I also worked in a state system, where all salaries were online…and even though those numbers may not be 100 percent accurate and there’s other math that’s not accounted for in that, there’s a very searchable database where you can look people up and can find out what they’re making. And I felt really guilty doing that, I felt sort of shady, like I was being a sneaky person trying to find out what others were making. But when you see people in your own group and your own practice are earning considerably more than you, and there’s no clear reason why…so sometimes there’s rank, so of course a full professor is very different from someone starting out as an assistant professor…but there are other times where you’re doing same work. So it provided me with a lot of very helpful data and it made me feel a little bit better about doing that kind of research.”

 I don’t think we should feel bad looking up other people’s salaries but it can certainly be awkward to ask people face to face. I like the idea of asking people for a range.

So after that first experience where Neda didn’t negotiate she was determined to try later on. Sometimes she backed down too quickly. Even though she was armed with information after her research, the process still wasn’t easy for her.

AM-T: “Now you said that you found negotiation pretty uncomfortable. You told me this in an email and you referred to it just now. How do you feel during a negotiation and do you remember how you tend to phrase things when you’re talking to the person on the other side?”

“I think in terms of how it feels, I had always wanted to very much be liked by everyone around me. And I think it’s served me well in some contexts. I’m a good worker, good colleague. And I was worried that if I was negotiating on behalf of myself I would be viewed as pushy or aggressive or it will make me less likeable. It will diminish their opinion of me. They would think I was demanding too much or that I was being too bold. And so that left me with a really queasy feeling throughout the entire process and it was kind of a constant nausea, like it never really left until the whole process was over.” 

That desire to be liked – it’s one of the biggest things that can trip women up in a negotiation. And we didn’t really address it in the last show. Many of us are still raised to be people pleasers, to put others’ interests before our own – to be happy with what we’ve got. And that can make negotiating feel somehow wrong. But as Natalie said in the last show, if we can just concentrate on our worth – on what we bring to the company or what we can bring to the new job – it helps to concentrate the mind.

Still, let’s not gloss over the fact that the likeability factor plays a big part in a lot of women’s dealings at work. Even if we don’t want it to.

And talking of likeability, the truth is other people – men and women – expect us to be likeable. A couple of years ago I interviewed Sara Laschever. She’s the co-author of two well known books on negotiation, Women Don’t Ask and Ask For It. The tape isn’t great quality so I’m not including a snippet, but in short she says men can be direct and businesslike in a negotiation and that’s fine. But for women that’s harder…she says women need to play up their likeability during a negotiation to get good results.

I talked about this with Natalie last time and she wasn’t so sure that was necessary. But for those of you who are interested, I’ll point you to more reading on this at the end of the show.  

Now Neda will admit she is not that direct in the first place. And she does get nervous. She’s noticed her voice has a slight tremor when she negotiates…

“I know that if I move my hands I can see they’re trembling a little bit, so I’ve learned to keep  my hands folded and in my lap so I don’t reveal that tell.”

AM-T: “Do you remember if you use the conditional tense like ‘I would’ or ‘if we’ – those kinds of things to soften things up?”

“In verbal, in speech, yes. So in the times it’s become a conversation I’d use the conditional with my words and tone of my voice. With writing it’s easier to be more declarative and state things in a very factual way. Because you have the benefit of being able to go back and revise and revise, and instead of saying ‘I would’ you can say ‘I will’ or ‘I can’ so I usually find, and actually maybe that’s a helpful thing for me in the future or for anyone else, is to practice writing it out ahead of time and see how you edit it to make it sound simpler and clearer and more declarative and then use some of that language. Because you have the benefit of going over it a few times while it’s written in front of you.”

Which actually strikes me as a really good idea. Any negotiation expert including Natalie Reynolds will tell you, you have to practice ahead of time to quell some of those nerves and prepare for the unexpected. Writing seems like a great way for some of us to work though the phrasing we’re gonna use in a live negotiation. And it’s true some negotiations do take place over email and you do have more of a chance to perfect your wording that way.

So when Neda did start negotiating for raises, how did it feel?

“Oh, awful. It felt awful. It already feels uncomfortable to ask for something more. It was already a situation that left me feeling a bit queasy before the return offer came…and then when return offer comes and says essentially, no, what you’re asking is way off. Even if it’s not what they mean, even if to them they’re just doing the dance, it made me feel like I had been way off assessing my own worth, and that the organization didn’t value me as much as I thought I should be valued. It was a pretty terrible feeling and then it also makes you feel what you tried to do with the negotiation just didn’t work out.”

 And it IS a dance, of course. They ARE testing you. You just have to remember to stay calm and not back down. There’s a lot more on how to do that in the last show.

So her current job, the one she just landed last year, it was something Neda really wanted. She loved the project, she admired the people. But…

“I was bringing with me a lot of baggage from my previous non-negotiations. So I remembered very clearly the times in the past when I had not advocated for myself and the times I had not negotiated for myself. And I think I felt a little bit sore because of that. Which I guess is something I guess to be mindful of, not to walk into a negotiation angry about past slights. Because your current employers don’t know anything about that and nor should they. But I knew I was carrying that baggage with me. And I wanted also to prove to myself that I could stand my ground or at least advocate for myself. So there was just a little bit of back and forth and in the end I got very close to what I ultimately asked for. What was so uncomfortable for me recently was I really, really liked the people I was working with, I really wanted this deal to work out, I very much felt invested in it emotionally…and speaking of wanting to be liked constantly, I really struggled with, well what if this makes them like me less at this very important juncture?”

But her quiet persistence didn’t hurt their opinion of her. She had time to reflect on it later.

“…as long as the negotiation is based on evidence and data and a collaborative sense of what you bring to the table and ways you can make your team, your boss, your company, your organization better with your particular skills I think you have a real leg to stand on. And I kept reminding myself of even when I felt that constant churning of nausea at requesting something after years of not doing so really.”

She felt she’d finally pulled it off, a successful negotiation.

“When you put all things together it was a huge win/win. I didn’t get quite everything that I asked for, but I felt what I got was extremely reasonable and appropriate and good.”

AM-T:  “It’s interesting, it sounds like – and you’ve become quite a strong advocate for negotiation – is through experience…or did someone sit you down one day and say look Neda, you need to be more pushy, you need to negotiate better? Or was it more from that realization that people around you were being pad more and your righteous indignation because of that?”

“It’s the latter. It’s out of a personal interest from the different experiences I’ve had. And I’ve also learned that even the most extraordinary mentors and sponsors and role models, we may be very fortunate and they may advocate for us in a number of ways, for promotions or opportunities that could help us. But I don’t know of anyone who has been sat down by their boss and told you’re not making enough, we need to advocate for a higher salary for you. And I think part of it is that we don’t talk about it enough, sometimes our managers may not know how much we’re making depending on the organization we’re working for. For all of us if we want to see that kind of growth in our careers and how we’re compensated for our work, no one is going to hand that raise to us on a silver platter. We will always have to be the ones aware of the situation, asking for that opportunity, negotiating on behalf of ourselves. Other people are not doing that for us.”

