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Working models

22 Jul

 

I’d been mulling over work-life balance issues, and the persistent question of gender equality in the tech workforce, when I read Alexis Ohanian’s open letter in The Hill, about the value of parental leave. He has established a system at Reddit, where employees are entitled to 16 weeks parental leave on the birth of a child. Crucially, he has taken his own full leave entitlement in the last year, after he and Serena Williams had their first child.

I’ve written before about the issues raised by the amount of parental leave taken by tech CEOs.  In the cases of Marissa Meyer or Mark Zuckerberg, the practice of modelling a culture where both men and women would be encouraged to take leave in the future, fell short.  In Meyer’s case, this was because she took ultra-short leave herself, and arranged to have her children accommodated alongside her office at work, while simultaneously banning homeworking for employees; in Zuckerberg’s case,  because he took only half of the full leave entitlement available to the wider workforce at Facebook. So hats off to Ohanian, for at least taking up his full leave entitlement, and not consigning it to the ‘for the juniors’ pile.

I’ve also been reading about the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Commons, Julian Smith, who has been in hot water over pairing arrangements, in relation to close votes on Brexit last week.  ‘Pairing’ allows MPs from opposing parties to cancel out each other’s vote, if one of them cannot attend parliament. If one of the pair is absent, the other agrees not to vote, so as to maintain the balance of voting behaviour across the House.  This procedure has now become bound up with the lack of formal parental leave for MPs.  Pairing arrangements are vital during the period following birth, when women are on maternity leave, or when men are taking paternity or parental leave.  Last week, on crucial Brexit votes, Brandon Lewis defied his pairing arrangement with Jo Swinson (the Lib Dem’s deputy leader, who has recently had her second child), by voting all the same.  Julian Smith has claimed that this was an error, while rumours have it, that breaches of pairing may have been encouraged. Breakdown of the pairing system is a problem, not just because of the breach of trust and its implications for high politics, but also because of the way it rides roughshod over the rights of working parents to take leave, and not to be discriminated against for breaks in their working history.  Members of parliament should be setting an example of fairness on this issue, as they legislate for the rights of others.

My thinking about model employers was nudged further by news that a New Zealand firm has experimented with giving its employees a 4-day week on full pay – and has followed up on the results of a trial. Encouragingly, the New Zealanders found that their employees were more satisfied and less stressed during 4-day weeks. Employees had been consulted about how to implement the policy, and had contributed to ideas for increasing efficiency, including automation of some routine tasks.  The trial has been pronounced a huge success, with productivity rising by an estimated 20%. How much of employees’ greater satisfaction can be attributed to their extra day of leisure, and how much to the improvement in quality of their jobs through automation of the repetitive aspects of work, is perhaps worthy of further investigation. Gaby Hinsliff has written about the ‘smart’ use of tech, which can free  people up to do the most fulfilling parts of their job, and to allow more flexibility in when and how it is done.  Technology will have a role in the design of jobs in future, possibly leading to fewer hours of better quality work for greater numbers of people.  But the jury is still out, and there are plenty more dystopian views of how automation may affect the workforce – it’s a subject I might return to another time.

The idea of more equal distribution of work throughout society, brings us back full circle to the example set by men taking parental leave.  Fairness at work can not dodge questions of structural inequalities. Ohanian makes the point that the bar for men is set very low, in terms of expectations around their involvement in care of their children.  Women, meanwhile, face pressure to excel both in parenthood, and at work, in unsupportive systems (in the US, the lack of formal maternity leave for many, means that mothers often return to work only two weeks after childbirth).  Perhaps it helps men to contemplate taking leave when both partners in a couple have equivalent status and salaries, so that it is harder to justify defaulting to the traditional  breadwinner/homemaker models, where men carry on earning the same or more, and women step back from the workforce. Ohanian’s career success is more than matched by that of his wife, Serena Williams.

It remains the case that flexible working arrangements are more likely to be offered to those in higher status jobs, while people in frontline services or on production lines, must show up for all the hours available to them.  Those in service industries and care work – often low-paid, and often female – are unlikely to be able to access 4-day weeks on 5-days’ pay.  But perhaps their employers are missing a trick: since their employees are humans, in jobs requiring communication and empathy, they are amongst the ones most likely to benefit from a New Zealand-style 4 day week which could help prevent burn-out. They are not likely to be replaced by robots anytime soon.  Imagine how much we would all benefit if productivity in service sectors and social care, rose by 20% …. Imagine  if our idea of the model worker deviated more from that of a man in the office, with a wife who does most of the caring work…

 

 

 

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All tomorrow’s parties (with apologies to The Velvet Underground)

5 Jul

 

And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?

