Episode 115: Putting Yourself First

Show transcript:

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

This time…

“You gotta be your best self to perform in your daily job, you may not be an Olympic champion but you have a lot you have to give every minute of every day, and you want as much energy at the end of the day as you do during the day when you’re working at your job.”

Sounds great…but taking care of yourself takes practice…

“Working out was like a luxury. It’s not anything brown, black women did in my neighborhood. No one talked about therapy, no one talked about getting massages.”

Coming up…two women, two different stories of how they came to put themselves first. And they don’t feel guilty about it. 

My first guest is Leigh Stringer. She lives in Washington DC, she’s in her forties, married with two children, and she works as a workplace strategist at an architecture firm. It’s client-driven work, so lots of deadlines.

AM-T: “Would you have described yourself as someone who got a lot of your identity from your job?” 

“Oh, 100%. I’m a type A northeasterner, lots of degrees from lots of universities, I am very into – or was – into title and position, didn’t always want to admit it, but it’s kind of true.”

During the financial crisis of 2008/2009 business got tight and everyone who could clung to their jobs. When the employment market improved, a lot of her colleagues moved on at pretty much the same time.

“I had to pick up the ball for lots of folks, doing four jobs for months on end, had to work 80, 90 hours a week, and after third month or so I hit a wall. I used to pride myself on my ability to hunker down and push through and deal with it, but it was clearly not my best work.”

She had prided herself on her work ethic. Now she was just exhausted.

“I could just feel my body not responding any more and not able to rally in the way it typically is. Wasn’t exercising, forget that.”

She was eating takeout for every meal, getting home at 10 o’clock and drinking wine to wind down. She rarely saw her husband or kids or anyone outside work.

Now she’d been at this firm for some years. So she had some leeway. And after that project finally wrapped up she went to her boss and said…

“I’m either gonna take a sabbatical or I’m gonna quit. You help me decide.”

He said, see you in three months.

Leigh says those three months changed her life. For one thing, she knew she never wanted to get so run down again. She walked a lot and spent time with her family, but she also began research on what became her second book, The Healthy Workplace. As part of her research she visited the Human Performance Institute in Florida. It was originally set up to train the world’s best athletes in how to attain peak performance – by maintaining their energy over a long period of time. These days it mostly focuses on applying those same techniques to busy executives. What it calls ‘corporate athletes.’

Leigh treated herself as if she were a CEO going to the Institute for a tune-up.

“They get you in there and they have you beforehand take a test and have your family  members, your friends and other people write about how you’re doing, how your energy levels are, if you have time for them, if you’re eating well, taking care of yourself and sleeping and all those kinds of things. And they play back the results while you’re there. And they take blood draws and things like that to really check your nutrition. And the point is you’ve got to be your best self to perform in your daily job, you may not be an Olympic champion but you have a lot you have to give every minute of every day, and you want as much energy at the end of the day as you do during the day when you’re working at your job. But it took someone shaking me and a lot of my friends, family and colleagues writing me and literally saying, she doesn’t have energy, she doesn’t have time for me, Mommy, kind of thing for me to turn around and say oh shoot, this self-care thing was real…it’s not about being selfish it’s the most selfless thing that I can do.”

Before, she’d only exercised to lose weight. Now she sees exercise as something that helps her get through the day and still have energy at the end of it. If she can, she goes for a 20-minute run in the morning.

But not everyone has that option.

Before I spoke to Leigh I’d posted on the show’s Facebook page. I’d said I wasn’t even sure I should cover this topic of self-care. I just didn’t know that I could bring anything new to the discussion. It’s so thoroughly covered in women’s media – all those articles urging us to juice and meditate and do yoga. But the listeners who responded said they would be interested, IF it felt real.

AM-T: “And one woman said my feeling is, ‘yes, this is covered a lot but it’s rarely covered in the context of real life.’ She said, ‘whenever I read about this or that person’s morning routine…I roll my eyes because I have young children, my husband gets up at the crack of dawn so I’m solely responsible for the morning routine…and I just can’t relate to these ideas. I mean what do you say to somebody like that? It can be tough depending on your schedule. Especially perhaps if you’re a single parent, to care for yourself after getting everyone else off to school.”

“Yeah, I mean that’s reality, and I think as women we’re particularly resistant to want to give ourselves even a minute’s break, we are servant leaders, we’re so good at taking care of others, it’s in our nature, a lot of us. It’s difficult to say, you know, it’s of more value for me right now instead of racing off to do this conference call or to race into work, to take a few minutes and go for a really short walk around the block, or mindfully sip coffee instead of racing off to the next thing…it’s a mindset and it’s very difficult to break that. Particularly when there are so many things we care about in the world and we want to spend our time doing better for others and improving other people’s lives but the truth is those mini breaks…those mental breaks, it helps with focus and productivity and all the science tells us it’s really better to do that…you’re a better, more productive person when you’re able to do that. So if there’s any cheerleading I can do, try it, give it a shot, squeeze it in when you can… and be an experiment. Actually experiment on yourself.”

A lot of people swear by meditation, including Leigh. She often meditates using one of those meditation apps . But she says any time you can take for yourself – preferably away from a screen – counts.

“The other thing I’ve started doing recently, and this is really old school is reading a book, that’s a physical book, it’s not a device…and that is really good, like I spent last weekend reading this fantastic book, it was fiction, I almost never read fiction. I was like, oh this is fantastic! This is almost as good as meditating!”

But what about those times when you’re really worked up about something in your work life or just your life? You know what you SHOULD do, according to the self-care gurus…chill out on a mat somewhere, or get on your bike, and let it all go.

AM-T: “One woman who contributed to the discussion on Facebook said I know all this in my head, but I get really angry about things and a yoga session or getaway weekend is useless... because I just can’t let go of these negative feelings. You know in theory what you should be doing but it can be tough to release negative feelings, they can follow you into your weekend.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve definitely been subject to that…I remember distinctly having this awesome massage at some spa place and I remember being angry at something that happened at work, someone who was trying to sabotage a project, and I spent several hours getting rubbed down and it had zero effect on me. It was pretty bad. I felt completely un-refreshed, although I’d been in a beautiful place.

One of my tricks lately has been to say, are you in control of the situation? Is this something you can do something about? If you can’t do something about it, let it go, let it run its course, it is what it is…maybe that’s part of being a mom or a wife…it’s definitely one of those things you just have to pull away from.

I will say one thing personally, I can’t remember if we talked about this, about a year after I’d written the Healthy Workplace my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and he’s about 49, it’s early Parkinson’s, he’s doing well and it’s all great, but one of the biggest things to minimize the symptoms getting worse is to work out. And one of the biggest influence on his behavior is me…if people around you are working out you’re more likely to work out. I knew, number one, a disease like that puts things in perspective, but what I do impacts other people and my kids too, that really swayed my focus and putting myself first, because I have to take care of my family. And when my husband’s health, knock on wood won’t go downhill too much, but chances are it will and I’m gonna need to be there to support these young kids. If I don’t they have no one, or they have a backup system but I’m their most important person, caregiver, and I need to be 100 percent effective and have 100 percent energy in everything I do.”

And hearing her talk about that made me think again about single parents and how challenging it can be to do anything for yourself when everything is on you…

“And maybe that much more important because you are the foundation for your family, and if your health falls apart, if you start suffering from a chronic disease or you feel really bad, you’re not able to hold it together, and holding it together requires self-care.”

In a minute we meet someone who discovered that first hand.

You first met Theresa Thames a few episodes ago, in the show I did about being overweight at work. Theresa is a theologian, a longtime pastor, and now associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University.

Theresa grew up in the south, in Mississippi, and when she was a teenager she was sexually abused. And the way she dealt with that trauma wasn’t through talking about it to anyone – certainly not to a therapist.

 “What I had was food – and that’s what I turned to.”

She was an overweight teen and became an overweight adult. She says ideas about what’s now called self-care barely existed among the women she knew – they looked after other people, not themselves. And she says there’s a historic precedent for that.

“I grew up in public housing, my mom was a bus driver, my grandmother was a head-start teacher. Working out was like a luxury. It’s not anything brown, black women did in my neighborhood and you didn’t walk anywhere in Mississippi, you drove. No one talked about therapy, no one talked about getting massages, all those things felt self-indulgent but also we couldn’t afford them growing up. And self-care has never been part of the narrative for African American women in this country. When I think back to the history of black women form slavery, from 1619, when we came to this country, it was about labor. Our bodies are still products of labor. Whether we were having our own babies or having babies for the servitude of white bodies we’d have our babies and have to serve as wet nurses to other people’s babies. Even when I think about the black and brown women who clean houses before dawn in the morning, they’d have to leave their children before dawn in the morning to greet other people’s children with breakfast and love.”

In many ways the adult Theresa did break away from the past. She took a traditionally male job – pastor – something she’d been told her she’d never be able to do. As she said, therapy was not a thing growing up. But as a pastor in Washington DC, ministering to other people’s emotional needs, Theresa got herself a therapist and saw that person every single week. She says every pastor should have one. So she was looking after herself in some ways. But she was still severely overweight, self-conscious about it yet resistant to her parishioners’ not so subtle hints that she should slim down.

Then a lot of things happened at once. Her marriage failed, and her sister became ill and then died. She had a 9-year-old son, and Theresa decided to adopt him.

“I say when you adopt an older child they have handprints already on him, before you get them, so he’d gone through Hurricane Katrina where our family lost everything…so he knew that loss. This loss of his mother dying, and moving 1000 miles away from your family to live with your aunt, we had a great relationship but it was hard. I was dealing with a child dealing with deep grief in a brand new situation – DC is nothing like Mississippi, and getting accustomed to a different way of parenting…I had a different model of parenting than what he’d been used to, and we were starting all over.”

So she’s trying to raise this grieving child on her own, grieving the loss of her sister herself, depressed and often bingeing. She had prayer, she had therapy, but they weren’t enough. At one point she weighed 450 pounds. It was tough just to move about.

In the midst of all this she found out about the organization GirlTrek – some of you may know them – they get groups of black women walking in their neighborhoods all over the US, in honor of women like Harriet Tubman who helped people escape slavery, and other black women who marched for civil rights in more recent decades. One of the founders asked Theresa to read an opening prayer at a local walk in DC. She was happy to do the prayer…less happy to walk the walk. But…

 “I didn’t want to be a fraud. I didn’t want to believe in this organization and not make a commitment to walk and to take care of myself.”

AM-T: “And did you do the whole walk?”

“I did. I did the whole walk [laughs]. Yeah. It was hard.”

Partly because people kept wanting to talk to her while she walked – they’d loved her opening prayer and were eager to discuss it. But Theresa says she was still about 400 pounds at this point, and so unfit, could hardly breathe.

“So I didn’t want to talk. I felt highly irritated, but I’m in my official capacity, right, so I have to be nice and smile.”

But despite how difficult the walk was, despite the fangirls wanting to chat, that walk sparked something in her. She loved the GirlTrek mission and she wanted to continue. The organization encourages women to post selfies of themselves working out on social media – in part to combat all the negative images of black women that already exist on the internet.

Theresa began to walk regularly. Often in the dark, so people wouldn’t watch her, stare at her body or shout rude comments.

“The walking for me became therapeutic. It was my space, I wasn’t being a mom, I wasn’t being a pastor, I wasn’t listening to other people, it was my space…I joined the gym across from my office, and I sort of giggle because gym is not a friendly space for plus-size bodies, so I joined the Jewish community center with little old Jewish people and I’d go at a time when all the hard core gym bodies would be gone and that gym became my sanctuary. So I was able to go on the treadmill, work on my speed, and have this relationship of accountability where the front desk person said hello, and knew I was there…but there was no other conversation. But I kept my 30 minute commitment of walking, I would wear my GirlTrek shirts to the gym, and I took selfies, and tweeted them, and my body changed and the change of my body became the change of my eating habits and the change of my energy, so it led to this domino effect of, even now , now I’m at this weight, it’s not about the weight, it’s me taking care of myself. So when I walk I’m praying, I’m de-stressing, I’m taking inventory. It’s my stress thing, when I’m stressed I’m walking, I’m out and about.”

Thinking about all the weight she’s lost – about 200 pounds – and how this aspect of self-care has changed her life, it makes her sad and angry for the African-American women who have gone before her.

“They’re not here because they gave so much of their bodies, they had nothing to give tor themselves and they are in an early grave. And I feel it’s my role to change that and be a different example of living. And not just living, but thriving.”

Several years on, she’s doing well, and her son is too. He’s a young teenager now, and when she landed this job in Princeton, he quickly decided an old east coast college town was not for him. So he went back to Washington DC and goes to school there during the week. He stays with his godparents.

“We have a crazy, beautiful family, that…his godparents are Jewish and Vietnamese and I’m his African-American mom. And actually his school called on Friday and it was like, is this the Vietnamese mom or the black mom? The three of us show up to PTA and back to school night, you know. All three parents. And it’s a great way of loving and being community.”

And she’s keeping up with the walking. Even the running. She tries to work out every day of the week.

“I think I told you, I did the Brooklyn half-marathon, it was a big step for me. I’m gonna do another half-marathon. I’m thinking about maybe training for a marathon. I do it all the time, I do walking meetings, I love it.”

One last thing I wanted to bring up with Leigh Stringer was something one of my listeners raised in a Facebook post: the different ways men and women look at self-care.

AM-T: “You mentioned your husband, this brings me to men…because somebody else pointed out, ‘no one even calls it self-care for men. What do they call it, relaxing? And she said women make it sound so intentional and exhausting.’”

 “Yeah, I think they call it sitting on the couch watching the game. We have in our family called it out as, hey, I need some alone time, or some chill-out time…and that includes for my husband going to the baseball game with his buddies, or having dinner with a bunch of guys talking politics which is believe it or not relaxing for him. Not for me! We’ve gotten good at carving out what gives us pleasure and makes us happy. And maybe his having Parkinson’s has put a fine point on that…like well, if we’ve only got the next ten years before this thing could turn into something ugly, let’s take this next ten and really enjoy them and make sure we call out in our week things that are really important to us. And I’ve noticed I’ve started hanging out more with my girlfriends, I really enjoy that.”

Finally, in that same vein of men and women sometimes approaching life a little differently…

“It’s funny, I was talking to some friends of ours, the husband and the wife were going through a time my husband and I went through recently which is like argh, we’re in our upper forties and we need a change in our careers, we’re not really being challenged in our work. So my husband and the friend husband and another guy, their way of brainstorming about what’s next involved Cuban cigars and scotch and sitting around riffing, and the women, there were three women, this other woman and another and me, and we sat in a room and we had sticky notes and post-its and we had an agenda. This one woman was like, ‘this is my career move, and this is my agenda!’ She had it all organized, she had snacks…it was really funny. We’d moved to a specific office space and used that for a while to make it really official. I thought, this is so man versus woman right here, right now. But in both cases we came away feeling good and like we’d made progress, so we’ll call it a draw.”

Leigh Stringer. She’s the author of The Green Workplace and The Healthy Workplace. Thanks to her and Theresa Thames for being my guests on this show.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to all of you who contributed to that original Facebook discussion that got me thinking about this episode in the first place.

As usual I’d love to hear from you – you can find me on Twitter at Ashley Milne-Tyte – without the hyphen - or you can email me via the website.

Thanks to all of you who have supported the show with a donation, I really appreciate it. If you can’t afford to give – write a quick review on iTunes instead. It all adds up.

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

Episode 114: My Answer is No (If That's OK With You)

Show transcript:

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

This time…you know all those requests you get, that strictly speaking aren’t part of the job?

Ask yourself if you have to do it and what you might lose if you say no. Does your livelihood hinge on you saying yes?”

Much of the time it doesn’t. We end up doing it anyway and it eats our time. But there are alternatives.

“Try and say no in a positive fashion. It’ll make you feel a lot less guilty.”

Coming up…setting boundaries without alienating your colleagues.

I’ve always thought of this show as covering some of the themes that run beneath women’s lives. Stuff that isn’t always obvious on the surface but that makes our experiences at work quite different from men’s. One of those differences is that many women find it harder than men to set boundaries, to say no to the many requests that come our way. Women so often feel bad saying no – partly because we want to be helpful, partly because everyone expects us to be.

Recently a friend told me about a book on this topic. I liked the title so much I borrowed it for this show. ‘My Answer is No – if that’s OK with You.’

The author is psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell. She has been on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the University of California in addition to running a therapy practice.

“I’ve been a clinician seeing mostly women in a psychotherapy practice for more than 40 years, and the struggles that my clients experienced around setting limits in their lives was really the bulk of the work that I did.

