Macbeth and the art of flexible working

26 Nov

Recently I went to a Parents’ Evening where I learnt (among other things) that my child is soon to read Macbeth. Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ‘vaulting ambition’ which leads him to make some very bad – and bloody – decisions on his way to the top of the tree. (When he gets there he finds the whole wood is moving – a scenario probably familiar to some real-life Chief Executives – but they often get to manage the consequences in less doom-laden ways …)

So Macbeth has something to say about career progression and work-life balance: it can be seen as the ultimate cautionary tale of the costs of getting to the top – it has plenty to say about the influence of spouses, for sure. And it has some great language to lend to corporate malaise: ever felt ‘cabined, cribbed confined’ in the office 9-5? This is the play for you.

I blogged before about the way in which flexible working could operate differently for men and women, with men informally meeting family commitments ‘irregularly regularly’, whilst women often negotiate upfront for the conditions they need to make both work and care practical. Indeed, I was able to go to that Parents’ Evening because husband had ‘left a bit early’ to take care of our other child.

There is evidence that part-time work still raises issues for ambitious people – and that gender still features in this equation. Some retain a view that anything less than full-time hours signals lack of commitment; and those who reduce their hours may fear that this might hamper promotion prospects. These factors seem to have figured in a recent discrimination case where a man successfully argued that a rejection of request to go part-time amounted to discrimination, as women had been granted this option.  Flexible arrangements should be available to both men and women, without ruling out the possibility of advancement. Otherwise we will remain in a situation on workplace inequality, where, to quote Macbeth again, ‘we have scotched the snake not killed it’.

The formal aspects of flexibility do matter – employees must be seen to work flexibly in order for it to satisfy both career ambition and life satisfaction. I’ve talked about Macbeth all through this blog – only the superstitious would keep referring to it as ‘the Scottish play’. Keeping flexible working hidden under informal terms would be a proper tragedy.




Is flexible working the new premarital sex?

15 Nov

Flexible working – is everyone at it but just not talking about it? A new survey from the USA suggests that men as well as women are taking up opportunities to work more flexibly and so accommodate family life. However, a key finding is that informal arrangements work best for men. Only 29% have a formal arrangement that fixes weekly working patterns. Rather than drawing up an explicit contract with their employers, many men get by on being ‘regularly irregular’ with a nod and a wink from a sympathetic boss. So they may not make announcements about their working hours, just go early – perhaps leaving their coat on the back of the chair, lest anyone should suspect them of skiving. Or they phone in to work from home, or make up time in the evenings.

In some ways this is progress – the more involved father finding a way to make balance work when they have a spouse who is probably working too. But women who work flexibly have tended to do it by the book – to set clear ground rules on accepting a job, or to make a formal request to have flexible hours considered. After all, where kids are concerned the buck is seen to stop with her. Indeed, it’s recently been reported here in the UK, that women who make requests for flexible working are more likely to have their request granted than men.

Why is there this difference in the strategies of men and women, and why does it remind me of premarital sex? It’s because of the gendered assumptions about suitable behaviour that underlie both. The informal arrangements at work maintain a man’s reputation as a serious careerist, just as leaving before morning might maintain a nice girl’s social standing when respectable women could not be seen publicly to be engaging in sex before marriage. As long as flexibly working men do nothing so reckless as to go part-time, their place in the rat race is safe: flexibility may be invisible in order for men to have it in senior roles. Similarly, back in the day, as long as separate sleeping arrangements were seen to be made, and no pregnancy occurred, an unmarried woman could have sex below the radar with her reputation intact.

What is wrong with this picture? It’s the idea that flexibly working men and sexually active women each have had to erect a façade of respectability in order to do what they want to do. And of course it’s no coincidence that the system turns a blind eye to men’s behaviour while making women jump through hoops. Whilst everyone tacitly accepted men’s sexual behaviour, women’s behaviour was heavily regulated; now men can operate a ‘blind eye’ solution to work flexibility whilst women have had to campaign for formal regulations to enable flexible working and prevent exploitation – such as unequal treatment on the basis of job description and/or hours. The acceptability of premarital sex was aided by the innovation of reliable contraception, and the acceptability of flexible working has been aided by the advent of personal computing, e-mail and the internet. You no longer need to be at work to do many kinds of work; you can now have sex and avoid pregnancy.