AM-T: “And I know that there will be a contingent of listeners who think – well, plenty of people will think – women, well nobody I suppose should have to negotiate, companies, organizations, should just pay us what we’re worth.”

“I think that sounds wonderful and there are industries and companies that are doing great work in that area, and I’m so excited for anyone who gets to work for an organization like that. I don’t always think it’s malice or mal intent if someone is underpaid for what they’re worth. I think sometimes it’s lack of knowledge, it’s benign cluelessness. But I think there are many instances when perhaps a person is not getting paid what they’re worth and it’s really up to that person to be aware of that situation and then they can decide for themselves how they feel advocating and negotiating on their own behalf.”

AM-T: “And also, I feel really strongly about this. I think negotiation is a human skill that comes in handy in so many different areas, not just this one area of asking for salary. And we should all be interested in improving that, me included.”

“I agree with you completely. It is sort of like a social skill or a business skill that not all of us are taught. And I believe research has shown that women are better at negotiating on behalf of someone else so if you and I were in a room together and you said, Neda, you need to advocate and negotiate for a raise for Ashley, I would be able to do that much more comfortably than I would if I had to do the same thing for myself. So maybe that’s another tool we can rely on. Let’s pretend we’re talking about a third person, who happens to be ourselves, and see what kind of language and emphasis and enthusiasm you would come up with if you were talking about yourself in the third person. If you were a friend of yours and you wanted to advocate for that third person.”

And maybe this doesn’t surprise a lot of you, this fact – and research does bear it out. After all,  women get the message early on that we’re meant to look out for others. So when it comes to negotiating for someone else…

“When we negotiate for them it doesn’t feel selfish. It feels like a natural extension of what we do all the time all day long.”

That word selfish. It goes to the crux of what we’ve talked about on and off over the years on this show. That so many women feel we don’t deserve things. Including money. My take on this is that we should work on overcoming those feelings.  

But some say if asking for money feels selfish to you, use that feeling in a negotiation by flipping it around.

A few years ago I interviewed a giant of negotiation training in the US. Her name is Margaret Neale or Maggie Neale, she teaches at Stanford – and she talked about this advice she gives women. She says if you’re someone who finds it hard to ask for money for yourself, go into that negotiation thinking of the other people in your life. Go in solid in the knowledge that money is going to help others – think about them when you ask – don’t talk about them, but have them in your mind as a motivator. And I think that’s fine if you have a family to support. If you’re single…maybe not so much. But apparently it’s a psychological trick that works well for women who need to focus on others to ask for something for themselves.

For the negotiation geeks among you, I am going to post a bunch of links under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. I’ll link you to some of Maggie Neale’s videos on negotiation, I will link you to books and chapters of books that could help you. And to some stories I’ve done on this topic in the past.

Thanks to Neda Frayha for being my guest on this show and opening up about her negotiation experiences.

I’d love to know what you think of these two shows, and whether they’ve been helpful. You can email me at ashley at the broad experience dot com or tweet me or post on the show’s Facebook page.

Thanks as ever to those of you who support this one-woman show. To join them with any level of support hit up the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com.

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


Episode 128: You're Worth It - the Power of Negotiation (part 1)

Show transcript:

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

This time on the show…the art of negotiation. Why it matters and how to do it well.

“Agility is really the skill of the negotiator. Not turning into something you are not, and trying to be a man. Because we’re women, we’re not.”

 Coming up on The Broad Experience.

So a couple of months ago during the shows I did on pay, I asked if you’d like me to do an episode on negotiation. A lot of you said yes. So here it is. Actually there’s so much to say about this that again, I’m dividing the topic into two shows, each with a different guest.

As a business journalist I’ve done a lot of reporting on women and salary negotiation over the last 10 years or so – and it’s always fascinated me. Past studies have shown that women negotiate less than men. That young men right out of college are likelier than women to negotiate that first job offer – meaning their salaries get a bump right out of the gate. There’s also evidence that women who negotiate hard – they get backlash for it. That they’re perceived as just not very nice. All this sounds negative. But there’s plenty of other evidence to show that women are not worse negotiators than men – especially when they negotiate on behalf of someone else. We just tend to find negotiating for ourselves awkward and unpleasant.

And maybe it’ll always feel a bit awkward – but that doesn’t mean it can’t work in our favour.

Today’s guest is Natalie Reynolds. She’s the founder and CEO of Advantage Spring – they’re based in England but they train teams and individuals all over the world to be better negotiators.

And she’s the author of a book called We Have a Deal – how to negotiate with intelligence, flexibility and power.

Natalie trained as a lawyer but ended up having a career in public service in the UK – and her roles involved lots of negotiation.  But she found public service to be really ageist – she was told she’d be brilliant for a job, but was too young to be considered. So she left and joined a big negotiation training firm...

“…but very quickly became disillusioned there because they did teach the ‘ballbreaker’ style of negotiation, it was very two dimensional, very scripted. They treat every client the same. And people are not the same, companies are not the same. So I tried to kind of own my role a little bit by looking at things like gender and negotiation and biases at the negotiation table.

However, despite this being very popular with clients, when I came back from maternity leave they told me, ‘as a business we don’t want to be seen to be doing the woman thing. So we want you to stop talking about gender and diversity.’ So I basically quit, started Advantage Spring, where we train men and women in equal measure. But I am able to still do the woman thing and talk about gender and negotiation, and the very human part of negotiation, which is incredibly important.”

Now you’ve heard me say this on past shows. I believe in negotiating. It gets you more of what you want. But as I told Natalie, since Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, which advises women to negotiate for more pay, I’ve detected quite a backlash to the whole idea.  

AM-T: “And what I’ve heard from some listeners in Facebook forums is well, why should I negotiate, because women are punished for negotiation. Or more strongly what I hear is, if I negotiate I am having to become more like a man, I’m having to change myself to become more like a man and why should I do that? And I’m hoping you’ll help me convince people that negotiation is a really useful skill that we should all hone. I know I could do with honing my skills, for sure.”

“There are so many things you just said that are relevant to all of this. The first thing you mentioned was something I call social penalty, that women receive more of a backlash when they negotiate. Unfortunately there is a lot of evidence that shows when women negotiate they are penalized for it. However, my advice is then to say to women don’t stop negotiating because of this, do not stop. The best thing you can do is learn how to negotiate as effectively as possible. That is what’s gonna help you. The world is built around being able to negotiate, it’s one of the oldest, most precious and important human skills there is. I say to people negotiation is the most important skill to get what you want, need or deserve. And you cannot rely on people to always have your best interests at heart. Even the people around you might not point out to you, you could have gotten more, you might have been able to do this. So it’s really important that you take ownership of your ability to negotiate and you do it cleverly and with agility. And agility is so important when it comes to negotiation.”