I take care of what I call the worried well; healthy, high functioning individuals who struggle with relationships or job problems or career issues and so on. So I found myself over four decades-plus, inventing and developing new strategies for them that were tailored to the situations in which they found themselves. And they wouldn’t have been bringing these issues to therapy if they didn’t care about the relationship, their position, so it was really a matter of finding the best way for them to set a limit when they needed to, and also preserve the relationship, hold on to the job…”

And that is key to why so many women hesitate to say no – we feel like it puts those relationships in jeopardy. We feel like we’re not being nice, or supportive, or helpful – maybe we’ll upset the other person or make them angry or resentful.

AM-T: “Were you immune to this yourself, or not entirely?”

“Absolutely not. First of all I’m a woman, I am very tuned in just inherently to other people’s moods and dissatisfaction, it’s part of who I am. Then I chose to become a physician where it’s an important characteristic of a physician in my opinion that we are tuned into our patients or clients, then I chose to become a psychiatrist where it’s even more important to be tuned into how people are feeling and what’s going on with them, even though they may not be aware of some of their feelings because I’m there to help with that. So I have all those dimensions contributing to being very aware when people are dissatisfied or unhappy…I see myself as being in a profession that’s about being helpful to people in their lives. So if I become aware I’m gonna be letting someone down by saying no, of course that makes it a challenge for me.”

AM-T: “I love that you say at the beginning of the book that women’s desire to help and be there for others is actually a really valuable thing. Some ‘say no’ advice you hear for women doesn’t acknowledge that really. Why do you think it’s important to reiterate there’s much good that can come out of our desire to help people?”

“My clients are often very surprised when I tell them our reluctance to say no often comes from traits that we should value, that include empathy, sensitivity, thoughtfulness and compassion, and that the struggle to say no comes from being tuned in, rather than shut down. And that the paths we take to saying no, no matter how circuitous, can sometimes help us grow. Saying no can be a struggle because of our deeply rooted need for connection, this is very important to us. So to be considerate without jeopardizing our wellbeing or livelihood and at the same time assertive without losing the relationships we value, I see as two of life’s most compelling challenges. For most women the prospect of being less sensitive to the needs of others isn’t appealing even though accommodating their requests can result in personal hardship, and many of us would rather weigh the pros and cons of helping out and finding best possible ways to take care of ourselves as well as the others who are dependent on us.

And that’s also how our brains are wired. We have an aptitude for compassion and connection but so often we hear there’s something terribly wrong with the way we say no, and this is the opposite of what my book is about. We hear put yourself first, stop being a people pleaser and quit worrying about everyone else. But really this is a foreign concept to most of us, because if women as a group became substantially less concerned with the welfare of everyone around us, the consequences for children, the infirm, the disadvantaged and the elderly would be disastrous.”

Because it is women who do so much of that caring work – whether it’s for family or as part of a helping profession. And a lot of you are in those jobs – I’ve heard from teachers, doctors, nurses, coaches. But I had to go back to something Nanette said about women’s brains being wired for compassion. I knew that would have some of you bristling.

AM-T: “You know I just want to pick up on something you said. I get in trouble with some of my listeners when I say ‘women’s brains are wired to’ - I then get these emails saying it’s all socialization, and I agree, women are socialized to help people… but I wonder how you tread around that nature versus nurture thing.”

“Well there’s quite a bit of evidence that our brains as women are wired for connection, however, there are plenty of boys and men who also are also socialized, grow up in environments where those characteristics are nurtured and developed, and I find men in my practice and in my life who are deeply connected individuals also struggle in the same kind of way with setting limits as women do. So it’s really about are you a person who is very relational, if you are, regardless of gender, then you’re gonna struggle with these kinds of issues.”

AM-T: “Well talking about caring people, you’re in a caring profession, you told a great story of an assistant you had, you realized she had mental health issues when she was some way into the job, but you didn’t want to fire her. That was a great example from your own life. Can you talk a bit about what women in helping professions, and there are a lot of them, can do to say no sometimes without people thinking they’re Cruella DeVille?”

“Well I’ll just expand on this personal story, I think it illustrates the complexities of this dynamic. This employee had been with us and doing quite well for a number of years and then all of a sudden I came into the office to begin my day of seeing clients, and I saw there were boxes of baking soda with skulls and crossbones drawn on them next to all the electronic office equipment…and I said, what’s with the baking soda? And she said, the radiation that it gives off is very, very dangerous.”

That was the first sign that something was wrong.

“And over the course of the next few weeks she became more anxious about even being in the office. So obviously she was developing a psychiatric problem.”

Nanette knew psychiatric problems very well. She wasn’t getting the backup she needed in the office, but she couldn’t just let her assistant go. That would have felt inhuman to her.

“So what we did was we helped her get into good treatment and in the process of that she decided she could no longer do the job in our office…so that is how we set the limit essentially. It was helping her get the treatment and facilitating her understanding that she could no longer do the job.”

It was a relief on all fronts – the assistant was getting the help she needed, and Nanette could hire a new person.

She says we need to get one thing straight about setting boundaries, no matter what kind of work we do. And though it sounds obvious when she says it, I think a lot of us lose sight of this.

“You can really only say no when you have a clear sense of your priorities.”

But how many of us have sat there at one point or another and told ourselves everything is equally important?

And once we get over that…

“It’s important to weigh the risks of each no both professionally and personally, and then it’s important to tailor the no to fit the request, it can’t be one size fits all if you care about the relationship with the person who is asking. So basically I’d recommend overall 6 steps in this no process to consider.

The first is, if it’s not an emergency don’t answer immediately. Give yourself time to consider whether you want to do it. And say instead something like, ‘Let me think about this, let me check my schedule, consider my other obligations,’ and be very specific about the date and time you will respond, it’s very important to let people know as soon as possible and it’s very important and to keep your word.”

In other words, be respectful of the person who’s asking. They need to know one way or the other.

“So secondly, ask yourself if you have to do it and what you might lose if you say no. Is the request within the parameters of your job description, does your livelihood hinge on you saying yes, and if you do say yes will it be hardship for you, family, your relationships? And third, does the request fit within your personal priorities, is it part of your personal agenda, will it bring you closer to your goals, will you be happy or fulfilled if you agree to the request? Are you saying yes as part of a desire to be helpful? Are you being asked to do something meaningful or substantive?”

Or is there a colleague who could handle this better, and who might even benefit from doing it?

Number four…

“If you decide it’s not in your best interests to say yes, I suggest you state your no clearly and decisively and at minimum say sorry, I can’t accommodate your request.”

She says a clear, unequivocal no is much easier to deal with than a mushy non-answer that leaves the asker in the twilight zone. I’m already feeling guilty about the number of times I’ve done that.

“Five, you may feel inclined to explain your reasons but I suggest that you be brief. You may want to clarify why it doesn’t fit within your responsibilities or prior commitments or if it’s a policy based decision, explain why your no should not be taken personally. 

And finally, six, if you can, offer other alternatives, because it’s always better to be helpful when you can and sometimes your generosity comes full circle. But I think overall it’s very  important in caring professions and in the workplace in general for women, that we are held to a higher standard when we say no than men are. It’s OK for us to say no if we say it nicely but if it’s not warm and nurturing we often lose points. And therefore finding just the right mixture of firmness and thoughtfulness to communicate a clear limit without alienating people takes training and practice.”

Heather McGregor has that training and practice. Some of you may remember her. She’s been on the show several times. She used to write a column for the Financial Times under the name Mrs. Moneypenny. This woman gets a lot of requests, personal and professional. 

“First, acknowledge that you can’t be everywhere. You will just be average at everything…no one will get proper attention.”

When I last spoke to Heather she was running her own headhunting business in London. These days she’s the dean of Edinburgh Business School and still chairman of her business. She’s also an author, and she has a family. She says to protect her time, she says no a lot. But she does try to offer the other person something along with her refusal.

“So I’ve just come from an email from a pretty famous TV presenter in this country, who’s a woman, asking for one-on-one advice having read my book…non-executive director position…she wants my personal advice. This is an hour of my time, I will not be able to charge for it. I can’t do anything to specifically assist her because I don’t run a search company that does board positions and I don’t influence chairmen. I encourage and support women but I don’t make any difference as to whether they succeed or not. All she will hear is what’s in book all over again. I’ve written back to her and said I won’t see her. But in writing back and saying I won’t see her, I’ve written 3 suggestions of things you can do to help herself, so when you say no to something, I can’t make the bake sale but here’s what I’ll do, I’ll donate $15 towards the cake ingredients. Try and say no in a positive fashion. It’ll make you feel a lot less guilty.”

I learned from that advice and I try to do something similar if the occasion arises.

If you’re a woman who’s done well in her field, maybe you’re one of very few women in the job, you’re probably inundated with requests for your time and expertise. Here’s Nanette again.

“One of the university professors I spoke with is asked to speak all over the world…she had an elderly parent for whom she was caregiver, she couldn’t meet all the demands and requests on her time, she always had a list by the phone of all the junior faculty who could benefit tremendously from the opportunity she was being asked to do, give speeches in various places, so she would give them a leg up as she was saying no to the request.”

But another, African-American professor didn’t have the same options. She always felt like the token black woman on these panels, but…

“She didn’t say no because she felt that all the diversity she represented wouldn’t be attended to if she wasn’t there. That issues of people of color wouldn’t be attended to, issues of people of different sexual orientations wouldn’t be attended to. So she had very, very little free time.”

But here’s something to bear in mind if you’re someone who always ends up saying yes to these extra-curricular requests. Yes, they can bolster your career, but sometimes you just bolster the person or the event itself. And that’s what the requester is after—they need you to make their event look good.

There’s a story in Nanette’s book about American writer political writer Peggy Noonan.

When Noonan’s son was little she got asked to fly across the country to campaign for a female candidate at a political event. She admired the candidate, and the organizer kept saying this woman would win if Noonan showed up and spoke up for her. But Noonan was a single mother and the event was during the week – her son was at school. The woman asking her said, bring him! Noonan said no, little kids didn’t like being yanked out of school and taken half way across the country. The event organizer kept pressing her. Noonan hesitated…but ultimately she said no.

“So I think what’s really important to realize in scenarios like this is that all too often people who ask for your time for a particular function or event, they don’t care about your family or other responsibilities, they care about their needs. So it’s very important that you prioritize your own needs because nobody else will do that for you.”

That’s what Peggy Noonan did when she said no to that request. She put her son over the event because she recognized that her agenda was her son, the organizer’s agenda was the success of this rally. They were two separate agendas. Realizing that helped her make the decision.

But what about the smaller things…the workplace requests that can clog up your day? Some of you responded to a Facebook post I wrote asking about requests you found it difficult to refuse.

AM-T: “One of my respondents on Facebook talked about being asked to interview someone in another department. These smaller things that over the course of a day or a week can be little time sucks. But especially when it’s someone who is superior to you, it’s just really awkward…how to say no to those things without looking churlish?”

“Exactly, and it’s true that saying no in those kinds of situations sometimes raises concerns about not being a team player.”

And sometimes I think you have to do it – you have to put in the time to give that good impression. But not every time they ask. One listener told me on Facebook the men in her office always ask her to take notes in meetings – a common request women get. And she says yes partly because she thinks she’ll take the best notes anyway, so why not? But if it were me I’d suggest something else like, everyone takes turns taking notes in different meetings.

But of course sometimes what you want to say no to isn’t the small stuff – it’s the big stuff. And pushing back on a request from above can be fraught with complications.

AM-T: “People may be facing these kinds of situations in their office where they may be asked to do something, it’s coming from on high, yet they feel it’s the wrong action – what sorts of options do they have?”

“Well in some of those situations as in the hierarchical systems where you’re not allowed to say no to your superior, you are definitely at risk of losing your job if you draw a line that your superior is going to be very unhappy with. And it’s very important that you talk with colleagues to the extent you can, that you get support from as many people as you can, that you get as much advice as you can about how to be very clear about why you are stating the limit you are stating, and hope you can make a good case and be respected for what you are doing, but it doesn’t always work out.”

Finally, Nanette and I talked about how to say no to routine requests – or rather, how NOT to say no. She began to think about this when she was researching her book. She got rejected a bunch of times when she approached prominent women to interview – more than she expected. She came to appreciate a direct no. But much of the time, that’s not what she got.  

“It was very frustrating, because essentially I was put on indefinite hold with the vague promise they’d get back to me and they didn’t. That made me feel devalued, and ultimately lose respect for the person who couldn’t just tell it to me straight. I mean I’d rather have a nasty no or just a no, I’m not available, than just a wishy washy or indefinite-hold no.”


Nannette’s book covers so much more than settling boundaries in the workplace. She has chapters on saying no to friends and family, how to say no to requests from your community, even how to say no to someone who is dying.

If you are somebody who wants to stop saying yes so often I highly recommend it – again the book is ‘My Answer is No – if That’s OK with You. How Women Can Say No and Still Feel Good About It.’ I’ll put a link under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

Thanks to those of you who’ve donated to the show since the last episode went up. I am pleased to say PayPal has reinstated the ability to give a monthly donation, and I know some of you have asked about that. If everyone who listened to this show gave me just…one dollar a month – so way less than you spend on a daily cup of tea or coffee – I could actually earn a living from this thing. Go to TheBroadExperience.com/support. And thank you.

I’m always open to hearing story ideas from you so if you’d like me to cover something, get in touch via the website or email ashley at TheBroadExperience.com.

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

Episode 113: What's in a Name

Show transcript:

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

This time, when your name makes people confused about your gender…until you enlighten them…

“The point was, you’re not going to be taken seriously if you’ve just outed yourself as a Miss. You now look kind of insignificant. That’s what I got from it.”

And what it’s like when a man swaps names with a female colleague for a week…

I had no authority, essentially. Prior to this I had an assumed authority, people seemed to think I was capable of the job they had paid me to do and I guess I’d taken that for granted, because when I was working as Nicole that was often not the case.”

But don’t expect everyone to believe you…

“We just said hey, guess what, we did an experiment and fun fact, our clients treat me like crap, on the whole. And he was just immediately like, you can’t prove that, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

And just a heads up, you will hear the occasional swear word later in this episode. So in the unlikely even you’re listening to this with kids, you might want to put your headphones on.

But before we begin, how often do you think about marketing yourself? Some of us are great at this. Others like me would rather do anything other than talk ourselves up.

Which is completely understandable.

The thing is…Every decision about you and your opportunities is made in a room you’re not in.

 Which begs the question, can you do anything about the conversation in that room?

Joanna Bloor – a former guest on the show - believes you can. And it starts with knowing how to talk about who you are and why you’re important.

 Joanna is on a mission to get us to talk about ourselves in a new way.

 Uncover your unique value, then learn how to share it with others.

So in that room, they’re telling your story, and articulating your value, the way you want.

Organizations including Microsoft, EY, 21st Century Fox, and Cartier have brought Joanna in to talk to employees from entry level to executive with remarkable results.

 Go to Joannabloor.com and check out her services page to find out more.

That’s j – o –a -  n- n – a – b – l – o – o – r dot com.  Reference the broad experience and receive 10% off a workshop or individual coaching.

When I was a child growing up in London I couldn’t stand my first name. I didn’t love my last name either but it was Ashley that really bothered me. Because at least in those days, in the UK, Ashley was a boy’s name – and people often reminded me of that. My mother was American and she’d thought of Ashley as more of a feminine name, which it usually IS in the US. But that was no consolation to me at my school, surrounded by Victorias and Lucys and Natashas. 

So I really got into this piece I read in the Financial Times recently about ambiguous names. Alev Scott was the author. She lives in London. She’s a writer and commentator on Turkey and everything that’s happening there – which these days is quite a lot. She’s half Turkish and she began her career as a journalist there, but came back to the UK when the Turkish government became increasingly repressive.  

Her name – Alev – means ‘flame’ in Turkish. Her Turkish mother chose the name. But like a lot of kids whose first names sound ‘foreign’ in the country they live in, Alev says people always struggled to pronounce it; none of her schoolmates had much interest in her Turkish half. For years she just wanted to be called Emma.

But it wasn’t until she began working that her name took on another dimension…people who hadn’t met her assumed she was a man.

“I started to encounter it in my professional life…it’s when I started working as a journalist. I used to live in Turkey, it’s ironic that in a very patriarchal country like Turkey everyone knew I was a woman because they were familiar with the name, there were other problems associated with being a female journalist in Turkey but they weren’t connected to being confused for a man. Whereas in the west people didn’t know I was a woman and I had to tell them somehow and had to deal with the knowledge…they might think of me differently, or they might…it’s odd second guessing what people think of you when they think you’re a man. It’s hard to know and it’s hard to ask them so a lot of times I’ve guessed about a slight shift in tone, there’s all sorts of unknowns…and that’s one of the frustrating but also quite interesting things about my name.”

