More than meets the eye

Diversity – and equality – is something I think about a lot. I am very biased, but I was fortunate enough to be raised by a brilliant feminist mother, who proudly sports a t-shirt proclaiming “This is what a feminist looks like”. As a result I developed a deep-set, unshakeable and core belief early on that there should be equality between men and women. And perhaps given I am also a woman, when I think about diversity and equality I tend to focus on gender.

Recently though I’ve been part of a few conversations about other kinds of diversity, parts of our identity that may not be visible to the eye but that can be just as important. Its been genuinely thought-provoking.

The first was centred around the concept of need. As I’ve mentioned on here many times, I’m a Trustee of an amazing charity Young Women’s Trust, which helps young women trapped in low or no pay. In the years I’ve been working with the charity I’m still struck by the number of young women we help who, on paper, don’t meet the traditional definition of being ‘needy’. They may well have a degree, come from lower middle income homes. But after graduation they find themselves unable to secure work, falling into a soul-destroying downwards cycle of weekly trips to the Job Centre, whilst claiming benefits and sending out countless C.V’s not to get even a single acknowledgement back. The repercussions on mental health, self-esteem and well-being are horrific.

I was moved to tears by a recent anonymous YWT case study by a woman who suffered awful childhood abuse, spent her teens battling depression, anxiety and self-harm, stuck on long waiting lists to get help. But she did well at school and then at university. In her own words:

“My academic record disguised the carnage that was my private life…I had a series of abusive relationships…violence and abuse had been part of my life for so long that I didn’t even recognise there was a problem.”

When she finally realised she needed help and asked for support, she didn’t get it, because she wasn’t deemed needy enough. She had a bank account. She hadn’t been sectioned so her mental illness wasn’t bad enough. People actually said these things to her. She ended up homeless, sleeping in a general hostel.

The story has a happy ending. Following support – in this case provided by the Young Women’s Trust via coaching – she found a job, and feels like a different person;

“For the very first time, I am hopeful for my future.

One of my favourite things about my job is the travel. When I stay overnight, I get put up in really nice hotels.. Work are always very apologetic, but I love it! They don’t know that I am used to the hostel. With no privacy and a mouldy shower and a narrow uncomfortable bed. My very first night away, I danced around the room in my pyjamas, jumped on the bed, took the world’s longest shower and stayed up all night watching TV. I finally felt like I’d made it.”

This incredibly touching and frankly heart-breaking story was a real reminder that we are still very quick to judge based on what we can see. Often success in diversity at work is perceived as being able to look around the room and see lots of people who don’t look alike. Need is often judged based on appearances, as it was with this girl. That’s one of the reasons I love TfL’s recent ‘Please Offer Me a Seat’ scheme which is all about need that is not immediately apparent.

This is not to say visible differences aren’t important. One of the reasons I think we still need to explicitly focus on ethnicity or the gender divide is because these things are still a problem. But its also the unseen differences that bring great diversity to work and I realise now that I’ve been guilty of not always recognising or valuing that. If you had a group of managers in a room and all of us had similar upbringings, values and social status then you wouldn’t necessarily get massive divergence in opinions that would mean we delivered the best results. I work for a company that has a diverse customer base and ultimately companies whose employees and product designers reflect their customer base achieve much more. The internet is littered with bloody insulting examples of men developing products for women who think they’ll make it ‘appeal’ by painting it pink. The woman in this case study likely brings a completely different life experience from her colleagues, yet none of them know a thing about it.

I heard another example along the same vein from a middle-aged, middle-class white man at an industry event this week who was feeling a little frustrated by being lumped in with all the other middle-aged, middle-class white men and assumed they are the same. He pointed out that if you put him in a room with Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump they would all be completely different (and not just because Donald Trump isn’t exactly what I would call middle-class…)

There are certainly instances of charities finding it harder to fund-raise for causes that aren’t as obviously needy. I used to work in the digital inclusion space and it was certainly slightly more tricky to raise funding for teaching people how to get online when it was being weighed up in direct comparison to other groups with ‘clearer’ need. But I can’t be prouder to be involved with a charity that works with the woman who need help – regardless of their background or qualification or any other tick box definition of what constitutes need.

And with that I can’t possibly not finish on a little fundraising plug to donate to Young Women’s Trust via my sponsored Sahara Desert Trek! Obligatory Just Giving Page is here. Now to get to that training….

