The answer to the question in the newspaper article (above) is simple:
Stop discriminating for women, and against men, in the workplace.
But of course that won’t suffice, for a female journalist, at least. Our thanks to John for this piece by Christine Armstrong in the last edition of The Sunday Times:
As sickly sweet Valentine’s Day and our celebration of all that is love approaches, I have troubling news from the front line of gender relations. The conflict between men and women at work is increasing in some sectors. It’s a trend that’s worrying many who hoped our workplaces were becoming more equal for men and women and now fear they may be going backwards. Ironically, many attribute these problems to steps that have been taken to help women stay in work and get promoted. They point to well-intentioned programmes designed to promote “diversity and inclusion” through flexible work, coaching and mentoring that have unintentionally sparked resentment among men. Some see it as killing with kindness.
In August, I wrote about the “big little lies” we tell about working and parenting. It struck a chord, particularly the reports of some women with big jobs who said in public that Having It All was fantastic, but who were falling on the floor with exhaustion in private. Many working women got in touch with me in response to the article to say that while they found themselves publicly spouting the merits of “lean in” — Sheryl Sandberg’s famous pronouncement that women should be more ambitious — the reality is that their lives are highly stressful and sometimes chaotic. When, in December, Michelle Obama broke ranks to declare candidly, “That whole, ‘So you can have it all’ — nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time,” women everywhere breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t just them.
Since then, I’ve been talking to some of these apparently successful women about why they pretend it’s working when, privately, they say they’re pushed to breaking point. Some women, depressingly, say it’s getting worse: they fear a future where there are actually fewer women at senior levels in some industries (law, finance, management consultancy, media, advertising).
At the start of conversations about why top women don’t tell the truth, many give me the reasons I expect. Namely, that they want to encourage other women in the hope that having more women at the top will improve things for everyone. They also lie about their lives because they want to be loyal to their employers or, at least, to keep their jobs. Finally, they are reluctant to admit their lives are not working out because confessing that you’re finding things hard at work and at home sounds like an admission of failure and, when you’re a high-flyer, you are used to being seen as a success.
One senior woman who reflected on why she used to lie about her working reality, before she burnt out and moved out of corporate life, said: “The first thing we do is we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that working at this pace is normal. We don’t want to acknowledge that we can’t do it or that we might be somehow inferior to others we work with. Those ‘big little lies’ you talk about, they start with ourselves, then we lie to our families and colleagues — and then we lie to other women. We almost collude with each other to make this OK. Central to it, I think, is shame. And competence. I was used to being able to solve problems and move on in life, then I had kids and I didn’t know how to do it. Children aren’t a problem to be solved, they require a different state of being. One that takes effort but one that is hard to own up to. No woman wants to be thought of as a bad mother.”
“Men feel women get the better deal”
All of this makes sense. But as the conversations go on, more troubling thoughts begin to emerge. A woman who works in finance in London spoke on the promise of anonymity. “I am really worried that we are already at risk of going backwards on female representation at the senior levels of business, especially in finance. What I am seeing is that the men are afraid and we’re getting the backlash. They feel the world changing and that their status is under threat. I am watching them gather around each other and close ranks. They already think women get the better deal. I worry it could actually be harder for the next group of women coming through than it was for my generation. I see so many of my friends, my peers, my colleagues becoming ‘mumpreneurs’ or quitting altogether because of this. It’s extremely depressing. But speaking out more publicly would, I think, create more resentment and might actually make it worse.”
Looking out through the glass conference-room doors to check nobody is watching us talking, she goes on: “I see growing resentment among the men of women’s progress. Men I like personally as colleagues openly say that a lot of women get jobs because of tokenism. They don’t think they deserve the jobs. If the women then dare to ask for flexibility, they doubly resent it. In my business, for example, we have great policies on paper around flexibility. But I’ve heard the men call working from home ‘TTP’ days, which means Taking the Piss days. Some label the women’s group at work the Burning Your Bra group and joke that it’s held around a cauldron.”
It’s a view Jeremy Clarkson tapped into recently when commenting on the direction of the BBC. “Honestly, poor old Nick Robinson going for an interview for Question Time,” he wrote. “What a waste of petrol that was. No chance he’s going to get it. Anyone who has got a scrotum, forget it. They just aren’t giving jobs to men at the moment. There is an argument that it’s been all men for a long time, so what’s wrong with it being all women for some time? I get that. That’s fine. We just, as men, have to accept we’ve had it. Let’s just go down the bar.” And, increasingly, powerful groups of men are going to the pub or to network on the golf course without the women, making them once again excluded from the inner circles where decisions are made.