And I had to admit that I was one of those people who, looking at her name in print, assumed she was male. I read a piece of hers in the Financial Times several months ago, and only when she wrote that piece ambiguous names did I realize my mistake.

AM-T: “…because I was one of the people who fell into that trap of just assuming you were male when the name wasn’t obviously female.”

“Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it as well, it’s part of how we’re formed as a society – people assume we’re male unless told otherwise. And that’s interesting and also worrying. It’s funny, I sort of know people assume I’m a man unless I tell them otherwise but I haven’t developed a policy of dealing with that. If people specifically address me as Mr. Scott or make some reference by which I know they think I’m a man, then I’ll try and put them right but you can’t go around in life sort of shouting about being a woman just in case people assume you’re a man, it’s not something that I feel you can work into your public persona.” 

So she lives with it, correcting people when she feels she needs to.

Just as I do when I get emails or letters addressed to Mr. Milne-Tyte.

I hadn’t thought that much about titles, though, until Alev brought them up.

“I do often consider what would happen if we just got rid of titles, because I think maybe they’re antiquated at this point. I have a lot of issues with titles in fact.”

AM-T: “You mean titles such as Mr, Ms, Miss?”

“Yes, exactly. I don’t see what’s wrong with just using people’s first names. It doesn’t get rid of the problem of assuming a person’s gender…I personally have a real distaste for Ms. I think it’s really ugly and I think it symbolizes the fact there has to be this awkward compromise for women that doesn’t exist for men, because all they have is Mr., setting aside Doctor and Professor so on which applies to both sexes, thank goodness. Ms was probably concocted by someone with their heart in the right place for a good reason, but I still think it’s a really ugly compromise – why should there be a Ms, why should there be a Mrs. and a Miss? Why should women have to categorize themselves and be classified, and why do all these problems occur when there’s only one title for people of the male gender? I just think it’s weird.”

She’d rather not be categorized by her marital status at all…but since people often assume she’s a man, she sometimes uses a title to indicate her gender.  

A while ago, in her role as a Turkey analyst, she was introduced to a group email list of experts on the Gulf states. Mostly she was a lurker. But at one point she says the discussion veered towards Turkey and its president.

“I just felt all the contributors to this particular discussion, it was about President Erdogan’s support for Syrian rebels, I just thought none of them were quite getting the point, they weren’t that well informed. It was generally a high caliber of discussion, anyway, I decided to chip in. In the months I was in the group everyone was male; apparently there were other women, but I never heard from them. I chipped in and in one of the replies they were referring to ‘Mr. Scott’s comments,’ and I thought, OK, this is quite a serious, academic, male heavy group, I’m not going to make a big song and dance about being a woman but I want to put them right. Because it’s awkward, if you don’t say anything it’s almost like you’re being dishonest in a strange way. So I replied and signed off, in brackets, Miss Alev Scott.”

And she thought little more of it.

But someone else did. Soon after she’d sent that email the man who had introduced her to the group – she describes him as an Iran expert, quite old school…

“He said it’s none of my business, but…why did you advertise the fact you’re not married by using Miss? It’s not common among the list of impressive women who contribute to this group. 

And I just I thought oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening and I have to explain myself. And I explained I thought ‘Ms’ is ugly and that people thought I was a man, and I just wanted to correct them. And he said, oh yes, but you know it’s not common among the women who contribute to this group, they’re usually assumed to be senior and professionally important women. I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it. But the point was, you’re not going to be taken seriously if you’ve just outed yourself as a Miss, you’re not a professor and you now look kind of insignificant. That’s what I got from it. And sure enough, it did seem to be that people didn’t respond nearly as enthusiastically after I sent the clarification of who I was.” 

And she says you know, maybe it was just that the discussion was moving on anyway. But she continued to have this niggling feeling that revealing her gender and marital status had demeaned her in the eyes of others…

“It just clarified for me what having a name like mine can lead to and the explanations that can lead to, and the disillusionment, I don’t know what was going through people’s minds, probably just surprise, but I think people have an unconscious bias whether they know it or not.”

Hearing her talk about this took me back to my interviews for the last show on being overweight at work – and how it can be so hard to tell whether someone’s judging you on that one thing. You have this feeling, but you can’t be sure. And you can hear Alev second guessing herself on this…did those other commentators think less of her views now they knew she was a woman?

“I feel like as women we’re more attuned to noticing that shift in tone when someone notices we’re a woman, I might be completely wrong here, and it would be really interesting to talk to a man often assumed to be a woman and see if they’re aware of that shift in tone…whether there is one, what it feels like, whether it feels positive, negative, whatever, I would be genuinely interested to talk to a man about that.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do after the break.

Earlier this year a story blew up online thanks to a series of tweets by a writer called Martin Schneider. He tweeted about an experiment he’d done a few years before with a colleague of his, Nicole Hallberg. An experiment where he suddenly found out what it was like to be a woman at work, and she got a taste of what it’s like to be a man.

A couple of things you should know: Martin and Nicole worked for a startup where all their interaction with clients was in writing.

The company they worked for was a resume-writing and editing service. The job was based in Philadelphia. They worked out of their boss’s apartment. Everyone was in their mid-twenties.

I asked Nicole to start by talking a bit about what the job involved…

As technical writers we’d go through a rigorous editing process and go through several drafts with each of our clients to get the answers right, we’d ask more questions, fill in more details, edit, edit, edit as we go, till we came up with finished product. Sometimes it took 4-6 weeks. So we would work in depth with individual clients and get to know them pretty well."

Martin: “Very rarely would we get on the phone with someone unless there was an actual problem, so for the most part it was just a lot of email so they wouldn’t have a way to see our faces or hear our voices or determine what our gender was.”

That’s Martin, or Marty as he’s known.

AM-T: “But Nicole, you’ve written about this, you were made quite conscious of your gender in this job before you and Marty did this experiment, right?”

Nicole: “Oh yeah, 48 hours after I was hired I found out which way the wind was blowing.

Our boss, very shortly after I was hired, he was our age, it was a very small company, there were only 4 of us, but he let me know that I should be proud because he wasn’t considering hiring any females, and I had made the cut out of hundreds of applicants, and I’d just impressed him so much with my writing samples and the practical interview we did that he decided to go ahead and hire a female anyway, because he said they’d always had fun at the office, and he didn’t want that to change. So sorry if I made working there too miserable, Marty…I am a joyless, humorless female.”

 Marty: “He also said something about me, remember?”

 “Oh yes, so Marty wasn’t moving for another few weeks and I said, what was Marty like, and our boss said, ‘oh, you know, he’s a good writer but he gets pretty emotional, he’s kind of a girl that way.’ And it’s like, did you really just say this to me, is this some kind of elaborate prank? But no, he was dead serious.”

She took a deep breath and plunged into the job. But with a boss who felt ‘females’ weren’t quite up to par, she felt she had to work extra hard to establish her competence – and she felt kind of the same way with the clients. Most of them were men, usually in the STEM field.

“I knew it was harder for a woman to be taken seriously and be seen as an expert, so I dotted my Is and crossed my Ts on every interaction. Made it very clear I knew about their industries, knew what I was talking about, name dropped different systems just so they knew I’d heard of them, things like that. What happened was Marty one day was complaining about one of our clients, saying this guy is being really unreasonable, I don’t know what his issue is, he’s being a condescending jerk really. And Marty noticed he had accidentally had his email signature set to my name. We used a shared inbox and chose from a drop-down menu to sign all of our email. So this guy wasn’t being rude to Marty he was being rude to me.”

Again, Marty had accidentally been signing all his emails to this client with Nicole’s name. So he went back into the correspondence, choosing his own name from the pull-down menu – didn’t let on about the mistake, just said to the client, hi, I’m Martin, I’ll be taking over this edit of your resume.

Nicole: “So all of a sudden this guy thinking he’s working with someone new becomes as sweet as could be…just oh, thank you for asking, that’s a really smart question, and all of a suddenly Marty knew what he was doing when Nicole clearly did not. When really nothing changed.

He asked, does this happen to you? I said, ‘Oh, only every day.’ So I said if you want to see what it’s like, let’s switch: all the incoming clients, I’ll be you, you be me, and see how differently they treat you.”

AM-T: “Oh…so Marty tell me from your perspective, what did that feel like?” 

Marty: “Nicole just told my half of the story, man…”

AM-T: “So unfair!”

Nicole: “Welcome to my world!”

Marty: “OK, this is normally the part where we switch to you. OK, working as Nicole was difficult in ways I found hard to describe. Suddenly I had to do a lot more, I got a lot more pushback, questions I previously thought were just basic things, first round questions, suddenly people were asking, well why would you ask this? Or they were saying, ‘I guess this would be impressive if you didn’t know the industry.’ Little condescending barbs…not all the clients obviously, but there was a noted increase in my workload. It took me longer to work with clients, and I was able to bluff a lot less. Prior to this I was able to fake it till I made it, but this time I was not able to do that… I had to do a lot more research because I’d get called on it a lot more. I had no authority, essentially. Prior to this I had an assumed authority, people seemed to think I was capable of the job they had paid me to do and I guess I’d taken that for granted because when I was working as Nicole that was often not the case, I had fewer opportunities to assert my authority no matter how made up it might have been, during that time period.”

And remember what Alev was talking about earlier, that change in tone she detected in people’s responses when they realized she was a woman? Well, Marty experienced that when people thought he was a woman…

Martin: “That’s one of the issues we’ve had, it’s a tone, right, how do you prove a shift in tone? It’s one of those things, you feel like you’re being talked down to. We all feel like we know what it’s like to be talked down to…even if you can’t point out, hey you’re doing it, especially not in text…so there were a few hons, some sweeties…”

Nicole: “I got emojis, did you get emojis?”

M: “I got no emojis.”

N: “I got smiley faces all the time, some winky faces.”

M: “Oh yeah, now you mention it, I think there were a couple of winky faces…maybe someone was trying to flirt with me, I don’t know. I don’t think so but I’m not gonna rule it out.”

AM-T: “So Nicole, what was it like for you that week? What was it like when you were apparently Martin?”

Nicole: “I had such a great time, I really did. I told you I used to spend enormous time and care crafting every one of my correspondences with my clients to project an aura of professionalism, and being an expert, but I noticed when I edited some of the guys’ resumes, when I saw Martin and our other coworker…I noticed that when I checked some of their resumes, the way they wrote questions and comments -- not speaking in complete sentences, no capitalization, typos, things like that…I was like, I double check all my comments to make sure they’re perfect, because as soon as I make a typo they’ll be like, ‘oh, this broad doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ So I was like, I wonder if I can get away with writing like that and if there will be a backlash. And I did, and there wasn’t, and it was awesome. And I was like, oh, cool, men don’t have to write in complete sentences – good to know.”

Marty: “Which brings us to the underlying premise of this story, which is one of the big complaints around our office, quote unquote, was our boss though Nicole took too long with each individual client. Took longer to get from first draft to final draft. And even though I didn’t see it as an issue he’d get on me for it and I’d have to get on her for it and it made everyone miserable. And that was the premise behind this whole thing – and suddenly I completely understood what it is that takes longer for her, is in the time I would normally be halfway done with a client I was just by that point, as Nicole, convincing them I knew what I was doing. So I realized oh, there’s a reason why on average it takes her longer…there’s a longer adaptation period, I suppose, and you have to spend more time being way more careful than I did when I was Martin.”

They did the experiment during a week when their boss was out of town. Some time after that, they decided to tell him about it. They were all at an event outside the office.

His reaction?

Nicole: “Immediate, I mean like immediate dismissal. Before we’d gotten through telling him all about it, he waved his hand. He said, ‘there could be a million reasons they treated you guys differently, there’s no way for you to know.’ And I remember being so angry, so frustrated, I remember being like, what the fuck are you talking about? What million reasons could there be that all of a sudden they think I’m smarter because my name is Marty? Like what are those million reasons? What I couldn’t understand most of all was why, what reason did he have, it’s not like I was asking for more money, or accommodations, or more time, we didn’t frame it that way at all. We just said hey, guess what, we did an experiment and fun fact, our clients treat me like crap, on the whole. And he was just like, you can’t prove that, and you don’t know what you’re talking about and that’s not true. And I thought, what skin do you have in this game? How does it benefit you to deny sexism has ever existed. But then I remember all the terrible sexist comments he said to me while I was there and had continued to make…things often said out of ignorance more than malice.”

Martin: “I mean small concession, but I said, ‘it’s fine if you don’t believe this, but I’m not going to get on her about speed any more, I’m not gonna fight that battle.’ And he conceded because I think at this point he was just tired of having the fight…but that’s the tiniest of concessions I can offer, to be honest.”

Neither of them works at the company any more. In fact it’s been sold twice, and the former boss isn’t there today either. But back then Nicole racked her brain for reasons why he would so strenuously deny that any difference in treatment could have been gender-related…and she finally came up with a hypothesis.

“This guy had created this company himself, he was 25 at the time, supported three employees…and that’s not nothing. And he was incredibly proud of the fact he was a self-made person…even though his parents were wealthy and had backed the company. But I think if he had acknowledged that, you know, I was disadvantaged at work, I think maybe he’d have to acknowledge that he was advantaged, and I don’t think he was willing to do that.

Marty: And I don’t think that’s special to him, I think it has to do with anyone who enjoys any position of privilege. People have asked me why is it so hard for people to admit they have some kind of advantage, visible or invisible – and I think it’s because if you admit that somebody else has to work harder, in your brain it puts down the work you had to do. Now I don’t believe I didn’t work hard, that I haven’t worked hard, but I’m fully willing to admit someone else has to work harder and maybe I have advantages.”

And when Marty went public with this story earlier this year, it went viral. Over weeks and months he and Nicole got thousands of responses from women saying they’d experienced similar things in their work lives.

Marty: “These were women at every age, every level, in every occupation, everybody from C-level execs to female butchers and mechanics…they all told stories. We had one, a husband who told the story of him and his wife, they were both 911 dispatchers, and they found police responded differently to the female voice than his voice when they were telling people to go and respond to emergency services. And that’s terrifying, people could die because of some weird latent bias.”

AM-T: “You mean people weren’t as quick to obey her commands, suggestions?

Marty: “Yes, that’s the story we were told, yeah."

Nicole: “Yeah, and I heard hundreds of stories like that too, some were heartbreaking, some were hilarious.…but this has a real cost for women, this is an interest piece for a lot of people but I think folks need to understand this is holding women back in their careers, it’s keeping them from achieving what they could achieve because they have to strive that much harder just to be taken seriously. It’s costing them positions, money, it’s costing us as a society.”

Marty: “Even this story is an example of why the story is necessary. I’m fully aware of the reason it caught fire is because it was told by me, a white man, I get this criticism a lot from far left feminists and it’s a valid criticism, people ask why did Marty need to experience this…why couldn’t he just believe Nicole to begin with, why do we need a white man to tell us this story? And I acknowledge and understand that criticism.

The closest I can say is that there’s a difference between understanding something exists, because I was never one of those people who denied sexism or that I had weird sexist biases and probably still do…but there’s a difference between understanding something exists and really experiencing it for yourself. It’s kind of like you don’t realize how many stairs there are in the city till you’re on crutches, it’s just something you don’t think about and something Ididn’t have to think about, and now that I do, I try to tell the story so other people can think about it.”

Nicole: “I don’t wanna sound like I’m too much just defending Marty because he’s my good friend, and he is my good friend, but when women say why didn’t Marty listen, why did he have to see it for himself? I say, look, he did. I told him and he believed me. But he didn’t fully understand the extent of what I was talking about it until he lived it, and I think that would be true of any human being whatsoever.”  

Marty: “I genuinely feel like if every woman stopped every single time something a little bit sexist happened to them and they stopped to tell a man about it, no one would get anything done.”

And speaking of men’s reactions, Marty says a lot of guys kind of squirm when they hear this stuff. It makes them uncomfortable. And that’s the good ones.

Marty: “I think for a lot of men it’s hard to hear stories like this because we all want to think of ourselves as good people, and we all agree sexism is inherently bad. I think a lot of men when they see stories like this they immediately get up in arms and use hashtags like #notall men – which means, not me, I don’t do this, where they should be asking just introspectively, do I do that? Is that me? And it’s a tough question to ask, most people don’t like the answer, I don’t like the answer when I did it.” 

AM-T: “It’s a recipe for defensiveness.”

Nicole: “Oh, yeah.

If you want to have a great easy week, I would recommend, change your avatar, change your picture.”

Marty: “Nicole, why don’t you explain why you don’t go by a pseudonym?”

Nicole: “Yes, it fascinates me that people on Twitter, often women, will say, Nicole needs to change her online name, her profile, to Nick – it’s amazing to me, I’m like, you know who I am because of a story about swapping names, you think this never occurred to me? I’ve thought about it and very consciously decided not to do it.