From the inside looking out you can never see how it looks from the outside looking in

This time last week I was deep in the intellectual buffet that is the Hay (formerly known as Literary) Festival in Wales. Spanning just over a week its a proper smorgasbord of talks from incredibly talented authors, with a smattering of politicians, scientists, musicians and other entertainers mixed in for good measure. As a proper book addict who is dangerously close to filling her eighth bookshelf – with no immediately obvious space for a ninth – it was literally my heaven.

Whilst Margaret Atwood discussing her Handmaid’s Tale had to take top spot, I would be hard pressed to choose a clear second between the other events I attended, because they were. Just. All. So. Good. My reading wish list for at least the next couple of months is completely full up.

That said, there were two authors whose stories especially struck me, each discussing something seemingly quite different yet with a common shared vein.

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To pay rise or not to pay rise, that is the question

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s blog post about women on boards, and the frankly ridiculous things a few people appointing – or rather not appointing –  women onto boards said, I wanted to touch on the issue of gender pay.

This has clearly been a hot topic recently with the Government’s introduction of mandatory gender pay reporting, although post some high profile media coverage – which seemed to focus on a few big companies and criticism of the ways the reporting has been structured – it feels a bit like its fallen away.

I have been very fortunate to formally and informally mentor a few exceptional women in recent years and consistently, unsurprisingly, navigating promotions and pay arise as constant themes. Regardless of gender, it is clearly something that comes up again and again whilst working.

A lot has been written about gender differences in pay. The survey my charity Young Women’s Trust did of 800 HR professionals actually found that the majority (67%) didn’t think there was a difference between men and women in relation to ambition, though 25% did think men were more ambitious. In relation to asking for pay rises though, the number who thought gender didn’t make a difference dropped to 51%, with 39% saying male employees were more likely to speak up.

Some light Google-based research shows that the actual evidence about gender-based differences in approaches to pay is more of a mixed bag. A study by the University of Wisconsin, Warwick and the Cass Business School found no difference in the likelihood of asking for a pay rise between genders, but you can also find articles citing studies, like one from global market research firm Mintel published earlier this year, which found that women report being half as confident as men at asking for more pay.

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‘I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment’… bullsh*t

I should start this blog by saying a bloody big bravo (or rather brava) to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for yesterday publishing a list of the worst explanations they received from FTSE 350 CEOs and Chairs for not having more women on their boards and calling bullsh*t on their excuses.

The gems that made the list included ‘I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment’,‘ we have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn’ and ‘the issues covered (by the board) are extremely complex’.

In case you were wondering whether we’d finally succeeded in time travel back to the dark ages, no, its still 2018. And yes, I did say FTSE 350 CEOs and Chairs. And no to the owner of the last comment, women’s brain are not hard wired to be less capable than men’s. My various WhatsApp groups and Twitter timeline were quite rightly full of rage, a proud, loud and well-justified ‘angry feminist’ response.

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Broken bones or breaking inside: belated Mental Health Awareness Week

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and whilst I blogged inside my company, I have definitely let the side down on my public blog. In all honesty, I’ve decided to slow down a bit. I love the idea of the 100 Day Project and I would love to give it another go next year, but with something other than blogging. I adore writing and someone very smart reminded me on Sunday that just like reading, writing is good for the soul, but it is also time-consuming and I hate just to write rubbish for writing’s sake. I’ve also started writing something privately, which right now is for my own personal consumption (and no my filthy-minded followers, its not ‘adult fiction’).

But, whilst blogging inspiration didn’t strike last week, a few things have sprung to mind that I thought were fit for this blog, this week, kicking off today with a belated Mental Health Awareness Week post.

As you may have seen, the focus for this year’s week was all around stress and the impact on mental health.

Stress – quite rightly – gets a lot of bad press. But there is a fine line and delicate balance to be struck between good and bad stress. Stress is a natural part of life, and isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. A little bit of stress strengthens connections between neurons, improving memory and cognitive functions. It can give your immune function a little boost, and triggers the fight or flight response, which has been key to keeping mankind alive for all these years. Personally it can give me that much needed push to the finish line when I’ve been procrastinating!

But chronic and severe stress is a killer – literally in the most extreme cases. It is linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and physical illness. A lot of stress commentary and study is focused on stress and the workplace. Think back to analysis on the economic crash, the reduction in job security, and the pressure to deliver more if you were in work. So much of it was about the increased and negative impacts of stress at work.

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Be sure of your aim and never miss your mark

Building on last night’s post, I can feel a whole flow of dharma related posts coming on. Consider yourself forewarned.