But as with sexual mores, so in the workplace: the gender behaving ‘out-of-character’ – the sexually active independent woman, the family-oriented career man – has to find arrangements to keep up appearances. Do what you have to, but don’t shout about it. Because if you did, let’s face it, everything would have to change …. And where would that lead?


Nordic models and global gender equality

30 Oct

It’s said of Winston Churchill that when he wanted a martini he would pour himself a large gin and think of France (in tribute to the origin of vermouth, the cocktail’s usual other ingredient). I sometimes think that in the UK, policies for gender equality are similarly formulated: write the reform you want whilst thinking of Scandinavia. This usually means Sweden, but with a nod to Finland for education, Norway for wealth, and this week’s much heralded Iceland, for overall gender equality.

In the midst of coverage of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, in the UK we have paid most attention to our own drop in position. Last year, according to the WEF index, we were still in the Top 20, as I blogged in June when looking at how the World Cup countries fared in gender equality rankings. Now we have dropped to no. 26 in the table – the top 5 are all Nordic, with Iceland at number 1. Meanwhile, in the Guardian, a prominent Icelandic gender equality analyst has reminded us, that in spite of its successes, Iceland is ‘no feminist paradise’. Why not? Well, in short, because gender equality remains to be achieved.

In an index like the WEF’s, you’re presented with differences between men’s and women’s positions on economic, political, health and educational dimensions within countries, rather than levels of opportunity in each of these areas. So countries move up and down the index, depending on how they affecting the gaps between men and women’s circumstances, rather than on the actual opportunities available. Many middle-income nations therefore come high up in the rankings. Moreover, as Ms Rudolfsdottir points out in the Guardian article, the gender gap between Icelandic men and women in terms of life expectancy may not be terribly bothersome, when you recognise that both men and women live to be over 80: there’s a gap, but not at a level where it suggests that there are major failings in meeting public health needs.

In other respects, however, even Icelandic figures show that much remains to be done. Iceland is well-known for having amongst the highest female political participation rates in the world. These are boosted by a voluntary quota system for party candidates – so future success is not written in stone.

And although generous parental leave entitlements are a crucial part of Iceland’s picture of success (they have the longest period of dedicated fathers’ leave anywhere) even these measures have not resulted in abolition of the gender pay gap – although women’s participation in employment is very high at 88%. The gender pay gap in Iceland is around 20%, not dissimilar to the UK’s.   The explanation for this perhaps surprising finding, is that men and women tend to be employed in different sectors. Icelandic men are more likely to enter relatively well-paid areas such as scientific and technical sectors and construction, compared to women’s greater participation in sectors such as social and personal care, and public sector professions in administration, health and education. Other Nordic countries share this characteristic of high performance in terms of retaining women in work, but having a lesser impact on pay differentials between men and women. Gender parity will come when more girls train for professions which command the highest salaries, and/or when ‘caring’ roles attain higher value. There is, indeed, much to do…

As for the UK, we should be concerned that at a time when we are outperforming many other countries economically, our gender inequalities remain: the gender pay gap is, in fact, increasing. Levels of female participation in politics are poor here compared to our Nordic counterparts: we rank 75th in the world in terms of women occupying ministerial positions, and women still account for fewer than a quarter of MPs.

So we need to take a long hard look at the ingredients for closing gender gaps –we still have to find the perfect policy cocktail to produce gender equality in economics, politics, health and education, anywhere in the world. Whilst women’s employment rates in the UK are increasing, we now rank only 48th in the world, according to WEF. The cost of childcare is an important part of the picture: we pay high fees for a fragmented system, whereas universal, state-subsidised childcare is available throughout Scandinavia. Nordic models may not solve everything, but by paying attention to universal service provision and men’s role in the home, they have progressed further towards gender equality than we have. Let’s be stirred to further action, not shaken by obstacles along the way.