AM-T: “When you say agility what do you mean?”

“So you mentioned many women feel like they have to become like a man to be effective when they negotiate, and I am always giving people advice, please do not think of it like that. The best negotiators are like gymnasts. They are agile, they are flexible, they can recognize a different situation they are in and move between it flexibly. Some negotiations do require us to be tough, to be firm, to stand our ground. Others require us to sit back, listen, to build relationships, to try and understand eachother. Negotiations will look very different – a negotiation could be you and I having a coffee after this recording, downstairs, trying to negotiate when it will go live. It could be as simple as that, it could be at home negotiating who does what it terms of housework, it could be about negotiating a supplier agreement or your salary. And all those things are different, feel different and all require different planning, preparation execution. And so agility is the skill of the negotiator. Not turning into something you are not, and trying to be a man. Because we’re women, we’re not. So let’s play to our strengths. That’s what the best negotiators do.”

Natalie says she wants to demystify negotiation. It frustrates her that it’s come to be associated with aggression.

“That to be a good negotiator you’ve gotta be a ballbreaker – I’ve gotta be aggressive. He or she who shouts the loudest or bangs their fist the hardest will get what they want. It’s simply not true. A large part of what my company does and what I do on an individual basis is challenge that perception. And when we’re teaching both corporations and individuals we show them the error of this approach. You can get what you want in a more sophisticated way, you don’t have to be aggressive or behave in a way like we believe a man should in order to negotiate effectively. There is another way and a way that can garner less backlash. And a lot of what we do when we coach women is show what that other way is. And how it might be difficult at first but there are coping strategies you can adopt, there are methodologies you can implement. And you can get what you want.”

She says getting what you want isn’t about you getting one over on the other person. It’s just like in any relationship – part of it is about looking at things from the other person’s point of view.

“Women are good at seeing the world through the other person’s eyes. That’s not to say we’re all naturally good at it…I think it’s something everyone needs to work at. But even the other evening I was speaking at an event and I gave men and women the advice, when you’re planning for a negotiation sit there and plan from your perspective what you want to achieve and then physically get up, go to the other side of the table. Look back at where you were sitting and be them for a moment. Who are they, what do they want, how do they want it, how does the world now look to them? Because the more you make them feel like they’re winning the more effective you’re gonna be. But then ego kicks in. This is true for men and women. There is this view women are more collaborative, my view is that men and women are all naturally competitive, it’s how human beings have evolved. We’ll always try to win, if we can. And it’s about using that and understanding that, that if you want to win they probably want to win too. So the best negotiators put their ego to one side and think, what’s gonna make them feel happy? What’s gonna make them feel like they got what they needed? And how can I engineer this negotiation so I get what I want and they get what they want too, or at least they get something where they can go back and say ‘guess what, I got this.’ It’s all about process, it’s all about planning, but if you can help them feel like they’ve won you’re gonna get a far better result in the long run.”

You will hear Natalie mention planning again and again. She cannot emphasize this enough. To get a result you’re happy with in any negotiation you must do your research. With a salary negotiation you need to know what others in similar roles are getting paid. You need to take stock of your own achievements so you can talk them up. In short, you have to know your market value.

And this is another thing I wanted to discuss with her – the fact that a lot of women find talking about their worth and their achievements really uncomfortable. I certainly have. We’re often nervous because a lot is riding on this. The whole process just doesn’t feel like ‘us’. But Natalie says that’s no excuse to duck out.

AM-T: “You say in the book, look, just get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. I think that’s really worth talking about.”

“I think a lot of people strive to feel comfortable when they negotiate but I would never advocate that. An element of nerves is useful, it keeps you sharp, it keeps you focused, it keeps you wondering what’s coming next. So I will spend a lot of time with male and female clients getting them to understand why they feel like they do and getting them to own that feeling. I talk a lot about the little voice in the head, a lot at the start at the book, and this idea that we become overwhelmed by feelings of, ‘I just want to get out of here.’ If you can listen to where is this discomfort coming from? What am I afraid of? If you can embrace that discomfort and channel it in a different way, you stay sharp and focused and aware, but because you’ve prepared properly you’re ready to deal with that. You should never want to be so laid back you don’t want to worry about these things. I think nerves and anxiety exist for a reason and if you can harness them properly they will work to your advantage.”

AM-T: “And you also say with this discomfort thing, not only we should not feel comfortable in a negotiation, but when it comes to this business of ‘ooh, that’s not me, it’s not authentic.’ You point out we’re all sorts of different things and different people at all sorts of different times.”

“I talk about the many Natalies I am over the course of a day. I’m a mum to two children, I’m a boss of a team in an office, I’m a friend, I’m a wife. And I’m slightly different in those roles at any one time. I was trying to reason with my son putting on his sun cream this morning, and trying to reason with my son to do that, I was quite different to how I will be later on when I’m negotiating on behalf of an energy client for a supply agreement that’s costing them billions. I will behave differently. I never stop being Natalie, I just turn on a different version of her. In the same way that my husband is quite surprised by how I am in a corporate environment, so I don’t like him coming to see me speak. I can’t stand it because I feel like I’m less able to play Natalie on a stage, because he’s used to seeing Natalie at home. And they’re still Natalie, just slightly different versions of Natalie, there’s nothing inauthentic about that. We don’t go through life robotically behaving the same to everyone at every single moment. So how can we channel that when we negotiate?”

AM-T: “How did you persuade him to put his sun cream on?” 

“Well my mum arrived and he does whatever my mum says. And there’s another lesson. Sometimes you have to bring other people to the negotiation table to help you out.”

AM-T: “And we’d all love to do that in a salary negotiation but that’s the thing. We’re on our own in a salary negotiation. I wanna go back to the voice in our head. This is a huge thing with women. You’ve got that voice saying, ‘I’m not worth that, who do you think you are asking for that? Ooh, you’d better scale that back.’ And it’s…what do you tell people about that because I think feeling like we do not have value, whether it’s monetary value or value as a person, this goes really deep inside women.”

“First of all I’d say to listeners, please don’t think men don’t suffer from it. Some of us are just better at controlling it than others and women do seem to struggle with it, particularly around the self-worth and how we value ourselves. The little voice in the head is an interesting one. So many of us think, oh right, don’t listen to it, it’s telling us negative things so don’t listen to it. And the problem with that approach is if you ignore it in the run up to the negotiation that little voice will rear its head right when you least need it to. Right at crunch time when you need to ask for what you want. And this is the problem, that you can pretend it’s not there and you sit down, open your mouth to give your number to your boss and then it kicks in. And then the little voice says, ‘you’re not worth that, they’re gonna think you’re greedy, don’t be ridiculous, say this instead.’ So you do, you say a lower number, or you say very little and let them take the lead.