 So when I left that company I became a freelancer. And part of the reason was I wanted more control of who I worked with. I didn’t want to appease more sexist assholes for a paycheck, I didn’t want to do that, I wanted the freedom to fire a client if I wanted to and that’s been a beautiful thing, with its own set of challenges.

 But I wrestled for a long time with would I use a male pseudonym, and the answer I ultimately came up with was that if you have a problem with my writing coming from Nicole, then I don’t want you to have my writing, I don’t want to deal with you. I’m lucky I can afford to say that, some people can’t, some don’t care, they want to get ahead and not deal with the bullshit, and I will validate that 100 thousand percent for anyone who wants to do that. It was good enough for Emily Bronte, it’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with doing that. It was not the right choice for me. I was going to live or die or succeed or fail as Nicole, and that’s gonna have to be cool with the people I work with or else I’m not working with you.”

Nicole Hallberg. Thanks to her and Martin Schneider for telling their story on this show. You can also hear them on their own podcast, Not Eachother. And thanks to Alev Scott for sharing some of her experiences earlier. I’ll be posting more information on all three guests under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As most of you know, this is a one-woman show that takes many hours of work – and your support is much appreciated in keeping it going. To contribute just go to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com – but if you can’t afford to give, write a review on iTunes instead. Honestly, it all helps.

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

Episode 112: Your Weight, Your Worth

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…how can being overweight affect your career?

“I got dressed up, did my hair and everything, I was ready for this interview. I got the IM to come and meet the interviewer, and then as soon as he sees me his face just drops.”

“One of the stereotypes is if you’re overweight you’re lazy, and you’re not smart, or you’re slow. And that is something I have learned to actively prove people wrong.”

“Being a black woman in a plus size body, at the time I had long dreadlocks, in front of this white congregation, I was keenly aware of how my body was very different than the other women and the other people in that space.”   

Coming up on The Broad Experience.  

During the last year or so I’ve had several listeners write to me as say, have you thought about a show on being an overweight woman at work? A couple of them told me stories – things that had happened that made them wonder, is my weight damaging my career?

I persuaded two of those women to talk to me on tape. And it wasn’t easy for either of them. Because as you’ll hear, feeling judged is something they grapple with all the time. 

Amy Lockard lives in the Midwest. She’s in her mid-thirties. and for the first part of her working life…

“I worked for a community newspaper here in Michigan, I was a photojournalist and I worked there almost ten years till the paper changed hands. And when it changed ownerships pretty much everyone who worked there lost their jobs.”

And after being out of work for nine months, Amy switched tack and began to work in the corporate world, in cable advertising. She was told there was a lot of room to move around at this company.

“To me that sounded like a good place to start. But it hasn’t been that easy.”

She’s gone for a couple of internal jobs in the last few years, higher level jobs, and hasn’t landed either of them. But she found out recently that she came really close to getting one job last year, a communications role in her department – operations. It was a job she wanted because it would use more of her journalism skills. And she’s started to wonder…could her weight be part of the reason she isn’t moving up?

“I’m a tall lady, I’m a big lady, I’m 5’9, I’m around 300 pounds, you know my weight fluctuates here and there, I’m around size 22/24 American size.”

Last year when that communications job came up she did everything most women would the day of an interview…

“I got dressed up, did my hair and everything, I was ready for this interview…I got the IM to meet the interviewer down the hallway, so I’m walking down the hallway and I see him, he waves and smiles at me, and then as soon as he sees me his face just drops.”

As soon as her whole body came into view, his expression changed. Which wasn’t a great start. She says she was nervous during the interview, especially when she realized just what kind of promotion the job would mean – it was bigger than she thought. But she says the vibe wasn’t weird otherwise.

“So I didn’t think much of it afterwards, I thought when I didn’t get the job maybe I did some kind of mistake in my interview or something like that, until they did the announcement about who got the job. And I saw -- they send out the corporate pictures and then I saw her in my office. They moved somebody from out of state into my state…she had come from a completely different position, she wasn’t in operations, she was in sales, and she was younger and pretty and thin, and I just thought, oh, of course that makes sense…”

She’s been back and forth on this in her head since then. Maybe the other woman had some kind of skill or experience she lacked…she’s just not sure what that is. And when she heard from a colleague recently that she’d almost got that job, it made her wonder all the more. Was her weight the problem? The question keeps niggling at her.

“This discussion is kind of hard to have in public because there is a lot of fat shaming going on especially on the internet, you see it a lot, especially with women who are more vocal about being comfortable with who they are and how they look. Which I’ve always felt fairly confident about that till more recently. I never really thought it would affect me in my job. In my previous job as a photojournalist, every Friday night for 10 years I was photographing football games, running up and down football fields, meeting everybody in the community, and it never was a problem. Until now, when it’s a face to face thing, and I’m just trying to figure out, what are some of the issues? Not that I think this is the only reason that’s holding me back but I’m just questioning, is it something that I’ve been naïve to until now?”

It could be. Various academic studies show there is weight bias in the workplace and that it’s worse for women. Overweight people and women in particular get paid less than their thinner peers, on average. One study from a few years ago had participants look at resumes with pictures attached of obese and normal-weight women. They routinely saw the overweight women as deserving of a lower starting salary and having less leadership potential than the others.

Amy knows that in some workplaces the prejudice can be overt…

“I’ve had a friend who worked in the cosmetology business and she actually had, when she went to leave a job that she was unhappy with at a salon – the owner got nasty with her and said to her face, ‘I hired you even though you’re fat, and you’re leaving me in the lurch.’ So it’s out there and it’s definitely something I started to think about…I started looking online, and reading different articles about weight bias…and the possibility of that, and I’m reading about people who do hiring and what they think about.”

She says one thing she’s read is that companies don’t want to hire overweight people because they’re afraid they’ll be ill more often, take more time off work. Which again, surprised her, because sickness has never been more of an issue for her than it has for anyone else.

Amy says she believes in self-improvement, and she’s happy to make a few tweaks to her image to satisfy the corporate gods. She dresses more formally now than she ever did when she worked in a newsroom. But she says losing weight – for her that’s a personal decision, not something she feels she should have to do to fit a career path. And for her, weight loss is freighted with baggage. She says to outsiders maybe it looks like every fat person should just drop the pounds and they’ll be better off. But it’s not that simple. Once, she lost 70 pounds over a couple years, but…

“I was going through a lot. They portrayed it in the media like it’s this great thing and you’ll feel fantastic and all your problems are gonna go away and you’re this new woman, but the catalyst at the beginning was a lot of emotional devastation. I had a broken engagement, I lost a close friend to a drug overdose, I had family members who got very sick, and I wasn’t happy. But I was thinner than I’d been in ten years. It psychologically messed with me in terms of my body image as well. My body was shrinking and I didn’t know how to feel or what to think about that. You’re supposed to be happy, but I didn’t feel that way. I felt more self-conscious about how I looked, I felt more uncomfortable in the skin I was in. I was changing sizes all the time, I didn’t know what clothes should fit me or what I should buy. And any time anybody made a remark about my weight loss it just made me feel very uncomfortable, it felt like a little stab in the side every time.”

When someone praises you for losing a lot of weight, you’re hearing ‘I love the new you!’ But Amy had liked her old self just fine. Did other people not feel the same? It was confusing.

Fast forward to today, and she’s put the weight back on…

“…but during this period of time, I’ve accomplished a lot of goals for myself. I’ve purchased my first home, and I’m in a great relationship that’s stable and healthy and happy.”

It’s at work that she’s most conscious of her weight these days. She’s even careful about what she eats in front of other people.

“For example during the holidays they bring in a lot of food for people. And one day there was a company that was making fresh donuts for people in the lobby. And I thought about it – everyone was excited, going to get their treat and then I was like, I passed it up, because in my life I was like I don’t want to be the fat girl sitting at her desk eating donuts.”

She says in an open plan office, there are plenty of ways for colleagues to judge.

Unlike Amy, my next guest, who we’re calling Christine, has always felt self-conscious about her body.

“There’s different struggles that people have in the workplace, obviously gender, women have to deal with, but I have an extra one, which is my size, that I have to contend with too. And it really affects how some people see me, and sometimes it’s negative.”

She says she’s over 300 pounds right now, and she see-saws back and forth between fat acceptance and wanting to lose weight to stay healthy. She says she’s been overweight since she was four. Other members of her family are as well.  

“You know, my mom has the same struggle, and my dad’s family has a tendency to be heavy. There’s a genetic component. It’s very complicated. And it’s very hard, the reason I asked to be anonymous is like, I find in our culture, some people have this attitude of well just eat healthier, stop eating so much, walk more, how can you not get this, this is so easy. But for some people like me it’s not easy. I could go on about all the stuff I’ve tried and it’s just really frustrating.” 

She’s been around co-workers who are talking about the outdoor activities they’re planning that weekend, hiking, biking...and she has that feeling like, they assume she never does any exercise.  

“Like I’m actually a certified yoga instructor, and sometimes you can see this expression of like oh, what?”

Christine works in user experience. She’s currently at a financial company on the east coast. She’s in her forties, and like Amy she wonders how much her appearance has affected her prospects.  

AM-T: “Have you ever felt like you lost out on something at work because of your weight?”

“Oh, definitely. One of the stereotypes is if you’re overweight you’re lazy, or you’re not smart, or you’re slow. And that is something I have learned to actively prove people wrong. I went to some really top universities so I don’t think people could ever say I’m dumb, but I’ve had people at work say I’m slow… to the point where I feel like I sometimes have to work faster and stay on top of my deadlines better than other people because I’m afraid that perception would happen.

I’ve had performance feedback where people told me I was slow or I took too long to do things where from my understanding I was doing things as quickly as other people. I had one situation where, this was about 10-15 years ago now, where I worked for a consulting firm – they work very fast paced, it’s a stressful type of job, and the impression people got at this small agency was I was working slow, to the point where I felt like I was being sabotaged…they were giving me way too much, 5 projects at a time, it was too much for one person to handle…and my mentor there or the person I thought was my mentor sat down with me, told me I should quit my job and go on WeightWatchers and lose weight…that she was worried about my health and I should do something about it. Mind you I was at a space where I was riding my bike 30 miles, 50 miles every weekend, so I was pretty healthy. But she felt that she needed to comment that to get ahead in this company, this industry, you need to be skinner. So that was just one example. So I had to leave as soon as I could, after that happened, which is what I did.”

Christine says this stuff can’t help but get to you. And that’s another problem. She finds herself internalizing some of the stereotypes of being overweight – even as she fights against them in public. She’s hampered by this nagging thought that maybe she can’t be successful because of her weight. She thought she’d be at director level by now and she’s still a manager.

AM-T: “I don’t know if you have worked at companies that have corporate wellness programs, have you?”

“Yes, I have, yes.”

AM-T: “I’d love to hear your thoughts on those because many of those programs, being a healthy weight is a part of what they’re trying to sell you on.”

“Right. You know, how do I feel about those? I feel OK about those I guess – it goes back to what I said earlier where there is, it’s undeniably being a certain weight could be a health issue. I know I’ve hit a point where I want to lose weight but what would be a healthy weight for me would be far too heavy for a lot other people. But…it does make me feel a little…it’s not like I’ve been in a place where people have said, you should have a BMI of, whatever, I don’t know what the range is.

That I would have a serious problem with. But to encourage people to exercise and eat healthier, that is good for anyone of any size. But it does feel a bit big brother sometimes. There are some companies that if you smoke, you have to pay more for your health insurance. If that ever came to pass where the same thing would happen if you didn’t have a BMI within a certain range, that would be a huge issue. I would really wonder if I would want to work for a company like that.”

For now, she doesn’t have to.

Coming up in a minute, losing weight means a change in perspective – yours and your colleagues'...

“You’ve spent so much time when people are looking over your breathlessness and your sweating and not being able to fit into a chair, to what does it mean that you are seen.”

It’s one thing working in an office as an overweight person, but what if your job involves standing up and speaking in front of hundreds of people at least once a week? That’s the situation Theresa Thames was in for years – in a body that attracted some comment.

Today, Theresa is associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University in New Jersey. But for years before that she was a minister at a Methodist church in Washington DC.

“There are interesting body politics in the church. One, that you’re a female body in a male-dominated space, so as female clergy there are so many things you think about. You think about your dress and how much it’s gripping your body…and if you wear a dress is there a pocket to put the microphone thing…also, being an African American woman in a primarily white congregation…there are different cultural norms around bodies for white than black people. Broad strokes…but we’re used to more curvy bodies, the ways our bodies are shaped, especially in a place like Washington DC which is very fitness and health friendly space to be in, so being a black woman in a plus size body, at time I had long dreadlocks, in front of this white congregation, I was keenly aware of how my body was very different than the other women and the other people in that space.”

And so were some of the congregation. Someone slipped a weight loss DVD into her mailbox. This job comes with a lot of human contact, obviously – and not always the type Theresa welcomed. After church on Sunday…

“You’re shaking hands with people at the door and they feel they can say things to you…so they’ll comment about your earrings or they’ll comment about your makeup, but they’ll comment about your body. They’ll say oh, I can tell you’ve lost weight, in a way that is like ‘good for you, it’s about time.’ And one Sunday this woman commented on my breasts – ‘your breasts look different today, are you wearing a new bra?’ And the same face you just made with your mouth wide open is the same face I made. But in that moment you don’t know what to say, because there are lines of people trying to shake your hand.”

She just kept going, kept shaking hands. But she did email that woman – a local professor –  afterwards, and the woman apologized.

But let’s backtrack a bit. Theresa is 37 now.

“I’ve always been overweight. I went to Jenny Craig at 14, and I was 250 lb. I’m in Mississippi, in an African- American family where we eat all the time, we eat great food, food is what we celebrate around, what we mourn around it is a constant. So I’ve always struggled with my weight. When I graduated high school I was well over 300 pounds.”

She says exercise just wasn’t a thing in the community she grew up in. Women were busy – her mother was a bus driver, her grandmother taught in a head start program. And when she was a teenager, Theresa was sexually abused. After that, the extra pounds bolstered her in more ways than one…

“Having extra weight felt like safety to me. I’d joke and say you don’t find overweight women being kidnapped, the struggle of somebody putting you in their car…so the weight was definitely a protective layer and food was comfort. Comfort food is a word that we use, but it was definitely therapy and comfort.”

Still, she was confident – she did brilliantly academically, she traveled, went to college and then divinity school. She loved her work as a pastor. But after some years in that job her home life began to founder, and that was the start of a terrible time…

“I found myself in a marriage that I needed to get out of, so in the spring of 2011 I went through a separation, and then in August of 2011 my sister became really ill, and she ended up dying in November on my birthday…from cryptococcal meningitis, my sister was a single mother of a boy.”

A 9 year-old boy Theresa decided to adopt. So overnight she became a single mother. After that her ex-husband and her father both died unexpectedly. And during all this she kept going at her job. She was doing well career-wise…but it came at a cost.

“I was completely overwhelmed and in the midst of that I was overcompensating. Part of me being an educated black woman is the importance of being competent and proving that I’m competent, and part of proving I was competent was over compensating. I was exhausted, I was literally 457 pounds and doing all these things in my life, really exceling at my job and raising my kid, and mourning and sad and depressed. And I needed a way out.”

She was morbidly obese. But for a long time, food and prayer remained her sources of comfort.

“One thing about being a pastor, that there is always food at church. There are always dinners, there’s a plethora of food at church.” 

She was trying to cook healthily for her son at home, but she ate on the run a lot, and sometimes… 

“…there’d be moments of like, unbelievable bingeing because I was stressed about something.”

Carrying all that weight around made it tough to do her job at times. She remembers doing a baptism…

“…and being completely out of breath, because of holding this baby and trying to occupy space and my own body weight, and talk and walk and hold a 10 pound baby and do a baptism…”

She knew her health was in danger, but she was so depressed, it was hard to change anything.

Then in 2013 she found out about an organization called GirlTrek – it gets groups of black women walking in their neighborhoods all over the US. She had seen an ad for them on Facebook, and she entered a competition where they asked you to write about someone who inspired you on the health front. After that one of GirlTrek’s founders asked Theresa to read----- an opening prayer at a walk that was taking place in Washington DC…

“I was like, sure, no big deal. And two things happened. I went to the event, and I am wearing a GirlTrek T-shirt that they gave me that day and it was so tight, that I went to my car and cut it in a way that it wasn’t as constrictive, it was so, so tight—then it was like I’m gonna do this prayer, which was totally in my comfort zone, and I was like I’m just gonna go to my car and go home…and it was like no, you need to do this 3 mile walk…and I was petrified. Because I was 457lb, I’d lost about 60 pounds so I was in my higher 300s by then, but doing a 3-mile walk was full of anxiety for me and I struggled on that walk. I just remember being in so much pain.”