Silicon Valley chickens and women’s eggs

15 Oct

When I read on Twitter that egg-freezing was being offered by Apple and Facebook as a perk to women employees, I thought it was a joke. But then I went and looked for coverage and found that it is in fact true. Gender pay gap? We’ve a quick fix for that darling, we’ll give you $20,000 to freeze your eggs so that you can concentrate on your work and compete on equal terms with our male employees in those crucial childbearing career-building years. Yes, we can level the playing field with invasive surgery and new technology – don’t worry about the fact that success rates are hazy, that according to nbc reporting,doctors recommend freezing at least 20 eggs, which means two cycles of treatment – thus basically blowing the entire $20,000 ‘perk’.

Or, for those really ahead of the curve, a woman could freeze one round of eggs at age 25, this would account for the first $10,000 of the ‘employee benefit’, and then there would be a $500 per year storage charge for as long as the eggs remain frozen. Oh happy days! In a reputable news source in the early 21st century it is reported that this may mean that at ‘35, [when she] is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby’ . These words are apparently seriously quoted. Perhaps this is because it is a US news source – the wealthiest country on the planet today has no maternity leave, paternity or parental leave – a position it shares only with Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

Should a woman choose to freeze her own eggs for whatever reason that is one thing. But when an employer says ‘I’ll freeze your eggs so you don’t have to worry about losing out while you climb the greasy pole on our terms’, I think we should all step back and analyse what is happening very carefully.  The first thing I thought when I read about this is that hoary old song from My Fair Lady -‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ Rather than thinking how the workplace might better accommodate parenthood and any kind of ‘balance’ in life for executives of both sexes, they’ve hit on a technological fix to make the status quo ‘work’ for women. There’s a line in that (even less PC than I remembered) song that rings incredibly true to this whole mindset – Rex Harrison asks of women ‘Why don’t they straighten out the mess that’s inside?’ – a view which fits perfectly with the tech companies’ vision of extracting those problematic, perishable eggs to re-insert when ‘convenient’. We have to ask when convenient for whom. There are few words in the Forbes article covering this item which give a clue: the ‘perk’ is offered to women and their male partners; and a few others are cited in the nbc article: ’offering this benefit “can help women be more productive human beings.”’ Is it time to be very afraid? If a man or a company asked me to freeze my eggs I know what I’d say to them …

Meanwhile, back in the land of the ‘level playing field’ I thought that the idea was that we looked at the possibilities that technology offers for more flexible work arrangements, that empowerment comes from combining employment with family life. I thought that the skills we all gain and the knowledge we acquire from the demands of our closest relationships has real value – the kind of value that transfers to the workplace, as we endeavour to solve problems with other people. I thought technology was giving us new opportunities to flex and adapt the current corporate system to incorporate employee well-being and the returns that this brings. That’s what I’d call innovation. But clearly Silicon Valley is way too chicken for that.


Gender equality: just a click away?

14 Oct

Compare and contrast Roxane Gay and Simon Kuper writing in the last few days in the Guardian and FT respectively: both talk about the role of celebrity in supporting gender equality, but reach different conclusions. Gay writes that while interventions by Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence are welcome, they can work to disguise feminist activism practised by less glamorous women on the ground; Kuper (behind the paywall, ‘How Brad Pitt brings out the best in Dads’) is saying that photos of Brad Pitt with a baby strapped to his chest are an important part of encouraging active fatherhood, which mustn’t (perish the thought) be viewed as ‘girly’.

Celebrities may be one ingredient in spreading messages about gender roles – they can contribute huge reach – but they do not usually create the conditions for greater equality in most people’s lives. This remains the province of grassroots activism, civil society and governments.

Perhaps, though, celebrities’ significance in public debate is to do with what stage of the debate we are at. In terms of gender equality, the conversation is far more developed regarding public roles for women in society, than is the case concerning domestic roles for men. The concept of the ‘working father’, after all, still struggles to take hold.   Maybe Brad Pitt is helpful in the vanguard of images of masculinity that incorporate caring activity.