Instead I advocate a completely different approach which kind of seems counter intuitive but to me makes perfect sense. Which is, that little voice actually represents our innermost fears, inhibitions and anxieties and also weaknesses in our position or argument. So actually what we should be doing is long before we get to that negotiation table, take a moment a few weeks beforehand to step back and think, how am I feeling about this? What am I dreading them saying to me when I ask for this? What do I think the weaknesses are in my case? What do I think they’re gonna point out is a reason why I don’t deserve this salary? You should start then accessing that voice in your head in advance of the negotiation, because it’s actually a safety mechanism. If you access it before the negotiation you can start to mitigate against what it’s saying.

So if it’s saying to you, well, you can’t prove you’re worth this, what you should then do is go away and build up a business case about why you are worth this. If it says, you can’t prove other people are being paid this, at that point go away and establish what other people are being paid. If it says, what are you gonna do if they say no, go away and start to plan your responses if they say no. So maybe they say no, we don’t think you’re worth this, you then say OK, so what do I have to do within a 3-month period to be able to access that level of salary? So if you can own that voice in advance it helps you be more robust when you get to the negotiation table.”

And speaking of rejection – a lot of us, when we hear no, we immediately pull back. We accept their offer, lamenting that our attempt at negotiation failed. We take that no as final. But Natalie says that is a mistake.   

“How to deal with the no is so important. I talk about perseverance as being one of the most important skills of a negotiator, particularly in relation to salary negotiations by the way. Which is why at end of every talk I do I’ll say how you respond to a no defines you as a negotiator. Most of us hear a no and we go, ‘oh right, sorry, what were you thinking then?’ Or we just completely concede. What we should do when we’re hear a no is go OK, now I’m negotiating, now we’re actually exploring what could be possible. Now they’ve told me they can’t accept that, so what will they accept? The best negotiators hear a no and they view it as an invitation to keep going. What I say to people is when life shuts a door, open it again. It’s a door, that’s how they work, and the point is that in negotiation people will shut doors on you. They’ll tell you they can’t agree to something, they’ll tell you you’re not worth that. And they’re doing it because they are also trying to get the best deal they can for themselves or their boss. And if you can remind yourself of that and go back and try and open the door again, that is what makes you a brilliant negotiator. And opening that door might mean taking someone else with you, it might mean pushing a bit harder on that door or pushing more gently on that door. But it’s about having the resilience and being able to persevere to go back to a no and keep going.”

So perseverance is important in a negotiation. And part of that is not dropping down too much from the amount you’re going for. In her book Natalie gives an example that reminded me a lot of me as a past negotiator. I would bottle at the first sign of a challenge. The example here is about the price of a shirt. So I have a shirt I want to sell; I want 20 pounds for it. A friend spots it, says, gosh, I really like that shirt. I’ll give you 6 pounds. I immediately think, gosh, maybe 20 was too much to ask – and I go, how about 14?

So right there just because the other person surprised me with a low offer, I have dropped way below the number I was aiming for. And my chances of getting close to that 20 pounds are now slim.

“So this goes to my favorite aspect of negotiation, which is anchoring.”

I wasn’t that familiar with the term anchoring. It’s basically when you glom onto that first bit of information you get and base subsequent decisions around it. Just like in the shirt example – that first mention of 6 pounds torpedoed my idea about getting 20. Natalie says too many courses teach that we should let the other party make the first move in a negotiation. I always thought that myself. 

“So many people give people the advice, let them go first in the negotiation so you can see what they might be willing to give you, and it’s rubbish. It’s absolute rubbish. That first number they give you is in no way an indication of what they’re ultimately willing to give you. What it is, is them giving you a number to test you to see the best they can get from you. And then because of anchoring, which is essentially the phenomenon whereby we become overly influenced by the first piece of information presented to us when we make a decision, we anchor to that first proposal. We fixate on it. We think about it. We wonder why have they said that, have I misunderstood things, why have they gone so low? Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. And we doubt ourselves and then we adjust our opening position to more closely match theirs.”

And then we’re on the back foot. She always tells her clients that the power of going first cannot be overstated.

“Saying that, you don’t always have to always make sure you go first and if you don’t, it’s the end of the world. So we get people coming to us and saying, ‘so in this negotiation scenario I MUST put my number out first’…and I go, ideally yes, if you can, but we don’t always have the confidence or the scenario that allows us to go first. The beauty of anchoring is that it’s about the awareness of the phenomenon – be aware the first number put on the table can disproportionately affect what we respond with.

So the best thing you can do is, if they go first and it’s far lower than you anticipated, take a deep breath, thank them for that proposal, and say ‘thank you for that proposal, but for the following reasons my proposal is this much.’ The reason that’s important is the more you can talk about what you want, the more likely you are to get it. The more you focus on what they want, the likelier you are to end up closer to their number. So re-anchoring has been proven to be just as powerful as anchoring. So in the shirt scenario they’ve offered me six, I was thinking 20. The worst thing I can then do is then say is ‘oh God, OK right, well I’ll give them 14. How’s 14?’’ The best thing I can do is hold my nerve, take a deep breath, thank them for that 6 pound proposal but say, look, it’s actually a really high quality shirt, I’m looking for 20. Start then bringing it back to you, anchoring to what you want from your perspective.”

AM-T: “When you’re saying ‘thank you very much, I’d like to propose X,’ would it be a mistake to say why I think I’m worth X, in a salary negotiation?”

“No, I don’t think so. I think in the same way that if we were pitching for resources for a project we would outline why we think the project is worthy of those resources, we need to get more comfortable with talking about why we are worth what we are worth, and actually I have a new VP of North America starting today and she is a very big advocate of this advice. You know, you need to view yourself in the same way you would if you were negotiating for anyone else.

So you need to draw up a business case of what have you achieved in the last six months, what have you generated. What have you delivered for the team as a whole? And you need to talk about that. You shouldn't be embarrassed about talking about what you're worth, but what we do is we get we get shy or we get overwhelmed or we get embarrassed or we get, you know, just full of dread about the idea of communicating why we think we're worth what we’re worth. Which is why objective preparation beforehand is so powerful, because you could even just present them with a business case – ‘and just to back up where I'm coming from, this is a list of my achievements over the last 12 months.’ And hand something over to them physically.”

AM-T: “These are the targets I've hit, or whatever happened to be?”

“Absolutely, you know, we need to get more comfortable with that whole process. We need to own it, you know, effective negotiation is about the ownership of a conversation and you can either get in the driver's seat and steer it or you can sit in the passenger seat and try and reach the steering wheel but you’re never really going to reach it. And in the salary situation, advance preparation, advance outlining of your achievements or your expertise or your experience or your education is of incredible value. If you don’t point out what you’re worth and why, then who else is gonna do it for you?”

So again, preparation is vital. But what if the other person is difficult, belligerent even? It can happen sometimes. Natalie says when she preps for a negotiation she always starts by preparing for the situation she least wants.

