Archive | September, 2015

Why are we waiting?

24 Sep

Politics, the diplomatic service and the law – three establishment professions – have all been in the news regarding their promotion of women.

First came the controversy over the composition of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet , which drew criticism because the top jobs shadowing ‘great offices of State’ were awarded to men: Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary. Although the Shadow Cabinet is majority female, many expressed dismay that women are in relatively junior posts.

This version of gender balance by numbers, but not status, is a persistent issue. There have been similar criticisms made regarding women on boards, where numerical gender equality has frequently been achieved by offering women non-executive roles rather than the more powerful executive positions.

By contrast, in the middle pages of the Economist (page 35 or behind the paywall), I read that the French diplomatic corps has attained a record share of female ambassadors – one third – and has paid attention to prestige as well as numbers. The current French ambassador to London is a woman, as are strategically important ambassadors in Ukraine and Pakistan. Meanwhile, here in the UK , 19% of ambassadors are women and we have never sent a female ambassador to Washington D.C. or Paris – although we do now have a woman ambassador in Beijing. How have the French transformed the position of women in diplomacy? In 2012 they set a target of 40% senior public offices to be occupied by women by 2018. Here in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been behind other government departments in terms of senior female appointments, reflecting a longstanding male dominance. The marriage bar was only lifted for female diplomats in 1973. Like senior politicians and lawyers, senior female diplomats are less likely to be married and/or have children than their male counterparts. In recent initiatives, the Foreign Office has addressed issues of work-life balance creatively by offering job-share postings to married diplomats, or by offering neighbouring overseas positions. These are welcome developments, but may not address wider diversity issues for those with spouses in different professions.

Meanwhile over in the law, Lord Sumption, a member of the Supreme Court, has expressed his views regarding gender equality in the judiciary. He is concerned that ‘rushing’ to achieve women’s equality in the judiciary could have ‘appalling consequences’ . A quarter of judges are currently female, and the proportion of women declines the further up the judicial hierarchy you go. Lord Sumption has suggested that the lack of women judges can be explained by women being perhaps less willing to put in the long hours : ‘as a lifestyle choice it’s very hard to quarrel with it’ he says. Analysis of women’s positon in the legal profession here and here suggests that there are issues of professional culture which can affect women, beyond any consideration of more flexible working patterns. Informal networking and mentoring are important for career progression, and are often less accessible and sustainable for women barristers than for men, in a profession full of senior men from a relatively narrow range of backgrounds.

Lord Sumption is reported as suggesting that we should be ‘patient’, and that it could take up to 50 years for there to be equal numbers of male and female judges; in politics we have reached the point where 29% of MPs are women, but it will take a further 50 years to reach parity at current rates of change. In this scenario, I can only quote Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary where ‘patience’ is defined as ‘a mild form of despair disguised as a virtue’.






I’m 99% sure that we can’t all do maternity leave like the 1%

3 Sep

Marissa Mayer has sparked a debate over maternity leave through her announcement that she will be taking only 2 weeks maternity leave when she gives birth in December. She’s the CEO of Yahoo, one of the highest paid executives in the world, in the notoriously male-dominated world of technology companies. When she had her first child, she followed this same path, and raised a few eyebrows soon afterwards by banning remote working for her employees, while installing a nursery next her own office to accommodate her child alongside her professional responsibilities.

Predictably there has been a spate of articles saying that maternity leave is a personal choice for her, which she is exercising for herself, just as a man in her position would; isn’t it sexist to see her differently from a male CEO making the same choices within weeks of becoming a father? I’m not sure it is. It is not sexist to say that it is different to go through the transition to parenthood as the person who actually gives birth and who may breastfeed afterwards, from being the parent who supports this process. Both parents may be equally important to their children, but the physical impact of childbirth is experienced uniquely by women. For many women this is a relatively straightforward and highly rewarding process, but some births are a lot easier to recover from than others, and two weeks recovery before resuming even lightened work duties would not work for every mother. Or for every type of work come to that. Mayer is to be praised for extending Yahoo’s maternity benefits to encompass 16 weeks of paid leave. In a country still without any mandatory parental leave system, this is an important benefit for employees. However, by not taking it herself, Mayer leaves the suggestion that parental leave is for the little people hanging in the air.

And of course, no-one is asking what role her husband will be playing in their presumably joint decision to arrange things this way. Is he taking time off? Is he going to be primary parent while his wife guides her company through a crucial period? Whether he is doing these things or not, the public assumption is that Mayer’s stellar salary will cover the kind of high-quality round-the-clock childcare that most people can only dream of. And it is certainly true that she can afford it.

Parental leave policies facilitate equality and diversity in the workplace. Female workers in tech report feeling compromised and marginalised by the choices for balancing work and family life available in this particular culture, and they often leave. Silicon Valley companies have recently launched a number of high profile parental leave packages, presumably with a view to retain valuable employees. Parental leave should facilitate both sexes in both their careers and their family life. By not being a visible proponent of her company’s maternity leave policies, Mayer underlines the exceptionalism of her position, rather than providing an attainable path for many others.

And this brings us back to the individual choice issue: Marissa Mayer is doing what she is doing because she can. She has a powerful position from which to negotiate terms, she has the support of her board and has put in place an infrastructure to enable her to continue working with her children close at hand, and to cover childcare needs whenever they crop up. Most people are simply not in that position.

Here in the UK, 54,000 women are losing jobs through maternity-related discrimination each year, even in a system where maternity leave is available for most workers. Many professions still suffer from ‘leaky pipelines’ in terms of promoting women to senior levels, and childcare costs are so high both here and in the USA that many families find it simply uneconomic for both parents to carry on working as they might otherwise choose to do. I read a comment in an American article that ‘millenials’ are ‘seeking a solution that works for them, not a one-size-fits-all maternity policy’, a stance which sees Mayer as a great example of what is possible. The problem with this approach is that it does not foster a climate which caters for the needs of many, who take both their working lives and family lives seriously, and who wish to stay off the breadline. It’s not enough to make maternity leave an individualistic lifehack; we need policies in place so that more parents can hack it in the system. In Europe it is often argued that senior managers must visibly buy into flexible working and parental leave plans in order for men to even consider taking them up; if senior women in the USA don’t take up corporate leave packages, we’re left with the same old ‘default male’ models of success for the majority of employees. Is that good enough for us?



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