 

A hand-me-down deal from who knows where

At all tomorrow’s parties

And where will we go, what will we be

When midnight comes around

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?

 

And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?

 

Which elements of yesterday’s deals

At all tomorrow’s parties?

And what will we do with Theresa’s fudge

When Brexit comes around?

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?

 

And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?

 

For Theresa’s fudge could be Europe’s clown

For whom none will go mourning

A hybrid fix, a hand-me-down deal

Of elements, a customs plan

Fit for one who sits outside

For all tomorrow’s parties

 

 

 

Some ministries are more equal than others

1 May

Behind the headlines about Amber Rudd’s resignation from the office of Home Secretary, and the anointing of her successor in that role, Sajid Javid, there was a second, less well-attended announcement.  Rudd had recently taken on the Women and Equalities portfolio, following Justine Greening’s departure from government in the January reshuffle, and a new minister was therefore also required in this role. Penny Mordaunt is to be that person, balancing the Women and Equalities brief with her existing job of Secretary of State for International Development.

Mordaunt is the fourth person to hold the Women an Equalities brief in two years, and the seventh incumbent since 2010, when the Conservatives came to power, under David Cameron in the coalition government.  The minister for Women and Equalities is not a freestanding post, and has been held in conjunction with other ministerial positions.  Since 2010, the brief has been held alongside Home Office (twice) Culture (twice) Education (twice) and now International Development.  The eagle-eyed may have noticed that one of the spells in Culture was presided over by none other than Sajid Javid, who held the Equalities part of the brief while Culture secretary in 2014, partnering with Nicky Morgan who was then Minister for women, alongside her role as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Eyebrows were raised as Morgan had only ‘attending’ status in Cabinet – such ministers only join Cabinet when issues concerning their remit are on the agenda. Some might say that gender and equalities issues are always there ….

So, has there been any shift in priorities since 2014? Well, in the sense that the Women and Equalities minister has been a full member of Cabinet, then yes. Nicky Morgan later took on the brief while Education Secretary, and Justine Greening held those two posts under Theresa May, before Amber Rudd’s brief sojourn while Home Secretary. There is now also a Women and Equalities Select Committee in parliament to provide scrutiny on relevant issues. But the frequent movement between departments and subsequent lack of continuity, is less positive. With Amber Rudd’s departure, the Cabinet has become even less gender-balanced than before – it could have presented an opportunity to make the post freestanding and promote another woman.

Mordaunt’s busy role as International Development Secretary currently involves developing new safeguarding standards in the aid sector, following the Oxfam scandal, on top of all the complexities of poverty reduction and humanitarian activity.  Arguably there is a good match between dealing with global and domestic inequalities, but the two ministerial roles have not been held together before, and the international development sector is currently having to work hard in these areas.  We will have to wait and see if this results in any new synergies, or further movement down an already crowded political agenda.

Meanwhile, over in Labour, the Shadow Women and Equalities minister is now a standalone post, indicating that the brief may have higher priority in any future Labour administration. How long we’ll have to wait and see if that’s the case is an open question…

 

 

 

Brexit Valentine (or It’s not EU, it’s me …)

14 Feb

 

You may not be the one,

But you are ‘a’ one

With whom I feel strongly aligned;

I love our deep and special relationship

(For details, read my mind…)

 

I have some issues with boundaries –

I like them fuzzy, not hard –

If you want to trade with me

I may play a Trump card …

 

I adore our rich exchanges,

Please don’t change a bit,

I like being in your club –

But not the membership….

 

We’re going through a transition –

It’s just a silly phase –

You’re my friend with all the benefits,

I’m the one who involuntarily pays …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A leaf from suffrage history

6 Feb

This is a picture of a flyer which hangs in my house. The campaign for Votes for Women was long, and fought on many fronts, and pamphleting was an important part of it.  One hundred years ago today, the first women (over 30, propertied) achieved the right to vote. You can see on this flyer that the President of the National Union of Suffrage Societies is listed as ‘Mrs Henry Fawcett’ – not as Millicent – who we have grown accustomed to hearing of, and to celebrating.  Soon there’ll be a statue in Parliament Square. Her listing here suggests that even for campaigning households, changing social norms in public could be a gradual process.