Similarly, a group of men at the advertising agency JWT have challenged a decision to let them go, after a new female creative director promised to shake things up. They say they have been discriminated against on the basis of gender, age and race. Others say it’s well overdue that the “pale, stale and male” agency had an overhaul and others were given a chance to shine.
The diversity and inclusion expert Claudia Iton nods knowingly at all this. “I’m reminded of the saying that, for a privileged group, any steps towards equality, however limited, can feel like discrimination,” she says.
A City headhunter observes a cycle that he worries is also making the problems worse. “If senior women are recruited and are seen to have been chosen for their gender rather than their skills, they start off in a difficult place,” he says. “However subtle it is, they will feel unsupported and may then struggle to hit their targets. This will confirm the view that women can’t cut it at those levels. In some cases, they are also being paid perhaps over the odds to help ‘reduce’ the reported pay-gap numbers. What I see are many executive boards talking the talk but not walking the walk on diversity. They are box-ticking — and the way they are doing it may make things worse.” Another search expert sighs about the situation. “Look, a lot of hiring managers know there are good women out there, but worry they won’t dedicate themselves the way that the men do and know their turnover is higher …” she trails off.
“My contract said ‘available 24/7’ ”
The backdrop to this change is great political and social pressure for better female representation in business — most notably pay-gap reporting — but in the context of dramatic changes in working patterns over the past 20 years. In that time, we have moved from an expectation that most families will have one, usually male, breadwinner and the other parent in a supporting role, either based at home or working in a more flexible and informal way. House prices and social expectations have changed and dual-income households are seen as normal. This means that parents have to figure out how to care for their families in spite of longer hours in the office, longer commutes and potentially endless demands online. It’s not easy to do, even if you’re in charge. A chief executive of a business that prides itself on being family-friendly told me last week that, much as she tries to protect her staff from constant electronic intrusion, the reality is that she is still online after midnight every night of the week.
Yet the economic rewards from creating working patterns that appeal to those who also have caring roles has great potential. The OECD attributes between 10% and 20% of GDP growth in Nordic countries to the raft of measures they have introduced over the past 50 years to make combining work and family life more compatible. More companies are experimenting with shorter working days and weeks to improve productivity: the Wellcome Trust is considering a pilot in the UK. The German technology firm Digital Enabler has introduced a five-hour day from 8am to 1pm in a bid to attract and keep the best talent, and improve productivity by having a really focused working day.
As yet, this isn’t the way many of our big businesses are going. In fact, rather the opposite. Someone who made it to the top in corporate finance, but has recently stepped out to run her own business, reflects on the additional impact of the “always on” phenomenon. She describes years of working days that started as she woke and ended when she charged her phone by the bed. So much so that her two children chose to go to boarding school, partly because both of their parents worked every evening. “No one ever said, ‘This is how you decide when to engage and when you shouldn’t.’ I doubt anyone even thought about it. But we opened Pandora’s box and now we have a constant barrage of things needing your attention instantly.” This culture feeds competitive environments where everything happens instantly and impulsively. “We did a legal deal a few years ago and the lawyers respond to emails at 1am. When do they sleep?”
Even when she was quite senior, she says that she struggled with a boss who held team meetings at 7am. “I did talk to HR, but absolutely nothing was done and I had to move teams.” Another banker reports that her company had to introduce a policy to stop conference calls from happening on a Saturday. Which is good, she says, except that Sunday has instead become pretty much like any other work day.
The problem is that many of the men who run our businesses still see the world largely through the prism of the way it has worked for them. One mum of three says: “Most of the senior men in our business have no concept of what it means to be a co-working family. I work with men who have wives who literally pack their suitcases for them when they go on work trips. These men have no idea of the planning that their female colleagues, male colleagues with working partners and single parents have to do. Not to mention how much we all end up spending on emergency childcare. Because of this, it’s not unusual to find out at the very last minute that an extra day has been added to a work trip without a thought for the consequences for all the people who are also managing families. When that happens, it can make me feel physically sick. I say nothing because they would just see it as moaning, but a change like that will have me up half the night, sorting out the arrangements for the family.” This is a woman whose husband also works, but, like many I interview, she still shoulders the vast majority of the family organising.
One lawyer continues on the impact of having a predominance of men at the top of the business: “You get a certain culture,” she says. “There is still a lot of shouting and aggression and a very high-pressured environment. There is an expectation that everything will be done immediately and that people are available pretty much all the time. They have no tolerance for someone who leaves at 4pm to pick up their kids, saying that they can’t edit a document right this moment.”
Those who do manage to carve out a more balanced schedule describe the frustrations that come with it. If they managed, for example, to negotiate a three- or four-day week, they were expected to work more hours than they were paid for. They were also put on the “mummy track”. One woman tells me about a friend who negotiated to work from home on some days and was surprised when her company arranged to visit her home office and decorate it in the same style as her workplace. They explained that if clients in a video conference saw her working from home, she would be considered less significant.