But that walk was the beginning of Theresa starting to embrace exercise…slowly. Since that day she’s lost more than 200 pounds. You’ll hear more about her and GirlTrek in a future show I’m doing about self-care.

AM-T: “How does it feel now being in this workplace with different body than you had for much of the time at the church in DC? How does it feel to be in the workplace – because you occupy a different space, in both ways of the word.”

“Absolutely, you know Ashley, when you asked me this on the phone last week it really made me think and I honestly am not sure I would have shown up for this job in my larger body. My first Sunday preaching for Princeton University Chapel, they have a pulpit where you have to walk up these stairs to get to the place where you preach. And my first Sunday preaching there, I said if I had not lost weight I would not have physically been able to get into the pulpit, to do my sermons.”

She’s also not sure her name even would have been submitted for the job.

“I do think plus-size bodies get passed up, a lot. When I think of leadership on this campus there are not a lot of plus size women of any race in leadership here. So yeah, I can speculate but it would have been a different experience for me to have this job in an almost 500lb body.”

AM-T: “Is it a relief – I hope – not to have people to commenting on your body, putting weight loss DVDs in your slot and talking about your breasts?”

“[Laughs] Actually, when you’ve lost a lot of weight there’s this body dysmorphia that happens, there are moments that I forget I’m the size I am now a lot of times. Here people only know me at this size. So they don’t know that when I see another overweight person I have so much compassion and I want them to feel seen, because a lot of times I’d walk into meetings and rooms and be treated like the secretary or not seen. It’s so funny to me how someone can take up so much space and be treated like they’re not there at all.”

She says when your physique changes the way hers did...

“People see you, they acknowledge you, and there’s a different vulnerability to that. You’ve spent so much time when people are looking over your breathlessness and your sweating and not being able to fit into a chair, to what does it mean that you are seen. And in this job I am seen in a different way.”

Theresa Thames. Thanks to her, Christine and Amy Lockard for being my guests on this episode.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I would love to hear from you…you can post a comment on the show’s Facebook page, tweet me at ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen – or email me. And I’ll post some links related to this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

Are you a subscriber? I really hope so. But if not you can subscribe to the show on iTunes or try the new app RadioPublic – it’s good for everyone but especially non iPhone users like myself. And they provide great support to podcasters as well. Which as an indy podcaster, I really appreciate.

And thanks to those of you who’ve supported me with a donation since the last show.

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

Episode 111: Hiring Hell

Show transcript:

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

This time…landing a new job is often a challenge, but is it getting harder to get hired? 

“I interviewed with a publication where two times during the phone interview, he made a comment about my age – he said multiple times, ‘you’re so young to be promoted this high,’ or ‘you’re so young to lead a staff.’

“The amount of pre-work I was doing for most of these jobs was anywhere from 6 to 10 hours of pre work.” 

“Typically if they're giving you a project or a proposal to work on, they're hoping that you get it right and that they can hire you. I think sometimes candidates are thinking that companies want to rule them out. But they're hoping that you rule yourself in.”

 Coming up – the changing landscape of job interviews.

But first, how much do you think about marketing yourself? Do you squirm at the mere thought?

 The thing is, every decision about you and your opportunities is made in a room you’re not in. 

Which begs the question, can you do anything about the conversation in that room?

Joanna Bloor believes you can. And it starts with knowing how to talk about who you are and why you’re important.

Joanna is on a mission to get us to talk about ourselves in a new way.

Uncover your unique value, then learn how to share it with others.

So in that room, they’re telling your story, and articulating your value, the way you want.

Organizations including Microsoft, EY, 21st Century Fox, and Cartier have brought Joanna in to talk to employees from entry level to executive with remarkable results.

Go to Joannabloor.com and check out her services page to find out more.

That’s j – o –a -  n- n – a – b – l – o – o – r dot com.  Reference the broad experience and receive 10% off a workshop or individual coaching.

I don’t have great memories of many of my job interviews but they were at least relatively straightforward – submit a resume, a cover letter, have a phone interview, then an in-person interview.

But the whole hiring process seems to be getting longer and more aggravating. When I asked about your interview experiences on Facebook a few months ago I got tons of responses – from the US, the UK, and Australia among others. You vented about being screened by software rather than humans, live interviewers who were digitally distracted and companies that disappear into a black hole after meeting you.

The job website Glassdoor has done some research int o how hiring has changed. According to a 2015 study it’s not just our imaginations – the hiring process is more drawn-out than it used to be. They looked at six countries, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Australia and the UK. In the US the average number of days it takes to land a job almost doubled between 2010 and 2014. But hiring still takes longer overall in Europe than it does in the US or Canada.

In this show I talk to three guests about why and how the hiring process is more involved than it used to be.

But can it be considered inhumane? My first guest thinks so.

Rachel Schallom is a journalist, a digital editor now based in New York. She’s worked at newspapers and digital-only publications…and she was laid off from one of those at the end of last year, along with a lot of other people.

“Most people who were laid off had to be out that day. I was told I needed to work another four weeks, which in the beginning I thought it was really kind, but it’s really not kind to have someone train people to become you, while you can become unemployed.”

In the end she was glad to get out of there. And she was unemployed far longer than she’d thought she would be. Rachel wrote a searing piece about her job hunt and some of the practices she encountered during it – I read it this summer, before I sat down with her. She sent out 71 applications, she had phone interviews at 22 organizations, six in person interviews…and got one job offer. The whole thing took six months and two days. She called it a marathon of wait-and-see.

“When I was a hiring manager I focused a lot on communication. If I said I was going to get back to you by Tuesday I would get back to you even if I said I needed more time. One of the things I noticed through this process was just the power hiring managers have to influence small things in people’s lives, so the time you lose sleeping because someone didn’t get back to you, or the anxiety you have wondering if you should renew your lease or not. The questions I had were not always job-related. I felt confident in my skills and ability to do the jobs…I normally had good conversations feeling like they really liked me. But I realized how much I was thinking and talking about the issues in the hiring process and how it had seeped into every part of my life.”

She spent her days poring over a spreadsheet she’d made of all her job interactions, and, of course applying…and waiting to hear back. She found a lot of jobs posted through social media and Slack…but keeping up was exhausting.

“I felt the need to read every single tweet and every single posting, just to make sure, and I had a lot of anxiety, what if what if I missed the perfect opportunity if I wasn’t following the right people or if I took an afternoon off and wasn’t reading all of the posts? It was something I was doing incessantly because I so saw many postings that way.”

And sometimes she says social media was the only way the job was advertised – someone would tweet ‘we have this job  – ping me’ so only that person’s circle or followers would know about it. It wasn’t posted publicly where the largest number of people would see it. She says that’s contrary to the journalism industry’s stance that it wants more women and people of color in its newsrooms. Journalism remains predominantly white and male.

She says during several of her interviews the interviewer emphasized her youth – she’s 30.

“I interviewed with a publication where two times during the phone interview, he made a comment about my age – he said multiple times, ‘you’re so young to be promoted this high,’ or ‘you’re so young to lead a staff.’ And there was so much emphasis on my age and my ambition that the things I had done were not shining through. And there’s been a lot written about this, that the biggest lie we tell young girls is that your work will speak for itself, and I certainly felt that way during the interviews.”

Meanwhile she often didn’t hear back from a company at all after submitting work they’d asked for prior to an interview – things like proposals on how she’d run a team. Work that took her hours to complete each time. One hiring manager set up a call with her, didn’t call at the appointed time…then never responded to her follow-up email. Someone else made Rachel give a salary range before she’d even tell her about what the job involved. She felt like she was on the back foot right from the start. 

The length of time it takes to get hired these days depends on many factors, the industry you’re in, private or public sector, the size of the company. Glassdoor’s study says age and sex make no difference to the length of the hiring process. But it does point out that the multiple levels of screening many organizations now require does add time – everything from background checks to video interviews to presentations and proposals.

Kristen Shattuck knows a lot about that. Last year she, her husband and their two kids moved from North Carolina to Washington DC for his job. Kristen is a former teacher and school principal, now an education consultant. She says the whole hiring dance had changed a lot since she was last on the market in 2011. The number of hoops she had to jump through had multiplied, starting with interview prep…

“The amount of pre-work I was doing for most of these jobs was anywhere from 6 to 10 hours of pre work. These were for interviews I didn’t even go sit for, they were phone or Skype interviews even though I was interviewing for jobs in DC so I easily could have come in. So they were initial round interviews, and the…work was quite extensive. I was a little surprised, in most instances it was taking me up to a business day to complete the pre work to what I felt was high quality – you want to put your best foot forward. Even though the thing said this shouldn’t take you more than two hours, the kind of questions I was being asked, and the kind of work I was being asked to do took well more than that.”

She was asked to write assessments, prepare proposals, watch videos and comment on them in writing. A couple of organizations even asked her to submit some work she was particularly proud of.

She thought of this project she’d worked on in a former job, an education rubric, she calls it. It was designed to measure teacher effectiveness. It was a real team effort.

“And I was asked to produce it and the first time I did, and then found out later they were using it in the organization, even though I never received a call back.”

So this project she and her team had spent months working on, the ideas were now being used at the company where she’d interviewed…and had never heard from again.

“How did you find out?”

“I had a colleague who worked at that organization.”

“Ah-ha, the onsite colleague.”

“Right, the onsite colleague who let me know how happy everyone was with the rubric.”

That was not the only indignity Kristen suffered on the job hunt. There was this one position she was really set on. She’d made good headway so far – she’d met the team of people she’d work with. She sent off all thank you emails after those interviews…and the team members emailed her back…

“‘Oh, thank you, it was such a pleasure to meet you, really enjoyed talking to you, so happy to move you forward to meet with our partners.’

The partners re-scheduled her interview a couple of times, but when she finally met with them…

“They greeted me by saying how positively I’d been recommended by this team I’d be working with. And I though, oh, this is great, I’m so happy, because I’d really connected with that group and I was really excited about this position.”

But she says as the interview went on it became clear the two women hadn’t even looked at her resume – until now.

“So one person was on the computer, on their laptop, and the other was asking me questions, and she continued to ask me questions but was looking at her screen and it then became clear they were G-chatting eachother. Which was confirmed when one of them turned the screen around to show me a picture of a school I’d worked at and the G chat was all up on the screen! So the one person made no eye contact with me and the other person made very limited eye contact because she was checking her G chat…  and it was very clear that from whatever was going on G-chat wise, the interview was not going well.”

She was told she’d hear back the following week. She didn’t. When she followed up she heard the unsurprising news that she was not being offered the job. The hiring manager said they wanted someone who was more of a math expert – something Kristen says had never come up in any of her interviews.

Like Kristen, Rachel Schallom also has an experience where she came tantalizingly close to success. In fact, she was just one step away.

“I had flown out for an 8-hour interview at an interview, it was very intense, my face hurt from smiling for 8 straight hours. On the way back to the airport the editor asked me when I wanted to start and we’d talked a bit through that. He said, ‘I’ll be in touch early next week.’ Time goes on, a couple of days go by, I sent a follow up email, and he said he’d decided I wasn’t the right culture fit. And culture fit is an extremely lazy answer when you don’t want to actually deal with why someone bothers you. If you’re uncomfortable if someone’s a woman or a person or color or from a certain religion or maybe has a political stance that’s a little bit different it’s really easy to write it off as they don’t fit in our culture, which is against everything as an industry we’ve been talking about in making our newsrooms more diverse…so if you’re just gonna say not a good fit rather than giving anything concrete, why the skills aren’t there, or you’re looking for something else, or anything constructive, it’s a really lazy hiring answer.”

AM-T: “To what extent did you receive any rejection, a thanks but no thanks?”

“I’d say a little under half the time I received a note, sometimes it would take months and months so at that point I assumed I hadn’t gotten it. Some I never heard from at all. There was one rejection I got from a woman who runs a nonprofit journalism organization, it stood out…she wrote to me, it was 4 paragraphs long, they went with an internal hire and she explained why.  And it was really constructive because it helped me frame future applications and also gave a little peak into their mindset.”

That mindset remains elusive to candidates much of the time. So why oh why do we have to go through all this? Allison Hemming runs The Hired Guns, a recruiting firm in New York - where all her clients are digital companies.

“They are looking for more and more out of each individual person that they hire. And this is their way to manage the risk. I think some of it can be ridiculous and too long. I think as a candidate, before you go into a long interview process, if you're working with a recruiter you should ask in advance, ‘How long is the interview process, what goes into the interview process, how can I prepare for this interview process? And either an internal recruiter or an external recruiter can help you figure that out. Additionally along the way, and this is also important, is typically if they're giving you a project or a proposal to work on, they're hoping that you get it right and that they can hire you. I think sometimes candidates are thinking that companies want to rule them out. But they're hoping that you rule yourself in.”

She says do not view this as an adversarial process from the start. If you really want the job, throw yourself in. Just try to get as much information upfront as you can – which of course is easier if you are using a recruiter or if you know someone at the company.

“…but the other part of the process that I think is is really challenging right now is you know so much of the hiring process is actually divorced from the hiring manager.”

She says at her firm they work with the client and insist everyone gets on the same page about what they want from the candidate and what they want the job description to look like. But both Rachel and Kristen described meeting hiring managers who were busy with their day jobs and probably hadn’t been trained in interviewing – or in giving bad news. I asked Kristen about this.

AM-T: “Have you thought about why they were so slapdash about getting back to you. Do you think it’s just that we live in this accelerated age where everyone’s just so busy…why?”

“I mean I think a generous overview would be you know, they're extremely busy. ‘You weren't the right fit. Time's a wastin.’ You know they've got…the organizations that I was interviewing with are organizations that work with school districts that are in high poverty, high need areas. And so I would rather have them focus their time and energy and attention on kids and teachers that deserve a better education than they're getting. So in that instance I would say that the general view is they're very busy with what they're doing. And I think that what they're asked to do, everything is just more dynamic as you said, everything's more accelerated. And so this almost feels like an add-on. It's like something else I have to do, versus how can I attract and retain a talented pool of individuals that will care about the mission of our work and be able to hit the ground running? 

Perhaps a less generous view is, they're disorganized. A lot of them are startups and the nonprofit world can be kind of complex. And so it could just be a level of disorganization in terms of well, that just wasn't the person we wanted. Next. Move on. You know, that kind of thing.”

“So I would say there's two kinds of companies. Right. And you have to decide which kind of company you're going to be working at.”

Allison Hemming again.

“The first company is the company that knows why they're doing the exercise and they have a process in place designed to extract the right information from the candidate and different people throughout the process are interviewing for different things. And collectively they decide as a group, through these various exercises or through a group interview or through you know, a four hour interview process with people asking different things, that you're either great for the team or not. And when somebody has a solid process and you are told in advance what that process is, I think it's a fair fight.

So then there's the other kinds of companies. The kinds of companies that are basically Goldilocks-ing candidates because they have not figured out what they need yet. And that is so many companies, right? The companies that basically steal their competitor’s job description and live off of that because they haven't done the mental math for what their needs are.

So instead they send a candidate on a treasure hunt of multiple interviews that…and if you're in that situation, if the hiring managers and the people that are interviewing you keep asking the exact same questions, it means nobody at the company has really thought about what they need. It's like you're doing your first round interview over and over and over again. It's Groundhog Day.” 

Rachel Schallom says candidates would have an easier time if the department that was hiring communicated better with HR. Multiple times she applied for a job only to find out the position had been filled – but the job posting was still online.

“A lot of hiring managers will blame their HR team, ‘Oh, we let them know, and we can’t do anything about it…’ and I think it’s time to stop blaming the relationship between the business unit and the HR unit and start demanding that we have better relationships because how you hire is huge part of your culture and it’s huge recruiting tool, so if you have a bad hiring process that doesn’t speak well for your culture if I’m talking to someone else who may want to work for you in the future.”

Rachel Schallom is now working at the Wall Street Journal. Kristen Shattuck was offered a fulltime job at a company she had been working at part-time. She said yes.

Thanks to them and Allison Hemming for being my guests on this show.

And I would love to hear from you – many of you hire, some of you are in HR. So what I am curious about is, this way of hiring – with multiple levels of screening, does it work? Does it help you get better candidates than you would have done 5 or 10 years ago, candidates who are exceptionally good at their jobs and stick around longer? Let me know on Facebook, post a comment under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com or email me.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. This is a Milne-Tyte production – unlike those other podcasts you listen to that reel off a bunch of names at the end, this show is reported, edited and produced solely be me. You can support this one-woman show via the support tab at The Broad Experience dot com – if you can afford to kick in 50 dollars you will receive a Broad Experience T-shirt. And for those of you who have asked I am looking into a Patreon page as well. I’ll keep you posted about that.