 

So how did I come by this little piece of social history? Probably not where you’d most likely expect.   A few years ago, I was up in the Highlands, and on a day when the weather was less than ideal for outdoor activities, we went to the book fair in the local town to pass a bit of time.  It was there that I found the flyer – under a few layers of unremarkable stuff, in a transparent pocket on an antiquarian’s stall.  I was intrigued and spent a bit of time reading through it – my kids came over to see what I was doing – ‘that’s so you’ they declared – finding something feminist in an unlikely venue.….

 

But should I have been surprised to find it in the Highlands, in a back-of-beyond kind of place? Turns out, not so much as you might have thought.  My artefact prompted me to find out a bit more about suffrage movements in Scotland, and what the word on the street, well North of Watford Gap, would have been.  I discovered that both suffragist and suffragette movements were, in fact, highly active North of the border. Edinburgh had one of the earliest suffrage societies, founded in the 1870s.  I’d not noticed before that Winston Churchill stood as an MP in Dundee, and was apparently regularly confronted by women campaigning for the right to vote in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, in comparatively provincial Perth there was a prison where women protestors were force-fed in the same brutal way as happened in London.  Scottish churches supported votes for women and spread the word, and women in Highland fishing communities were also activists. A bit of browsing online shows that there was a young female piper who played on marches for the Suffragettes, and a range of Scottish women who made their mark upon the movement – including Marion Wallace Dunlop, who was instrumental in the use of hunger strikes as protest.  My dip into the Scottish story shows that women everywhere in the UK played their part in giving us the vote.

 

On the flyer, the 14 reasons for supporting women’s suffrage make a vital connection between women’s experience and legislation – laws should be made by all those who abide by them, and reflecting the interests of all.  But the later reasons listed touch on something else as well – that women should have the vote because they desire it, and that objections to this are not based on reason.  The fight for votes for women put women’s agency on the agenda, and made the case for women’s place as full participants in public life.  One reason sums it up: ‘it is for the common good of all’. Representation really matters – on the pages of history, and in the corridors of power.

 

 

 

Shutting the door on 2017

18 Dec

A couple of weeks ago I read about a charity initiative to start a ‘reverse advent calendar’ – a great idea for donating food and household supplies to foodbanks. Instead of receiving a little gift from behind the date on your calendar each day, you pick something you can give away daily, and then pass your collection on to your local foodbank, to help people in need over Christmas.

I’ve always enjoyed the build-up to Christmas, so the concept of ‘reversing’ the calendar appealed to me.  I’m also old enough to remember when the excitement of advent calendars was simply in finding a new picture behind the flap – which star-strewn image would be revealed? Which winter wonderland would I enter today? This led me to think about another way of reversing the calendar. Instead of opening a door into a colourful new world, what would you like to shut the door on and put behind you, each day?

2017 has been another turbulent year, so the nominations come thick and fast.  Here are some suggestions from me, feel free to add your own …

 

I’d like to shut the door on:  Silencing women

It’s been a big year for women speaking out.  From the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration, to the new openness in discussions of sexual harassment following the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, it has been a time for hearing long-neglected women’s voices. The tide turned sufficiently for Time magazine to name the ‘Silence breakers’, the women who spoke out about sexual harassment, as their Person(s) of the year.  But as Mary Beard reminds us, silencing  women has deep roots in our culture, with women in the public sphere facing constant pressures to shut up. Let’s keep talking.

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Non-apologies

2017 has proved a masterclass in the public utterances of ‘sorry not sorry’.  In response to revelations of sexual harassment, many high-profile men have abjectly failed to apologise properly. It’s nicely summed up in this piece for Vox. My own favourite example is Louis C.K.’s notion that he was ‘so admired’ that he didn’t realise that asking first didn’t make showing his private parts to colleagues ok ….

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Threatening language in politics

The Brexit juggernaut has rumbled on this year, with divisions of opinion running to the top of our political parties.  In the midst of heated debate, the atmosphere has sometimes turned nasty.  There have been headlines calling judges ‘enemies of the people’ and Conservative rebels ‘mutineers’.  Most recently, the vote to give parliament a meaningful say on the outcome of negotiations with the EU, has resulted in MPs being termed ‘traitors’.  Members of both the main political parties have now seen demands for de-selection from other members of their own parties.