“So I will often imagine going into a large corporation, sitting down and them saying, ‘right Natalie before we begin, just to be clear, we don’t like you, we don’t like your product, we don’t like your training courses and we never want to work with you again.’ And I force myself to think about that. That level of hideousness. So I can then start to think, and what would I say to that? How would I deal with that? Because if you can start to think about and embrace that worst case scenario and how you would respond, anything after that starts to feel far better.

The other thing I would say is that if someone is being particularly rude or aggressive to you or refusing to move or undermining you, please remind yourself that that kind of behavior is often exhibited for a reason. Either because they want to make themselves feel more powerful or because they feel intimidated by you or because they actually don’t have that much room for maneuver and they feel disempowered by that. Or there’s a weakness in their position or they think you’re more powerful than they are and they’re trying to de-stabilise you by behaving in that way. You know most of the people we negotiate with who are rude or aggressive or underminers, they don’t behave like that all the time. They don't go home to their friends and families and behave like that, they’re just normal people often. So you’ve got to ask yourself, why are they now choosing to behave like this? Now, with me. And sometimes just reminding yourself of that can be quite empowering.”

And she has several tips in the book about how to deal with that kind of behavior if it arises.

But what about dealing with a more common situation where the employer makes you an offer first, and it’s far below your expectations. Another thing any negotiator should do before the interview – is know your walk-away point i.e. the number you absolutely must get or you’ll walk away from the offer. So say you’re going for a job and you want 80 thousand pounds, ideally – but you’ve decided you could walk away with 75 thousand – no less. Only you will know this in your particular situation after you’ve done your research on the market and your place in it. 

But you’ve got your number…and then the other party offers you something that seems ridiculously low. It shocks you and again it can be hard not to start to move down to meet it. But, Natalie says…

“The best negotiators would go, okay, so before I before I let you know what it was I'm going to ask for I'd be really keen to understand why this is so low. You know actually get them to start to explain themselves. But again all the time understanding that you still need to be able to stand your ground. Don’t be swayed by what they're saying necessarily, because if you've done your research, if you know your worth, if you feel confident, you should be understanding where you want to end up.

So it's about understanding that the power of anchoring is real, it exists. It can negatively impact where you end up if you become overly swayed by it, but it's always about thinking, right, what do I want? Why do I need it, what am I going to ask for, and then actually getting that number out there. So you might say to someone, ‘that's very low, for the following reasons I was going to ask for X, so we do have a gap - how are we going to bridge that gap?’ And make it a shared problem, make it a conversation rather than a kind of a battle mentality. And of course go beyond the price. That's the other thing: what else do you want from that salary package and what else matters to you? And bring that to the table as well.”

Whether it’s more vacation or working from home 2 days a week or something else.

Now just quickly here I want to acknowledge something else I’ve heard women say about the whole idea of going back and forth over a new salary.

AM-T: “What about women who say ‘look, companies should just pay everyone fairly. I shouldn’t have to negotiate.’”

“If only life were like that, that's my simple response to that. You know in an ideal world life would be like that. I mean interestingly we're doing a research project with a company who are removing salary negotiations. I can't mention the name of the business yet until the research is completed, but they're exploring whether or not removing traditional salary negotiation processes will actually help in creating a flat structure and make people feel empowered and we’re working with them to see if that is actually the case or whether actually removing salary negotiations disempowers people, people start to feel resentful like they're not valued, like they're not able to put forward their case for why they are worth what they're worth. Yes, so very interesting. But yeah, in an ideal world fairness would prevail and you know we would all be given what we deserve. My point is, and I talk about this in the book and on every session I ever run, that fairness is actually subjective of course. And what's fair to the business owner or to the hiring manager with finite resources is often very different to the employee who has certain expectations and a lifestyle they want to maintain. You know fairness isn't universal, we'd like to think it is, but on a very simple level often what's fair to a buyer is not fair to a seller.”

So for everyone who is gonna negotiate…something to bear in mind about your choice of words. Again, this is a trap I know I’ve fallen into.  

AM-T: “You also talk about the language that we use when we negotiate, and sticking to clear, non-waffly language. You say there can be a tendency to use words like, ‘I was thinking of something in the region of X.’”

“I'm really glad you brought this up because earlier in this recording I actually caught myself using some of this language. And actually I would like people to take from that that the lesson is, never get complacent. Because this isn't a negotiation I haven't planned for it, so I've allowed that language to slip into my vocabulary. So I said earlier on, I am looking for 20. You shouldn't say that. You should say, my price is. So I always say that when you're negotiating for something that's important to you, don’t say you're looking for or hoping for. Because then all they hear is you don't expect to get it.”

AM-T: “So what do you say, ‘I’d like’ or ‘I want?’”

“My proposal is. There’s a difference between me saying, I'm looking for around about 20,000, and me saying ‘my proposal is 20,000’ and here's why. Same message, different impact. Completely different method of delivery. So it's about being clear about what you're asking for. I also use the example of ‘roundabout’ and ‘somewhere in the region of.’  If you're asking for somewhere in the region of 20,000 they're going to hear 15,000. People hear what they want to hear. We look for what we want to look for. You know I talk about biases in negotiation.  You know we bring all these biases to the negotiation table and confirmation biases is a really important one, but so is, if you ask for ‘round about 20,000’, they hear the lower end of that. Which is why we also say don't use a range. If you say, I'm looking for 15 to 20,000, they hear 15,000 if that's what it works in their interest to hear, they hear 15. And then you've got a hell of a job to get them up to 20. I mean interestingly there is research to suggest that sometimes ranges can be helpful, but as a general rule I think you need to be clear, you need to be concise, you need to be specific. You need to own that conversation, and it's not about demanding it, it's not about going, ‘I need 20,000 and I am refusing to budge!’ It's about saying, ‘for the following reasons my proposal is 20,000.’ Of course the clever negotiator will have built in wriggle room to that. They will be opening ambitiously but credibly, so that they can then actually drop down a little bit, but they're actually only then dropping down to what they wanted anyway.”

Towards the end of our conversation we talked a bit about books we’d read on negotiation. One of the most famous of recent years – that really got people talking about the idea that women negotiate less than men and that that hurts us long-term…is Women Don’t Ask.

AM-T: “You mention Women Don’t Ask, I actually haven’t read that one but I’m a big fan of Ask For It, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s second book, which is all about the way women are perceived when they negotiate and how to get around that. And they would say, it may sound icky, but women probably have to smile more, we have to play up the pleasant in these interactions. Do you balk at that or do you agree?”

“It's difficult because in the same way I wouldn't tell women to play up to stereotypes of how men negotiate or we think men negotiate, because not all men are aggressive when they negotiate by any stretch, I also feel a little bit uncomfortable about kind of saying, ‘Ladies behave in that kind of way to get what you want.’ I think we all have to be the best versions of what we can be of ourselves and actually the same is true for anyone, not just women.

You know some people that you negotiate with are going to respond better to smiles and questions and talking about where they've been on holiday…it's about understanding people. And this is really the real focus of everything I teach. Negotiation is about people and people are all different.”