It is also a culture that makes those inclined to speak out hesitate to do so. A board-level woman in banking says: “When someone asks me to speak about diversity and women in finance, my heart sinks. You know someone will be primed to savage you. They force confrontation and use bullying tactics to put you off speaking out. They say that the ‘leaking pipeline’ is just ‘lifestyle choices’. That it’s not a ‘right’, it’s a ‘choice’ to have a baby and you just have to deal with it. It puts me off speaking.”
The evidence is that many women do just leave, largely without public comment. Witness one younger woman who left the head office of the high-street bank where she worked for a decade. She explained that the final straw wasn’t working 60 or 70 hours a week for years. It was getting a promotion and seeing that her assessment criteria included “availability to the team 24/7”. This was one of the factors that her pay, bonus and future promotions would be judged on. Even though she didn’t have kids, she realised she would have to change sectors to have a life outside work — and chose to take a pay cut to do so.
It isn’t just hours. A team leader at an investment bank says: “At our firm, there remains an after-work drinking culture that anyone involved in running family life can’t be a part of. It used to be that younger women would join in with that and at least have a chance of being part of the ‘in crowd’. But, since #MeToo, the men are wary. Too many stories are told about payoffs to young women who say they were groped on a night out. It’s very hard to know the truth about these stories, as they usually get settled and the non-disclosure agreements mean the women can never speak out. But the stories that are told are always that the woman exploited the system for money. Whether that’s the case or not, what really worries me is that a lot of other women will suffer professionally as a result. One man I work with went as far as to say, ‘Why would we include them [women] when they do this to us?’ ”
There is evidence to support this view. A survey last year showed that almost half of male managers are uncomfortable working alone, mentoring or socialising with female colleagues. Sixteen per cent of male managers now hesitate to mentor a woman — more than triple the number that said this before reports of sexual harassment began surfacing in 2017. Surveys suggest that senior men — such as the US vice-president, Mike Pence — are now 3½ times more likely to hesitate to have a work dinner with a junior-level woman than with a junior-level man, and they are five times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior-level woman. This is perhaps why some report noticing an increase in work-related social/client events that are strongly geared towards men: racing-car excursions, extreme skiing, caving — all held at weekends, of course.
“Women get coaching, we get on with it”
This cultural backdrop also has a negative impact on many males, as explored thoughtfully by Matt Rudd in his column. One senior man in banking said: “I resent that I can’t open up my schedule to spend a few hours at the kids’ school or leave before 7pm sometimes, even though the women can. I don’t resent the women for it, but I do see it as a failure of management.” But he says that his executive team wouldn’t even recognise what he is talking about.
The women I talk to acknowledge this: “I see that younger dads who want to go home at sensible times of the evening and take the parental leave they are entitled to are afraid of being a laughing stock. People ask them, ‘Don’t you care about your career?’ Or they are accused of being henpecked. Some of these men, who feel emasculated if they ask for what women can access, grow to resent their colleagues who can work flexibly.”
Some male employees are also burning with indignation that the focus seems to be on helping their female colleagues to the exclusion of their needs: “[Women] get mentoring, coaching and a support group — we just have to get on with the work.”
“My therapy room is full of sad children”
As I listen to these stories, I despair. I see these bright, talented women who are so tempted to give up in the face of insurmountable challenges, while everyone pretends this is working out just fine. Meanwhile, the men say they too are stressed, tired and frustrated that they can’t ever escape work. The risk here is that we all shrink further back into our shells. What we urgently need are senior people to talk about these issues in public.
The good news is that some companies are trying to make changes. Emma Codd, managing partner for talent at Deloitte UK, says: “When we started a move to more flexible working, I decided to calculate the costs of not addressing this — to look at the people walking out of the door that didn’t need to leave, the recruitment and training costs of replacing them and the office space we could save on — and it was clear that it was in our interests to make it happen. Since then, just in the UK, we have saved about £200m as a result.”
Over the past few months, I have been talking to psychologists and therapists about children raised by parents who are both working long hours. Sarah Clarke, a child and adolescent therapist, says: “Much as I want to be a badass feminist supporting working mums everywhere, my therapy room is full of sad children who miss their parents. I am not going to not say this just because it makes people feel guilty.”
Maybe we should ditch the twee red roses and instead dedicate this Valentine’s Day to working families everywhere. More than good intentions, what we need now is action — and that starts with senior men and women speaking out about the reality of their lives.
The Mother of All Jobs by Christine Armstrong is out now (Bloomsbury £13); christinearmstrong.com
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