The essence of a strong democracy is being able to express opposing views and argue the case in a civilised manner. Labelling those you disagree with stupid or ignorant, or worse, sliding into threatening discourse, does not help. In 2018 let’s have some calm.

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Fixing women, not systems

2017 has seen the gender pay gap highlighted as an issue, and gender inequality in sectors such as broadcasting and technology brought to the fore.  As the inequities in these industries have been exposed, there’s also been a repetition of arguments around how women’s ‘choices’ explain differences in outcomes between the sexes.

A fine example came up this week, in reporting of a study which apparently found that teenage girls aimed for lower-paying jobs than boys, so that girls’ aspirations were perpetuating the pay gap. This analysis pays no attention to the social forces underlying occupational choices, nor to lesser value often attached to ‘feminine’ or female-dominated jobs, irrespective of the actual skills and knowledge required to carry them out.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley it’s been a year of reckoning for gender inequality in technology. The infamous ‘Google memo’ (which I blogged about here) kickstarted the ongoing debate around diversity in tech, and the widespread failure of tech companies to recruit, retain and promote female and non-white staff.  Many voices support the notion that cultural issues in the sector are deep-rooted, and affect women and minorities at all stages of their career, rather than resulting simply from life choices such as area of study, or having children.  Issues of unconscious bias also affect investment decisions amongst venture capitalists who fund tech start-ups as shown here.

It’s time to address structural and cultural factors underlying inequality, rather than focussing relentlessly on individuals.

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Bad awards choices

I seemed to spend half of 2016 discussing poor choices in award winners (e.g. here and here) so I was hoping for better form this year.  2017 may indeed have risen above the dubiousness of making Bono a ‘Woman of the Year’ as really did occur last year, but at the close of play we have another clanger.  It’s been announced that Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘youthquake’ Word of the Year. This news has attracted some raised eyebrows, as few would identify it as a commonly used piece of vocabulary. The rationale seems to be that usage did increase this year, and that it’s a ‘hopeful’ word in uncertain times.  Hmmm… a word that few use, to describe something that hasn’t quite happened – perhaps that sums up 2017 after all….

 

As someone who shares a house with teenagers can I also suggest that slamming doors becomes a thing of the past?   May the door of 2017 now close peacefully behind you.

 

 

Ushering in change…

18 Nov

It’s hard to think of an instance where shutting a door in a woman’s face represents progress, but in this week’s appointment of the first female Black Rod, we have one.  Every year Black Rod comes to public attention as part of the ceremony attached to the presentation of the Queen’s Speech to Parliament.  In accordance with tradition – representing the independence of the Commons from the monarchy – Black Rod arrives at the doors to the House of Commons, and is symbolically snubbed: the door is slammed shut, and Black Rod must knock three times with a lion-topped, ebony staff, in order for the door to be opened. MPs then accept the invitation to move to the House of Lords and hear the speech.

But the job has a wider remit than that.  Black Rod is essentially a kind of CEO of the House of Lords, and has the accompanying title of ‘Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’. As the first woman to occupy the role in over 650 years, Sarah Clarke is to be styled ‘Lady Usher’ when she takes up her post early next year.  Historically, Black Rod has often been a military man, as was the current incumbent, David Leakey. Sarah Clarke’s background is more one of military precision – the kind required to organise Wimbledon, or to be a major cog in putting on the London Olympics.  Such a background seems suitable as it involves dealing with the needs of Royals, high-status professionals, and the public.  Among the many duties of Black Rod, is responsibility for the royal areas of parliament, such as the robing room, and organising the State visits of foreign luminaries.  Black Rod also has a meaty security portfolio, including major incident response and contingency planning, should the House of Lords become unusable.  As Big Ben stands covered in controversy-generating scaffolding, and the plans for renovation of parliament remain undecided and yet urgently required, this might become a more high-profile aspect of the job.

There are those who might say that Black Rod represents exactly the kind of anachronistic flummery Britain could well do without. But as the Republic seems some way off, and we have a surfeit of constitutional issues to resolve over the next few years as the UK leaves the EU, perhaps there is a little consolation in knowing that Black Rod’s duty of ‘fostering diversity and inclusion’ in the House of Lords will at last be performed by a woman…

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