Archive | employment RSS feed for this section

Corporate models

24 Jan

Last week’s Presidents Club men-only charity fundraising event has now become notorious, thanks to the undercover reporting of a young female journalist at the Financial Times.  She, along with over 120 other ‘tall, thin, pretty’ women, was hired to be a hostess at a gala evening where all the invitees were men – not just any men, but captains of industry, entertainers and politicians.  The women were asked to wear black high heels and even black underwear, and were given ‘sexy’ outfits of short black dresses and corset-style belts.  The prospective hostesses were all asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before entering the event.  What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot apparently. The FT journalist reported a sexualised atmosphere.  The women were paraded before the guests before taking their seats, and, unusually, were permitted to drink, during an evening which proceeded to descend into groping and propositions.  Meanwhile, an auction of prizes took place, raising £2 million for children’s charities.  Lots even included one featuring the gift of plastic surgery to add ‘spice’ to your wife, among the more routine offers of executive-friendly luxuries and services.

Quite rightly, the response to these revelations has been outrage, that such blatant sexism still exists in the British establishment.  I share the collective revulsion at the event, but sadly, I’m not that surprised.  If you’ve ever worked in hospitality, you’ll know that women in service are frequently viewed as quasi-public property by clients, and often hired on appearance: from the name badge I had to wear as a student waitress emblazoned ‘here to care for you’, to the egregious spread of ‘Hooters’-style restaurants, it’s pretty clear which sex is paid to please which.  And sleazy overtones are not just the preserve of relatively low-paid service industries.  At corporate conferences and exhibitions the world over, it is quite normal to find companies paying young, well-made-up women to entice delegates to their stalls, or to ‘work’ the networking sessions in order to generate interest in products and services, in their overwhelmingly male audiences.  Think of ‘brand ambassadors’ – how many male ones come to mind outside the world of sport and watches?

Since the FT report came out, charities listed as beneficiaries on the Presidents Club website have been quick to distance themselves from the event.  Great Ormond Street Hospital has gone so far as to say that it will return all donations received from this source.  The charity beneficiaries were not responsible for the nature of the event, nor would they wish to be associated with it. It’s certainly not conventional for charities to host ‘men-only’ events.

However, charities are not immune from wider corporate trends. I remember coming across an agency a while back which offered ‘spokesmodels’ among its services.  What on earth is a ‘spokesmodel’? Well, a brief google search showed that it means a very good-looking woman (sometimes a professional model elsewhere) who can be trained up in the details of your cause and campaigns, and can be employed at events to encourage pledges and donations from invited audiences. The assumption is all too often that the people with money are male, and the people who attract them to think about spending, female.

The whole corporate system still revolves far too much around these unhealthy dynamics.  And the damage is not restricted to the young women fondled at events like the Presidents Club, it seeps into professional life so that women often tend to remain in revenue-generating, not revenue-controlling positions.  The charity sector, like so many others, has a majority of women in its workforce, but a male-dominated executive layer, often accompanied by man-heavy boards of trustees.  So when I heard the about the President Club, I was sad, but not completely surprised.  After all, it’s only a short while ago that the UN appointed a comic book character as an Honorary Ambassador in support of empowerment of women and girls …



Many happy returns?

10 Oct

Two policies aimed at narrowing the gender gap in earning and caring have recently attracted attention.  The first, shared parental leave, introduced 2 years ago, has been up for assessment of take-up and impact; the second, a government scheme to encourage returners to public sector professions, was unveiled at the end of the summer.

These two eye-catching initiatives share an important underlying feature: they are operating on shoestring budgets.  Shared Parental Leave – which was touted as a response to ‘Edwardian’ patterns of division of labour –  ended up as a scheme where the government’s own estimates of take-up ran at an underwhelming 2-8% of fathers.  In fact, research conducted since its introduction, indicates that take-up may be even lower – one recently quoted survey in the Guardian found fewer than 1 in 1000 employees had taken Shared Parental Leave; it’s reckoned that fewer than 9000 fathers took it up in the year to March 2017.  Set against 695,000 births per year, progress is slow indeed.