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

Episode 110: Stress and the Benefits of Being Outside

Show transcript:

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

This time…a show for summer. We all used to spend a lot more time outside. And it’s still one of the best ways to combat stress – particularly for women…

“We are fully engaged with our sensory and perceptual systems in ways that make us feel alive and vital and healthy rather than being buffeted around by these expectations of how women are supposed to behave or look.”

Coming up, how nature and being outside can help us manage life and work.

But first…

Have you thought lately about marketing yourself? A lot of women are not keen self-promoters and I am among them.    

Every decision about you and your opportunities is made in a room you’re not in.

Which begs the question, can you do anything about the conversation in that room?

Joanna Bloor – a former guest on the show - believes you can. And it starts with knowing how to talk about who you are and why you’re important.

Joanna is on a mission to get us to talk about ourselves in a new way.

Uncover your unique value, then learn how to share it with others.

So in that room, they’re telling your story, and articulating your value, the way you want.

Organizations including Microsoft, EY, 21st Century Fox, and Cartier have brought Joanna in to talk to employees from entry level to executive with remarkable results.

Go to Joannabloor.com and check out her services page to find out more.

That’s j – o –a -  n- n – a – b – l – o – o – r dot com.  Reference the broad experience and receive 10% off a workshop or individual coaching.

I am an urban person. I grew up in a city, moved to another city for college, I worked in London for a few years and then I moved to New York – the ultimate metropolis. And I thought I’d always live in a city. I couldn’t imagine life otherwise. There’s so much to do, so much creative energy, so many jobs.

But in recent years big city living has begun to feel old. Or maybe it’s just me. But increasingly I find the noise and the crowds and the jostling on the subway is just too much. And I’ve noticed something else – the more time I spend outside, in nature, the calmer I feel. Work stress or stress in general seems to bother me less when I’m looking at a lake or a field or a mountain.

A couple of months ago I came across a book by science writer Florence Williams. It’s called The Nature Fix. Its subtitle is ‘why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative.’

Of course I picked it up.

Florence is a contributing editor to Outside Magazine, and she also hosts the Outside podcast.

She’s done a lot of reporting and research for this book. Among many other things she found women can benefit more than men from spending time outside, in a natural setting.

I started by asking why she’d tackled this subject in the first place.

AM-T: “What were some of the things that prompted you to write this book The Nature Fix that I enjoyed so much?”

“Oh, thanks Ashley. Well I guess it began with my personal journey. I spent two decades living in the Rocky Mountains. You know really my entire adult life, and then my husband took a job in Washington D.C. and we had to move.

And it was really a hard adjustment for me to go from being so nature connected almost on an hourly basis, to living in the middle of the city, and experiencing the noise and the sort of monochromatic cityscape, just the sort of busy ness and the urban built environment. And I noticed some changes in my own kind of emotional state, in my psychological state, that weren’t so good. More anxiety, I certainly wasn't sleeping so well, I was depressed. I mean some of that is just transition you know, from that time of life. But I think also I started thinking about how the environment affects our emotional states.”

And right around this time Outside gave her an assignment – to go to Japan and write about forest bathing…this practice where overworked city types immerse themselves in nature…

“Stressed out urbanites go to the woods for 15 or 20 minutes and just kind of practice being mindful in the woods and kind of de-stressing. And it's something that's being really promoted by the government in Japan. You know as a way to help their workers who are the most overworked population you know in the world basically, they work the longest hours, and they're really stressed out. There's high rates of depression and suicide. And at the same time researchers are studying what's happening to these people's physiology after 15 or 20 minutes in the woods.

And so I went to Japan, I saw that people's blood pressures were dropping, their heart rates were changing, their stress hormones were changing. And that there really was science you know behind this. And so I think that's really what launched the book. I just felt like there's enough to write about and I'm personally interested in what the science has to say about you know this idea of nature deficit disorder.”

Nature deficit disorder. A lot of us have it. Most of us live and work in urban environments. In the US in particular you can drive from home to office to supermarket and back home without even walking a block. And many of our jobs are screen-based and sedentary…

“…you know it seems like mentally and cognitively when we're kind of inside responding to emails all the time, staring at screens, you know being kind of reactive to the massive amounts of information coming to us that it creates a certain amount of fatigue. You know cognitive fatigue, and that translates into emotional fatigue and a little bit of strain and grumpiness, and all this may be happening on a pretty subconscious level. But it looks like when we are able to kind of take a break, go outside, get a little bit of relief and a little bit of maybe sensory stimulation, that it can really reboot us, it can re-boot us cognitively, studies show that after short breaks, looking for example at grass and trees we come back to the tasks at hand fresher. Our working memory is a little bit better, our cognitive processing is a little bit faster after we get that break. And so I think that's a great lesson. That we need to know that by taking a break we're not just taking ourselves out of productivity, that we're actually making ourselves more productive when we go back.”

AM-T: “Yeah, I think that's the hard one for people to at least for workaholics or type-A personalities who abound in cities to get their heads around, right? That you're not slacking off. You're actually helping yourself to be more efficient at work.”

“Exactly, and you see enlightened companies really starting to understand this and embrace it. You know a lot of the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, they now have walking trails on the roof. They have roof gardens. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook takes walking meetings. So I think you know in some parts of the workspace there's this kind of understanding that yes, this is actually good for productivity. But I think it is hard for individuals to kind of know to take that break, and we don't pay a lot of attention to how we feel after we take a break. And that's one of the points that I really make in the book is that we need to pay attention to how we feel in these different environments, kind of tune in a little bit more because there's so much individual variation to when people go outside, and some people love looking at the ocean and some people hate looking at the ocean and feel threatened by it. And we just don't necessarily tend to pay attention to where and how we feel best. And I think that that's a really lost opportunity.”

AM-T: “Yeah. I want to talk more about the…what we can do about this for ourselves and our own health. I mean some of us are lucky enough to be able to spend time outside of cities when we live in cities. I mean most every summer that I've been living in the U.S. I've gone to a lake in Pennsylvania most weekends of the summer. And one thing I've noticed especially in recent years, so it's definitely for me related to getting older, is that I'll go on Friday night and my head will be full of the things that I didn't finish during the week. I am going to get those things done at the weekend! You know when I'm there you know there'll be no e-mail coming in. Great time to finish off all that work. When I get there, or when I wake up on Saturday morning and I'm in this incredibly quiet atmosphere. And I can see the water, and  I can hear birds and it's so peaceful, I feel entirely different about my work. It just doesn't seem as important anymore. It doesn't it doesn't have the same power over me that it did on Friday night when I just spent the entire week working.”

“Exactly. Exactly. And the studies really back that up, that when we experience natural beauty you know specifically sort of awe, the emotion of awe, which has typically been an understudied emotion but is now really being looked at as kind of one of the neglected positive emotions that we could learn something from, what they're finding is that it really helps slow our perception of time when we experience natural beauty we suddenly feel less stressed out, we feel like we have more time to solve these problems. Maybe they don't become as important, and our own personal problems also recede and we tend to feel more connected to other people which I think is really interesting. So you know there's this way that being in nature in some ways makes us more fit for civilization because it does make us more community minded, makes us feel more connected to each other. And also it can take us out of what are sometimes debilitating personal playbacks of our own issues and problems, and it gives us greater perspective.”

Who wouldn’t want that?

AM-T: “My show focuses on women's experiences in life but particularly work. What does your work life balance feel like or what did it feel like when you decided to write the book. I mean did it change when you moved to D.C. or not particularly?   Was it the same set of things, you were just in different circumstances?”

“Yeah, that's a good question. I would say I'm still trying to get a handle on how to have a balanced work life situation and part of that is I have two kids you know. And you know a full time job. And so it's always a struggle I think to balance, and to feel balanced and to also have some you know personal time and exercise time and all that. So it's something I struggle with. And when I moved to D.C. I would say you know it just felt a little more intense. I mean D.C. is it's just a hyper urban environment. It takes longer to get anywhere. You know the traffic is horrible. My kids were going to school kind of in a different part of town and you know I would have to spend a fair amount of time driving them around in traffic. And also you know in an unfamiliar geography, so I would end up in these traffic circles you know being cut off by very impatient commuters and I would just start cursing and crying and feeling overwhelmed.

I think my kids were like oh my God, Mom, maybe we should go to school a little closer.

You know so we did, and we adjusted that. Now the kids go to neighborhood schools. You know I had to sort of figure that out. But I think anytime you move it's kind of demanding right, because you have to find new everything new grocery stores new eye doctors, new pediatricians. It's all just like, your workload I think gets really intense. Plus the D.C. work culture itself is more intense.”

She says Boulder, where they had been living, it attracts people who are seeking a more balanced lifestyle – they’re less career-driven, more lifestyle driven. They’re into yoga, meditation, hiking and biking, eating right. She says DC is full of the best and the brightest, but it just felt so different. Not only were there a lot more people but there were a lot fewer trees. And it didn’t help that their house was right under the flight path.

In a minute, we talk about how being outside can help women in particular, and Florence comes to terms with her new surroundings.

So I knew Florence had done her own reporting on how women benefit from being outdoors.

AM-T: “In a recent issue of Outside that was dedicated to women really you have this great piece on Girl Scouts and it was about…you shadowed a whole group of Girl Scouts who were out in the wilderness and they were sort of achieving feats outdoors… What I took away from it was, it was this idea of being outdoors in a group helping each other that took the focus away from some of the things that can kind of bedevil teenage girls like self-consciousness and screens and meanness from other people. Social media, all that. It was so interesting. I mean they're really young. But all that stuff, that bad stuff can really start women on the road to feeling less than. And that their looks are the most important thing about them. I mean do you think grown women can experience some of that? Can learn some of the same things that those young girls learned from being outside for a concentrated period of time?”

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I really do. There's been some really interesting studies looking at for example self-esteem, leadership, confidence and time outside.

And we know, for example REI is in the middle of this campaign called force of nature and they've done some internal studies as well, or some surveys. And what it really shows is that the time what women spend outside as girls kind of having adventures and doing sports outside, the more confidence they have as adults. And the more they experience gender equity for example in their careers, the more confidence they have, the more leadership. And I think that definitely translates, can translate into time outside for women. You know any time that we're using our bodies and enjoying the strength you know and the skills and the coordination of our muscles, we are not thinking so much about how we look. We're thinking about how our bodies work. And I think that's really important jump for women to make because society just tells us that our looks are so important and it's hard, you know. I mean as girls I think were especially vulnerable to that. But as grown women we are too. You know those messages really don't cease, sadly. It's kind of the dominant message that the media still gives us. And yet I think when we're outside they're just, there are no mirrors. We're with friends. We're in a more supportive potentially social environment. We are fully engaged with our sensory and perceptual systems in ways that make us feel alive and vital and healthy, rather than just kind of being buffeted around by these more social and perceptual expectations of how women are supposed to behave or look."

AM-T: “And actually when you were talking that reminded me there will be someone women listening to this who can’t be active outside, whether it's through illness or disability, they can't enjoy their bodies the way many of us can because our bodies work for us. I mean what do we know about being outside for people who don't have full use of their limbs for instance? I mean are the benefits of nature still there?”

“Absolutely. I mean people who can't fully exercise or be active in nature still have their sensory systems right, largely intact. So they're still able to somehow, the wonderful smells of springtime or drink in the visuals of the sunset. Experience the night sky or the changing phases of the moon. So there's still a full sensory engagement even if it's not necessarily on an aerobic level and that's OK. I mean exercising in nature is one thing but sitting in nature, connecting to nature, is fully another and incredibly valuable. I've been contacted by a number of people since I wrote this book. You know many of whom share with me that they're not able to fully run a river or climb a mountain but they still find nature to be tremendously healing, tremendously powerful and they're still able to find that nature connection. And I think you know, that's a beautiful thing.”

AM-T: “Definitely. And in any of your work, I mean this didn't really come out in the book, the book was written for everyone. But I ask again because my emphasis is on women. Do you think that there…Do you see any difference in the ways in which men and women benefit from nature?  I mean I think women, traditionally if you look at all the statistics women or women who work full time and have families are still doing more. I don't know if this applies to you, but on the home front, than the male partner. And I wonder if you think women may be cutting themselves off from nature more than guys because they feel more time strapped.”

“Yes, I've given quite a bit of thought to this question of how men and women may experience nature differently and also how they may benefit from it differentially. And I would say that there are some really interesting differences.

Yes, we know that women are more stressed out and more depressed than their male counterparts. Part of that is because we are pulled in so many different directions domestically and in our work lives, we're taking care of different generations, older parents, we're taking care of kids. We are sometimes cut off you know from the kind of community and social and family support that women got when we lived closer to families and in clan groups and you know in kinships and so on. So we know that women, for example in the United States, women are on antidepressants at a rate of one out of four. Women in middle age. And I think that's a shocking statistic and kind of speaks to the problem. We also know that girls tend to be more depressed than boys. They're at higher risk for suicide. I'm sorry to report that the fastest growing rate of suicides is in young girls ages 10 to 14, which is I think shocking. Andpart of that is that women have this burden of expectations. And society expects them to work and behave a certain way. And now you know with Instagram and Internet culture it's all just become I think harder to be a girl in some ways. But it's always been hard.

But we also know that women when they do go outside may experience bigger benefits and maybe that's because they're more stressed when they start.

But there have been studies showing that women who live closer to greenspace actually experience greater benefits in terms of their mortality in terms of their stress cortisol regulation than men do. So when women can access nature and can experience it they actually may be better helped. And there's some really interesting studies looking at kids for example even in forced kindergartens. And I really like the study I think it's really interesting in conventional sort of urban playgrounds. Boys tend to run around more than girls do. You know the girls kind of sit and play their games the boys run around and do kind of sporty stuff. But in the forest schools where both genders are outside most of the day the girls are approaching parity with the boys in terms of physical exercise. So they're also out there jumping across the creeks and climbing the trees and swimming from the ropes.

And so I love that we don't really tend to think of nature as being kind of gender neutralizing or equalizing and it can be. And so I think it's an important way to look at…and also you know kind of another excuse to really make a bigger effort to get girls outside because the benefits are bigger.”

Which is fascinating and great to know. But let’s face it…if you live far from the wilderness, getting there can be a challenge. Or enough of a hassle to put you off doing it regularly. So what’s a city dweller to do?

AM-T: “Just talking about cities and you now live in a city, I live in a city and yes we can get benefits from going to parks but I'm speaking to you on… I think it's going to be 92 degrees today, high humidity. Heat warnings, all the rest of it here. Being outside, I mean they’re not even advising you to be outside I mean obviously today is a worst case scenario for me, but for people who aren't able to regularly get out of a city, I mean what can they do? If they seek out a park in a city is that something?"

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean the reality is Ashley that most of us do live in cities right around the world over 50 percent of people live in cities. That number is increasing you know hugely every year in the United States. 70 percent of us live in cities. So we really have to figure out how to access nature in a city. And I've had to figure that out was part of my move and I feel like I've really made a lot of progress in terms of kind of learning how to do it. Yes we need to get outside. We need to think about even how we position our computers. You know is it that we're looking at nearby nature you know in the backyard or on the street. We can change the way we walk through cities to take more tree-lined streets and then I'd have to learn how to really be mindful in those more nature-y spaces to get the full benefits.

So for example if I'm in a city park I really will try to take my ear buds out and I will try not to multitask while I'm in that space because the studies, the science really shows that when we are multitasking, when we're talking on the phone we're just not getting the full restorative benefits of being outside. We really kind of need to be listening to the birdsong and looking for the birds, maybe looking at fractal patterns which I talk about some in the book, you know drinking in that color green which we know also provide some calm to people.

But it takes an intention and it takes some effort. And if you're just kind of like blindly marching through the park on your way to the bus you know and thinking about your deadlines you're just not going to get the full the full bang for it.”

She says as for the summer heat, she goes for walks in DC once the sun has gone down. And she also says don’t be tempted to stay inside just because it’s cold or blustery outside. Studies show we get cognitive benefits from being outdoors even when it’s freezing or pouring. We just come back that bit sharper than when we left.  

AM-T: “And finally, I’m just wondering about this. I'm becoming more and more envious of women who work outdoors or at least in a natural setting. Do we know anything about whether those women are happier and less stressed than those of us who toil over a computer screen most of the day?”