Meanwhile, both Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence have been caught up in discussions about feminism in the digital age. As we all try to come to terms with issues of privacy and intrusion presented by mobile phone and internet technology, the views and experiences of celebrities may give discussions around digital reputation an added urgency. Lawrence suffered a gross violation of privacy when naked images were hacked from her computer accounts; Watson was threatened with similar exposure following her UN speech to encourage men to embrace the feminist cause. This threat turned out to be a hoax, but speaks volumes about attitudes towards women who speak up in public.

If we do want men and women to be equal, then we have to keep acting in the real world. Whilst Brad Pitt is viewed as giving a bit of machismo to the ‘girly’ domain of caring, actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson are seen to provide cautionary tales about how powerful women can be reduced to their physical attributes. Pressing ‘like’ on a picture of Brad Pitt with a baby is not going to give us well-paid paternity leave; looking at successful women without listening to them is not like feminism at all. Celebrities may help to change the conversation, but it’s all of us who have to do the talking.



David Cameron’s Movie Script Speech

1 Oct

It’s an intriguing thought – a Britain run by Renton (George ‘choose the future’ Osborne) and Anna Scott (David ‘a public servant standing in front of you’ Cameron) … so what is the real life meaning behind the movie script speech? ….




- THE END – (or is that back to square one? Or finish what we started?)

Hard choices for hardworking families

30 Sep

George Osborne has used his speech at the Conservative Party Conference to solidify the position he outlined in the Budget: a position which takes income from the poorest families and protects pensioners, who have generally fared better in the climate of austerity. I’ve blogged about the difference in the impact of his policies on old and young before (here and here), and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that part of the motivation for relative generosity towards older people is voting behaviour. The older generation votes in larger numbers than young adults, and is also more likely to vote Conservative. In the light of Lord Ashcroft’s gloomy polling, perhaps Mr Osborne needs all the votes he can get.

He is freezing benefits that seem crucial to keeping the least well-off families afloat, including jobseeker’s allowance, tax credits, child benefit, income support, and the local housing allowance rates in housing benefit. Many of these benefits are vital supplements for low waged workers. Pensions, meanwhile, are left to rise in line with inflation.

Last week Ed Balls announced that Labour would cut child benefit in real terms by only allowing it to rise by 1% in the first two years of government, so perhaps we should not be surprised that George Osborne is showing that his austerity measures are tougher than theirs. On both sides of the political divide, less well-off families seem to have become the battle ground for effective defeat of the deficit. And the Conservatives made sure to underline the importance of that battle, after Ed Miliband’s unfortunate silence on the matter.

George Osborne’s move to squeeze the income of poor adults cannot but have consequences for children. If you are a single parent on minimum wage struggling to cope with in-work benefits as they are, the new regime looks harsh. The inclusion of an element of housing benefit in the freeze is concerning, as the difference between benefit levels and rents may increase, and there is little affordable housing on offer in the current market. If the government thinks housing benefit is expensive to support, has there been reflection on the individual and social costs of homelessness, which may increase, as people struggle to manage to pay their way under the freezes outlined today? The cost of living has not been frozen.

As women are more likely to be lone parents and/or low-paid workers, they are losers under these proposals. And women work more in the public sector and so are affected by the continuing pay freeze there. In single-earner families with two children, around £500 a year in child benefit and tax credit payments will be lost according to figures quoted in the Guardian. At the other end of the scale, the abolition of tax on inherited pensions will benefit the families of relatively rich men the most. The Conservatives’ ‘women problem’ is not helped by such measures, and neither are the life chances of children in less well-off families.

The justification for these benefit freezes is to ensure that benefits rise no more in value over time than working wages. The problem with this argument is that the difference between the two is substantially explained by wage stagnation in a fragile recovery, rather than any great largesse towards benefit claimants. A stronger economic recovery would help everyone more. The Prime Minister said today that we shouldn’t ask pensioners to bear the burden of reducing the deficit – why is it ok for children to bear the burden instead?




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