So, what are the reasons for low take-up? Shared parental leave is, in fact, a system of transfer of mothers’ maternity leave to fathers, rather than an independent entitlement for men. It therefore excludes many families where women are not entitled to maternity leave.  Next there’s the crucial issue of pay: while many employers provide enhanced maternity leave packages, Shared Parental Leave is paid at a Statutory Maternity Pay levels – currently around £140 per week.  This contrasts with more widely used schemes overseas, where men have an individual entitlement to leave, and payment is set at a generous fraction of actual wages.  As we still live in a world where many fathers are chief wage earners in families, few can afford the loss of income inherent in the British system. Thirdly, there’s the culture thing: taking leave is often viewed as a threat to future promotion prospects, and so men are often reluctant to volunteer for it. The cynic might say, that having seen what happens to many women’s careers, who can blame them? …

This brings us to initiative number two – the government’s new schemes for people who have taken time out of the workplace.   Five million pounds have been pledged to cover three public sector professions: social work, the civil service, and allied health professions (e.g. paramedics, speech therapists and radiographers).  This amounts to 100 places for returners to social work, 50 for civil servants, and 300 returnships for allied health professions.  As somewhere in excess of half a million people work in these areas, this seems something of a drop in the ocean. In the private sector, returnship programmes are becoming more popular, and the government is currently consulting further on these.

These initiatives accompany high employment rates for mothers, and three-quarters of economically inactive mothers say that they would like to return to work.  As ever, mothers of the youngest children are least likely to be employed, so sharing care in the early years is likely to be key to women’s future progression in employment, and also opens up the possibility of men doing more caring work.  With around half of younger fathers saying that they would like a less stressful job, or that they would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to contribute more at home, governments should be thinking creatively about re-balancing the workforce to improve life for parents and children alike.  But creative thinking is not enough. In a climate of wage stagnation and economic uncertainty, statutory pay levels are too low to be a feasible option for many parents contemplating shared leave; and returnships will only be transformational for carers when they are both more widely available, and less associated with the ‘mummy track’.  In fairness to the government, they have made their returner schemes open to men as well as women, but given the current imbalances in who takes time off, this may be a bit cart before horse.

The frustrating thing in all this, is that lack of transformational change is entirely predictable: on Shared Parental Leave, policy experts and civil society groups explained that without dedicated periods of leave for fathers and adequate rates of pay, the scheme would fail to take off; and while returnships are welcome to reincorporate skilled women into work, they will also fail to make major headway if they are not accompanied by wider efforts to prevent mothers from falling out of the workforce in the first place.

Again and again, flexible working arrangements have been found to be vital in retaining parents in the workforce, and to job satisfaction.  While there may be reluctance to commit major resources to these issues, the evidence shows that investment often has good returns. Homeworking and flexible working may raise productivity, and can reduce costs by enhancing staff retention rates. In Scandinavia, it has been found that the more months of leave fathers take, the higher the subsequent earnings for their partners.  The Economist reported this week that a German policy to provide a right to kindergarten places was 60% paid for by the taxes of women returners – and of course these women are likely go on paying taxes throughout their lives.  If our government could actually commit to proper investment in a more equal workforce (as well as in the childcare sector which is currently suffering from under-investment in the flagship 30 hours free childcare scheme) returning to work might generate the kind of monetary returns the economy currently needs.  You could call it a realist’s money tree.



Innovation goes together with representation

9 Aug

In the wake of the now-infamous Google memo, some have argued that whether or not its author should have been fired, is a hard question to answer, because of the company’s commitment to open discussion.  I’m not sure that this is such a hard question to answer.  The memo proposed that women were intrinsically less attracted to, and less capable of, coding careers than men.  It argued that biology explained the lack of women in technology firms and their comparative absence at senior levels.   If you believe that companies embody a set values and create a working culture – and technology giants with their global missions and highly-designed office spaces, do this more self-consciously than many – then contravening central tenets of that culture has to be problematic at best.