“Great question. I don't think we really do know. I don't think we really drill down. We do know that women who live closer to greenspace are healthier. And that's from studies in the U.S., large scale epidemiological studies and the Nurses’ Health Study in the United States which is being studied by Harvard, has really recently come out with some very telling statistics. That the nurses who live closer to greenspace sort of within a quarter mile of greenspace have lower rates of depression, they have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, they have lower rates of cancer, interestingly, lower rates of stress, and they think that this is all sort of mediated by depression so that women who live closer to greenspace just feel better. Are happier people. And so you know it's important to think about, I think, as we do move around and as we migrate you know to different cities or to different neighborhoods that we really should place a premium on trees, on parks, you know these things end up really mattering toward daily stress levels and ultimately to our health.”

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix and contributing editor at Outside Magazine

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

I know some of you work outside and it’s not always on a pristine mountaintop, and I’d love to hear from you. You can comment on this episode at TheBroadExperience.com or on the show’s Facebook page or you can tweet me or email me.

The rest of you…go outside!

And if you want more podcasts about inspiring women, take a listen to Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller. She talks with women who have faced a challenge, stepped up to create change and are ready to tell their stories... so we can find out how women rise up--and how we can apply what they've learned, to our own lives. Check it out. Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller, you can find it in iTunes, RadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts."

So if you have some extra time this August listen to Lauren’s show, go back through the archives of my show – there are a lot of back episodes to enjoy. I hope you enjoy what’s left of your summer.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. I will see you in September.

Episode 109: Ambition on Hold

Show transcript:

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

 This time…renegotiating your relationship with ambition and success…

“Why can’t I take some time now and just be? And just explore options, explore the world…what’s wrong with that? Why do we have to constantly have ambition? I don’t agree with that anymore.” 

Coming up…success, re-defined.

But first, how much do you think about marketing yourself? For a lot of us this skill is a tough one to master.  

Every decision about you and your opportunities is made in a room you’re not in.

Which begs the question, can you do anything about the conversation in that room?

Joanna Bloor – a former guest on the show - believes you can. And it starts with knowing how to talk about who you are and why you’re important.

 Joanna is on a mission to get us to talk about ourselves in a new way.

 Uncover your unique value, then learn how to share it with others.

So in that room, they’re telling your story, and articulating your value, the way you want.

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The most successful episode I have ever done was called Redefining Success. In it I talked to two women, Whitney Johnson and Tess Vigeland. Each had made a break with their past work life. They were embarking on new ventures and thinking about themselves and their careers in new ways. But Tess, especially. She and I used to work at the same public radio show. Tess was a host – a great job. A prestigious job. A well paid job. And then, several years ago, she quit. With nothing to go to. She wrote a book called Leap – about leaving your job when you don’t have anything lined up. And when she and Whitney and I spoke that December of 2015, Tess was about to leap again. She and her husband had split up, sold the house. She’d put her stuff in storage, left the dogs with her ex, and she was setting off to Southeast Asia – on her own, for at least a year.

“I've certainly traveled before but I have not traveled alone like this, so solo traveling is a whole different ballgame.”

More than 18 months later she’s still on the road. She’s based herself Bangkok.

And I know few of us are able to do this – up and leave our old lives and go and live on the other side of the world for a while. Still, I really wanted to check in with Tess and find out how her experiment was going.  

I wanted to know how this experience had changed her, a very career-minded person – the way she thought about herself, her career, and, of course, her future.

I started by asking how the travel plan has unfolded so far.

“It has unfolded in ways I could never have even dreamed of. You know as I as I've told you before I lived the life that was very planned, that was very goal-oriented. You know I set out what I wanted to do and then I would, as a general rule, accomplish it. And that went 100 percent for my career. And so the whole idea of essentially moving quite literally halfway around the world and having no idea what I was going to do once I got there was anathema to my very being. But that’s exactly why I wanted to do it. You know I had just gotten divorced and sold my house and I didn't have a normal regular job that I was going to. So it was really kind of a perfect time in my life to make that second leap.”

She landed in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. She spent four months there and says Vietman was a hard place to live. It wasn’t just the language barrier, but the heat, and the fact she had no real friends. But she says Vietnam was a great base, and a good place to get used to this new way of being.

“…for someone who didn't have a plan I did pretty well, I ended up visiting what five countries while I was living in Vietnam. And then after that I moved to Bangkok which is where I've been since April of 2016 and now I've been to 13 countries in the last 16 months. And it has been extraordinary and I have I still don't have a plan. I don't know what I'm going to be doing next month much less a year from now. But I've gotten used to that and I'm absolutely thriving on it.”

She says she’ll go to a new place with an idea of the kinds of things she wants to do, but she doesn’t plan anything concrete before she leaves.

“So I'm very seat of the pants now and that is, that is just night and day from who I used to be. And I really like it, and it's hard to describe why that is except that there is a freedom to it that is so fulfilling to me at this point in my life. I don't know that it would have been the same had I done this 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. You know I'm 48 years old right now, and I feel like I'm actually in the prime of my life because I'm doing this freeform life that is not anything that I ever would have seen coming down the pike.”

AM-T: “That so good to hear because I remember when I spoke to you just before you were about to leave, I remarked that in some of your writing even though you were writing this book about leaping, I could feel some of your uncertainty about your decision coming off the pages sometimes. You had days when you were like oh my God, what have I done, have I made a huge mistake? And that has all gone away, it sounds like.”

“Well… I don't know if I would say I would say it was all gone away. I certainly, yeah I certainly have those moments where I'm like, What are you doing? What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere where you don't have any family around? I do have a lot of friends now which makes a big difference. But I'm in a completely foreign land, I'm in a completely foreign region. It's not even like I'm in Europe or South America. I'm in Southeast Asia and it doesn't really get more different than that.

And there are times when I'm both homesick and I also wonder, I often wonder if I'm doing permanent damage to my ability to go back into what people would think of as a normal life. Now I don't necessarily know that I want to do that, but if I would decide to do so, say come back to the States, get either a journalism job or a job in some other industry where I'm working you know a regular workaday life, I wonder if I have been gone so long now that that is going to be difficult. Not only have I been gone so long but I'm aging. You know I am getting to that point where at least you read in the articles, it can be hard for people to get back into the workforce. So those are the kinds of things that I ask myself every once in a while.

But that is far, far outweighed by my sense of self-satisfaction and my sense of adventure and my sense of taking advantage of a time in my life where I can do this. And you know to me as a woman, I've been I've been a liberated woman for he's going on well let's just say a very long time since they went to college. I lived alone in my 20s. And you know I've always had a sense of self and a sense of being an individual but you know I think as a woman when you leave what's really comfortable and you go out and go on and really epic adventure like this that doesn't have an end date, it's given me a sense of self confidence that I never had before.”

I loved hearing that because when I started traveling alone I felt the same way. And I’d been nervous. But there’s something incredibly satisfying about knowing you can cope. Knowing you don’t have to have a friend or partner with you to get where you need to go or just to eat in a restaurant.

“You're right. You know I think for the most part we all spend a lot of time around other people, even kind of an extroverted introvert like me. You still do go to the movies with somebody, you still do go out to dinner with other people. But for the last 18 months or so a lot of what I've been doing has been by myself, and people will often ask me do you get lonely? You know, do you do you feel alone? And what I say is there's a big difference between being alone and being lonely. And learning the difference between those two things has been invaluable to me…and I'm not encouraging everyone in their 40s to do this but there is something to being in the mid-stride of your life and having time to yourself, to get comfortable with yourself again.”

Tess and her ex-husband didn’t have children so she wasn’t getting used to being an empty nester – just to being on her own again after 15 years or so with another person. But staying abroad as long as Tess…that’s unusual. And at this point I had to ask her about money. She told me her house had sold for a lot, and she’s still living on the proceeds of that sale. Southeast Asia is a cheap place to live compared to the US and Tess hasn’t worked much at all since she’s been away.

“But there's part of me that is anxious to be productive again. For a while I berated myself for not being productive. I felt really bad. This is I think a very American thing to feel bad because you're not doing something even though you don't have to. And I got over that a while ago and have simply just enjoyed this life that I have. I think we may have talked about this when you and Whitney and I talked. One of the big things I struggled with when I quit my job in public radio was how to define success for myself when I didn't have an audience anymore, when I didn't have you know people who recognized me when they heard my voice in the elevator. And now I've really relaxed into the idea that I don't care anymore.”

AM-T: “That was gonna be my next question…we discussed this idea of not just success but ambition and you’d been so ambitious…and you said you’d questioned yourself and you’d talked to your parents, and your dad said when you were a young girl you didn’t like yourself very much and everything you’ve been doing since is about proving you’re valuable and that you mean something in the world.”

“Wow. I need to go back and read my own book.”

AM-T: “But it was so interesting – because it is a huge thing. You were so defined by what you did and now you’re out there on your own, traveling around a huge part of the world. So how do you think about yourself? Do you think of yourself now as a valuable person outside of your work?”

“Yes. And it’s because I really have tried to stop measuring my own value, worth from what other people think. I think that is a life struggle for almost everybody. I wouldn’t say I’ve conquered it, but I have come to a place where I’ve stopped feeling bad about not having ambition right now. I worked for 20 plus years and I worked my ass off, and I reached close to the peak of my industry. So why can’t I take some time now and just be? Explore options, explore the world…what’s wrong with that, why do we have to constantly have ambition? I don’t agree with that anymore. A lot of people won’t agree with me. But I feel so much satisfaction every time I land in a new country and am able to function and can find my way around and figure out what to do, where to go, who to talk to. That to me is a life skill.

One thing I do wish is that I had more self-discipline. I will say that. I think self-discipline is a part of ambition. I wish I had the ambition to write a second book. I have the material for it. I think I will at some point but have I started to do that 18 months in? No. have I kept good enough notes on all my travels, no. Do I wish I had a little more ambition in me at this very moment in time so I could get done some of these things I know I have in me? Yes. Am I frustrated by that? Yes. Do I have a little self-loathing about that sometimes? Yes, but that said, I am so happy Ashley. I love my life right now. I cannot imagine it being any different right now.”

So Tess is living happily in Thailand at the moment. She loves the people. Loves the apartment she’s renting in Bangkok. She’s grateful for the career success she’s had…

“And I now I let myself be content with that for now. And I don’t worry about what things are gonna look like in 5 years, and that’s really freeing.”

AM-T: “Yeah, I was actually gonna ask is it almost a relief not to think about yourself in career terms?”

“Yes, yes, it is a huge relief. There are parts of me that do feel like…and I may have touched on this last time we talked…I do feel I had a position of responsibility and a high level position where maybe I should have stayed there to help other women get to that place, but I didn’t. And I guess now I hope that I will find the self-discipline sooner rather than later to write about this experience, to talk about solo travel as a female – to talk about being out on your own, to talk about being comfortable in your own skin and being with yourself, and nobody else for a while…I think that’s just as valuable as being somebody, as a woman, in a normal career.”

AM-T: “Obviously this experience has changed you as a person, you’re thinking in new ways, it’s opened up your world hugely. Do you think when you do eventually begin to work again do you think it’ll be, you’ll be more divorced from the yukkier sides of work life like office politics and general workplace dysfunction? I mean do you think this experience has lifted you above all that? Or…”

“Mmm…wow. Great question, that’s a really great question and I’ll be honest with you, it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about, again because I don’t see myself going back to that. Despite the fact that I miss what I used to do and I still love it, I mean if I were offered my dream job back home I’d probably be on the next flight back. Now if that happened would I be better able to function, to…I think what you’re asking is let more things roll off my back, I think so. I believe that I would. I’m generally more relaxed now, as I said earlier I’m not as concerned with my own ambition and related to that what other people think of me and my ambition. So I think when you feel like you are working in a job to bring some self-satisfaction for yourself, and hopefully do some good for others, always, but when you’re not so worried about all the noise…I’ve really separated myself from the noise. I’ve even separated myself from some of the political noise happening back home…I’m horrified by what’s happening back home but I’ve separated myself from it to a large degree. I think all of that means I have coping mechanisms that would serve me well if I re-entered the traditional workforce. I don’t know that but I also think my level of confidence would make a difference. I think I’ve been very insecure my whole life and you touched on that with the conversation I had with my dad. And it’s not to say that I have no issues any more with insecurity, but I’m certainly more self-possessed. And the confidence – if you’re confident in your own abilities and in what you do then it’s a lot easier to turn off the noise, and I wish I’d had those skills prior to quitting my job.”

She says she would have handled her departure quite differently if it had happened today, and the events leading up to it.

“I think first of all, I would have spoken up more for myself. I did not do that enough in the workplace that I was in and I look back and I’m really bummed out about that. I think I had more power than I both realized and used. Now I see that I do have power. I have the power to speak up.” 

But at the time, as she said, she was riddled with insecurity.

I think I had imposter syndrome my entire career. That I didn’t believe I was good enough to have the job that I had. Which is absurd. There are so many other people who could have had my job but I got it and kept it for a really long time so I must have been doing something right. But I never believed that…and particularly not to enough of an extent that I was willing to push back on what I considered poor treatment in my workplace. I wish I had made much more of a case for myself, I wish I would have fought for myself harder.”

AM-T:I think that’s an excellent point and I’ve only started to practice in recent years as well…it’s almost like you’re nervous about standing up and saying certain things, but it’s only when you say those things that they really respect you.”

“Yes! Right. And why is that so hard to learn? I mean frankly I don’t think it should have to be that way. If you’re doing a good job at something you should just plain get the respect that you deserve, but if you’re not getting it then for God’s sake stand up for yourself and demand it…absolutely demand it. And if you’re not getting it go somewhere else where they will respect you.”

Tess Vigeland, speaking from Bangkok.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

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


Episode 108: Conservative Women Speak Up

Show transcript:

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

This time…America is politically divided. And many women with different views are not talking to eachother…

“And I said oh, I’ve got a dinner tonight and she said, what’s your dinner, for? And I really didn’t want to tell her. And I finally said, it’s a Republican dinner. Why would you want to go to that? Well, because I’m a Republican. Really?”

Some liberals want to encourage more understanding…

 “I think liberal women have some blame to bear here. In the sense that we have continually underestimated, discounted, disregarded and pooh-poohed conservative women’s concerns.”

 And politics can spill into the workplace…

“Don’t discriminate against me in the workplace just because I’m conservative or a Christian. Get to know me and get to know my fellow conservatives and let us work together for the good of what we’re trying to do.”

Coming up…listening to eachother and working together when we think we have little in common.    

So I will come right out and say here that I did not vote for Donald Trump in the last presidential election. You are probably not surprised to hear that. But unlike a lot of my friends in liberal New York City, I wasn’t surprised when he won. I traveled enough within a hundred or so mile radius last summer to see just how much support he had.

His win and everything that’s come with it has really made me think about conservative women’s viewpoints. I wanted some conservative voices on the show.

So in this episode you’ll meet two conservatives and one avowed liberal who is dead set on brining women together for the good of democracy.

My first guest is Jennifer Szambecki. She grew up right in the middle of the country, in Wichita, Kansas. She went to college locally, lived in Boston for a while but then came back home. She’s in her late 30s and she and her husband live in Wichita; his daughter from a former marriage lives with them part of the time. Jennifer works in technology…on the marketing and user experience side of things.

She describes herself as a Christian conservative. But she did not grow up that way.

“My parents were very liberal – still are – and raised us to vote for the Democrats and against the Republicans. And generally identified as liberals or progressives. I’m not sure what we called it in the ‘80s and ‘90s growing up, but that was how we identified as a family.”

AM-T: “So what happened?”

“Well, I went to college and when I graduated I got first job out of college I could find and it was in the non- profit community doing marketing and volunteer recruiting…and a couple of things were happening at same time. One, I was making a fulltime income and paying taxes and at the same time, I was working with populations who were on the receiving end of government programs and benefits.”

She worked for a mental health nonprofit at first. It got plenty of government funding, and she spent as much time filling out forms and checking boxes as she did with patients and volunteers. And at the end of the day she says the organization wasn’t having that much impact – no one was officially measuring outcomes. Yet the nonprofit kept getting that federal funding. She says it just seemed so dysfunctional…

“I have experienced at least a devastating disconnect between lawmakers and the people at the other end of the laws.”

She’s not saying the government doesn’t have any role to play in people’s lives. But she says she began to think a lot about how policy really worked…and became more and more convinced that the federal government was sprawling and inefficient.

“So I became, much to my parents’ chagrin, a practicing Republican.”

She’s not a Republican who voted for Donald Trump last year. But not for the same reasons liberals didn’t. She says he didn’t seem to care enough about American’s enormous budget deficit – the fact the US is spending so much more than it’s bringing in. She’s worried…

“That we’re gonna have to make dramatic, drastic, un-strategic cuts that will impact some of the biggest consumers of government programs…” 

Like women and children.

“…when or if those have to be cut dramatically to balance a budget or bring us into some kind of homeostasis that is gonna be really devastating.”

AM-T: “You mean like Medicaid?”

“Yes, Or schools. All of that. I think we can be strategic about what works…replicate what works when we’re able to or cut when we can, just be more measured about it.

The thing I think that concerned me most about Trump was the he wasn’t talking about any of this really at all.”

AM-T: “And what about his personality and some of the thing things he’s been caught saying about women, did that bother you at all?” 

“Oh sure, yes. That bothered me a lot. But I mean not to defend him, I’m also bothered by lots of things I’ve heard politicians say. But I’m also bothered by the CEO of Uber and other people…he’s obviously not representing me in government…but I would say that’s not why I didn’t vote for Trump but it was a factor, it wasn’t the biggest factor but it was a factor. And it wasn’t how he spoke about women but how he speaks about literally everyone that would be the factor for me.”

And speaking of attitudes to women, I wondered where, as a conservative, Jennifer stood on the F word.

AM-T: “So what do you think of the word feminist? Or does that word make you run screaming into the forest?”

“It definitely does not want to make me run screaming. I do identify as a feminist. To me and my experience including my experience with amazing conservative and Republican women I work alongside with and volunteer with here in Kansas, I think many would describe themselves as feminists. Those who wouldn’t, they have negative baggage with that word, but if you look at their lives and philosophies and their actions you’d probably be able to identify them as such. To me there is no disconnect between feminism and conservatism.”

AM-T: “But some of your friends do think there’s a disconnect, right?”

“Yes, yes…I have received many tweets and Facebook responses and people speaking to my face and in other ways challenging me with sentences like, how can you be a woman and a conservative? Or, how can you be a woman and be in the Republican party? That doesn’t make sense to me, because I am a woman and I am in the Republican party. So I don’t know how to answer it. I’m not sure it’s anything other than a rhetorical question, than a point in the form of a question, but I never know quite how to respond.”

AM-T: “How do you respond?”

“I say I believe conservative values are best for men, women, children and best for society as a whole and I am fighting to restore them in my life.”

Becky Davidson has a lot in common with Jennifer, at least on the surface. She’s also in the Midwest, St. Louis. She too is in her late 30s and she also works in technology. She’s an IT manager for a big company.

“I would probably say I’m a Christian conservative but maybe a good way of putting it is a loving and open Christian conservative.”

AM-T: “What does being a conservative woman mean to you, do you think conservative values are better for women as a whole?”

“I do…and I believe they’re better as a whole because the conservative viewpoint is more of believing you can do it, and you’re not necessarily a victim. To me a lot of the liberal viewpoint is more calling out different demographics as victims.”

That idea does not sit well with Becky. It seems limiting; disempowering. She says she’s had the occasional sexist experience at work but most of the time she’s pretty content in her largely male workplace.

I asked her to talk about something that had quite surprised me when I first heard from her. You know, she has this good career, and she and her longtime boyfriend are involved in Republican politics. But Becky says…

“In my perfect world I’d be a stay at home mom with kids…when I first graduated from college I watched people. There was a bible study that I was part of and there was a gal in the bible study and you could see that she was working until she could get married and stay at home, and I didn’t want to do that. If I’m gonna work I’m gonna pursue a career and do it with everything I am. And if I do have that opportunity to change lanes and become a stay at home mom, I’ll pursue that with everything that I am.” 

She accepts that even if she and her boyfriend marry she may not be able to have children. So she’ll keep pushing forward at work.

AM-T: “You were talking about the whole women as victims thing and how that’s one of the things that’s a big turnoff about the left. Do you ever feel even if it’s not you personally but your viewpoint, sort of patronized or maligned or misunderstood by more liberal women or by the left as a whole?”

“It’s interesting to me that you’ll hear the left talk a lot about you should be welcoming and inclusive and when that viewpoint – when they don’t share the same viewpoint it’s not as welcoming or inclusive. To me the perfect example of that is Kellyanne Conway.”

Conway of course was President Trump’s campaign manager. She is now a counselor to the president.  

“She is pilloried by the media, many of my more liberal friends will talk, they’ll make fun of how she looks, how she talks, everything. And I want to say hey, she’s the first woman campaign manager who won a presidential candidacy. She’s the second woman that’s actually ever run a presidential campaign but she’s the first one who ever won, and yet all that’s done is attacking her.”

She sees a lot of hypocrisy there. Still, she says she doesn’t often speak up about her views when she’s surrounded by people on the left.

But occasionally it happens in a one-on-one. Becky got a new hairdresser a few years ago. There was the usual beauty salon chit-chat during that first appointment and Becky says it soon became clear her hairdresser was as liberal as she was conservative. For a while, she kept her mouth shut.

“I think I went in about 2 years ago and I said oh, I’ve got a dinner tonight, and she said, what’s your dinner for? And I really didn’t want to tell her. I said oh, it’s a dress up dinner. Oh, what’s it for? I finally said oh, it’s a Republican dinner. Why would you want to go to that? Well, because I’m a Republican. Really? Explain to me why Fox News hates black people…I had to say well, no, Fox News doesn’t hate black people, my boyfriend is a black man and he’s been on Fox News, but we started talking. And then last spring when I went to get my hair cut she had a Bernie shirt on and I asked her why she liked Bernie.”

Again, they had a conversation. And then came the election of Donald Trump.  

“So I was due for a hair cut right around the inauguration. And I thought you know I’m just gonna give her some time because I’m betting she’s really upset about Trump being elected as president, and I’m guessing she’s probably going to go and do the women’s march the day after so I’m gonna wait for a couple of weeks. So I waited and I went in and said hi and she said oh I’m so excited you’re here, I can’t wait to talk about the election with you. To me it was the best compliment because it meant she felt safe talking over what had happened, and what we each thought about it, realizing we were diametrically opposite in our beliefs.”

So about that women’s march right after the inauguration…I suspected Becky hadn’t taken part.

AM-T: “You didn’t go on one, did you?”

“No, no, no, no…to me it wasn’t a women’s march or a march for women it was a march for liberal women. Several friends I have who were pro-life were interested in engaging in this and they were not welcome.”

She’s right. In a minute, we’re going to meet a liberal woman who is trying to bridge that gap.

Lauren Leader Chivee is a liberal through and through.

“So I think I am very representative of a lot of women in the bubble. Which is, I grew up in Washington DC in a completely Democratic neighborhood, I went to a very liberal, socially progressive school, I came to New York, went to Barnard College and lived on the Upper West Side. I have lived in the Democrat bubble my entire life.”

Which you might think makes her an odd choice to start the organization she has. She’s co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a campaign to educate women – liberals, conservatives and anyone in between - about civic and political leadership so they can get involved in politics. And make women’s voices heard – which they largely are not, especially in national politics.

She says people on both sides of the aisle thought she and her co-founder were nuts to start something bi-partisan. But she says as a liberal…

“If you believe in women’s equality and the power of women’s voices you can’t just believe in that when it’s voices and women you agree with. You have to be willing to invest in women’s participation when you don’t agree, and we don’t all agree. Women are as diverse as the nation. And to ignore that to us that seemed like a big miss.”

She says they’re creating an environment where women can feel comfortable asking questions, learning about civic life in a way they haven’t before. She says it’s encouraging that more women are getting into politics, in the wake of President Trump’s election. But…

“All the civic engagement now has been organized around resistance and around being angry and about fighting. That has enormous power and enormous agency and I fear its sustainability. We need women participating in our democracy whether they’re pissed off or not.”

Lauren strongly believes that US democracy would be better if more women took an active part. But right now of the few female politicians there are, most are Democrats. And the problem with starting a bi-partisan group like Lauren’s when you live in a liberal bubble…

“I needed Republican board members and I needed Republican women who would support me, and I didn’t know any. It literally took me 6 to 8 months of outreach and networking to try to connect to conservative women who I knew might be passionate about what we were doing. And I will say, the relationships I have built with women who I thought I had nothing in common with because we had different political views, have been the most rewarding, most inspiring and most intellectually challenging relationships of my life.”

She says when she did her research she found the excessive partisanship in US politics…it was turning women off – and that was especially true of young women. She says they don’t want to have to double down on the most divisive issues, like abortion, to go into politics. And that brought us back to the women’s march.

“The women’s march was about a lot of things. And it was a galvanizing moment here and around the world, but the organizers were explicitly clear in the planning for the march that women who did not support choice were not welcome. And they were clear about that because for many liberal women choice has been such a fundamental question around feminism, and liberal women often see it that way, that you can’t be a feminist if you are not pro-choice.”

As we heard earlier, Jennifer does consider herself a feminist – though her views on abortion are nuanced. Becky considers herself pro-life and not a feminist. Lauren would love to see women with different views on abortion come together anyway…

“What concerns me is that there are a huge range of other issues that have nothing to do with abortion where women largely do agree and are not coming together to mobilize because they are so divided on this other issue…a perfect example of that is paid family leave.”

She says American women across the board largely agree that there should be some.

And despite her own strongly held views, Lauren says liberals could be a lot more open to conservative viewpoints…

“I think there is a real frustration among conservative women that they’re so insulted and so dismissed and so put down on a constant basis by liberals who just think they’re all stupid. And I think that’s an incredible disservice. I was watching this video of Betty Friedan on a talk show in 1979…it was Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, who was a very conservative, very controversial, led the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment …the disdain and disgust of Friedan…who was an incredible icon and who I revere, I watched this recently and thought, God, we’re still doing this…and it galvanizes an opposition when you insult them. I happen to think Hillary Clinton was right in many ways about the basket of deplorables, there’s no question there was a lot of racism and anti-semitism and sexism that was ginned up by the president in his race. But that kind of insulting language of the opposition just inflames them, it enrages conservatives in this country even if they don’t support Trump. That kind of condescension of you’re all stupid is so not helpful. We have just got to get to a better place.

And she thinks eventually, some years from now…who knows how many… 

“I have this gut feeling that the first woman president may be a Republican. That somehow, I don’t know how to explain it, I think there is a level on which conservative America may be more willing to accept and embrace a woman president if she shares their values.”

Becky Davidson agrees. I asked her if she’d like to see a female president.

“I would love to, and actually I had a fantastic conversation with Carly Fiorina, during the campaign, and thought she was awesome. She wasn’t necessarily my first pick, we had the opportunity to have dinner with her during the primary and she’s someone who has fascinated me for a long time anyhow. She was the first woman CEO of a large IT company. So she very much intrigued me, we had great conversations with her. I would have loved to have seen her get further.”

 But she’d never vote for a candidate just because she was female. Becky is actively involved in politics and several years ago she worked on what became an infamous campaign. Some of you will remember this story well. A Missouri congressman called Todd Akin was campaigning on the Republican ticket to replace Democratic senator for Missouri Claire McCaskill. At one point he was doing a TV interview when he essentially said if a woman truly is raped – what he called ‘legitimate rape’ – she’s unlikely to get pregnant – he said her body, quote ‘has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.’ Uproar ensued.

“So I started on the campaign and about two weeks later he made his unfortunate comments and about two weeks after that I was a delegate at the Republican National Convention. So I was popular with the different news media sources because they couldn’t understand why a woman would support Todd Akin.”

She says look, he was not her ideal candidate…   

“He said multiple things that I was not thrilled about and on more than one occasion I reached out to my boss on the campaign and said, he can’t say this – he can’t say these things, I understand what he’s trying to communicate but he can’t say these things. And when I reached out to supporters there were a couple who said I think he’s an idiot, but I think he’s better than the alternative so yes, I’ll vote for him.”

As did Becky. She says she respects Senator McCaskill but did not want her to continue in that job, she wanted a Republican. Akin lost the election. McCaskill won a second term as senator for Missouri.

Lauren Leader-Chivee wants more women to enter politics, and not just Democrats like McCaskill. In fact, she’s willing to put her money where her mouth is.

“I spoke at the women’s leadership forum at the Democratic National Committee about a year and a half ago and I swear a trap door almost opened up and swallowed me, because I said that I had been making financial contributions to Republican women running for office. And there was this audible gasp in the room.  And I explained why, and the reason is that all the evidence shows that when women are in elected office they are more likely to be bi-partisan and to work across the aisle, and they’re more productive and more collegial. And so if we believe that Washington is broken and that we need a better functioning democracy I do think that women are the answer to that. I might be wrong, but I’d like to find out.”

 She is not the only one.   

And finally, I wanted to consider the whole question of talking politics at work. We’re often warned not to do it – but with this US election and its aftermath, keeping politics away from the water cooler...it was never gonna work. The thing is, if you live in a liberal east coast city like I do…pretty much everyone you talk to is horrified by the current political situation.

Jennifer Szambecki is in a different situation. She’s a conservative but she works in the world of app and website development, and in general it’s a pretty liberal world.

“I’m concerned at this moment because I think ten years ago it was perhaps easier to be in a workplace where I could be a conservative working alongside a progressive woman and conservative men and progressive men, and I’m afraid just the national dialogue has devolved into a disrespectful place. And I hear about that although I thankfully have not experienced that myself, that leaking into the workplace. And as I stay professionally plugged in to a career that will probably continue to have me working alongside, more likely to be left-leaning people, I hope we can continue to cultivate every type of diversity, including political diversity…because whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish together is most likely to be benefited from every kind of diversity which is basically in summary a plea to please, don’t not hire me just because I’m conservative, or don’t discriminate against me in the workplace just because I’m conservative or a Christian.”

AM-T: “Have you ever worried about that in the past that somebody might not hire you? Or are you just worried now because of the way everything’s gone?”

“Oh I’ve been worried about that in the past, yes. In fact I was not accepted by an Airbnb host once as my Twitter bio mentions Jesus. [laughs] So anyway, which is not a job obviously, but I was like, huh, that’s interesting, it never occurred to me someone wouldn’t want me staying in their apartment because I’m a Christian.  But I mean I get that, I understand people have been very hurt by others in the name of religion. Anyway, I do worry about that actually, especially in a more – I have always grown up in a more urban setting, I’m attracted to more urban settings, urban settings tend to attract more left leaning and liberal people, and I am afraid that my political activity and my willingness to be out about being conservative and Christian might hurt me professionally.”

Jennifer Szambecki. Thanks to her, Becky Davidson and Lauren Leader-Chivee for being my guests on this show.

As usual you can comment on this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page. I would love to hear from you.

Next time on the show, I follow up with a guest who’s left her old life and traditional notions of success behind…

“I’ve always had a sense of self and of being an individual but I think as a woman when you leave what’s really comfortable and you go out and go on a really epic adventure like this that doesn’t have an end date, it’s given me a sense of self-confidence that I never had before.”

That’s next time on The Broad Experience.

If you are not already a subscriber, go ahead and subscribe so you will never miss an episode.

You can do that on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Stitcher or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Those of you who have made donations recently and are waiting for a T-shirt, the new order is about to come in so you’ll get those soon. If you’d like to join them in supporting this one-woman show, just go to thebroadexperience.com/support.

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

Episode 107: Expect the Unexpected

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup. Things got to the lawyer stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM-T: “Do you regret doing it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s next time on the show.

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

Episode 105: The Assistant

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She started working as an assistant at 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 104: Starting Over

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

At one point she said,

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

Recently I asked her to expand on that.

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

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

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

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

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

AM-T: “ Ah, how interesting…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it works.

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

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

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

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

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

To a mum who has entirely different concerns…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tune in for that next time.

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

Episode 103: Conservative State of Mind

Show transcript:

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

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

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

Coming up…pushing for change in a conservative place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM-T: “So why did your mother?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s The National Rifle Association…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tune in for that next time.  

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

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming up – when women work for free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She has no regrets.

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

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

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

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

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

That, I needed to hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 101: Your Work, Your Private Life

Show transcript:

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

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

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

But not everyone believes discretion is everything…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that comfort level disappears on business trips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 100: Owning It - an Interview with Sallie Krawcheck

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM-T “Did you leave that company?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But at first, women were quick to criticize…

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the Broad Experience for this time.

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

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

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

Broad Experience Shorts: Going on Leave

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 99: Hate to Delegate

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM-T: “What happened?”

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

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

I bet a lot of you can relate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she says once you start…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Jodi Detjen.

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

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

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

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




Episode 98: Leaning Back

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

Reading it, I thought about Kathryn Sollmann.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not just salary but pensions and other benefits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathryn Sollmann. Her site is 9 Lives for Women.

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

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

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




Episode 97: Women's Work

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re gonna start in London.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM-T: “Why does that happen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 96: Burnout

Show transcript:

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

This time…

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

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

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

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

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

The first time she was still in her twenties…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True in organizations and society as a whole.

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

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

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

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

And that thing of putting everyone else first…

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

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

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

Before that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stacy-Marie Ishmael. Problem recognized.

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

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

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

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

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