Today we went to the park at lunch, to sit on the grass and be in the sun. My meditation stroke web master employee was there and he shared a lovely Japanese story about not worrying about things we can’t control. I told this story that our yoga teacher shared last week, which struck a beautiful chord.

Krishna and Arjuna are talking before the battle. A bird flies over and tweets for mercy; her nest has fallen, baby birds and all, right into the middle of the battlefield, and would be crushed as soon as the fighting began. According to one telling Arjuna empathises but simply says she must accept her fate. I liked our telling where he waves her away, still young and a little foolish and focused on Krishna’s telling, ignorant to the bigger message she was chirping, whilst Krishna listens on in silence.

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Dharma vidhya. Into action.

On Saturday evening I returned from a deeply magical and very special week on a yoga retreat in the Portuguese mountains. Many things emerged and started to settle. I learnt a lot, both about the history and meaning of the practice, and also as I continued to uncover and get to know more about myself. I won’t try to fit all of it into one post because it was so wide ranging and varied and I wouldn’t do it the justice it all deserves by rushing to write it down. And some of this is only just beginning.

One theme we touched on during the week, and returned to again and again on a number of the days, was indecision, which has been playing through my mind. Paula, our incredible teacher for the week, would open each day with a short talk and some storytelling on an aspect or teaching of yogic practice. She spoke a lot – and more beautifully and naturally than I likely will – about how yoga is a way for us to turn inwards to connect with ourselves, to know yourself, to awaken, find and connect with your ‘dharma’ – your work, truth, sacred duty – and then upon knowing this, to turn back outwards and connect with the universe, the wider world and give back.

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GALs and Visonaries*

As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve just finished reading Mary Beard’s ‘Women and Power: A Manifesto’ (which has now been book-napped by my mother, and I will be taking back for a second read very soon!) It really took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to have such light sharply shone on things about the relationship between women and power, or how women in power are treated, that I’ve either never noticed or had never thought about the implications of.

On Friday I wrote about how powerful women through history were often made more ‘masculine’, or effectively had their femininity removed, in order to make them more acceptable, just like the ancient Greek goddess Anthea. I mentioned there was one other thing that had struck me reading the book.

That was the discussion about women speaking about women’s issues. And how Mary brings into question whether this is done just because women want to, or because this is the ‘safe’ space we are allowed to comfortably occupy, front and centre, in the public sphere. She looks back – obviously – to the ancient Greeks and the Romans and the few examples of women who were allowed to “publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole” and even then only in “extreme examples”. She also points to a few more modern-day examples where the public speeches made by women which we hold up and laud are often women speaking about ‘women’s issues’. The implication being that the well known speeches made by men in contrast are much more diverse.

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There is more to life than simply increasing its speed

Today I have been going nowhere fast thanks to a rather painful ankle roll while strolling the uneven streets of Covent Garden last night.

It was supposed to be a busy day, zig-zagging from one side of London to another for friends, family and commitments. But stiffness and swelling setting in overnight putt a literal stop to any of that, even armed (or ankled?!) with my trusty strap.

Thanks in part to the sunshine, I decided there was no point in wallowing in self-pity and instead taking it as a sign that this was a day to slow down. I also have a nasty underlying fracture in my other ankle that left me in a boot for three weeks the last time I rolled it, so it also could have really been much worse (and very un-timely given I’m off for a yoga week in just under a week).

Slowing down doesn’t always come easily to me. A busy work schedule, often rushing from one meeting to the next, emails from waking until late at night, grabbing lunch on the go, along with a sense that free time should be filled and an interest in experiencing experiences. I talk fast and I walk fast. Sitting with thoughts and emotions, with nothing to distract, can also be very uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It takes time and some perspective to realise that silence can be a sweeter sound and slowing down makes space for rest and renewal.

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Only those who forgive can be free

I’ve been thinking a little – not a lot actually, happily less than I feared – about how you move on from love when it ends. A few of my close friends are coming out of tough breakups and so its been a topic of long conversation.

One such friend was talking to me last night about that moment when you move from loving someone, when the clouds begin to part, the dopamine they stimulated begins to drop, and you start to see some of the wood for the trees. Of course, depending on the nature of the relationship and the break-up, and your personality, this can be the start of the shift towards hatred. When with some distance you can see the things that in the moment you either didn’t see or chose to ignore. My friend said that she’s been learning not to let the hatred win, that resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. She said when she feels like she is being dragged back in she remembers the quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel:

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference

After all, to love or hate someone is still intensely emotional.

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