Google aims to bring its products to all, and it has already had to confront its lack of internal diversity publicly.  Publication of its staffing ratios (69% of all workers are male and only 20% of technical jobs are held women; 2% of employees are African American) has led to open discussion of diversity issues, and to pledges to improve the picture.  Google, furthermore, has been embroiled in a potential legal challenge around sex discrimination and the gender pay gap, which the US Department of Labour has described as showing ‘extreme’ disparities.  In this atmosphere, what the firm is seen to do in response to reductionist arguments about who is good at tech, is crucial to its reputation.  Complacency is not an option.  As a former Google employee forcefully argued, publishing a memo that suggests that part of the workforce (the female part) is intrinsically unsuited to its work, and is present for politically correct reasons, has consequences for both the author of the memo, and for the company.  In publishing the memo, the author has made it very challenging to assign collaborative work to him; nor could a manager easily put women in his team, after he has said what he has said. And having put in place the conditions for a ‘textbook hostile working environment’ the only realistic choice was to remove the author from his job. Meanwhile the company has to deal with internal dismay in its workforce, and external reputational damage.

What would the alternative be?  To leave the man in his place and educate him about just how flawed his arguments are? This seems pretty hard in situation where the author overlooks that there are systemic and cultural reasons why women may not be thriving in tech.  As the FT put it today, ‘It is clear from history and social science that bias and inequity do have an effect on the composition of the workforce’ – in other words women and other minorities have been affected by factors in the wider system, not inherent deficiencies in themselves.

Looking beyond Google to the wider tech sector, there is ample evidence that more diverse workforces are possible. The role of women in the history of computing has recently been highlighted in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, and celebration of Ada Lovelace’s pivotal work at the dawn of computer science.  In Russia and Asia, women are employed in greater numbers in technology and engineering than in the USA (or the UK for that matter), again disproving the argument that women are somehow intrinsically less capable of such work. And a Guardian article on Monday showed how Silicon Valley has been less successful in integrating minority ethnic groups, than the technology companies around Washington DC, where 17% of technical workers are black.  In California, technology companies are failing to recruit to reflect either the local Latino population, or the smaller proportion of African Americans. So the West coast tech sector is particularly white and male.  Public commitment to increasing diversity is part of the coda of Google (and its Silicon Valley cohabitants) – it knows that it has a problem and that it needs to be addressed.  The memo has probably made doing so all the more difficult, at least in the short-term.

And the case for Google and others diversifying their workforce isn’t simply to do with equality and social justice. In marketing technological products to us, Google needs to know that they meet consumer requirements.  The papers are full of examples of where this capacity has been limited by a professional monoculture  – e.g. voice recognition software tested by men, which struggles with women’s voices; facial recognition systems which work less well with darker skin tones. And in terms of general innovation there’s a growing literature to show that diverse teams come up with better, more original solutions to problems, than groups of similar people from similar backgrounds.  So diversity is a scientific and commercial necessity, not just a ‘nice to have’ option.  It is somewhat ironic that the kind of collaborative and interactive skills which the memo defined as ‘female’ characteristics, are exactly the ones that tech companies must have in order to innovate and compete….







Different for girls?

20 Apr

A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on graduate incomes and social mobility has caused a bit of a stir. Researchers had access to data which meant they could link information on students’ institution of study and subject choice, and their subsequent earnings for up to ten years. The headline findings were that those from the wealthiest backgrounds earn significantly more than students from poorer families, even when they had studied for similar degrees in similar places; and that economics and medicine were the subjects with the highest-earning graduates. Less prominently reported were some marked gender differences in outcomes.

Given our unequal society and uneven education provision, it may not come as a shock that students from higher-income backgrounds end up earning more (10% more at median income levels after taking subject studied and institution attended into account).  But men’s earning advantage over similarly-educated women is striking, especially since the student population has been majority female for some time now.