AM-T: “Thank you so much for doing this. Is there any anything you'd like to say that you haven't said that you think is particularly important for women to bear in mind that you want to go away with?”

“I mean I've said to you at the start that I am a big one for demystifying and making things simple and I'd like really like listeners to leave with a toolkit. So just very quickly, the four steps of brilliant salary negotiation are as follows. I call it ‘the reap approach’ because you reap what you sow in relation to salary negotiation.

So the first part is R, which is research. Do your research, know the marketplace and know your worth and know what other people in similar roles are paid. See the world through their eyes. What does your employer want to achieve, are they looking to boost their market share or are they looking to increase more sales? Understand what they want and start to think about things from their perspective.

Then you need to establish. E is establish. Establish boundaries. What will you accept, what won't you accept? Establish what else matters to you. So is it vacation? Is it access to different projects, is it time abroad? And establish what you're going to start by asking for and what your walk away points are going to be. Then it's the Ask. So this is about being aware of anchoring. Think about the power of anchoring and if you can't go first just make sure that you stick to your plan, that you ask for what you plan to ask for. It's also about making sure you're not the person who goes into a negotiation with your opening proposal, a rough idea of where you want to get to and no plan as to how to bridge that gap. Plan multiple proposals in advance, don’t just wait for them to respond and then come up with something. Instead have all your different requests planned out, every step you might make mapped out.

And then P is persevere. How are you going to respond if they say no? What questions are you going to ask? Learn how to become more resilient. Use breathing, use rehearsal, use friends and family to practice with, but persevere. You might get a ‘no’ straightaway but the best negotiators will go back. Try and keep that conversation going. I used the example earlier on, let's say you say, Natalie, I can’t pay that, you don’t yet have that level of experience. My response shouldn’t be oh, okay, thanks anyway. Instead my response should be, ‘thank you for that. So I am very ambitious and I do want to access that level of salary, so I would be really grateful for you to outline if not now, in writing after this meeting, the steps I need to take within a defined period to be able to get that, and if we can’t talk about money now I'd be really keen to discuss vacation days or whether or not I could maybe work on a project in a different part of the of business to increase my exposure.”

Got all that? If not, I have your back – you can find a transcript of this whole conversation at TheBroadExperience.com. Just head over to the page for this episode.

Thanks so much to Natalie Reynolds for meeting me in London last month. She is CEO of negotiation consulting firm Advantage Spring and author of the book We Have a Deal.

Next time…after some early disappointments, a reluctant negotiator presses ahead.

“So there was just a little bit of back and forth and in the end I got very close to what I ultimately asked for.”

Look out for that episode soon. And let me know what you think of this one in the meantime.

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

Episode 127: Resilience

Show transcript:

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

This time…

“Even if his father had lived I think I still would have worked this hard, because I think it’s important first of all for me to have my own identity, I feel like I have a calling and a purpose in the work that I do, but I also think it’s good for a boy to see his mother go to work.”

Coming up, resilience in life and the workplace.

So as you know this show is usually built around a particular theme, and I find guests who can speak to that theme. But sometimes I’ll do the reverse. I’ll meet someone or hear someone speak at an event and she’s so compelling I want to build a show just around her. That was the case with Dana Canedy.

I heard Dana speak earlier this spring at an event for women journalists. She gave a great talk where she imparted some of her hard-won wisdom about careers and how to stick it out in the workplace over time. She’s had more ups and downs in her life than most of us have probably had. She was the first person in her family to go to college; she realized her dream of becoming a journalist and spent years at a top newspaper, The New York Times. She also lost her fiancé in Iraq in 2006. Their baby son was just six months old.

She wrote about her fiancé First Sergeant Charles Monroe King, and that searing loss in a book called A Journal for Jordan – that’s their son’s name. She wrote to process her grief and to have a memoir for Jordan to read when he was older.

That book is now being made into a movie with Denzel Washington slated to direct. Her son is 12 years old and Dana left her job at the New York Times last year to become the administrator of the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes. We met in her office soon after this year’s winners were announced.

“I’m the first woman, the first person of color and the youngest person in the history of the Pulitzers to be in this role. And the Pulitzers have been around for 102 years so for more than a century it’s always been run by older, white men. So we just announced the winners last Monday, that’s the first time it’s ever been done by a woman or a person or color. So that feels kinda cool.”

This was her first free-ish week after weeks spent reading and judging all the entries. I started by asking her about something she’d said when I’d heard her speak at that event back in March. 

AM-T: “One thing that struck me close to the beginning of your talk, you said, ‘You have to empower yourself. You will be underestimated and misunderstood. It’s not personal. Do it anyway.’”

“Well, I think there are gonna be challenges in any life or any career, personal or professional, and it takes a while to do this but you have to be comfortable rolling with the punches. When something comes at you, you have to find the wherewithal to respond to it, whether it’s being passed over for a promotion or a personal tragedy like I had in my life. So it’s really important to find the fortitude not only to endure it but also to get back to place of comfort and joy eventually. It’s not an easy thing to do. And I’m able to say that because right now I’m in a relatively good place in my life, but having overcome those things, when you’re in the middle of them it feels horrible, just horrible. But you have no other choice other than to figure out what is my support system, what do I need to get through this, who are my advocates, what can I do to empower myself and what don’t I have any control of? And once you figure all that out it’ll empower you to act in a way that’ll help you with your circumstances…but the number one thing to realize when you’re trying to empower yourself, things that seem overwhelming and they’re never gonna end, I promise you they will. Life is cyclical. And when you feel stuck you’re really not. You may be stuck in the moment, but things change.”

She says you need good people around you all the time – people who can bolster you or offer counsel and advice during your worst times as well as the better ones. She’d only been back at work after maternity leave for two weeks when Charles was killed.

“Ugh…uh…it’s still, after all this time, really hard to talk about. But he…he was blown up in a Humvee with one month left to go before his tour of duty was over. Everybody – so that’s a whole different kind of having a village than in the normal course of your life. Anyone who reached out to me I would accept that because I needed all the help I could get. I had a six-month old baby and my life had taken this horrible turn, but in a general sense, your community, your village if you will are the people you can count on. In my case some were reporters, other folks, women who were foreign correspondents or done work I’d really admired became part of my village, my sister, you have to have that, a group of people you can rely on…nobody can do this alone.”

Dana grew up in a big family in Mississippi, the eldest of five kids.

AM-T: “Your dad was in the army, and your mum was a homemaker, right? So how did you get into journalism?”

“I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old. I believe very deeply that God just gave me this talent for writing and I was supposed to be doing just what I am doing with it. I can’t even tell you, through God’s grace I’ve been able to build a career writing as journalist and advocating for journalists through my role heading the Pulitzer Prize Organization. So it’s just something that’s always been a part of me. And my teachers in junior high and high school saw I had an interest in reading and writing and English and they encouraged me to pursue that as a career and I did.”

She has always loved her work – even when the people around her sometimes made things difficult. But she was so determined to succeed she didn’t let them get her down. She says try not to focus on the negative stuff, whatever it is. She’s had her share of weird situations and offensive comments, and she’ll talk about that more in a minute. But at the end of the day she believes…

“Excellence trumps everything. If you are all about the work and really producing at a high level you will get noticed. I am a black woman who came to New York in a newsroom that was overwhelmingly white, the most competitive newsroom in the world, and I was able to rise to the top there. So really anyone can do it by having a strong work ethic, really doing excellent, excellent work over time and building good will, and then once that happens it’s the foundation for everything else. You can’t really complain, you can’t really achieve, you can’t really expect to be promoted until you’ve done the work, consistently for years – there are no short cuts to that.”

That said, she says there’s no getting away from the fact it may take you longer to get where you want to go.

“…especially if you’re a woman and a woman of color it may take twice as long. And that is so painful and so incredibly frustrating but you can never show it. I’m not advocating don’t stand up for yourself. But I’m saying you have to go in with a positive attitude every day and say, what can I accomplish today? And sometimes that’s hard and sometimes it isn’t.”

I wondered if it took her longer.

“Oh gosh yes, no question about it, absolutely…it took me longer to get there and then longer to achieve the things I wanted to achieve when I was there, yes. But so what? Now I’m running the Pulitzer Prizes. And I wrote a book and it’s gonna be a movie and I accomplished a lot at the Times.”

So what? I heard her say that a few times during our conversation. Yes, she hit roadblocks. But overall she’s delighted about where she’s been and where she is now. And she WAS overlooked at times. Quite literally, at least once.

I asked if she could share an anecdote…

“Oh gosh, there are so many of them I wouldn’t know what to choose…whether it’s being in the headquarters of a Fortune 100 company to interview the CEO and I’m the only one in the lobby, and the receptionist came out three times looking for the New York Times reporter and walked back into the office. Because she literally didn’t see me. She thought, this cannot be her. She walked out the third time and I thought, this poor woman’s gonna wear herself out if I don’t say, ‘I think I’m who you’re looking for.’ So whether it’s something like that that’s a little thing, or people have made comments that are inappropriate, sometimes I’ve addressed them and sometimes I’ve just let them go. It depends on your mood of the day, who it is that says it, if you have the energy, if you’re tired, or how big a deal it is. And I don’t think I’d want to reveal too many specifics but there have been some really bad, painful moments, and in some cases it involved going into the office of someone really senior and saying, we have to deal with this. And other times I thought OK, I’m going to file this away as a mental note about something someone said, keep it in mind but not react. That’s the other thing – no matter what you’re feeling you can always give yourself time to react. You don’t have to react in the moment. You can walk away, you can call someone and get advice, you can wait until you’ve calmed down or you can react in the moment. But if you do that make sure you can do it in a calm, professional way.”

And that is easier said than done. But Dana says it is vital. Because otherwise the situation can backfire on you.  

“What I always say, and I saw someone really have a meltdown in the newsroom once…is you can start out right and end wrong, meaning something can happen to you where you’re the victim but depending on how you handle it, all people may remember is how you inappropriately handled something. So even when something happens to you, you have to handle it in such a way where you maintain the high ground.”

She told me a cautionary tale from her years in the newsroom.

“There was a male reporter who was known for yelling at people so much I think his nose bled one time, he was yelling at someone so loud – he was known for this but because he was a superstar they let him get away with it for a while, years in fact. A very junior level editor was editing him…he was on the phone in one of our bureaus at the time, and whatever he said to her, which was inappropriate, set her off and she was screaming, shaking at the top of her lungs. And everyone in the newsroom stopped to watch this. No one to this day remembers what he did or said…they remember her reaction. So that’s an example of starting out right and ending wrong. She ended up reprimanded just as he was, when she didn’t have to put herself in that position.

When something is painful walk away, go to the bathroom and have a cry if you like…whatever it takes. But never lose the high ground, never lose your sense of self and professionalism. Because particularly when you’re a woman and a woman of color in my case, people will remember that.”

AM-T: “Yeah, you talked about emotions and handling emotions at the office. And you said, there’s nothing wrong with crying at work.” 

“Yes, in my last role at the New York Times I had a senior role in personnel, so people would come to me for career advice all the time and I’d say without exaggeration I probably had 50 people cry in my office in the last four years there. And luckily the office was situated so their back was to the door and no one could see, and I always had tissues, always had candy…but I used to say to people and I say to my son, crying is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of pain and can be very cleansing. However, when you’re a woman at work there are many negative connotations to crying, so I would say don’t do it if you can avoid it, go to bathroom and have a good cry, not publicly if you can avoid it, but if you can’t [avoid it] so what, live with it, don’t put too much weight on that. But I’m not at all suggesting people shouldn’t feel whatever they feel or they should shove it down…it’s just that your coping mechanisms often have to be private. A chat with a girlfriend, a walk around the block, a cry in the bathroom, whatever. But when you are confronting the situation, when you’re dealing with it, you have to have conviction, confidence, and you have to speak in a clear way about what you’re trying to communicate even if you’re faking those things.”

AM-T: “It’s interesting, I was speaking to someone once, we were talking about crying in the workplace and she pointed out that men will very often not cry in the workplace but they will get incredibly angry. And she said that’s just emotion coming out in a different way…you had a great story about a guy losing it in your office and how you reacted. I think herbal tea was involved.”

“Oh, yes. I think I have so many people drinking tea now. He was my boss, and he would come in and throw phones and kick desks and curse, and I loved my job and I thought, this guy is not stealing my joy. So I‘d come in on a Monday morning with fresh flowers on my desk, and one day he came in and he was just ranting, going crazy. And I fixed myself a cup of hot mint tea and the louder he got the more I sat back in that chair and took a sip, and he looked at me like a toddler, throwing a tantrum, ‘don’t you see me kicking and screaming?’ And it completely changed the power dynamic. Because he wanted a reaction out of me and he wasn’t getting it. So now I tell people all the time the more upset someone gets the calmer you should become. And in that way you change the dynamic of what’s happening in the room. You can even say to people, including your boss, listen, clearly you need to gather yourself, I’ll give you a minute and I’ll come back.” 

We will be back in a moment.

The same irascible boss who screamed and swore in Dana’s office that time, he asked her to work on a big breaking story once just as she was about to fly off to be with her mother, who was about to have a biopsy. He knew she had that trip planned. Dana said no – and he was OK with that. She says she’d put in years at the paper by then. He knew she’d worked 37 days straight during another huge story. She says doing her time has given her some leeway – in more ways than one.   

“I was once painting my nails in the New York Times office and a twenty-something reporter came in and she looked beside herself that I was doing this. And I looked at her and said, well you can’t. You have a good 20 years before you can be seen with a bottle of nail polish, but I have worked through hurricanes, a space shuttle explosion, the presidential re-count, murder cases, you name it, I’ve been an editor, they know what I do and how long I’ve been doing this, so if I need to touch up my nails I’m gonna do that. I would never have done that in my 20s and 30s…they get to know about your personality and your quirks. I was known at the Times as the girly girl, but that was after 20 years of delivering.”

And she says to help her deliver she often had mentors and also sponsors along the way – those people who put their reputations on the line by recommending you for various projects. But she says as an employee…

“You have to earn that. People used to walk into my office and say, will you mentor me? And I thought, why do you want me to mentor you, and the answer was because they thought I could do something for them, right? But I chose to mentor only the people I saw were doing the work, could use the guidance, not because they saw me as I was a stepping stone to get them to something else. People who would say hey, could you read the rough draft of my story, and tell me what you think, how could I make this better? That would get my attention more than someone coming into my office and saying, can you mentor me?”

AM-T: “Which not everyone necessarily understands, right, because people, they’re told they need a mentor, and they start looking around, and asking people…”

“Yes. But someone can become your mentor without you saying, can you mentor me? Just going in and asking about the work, or asking how did you get to where you are? Or listen, I made a mistake, what would you have done differently? To the extent that the person you’re asking those things of is receptive, they’re becoming your mentor without you even asking. The people I considered my mentors throughout my career, I don’t think I ever said, would you be my mentor. They just were.”

One skill she picked up along the way largely on her own – negotiation. This is a bit of a teaser for the next show, but Dana is adamant that we should do it.  

“Whenever someone offers you to job and they put the compensation package in front of you they never expect for you to take it. They always expect that that’s the start of a negotiation. So ask for at least 25% more than they offer you, and if you end up with 10 percent more you’re still ahead of the game. On occasion they won’t budge, and you’ll end up taking the package and that’s fine. But I think women and people of color are so grateful, their inclination is to just take these jobs. No, don’t do that. Push for more.”

AM-T: “And when did you start doing that. Were you good at it from the get-go?”

“No, no. And then what happens is you find out people are making more money than you and that motivates you to do it. I’d say in last ten years I’ve become better at it. But you can’t expect the answer will be yes, and you can’t be offended if it doesn’t work out in terms of getting more compensation. But I’d say more than half the time you will get what you asked for or something that was better than what was put on the table.”

Like more vacation time or the ability to work from home some days. We will talk much more about this in the next show.

Dana has been a single parent for 12 years now. And in her case, that means being prepared for emergencies. Really prepared. It also means not letting on at work when things go wrong at home.

AM-T: “You touched on this idea of how much do women talk about their families and kids at work…which can be quite controversial…I think you said that you have layers of backup, right?”

“Yes. So when you say talk about family and kids, it depends about how you talk about them. If you’re talking about lack of daycare or complaining about the nanny didn’t turn up…that’s one thing. If you’re saying hey, look at my kid’s birthday party, that’s something else. There’s nothing wrong with sharing who we are. We shouldn’t hide that we’re human beings and we have lives. If you were going skydiving you’d show those pictures off so why not show you spent the weekend at your kid’s football game?

But it’s different when you’re talking about the logistics of managing being a working parent. And this is true whether you’re a man or a woman, though it mostly falls to women, I believe. But I didn’t ever want to give my employer an excuse to discount me, so the things I didn’t talk about ever were if my nanny was late or didn’t show up or if I had some childcare issue. And one of the things I did, and I could afford to do this, a lot of women couldn’t, was I had a backup nanny. So I had a primary nanny, and he had a backup nanny if the primary nanny couldn’t be there. Because I didn’t want a group of senior people in a room without me whispering: you know, we’d love to promote her but she’s always having childcare issues, or her work habits are inconsistent. So you have an obligation I believe to take care of all that – to make sure when you’re there you are present as an employee. Now the employer has an obligation I think to make sure there are reasonable accommodations for working parents, maternity, paternity leave, etc. but when you’re there to work your time is theirs, that’s what they’re paying you for, and I believe in that.”

AM-T: “What does your son think of what you do?”

“He thinks it’s pretty cool…he’s proud, and even if his father had lived I think I still would have worked this hard, because I think it’s important first of all for me to have my own identity, and I think I have a calling and a purpose in the work that I do, but I also think it’s good for a boy to see his mother go to work. It’s good for him to learn a work ethic from me…he’s seen me go to work when I have the flu, unfortunately he’s seen me miss a few of his basketball games, I go to as many as I can. He’s seen me come back exhausted, come back and just fall on the couch. I think that’s good, it teaches him about work ethic. We also have balance though, we take some cool vacations, we laugh a lot. But I do think it’s not gonna be unusual to Jordan, my son, for a woman to be in a position of authority when he is in the workforce, because he will have seen that his whole life.”

AM-T: “Yeah, it’s interesting, I was reading one of the notes your fiancé left for his son, and he talked about being…being a good man and he did talk about being a provider. And of course you are the provider but you would have been a joint provider anyway.”

So…our plan was to do this together, obviously. Because his father died in combat a good portion of Jordan’s college will be paid for, and I tell him, ‘Your father is still taking care of you. He’s still contributing.’ I don’t mind being the primary provider, that’s OK, it’s an honor. He took care of us in the ways that he could. And whether it’s providing for my son financially, for his needs, or providing for him mentally, emotionally, I was gonna do that anyway, I’m his mother, and I’m very much a mama bear, I love him to death, he’s the best part of my life. So it’s an honor to take care of him. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Finally, one thing I took away when I first heard Dana speak was how much she enjoys mentoring other people and generally encouraging young women just starting out. She does it as much as she can. 

“There’s a news literacy program and I invited a school of girls in for the Pulitzer announcement last week, and before that I did a Skype session with thousands of students across the country. I wanted them to know I’m accessible, I’m no different than you, I started out in the same place as you, so you can do it. That cost me nothing, it gave me great joy and God willing I was able to reach someone who maybe got more confidence because of that, or during a difficult period later in their career they’ll remember that I said something. If it touched someone that would mean a lot to me. Why not help eachother out?”

AM-T: “Yeah, you said that was one of the most meaningful things to you now.”

“Oh my gosh, I’ve done it my whole career. Or at least during the last 20-something years.

Before that I was just figuring out what I was meant to be doing every day. But I think it’s important, it really is. And believe me, when you extend yourself to people you get more out of it than they do.”

Dana Canedy.

She heads up the Pulitzer Prizes and she’s the author of A Journal for Jordan, an adaptation of which will be coming to a movie theater near you sometime in the next couple of years.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As ever I love to hear from you. You can find me at ashley at TheBroadExperience.com or tweet me or find me via the show’s Facebook page. I will be posting show notes and a transcript of this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

Thanks so much to those of you who sustain this show with a monthly donation – I am really grateful for your ongoing contributions. And thanks to those of you who’ve given one-off donations as well. If you can donate as much as 50 dollars I will send you the official Broad Experience T-shirt – ladies cut – and a little button to go with it. Details at the support tab on the website.

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