While men’s median earnings ten years on were £30,000, women’s were £27,000 – this compares to figures for non-graduates of £22,000 and £18,000 respectively.  Therefore, graduating as a woman means gaining a slightly larger premium on average, but at lower earnings levels than is the case for men.  So studying may lift women a little further above others with fewer qualifications, but it does not necessarily put them on a par with similar male graduates, nor does the advantage grow at the same rate at the top of the income scale as occurs for men.  Men from the wealthiest backgrounds earn about 20% more than men from less well-off backgrounds in the top 10% of each group; for women the equivalent gap is 14%, indicating that being an advantaged male carries the biggest labour force premium of all.

If you take the two subjects with the highest earners of all, medicine and economics, the advantage of being a man becomes clear.  The two subjects have different profiles in terms of who studies them – the majority of medical students have been female for some time now, while under one third of economics students are women.  But no matter what the gender balance of students, the IFS results show that men earn more.  And the difference between men and women at the highest levels of income in each subject is clear.

Economics has the highest rewards at the highest levels, with the top 10% of women earning upwards of £94,000 – but the top 10% of men are earning at least £121,000; roughly 12% of male economics graduates will earn £100,000 or more, compared to 9% of women.

In medicine, women earn around £69,000 to make the top 10%, while for men the equivalent figure is £85,000. In a subject where most graduates are female, this difference seems worthy of attention.  Perhaps choice of speciality also has a role in the differential, as women remain rare in some high-status areas such as surgery.

Most of the media discussion of the IFS findings has been devoted to the stalled social mobility indicated by the persistent earning advantage enjoyed by students from the wealthiest backgrounds.  But even the most advantaged women in Britain are not earning the same as their male counterparts.  This raises the question of other underlying differences between men and women in progress from school to the labour market.   Men are more likely to study economics and STEM subjects, and women more likely to opt for arts subjects.  The study found that creative arts degrees had the lowest earners of all, and these courses are 55% female on intake.

But the example of medicine shows that even where women study a high status subject in high numbers, they are not reaping the same rewards as men. Ten years on, many erstwhile students will have become parents, and some may be looking after their own parents.  The impact of caring work is still experienced predominantly by women, and this is likely to play a part in the differences in earnings between male and female graduates, no matter what their field.  Alongside discussions of higher education’s role in improving social mobility, perhaps we should be talking more about the role of effective policies for shared parental leave and flexible working options.

It has been pointed out during the current junior doctors’ pay dispute that doctors working part-time (80% of whom are female) will lose out under the new contract proposals, which remove pay increments and reduce maternity pay and ‘on-call’ rates for those working less than full-time equivalent.  No wonder there has been anger that the government equality impact document reads “Any indirect adverse effect on women is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate end.”  While doctors have benefited from some pay equalisation up to now, the graduate earnings data suggests that women doctors are less likely to progress to the top rates of pay than man, even in the system as it is.

And a survey of women in the finance sector (a likely destination for top-earning economists) reported this week that two thirds of women felt that being female put them at a professional disadvantage, and that they would not recommend their career to their daughters. If this is how women at the top of the highest earning professions feel, what about the rest of us? Since women graduates consistently earn less than men – and male non-graduates also earn more than females, it seems that we cannot continue to believe that gender equality has basically been achieved.  The figures suggest that it is still true that it pays to be a man, and that even at the top, it really is different for girls.










Universal Credit – for men?

3 Feb

Last month I wrote a blog about the Prime Minister’s speech on supporting families, where he referred to parenting as a ‘job’, and families as ‘the best anti-poverty measure ever invented’. Where in all this material and professional concern, I asked, was an acknowledgement of caring work in family life?

Seeing the discussion of the projected impacts of Universal Credit on different family types, I have to ask the question again. For today’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that working single parents will lose the most income through the Universal Credit system, and second earners in couples will have reduced incentives to work, in contrast to the overall impact of the scheme, which will apparently do more to make work pay for recipients. While transitional arrangements will shield current claimants, the impact assessment looks at what will happen in the longer-term.

So why is this a gender issue? Well, in spite of increasing numbers of hands-on fathers and breadwinning women, 9 out of 10 single parents are still women, and dual-earning households most often have male chief wage earners. Secondary earners are often working part-time and doing most of the childcare in families. So we have two groups of working mothers (single parents, part-time employees) who are likely to find it hard to compensate for the reduced income or reduced incentives to move into or stay in employment, which Universal Credit will present. Because of their caring responsibilities, they are likely to find it difficult to increase hours or pay, in order to make up for any losses, alongside paying for additional childcare.

The government is likely to respond that the offer of 30 hours free childcare, along with rises in income tax thresholds, will help resolve these issues. But as I and many others have pointed out, the childcare proposals are underfunded, and quality childcare is least likely to be available in deprived areas, so that the poorest parents may have problems accessing it. And if you are amongst the lowest earners and/or work part-time, the tax thresholds may not make any difference to you. You will simply be left worse off, and your children will still need to be cared for.

Disincentives for second earners to work under Universal Credit are troubling because they may damage mothers’ future financial prospects. This is firstly because they make it less worthwhile to remain in work, so that more women may spend longer out of the workforce; and secondly because the Universal Credit system proposes making all payments to one person in every household, thus breaking the principle where child-related payments were made to mothers. This second feature may not matter if you are in a good relationship with access to a joint account, but it could be very disadvantageous where unsympathetic partners control access to family finances.

It appears then that the benefits of Universal Credit are not quite as universal as the name suggests. And without acknowledgement of the value – and constraints – of caring work, it is likely to give more credit to men’s work than to women’s.









Fertile ground for change

1 Nov

It’s a familiar scene: a woman in her thirties without children attends a social gathering, and when the topic of conversation turns to babies, eyes turn to her. Has she thought of having them? Is she ‘more of a career woman’? And it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘biological clock’ comes up. There’s a common understanding that women’s fertility is time-limited, and that as we age, the chances of conception and childbirth fall. Strangely absent from these discussions are men – sometimes even as they stand there beside the thirtysomething woman…

There’s been a lot of talk again recently about egg freezing (e.g. here and here), the process through which women can have eggs extracted and stored frozen until the conditions are right for her to consider starting a family. Such technology was originally offered to women undergoing cancer treatment which could compromise their fertility, but it is now increasingly available as an intervention for women who wish to freeze eggs as an insurance policy for future childbearing. I wrote last year about the potential downsides of egg freezing being offered as a corporate perk – would it be another way to bend women to the corporate status quo, rather than looking creatively at more flexible working options for all parents in the workforce? The onus for timing of childbearing and achieving ‘work-life balance’ remains primarily a ‘woman’s issue’ in public talk.

But what if men had biological clocks too? What if not only women see their chances of conception decrease with age? These issues are now being addressed as fertility researchers turn their attention to men’s biology. An article in the Washington Post points out that our knowledge of men’s fertility is years behind our knowledge of women’s, and that a growing body of findings is showing that men’s fertility does decline over time. For example, a man over 45 may take five times as long to conceive as men of 25 or less. And although the risks overall are low, older fathers have higher risks of having children with certain health conditions than their younger counterparts. Shouldn’t this be part of our debate on later parenthood? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t this knowledge be shared widely so that couples know more about men’s bodies, and women are no longer exclusively burdened with all of the stress to do with ‘windows’ for conceiving, having attained a reasonable standard of living.

It used to be the case that research information on employment and socio-economic group was collected from men, as they were assumed to be the breadwinner determining the socio-economic group of the rest of the household. This meant we knew little about women’s employment. Similarly, in concentrating on women as the key individuals in fertility statistics, we know less about men’s childbearing behaviour, rates of childlessness and fertility trends over time. We’d no longer accept overlooking women’s economic role, so perhaps it’s time to look even more at men’s role in fertility patterns. We might even find out that they can’t have it all…

Back at a gathering of thirtysomethings, when the talk turns to having children, we should include men in the discussion. As two-earner couples are increasingly the norm, with both partners juggling work and family concerns, it’s high time we changed the conversation.



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’.





%d bloggers like this: