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Q is for Quota

21 Sep

There’s been a degree of press coverage of late around the suggestion, as put forward by Viviane Reading, who heads up equality and equal rights in her role as the European Union’s Fundamental Rights’ Commissioner, that European companies may soon be forced to implement a system of gender quotas at board level.

Predictably,  the Confederation of British Industry have responded to this with horror, thus:

“… the best and most sustainable way to promote diversity in the boardroom is by selecting candidates from as wide a talent pool as possible, and by making appointments based on merit.”

Well,  yes.  This is true.  But,  given that this “best and most sustainable way” doesn’t seem to be happening of its own free will, how about a bit of a push?

Read more about the back story, and what’s happening in other countries around the Q word, in my latest article for The Glass Hammer – by clicking here.

So when you blog and Tweet about …

21 Aug

… the current Australian Prime Minister …. I guess you shouldn’t be surprised if she then decides to follow you on Twitter:

Julia Gillard (@JuliaGillard) is now following your tweets (@TheGenderBlog) on Twitter.

Julia Gillard
Canberra, Australia
136 29,286 44,568
tweets following followers

The BBC are reporting,  as of this Saturday evening UK time,  that it’s going to be a hung parliament in Australia,  much as we’re currently enjoying here.  Nail biting stuff.

(If you’re following it on Twitter too, #AusVotes is a good hashtag).

Is Julia Gillard heading for the Glass Cliff?

20 Aug

(c) BBC

Tomorrow sees a general election in Australia, and the two main parties are currently neck and neck at the polls.

Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, is facing a fight to the finish with conservative coalition leader Tony Abbott.  Ms Gillard became Prime Minister in June after ousting her predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

But reports say that she faces a backlash at the ballot box over a range of issues,  including the way she replaced Mr Rudd as head of the Labor party and her policy directions on climate change and immigration.

If the Labor party,  currently just ahead in the polls at 52%,  does lose the election,  what will this mean for Gillard’s career? Will she be left to carry the can and blamed for the loss?  Or will there be an appreciation for the political status quo that she inherited so recently, at a time when the Labor Party’s popularity was sliding in the opinion polls?

Apparently, say the BBC, Kevin Rudd “surrendered without a fight” after realising that his support amongst government colleagues had collapsed.

That sounds like a poison chalice of a job to me – in fact,  it sounds like the roles described by researchers at the University of Exeter in their paper a few years ago as the “glass cliff”,  in which they suggest that senior women are:

“… more likely than men to find themselves in positions associated with a high risk of failure and are correspondingly precarious. … A female candidate is overwhelmingly favoured if the opening is described as difficult and involving a high risk of failure.”

The paper,  entitled “The Glass Cliff: Evidence That Women Are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions”, summarises the glass cliff position as follows:

  • While men are given safer and more secure jobs, women at all levels often feel that they have been “set up to fail”;
  • Such leadership roles can lead to increased stress for women leaders, and can contribute to larger numbers of women departing senior management positions;
  • Glass cliffs may also have repercussions for organisations, leading to poor communication and decision making

The research,  conducted in 2005 and updated in 2007, was conducted across a range of sectors which included business,  the law and, crucially here, politics. Significantly,  Julia Gillard was not handed the role of Labor Party leader/first female Prime Minister,  but actively sought it out – so in that regard,  the concept of being appointed to  a doomed, risky role does not apply to her.

However,  should her party lose at tomorrow’s election,  the blame will undoubtedly be laid at her door and you don’t have to be psychic to predict that there’ll be a media firestorm suggesting that the Aussie electorate didn’t vote for her due to her gender,  and/or because they didn’t want to have an elected (as opposed to an appointed) female Prime Minister.

Whilst,  as outlined here in this guest blog for Catalyst,  Australia does have a relatively high proportion of high profile, successful women in senior political roles,  the amount of media attention focussed on Gillard over the last two months has been intense and has been largely centred on her gender and personal life.

So, irrespective of whether she strode to the cliff edge herself or was parked there – I see that Australia’s first female Prime Minister is  poised on the edge of the glass cliff at the moment – and only the Australian electorate can keep her there or send her tumbling over the precipice.

However, on a lighter note,  just as we had Paul the Octopus making (ultimately) successful forecasts during the World Cup last month,  Australia now has psychic crocodile Dirty Harry making election predictions. Of course,  given that crocodiles are a bit more vicious and unpredictable in their behaviour than are our eight legged “friends”,  the selection protocol is a bit more feral:  this time,  Harry has to indicate the electoral winner by lunging for some raw chicken hanging below images of Gillard and Abbott.

Watch the video link here to see who he picks – and may the best crocodile win tomorrow.

On the Big diverse Lunch, 2010

25 Jul

This time last week I was sitting outside on a chair, eating cake,  in the middle of my street – just a normal, west London residential road,  a street of early 20th century houses, a street which is normally lined with parked cars and which serves as a useful cut through to the nearby tube station.

A street where, on regular days, people would doubtless think you’d lost your mind if you so much as sat in your front garden instead of around the back.

But last Sunday was different,  because me and my neighbours were taking part in the second annual Big Lunch – a day in which around one million people all over Britain sat down with their neighbours for a communal meal.  And so,  for just one day,  the road was closed,  the cars were relocated,  bunting and balloons were strung across the road and woven into the trees – and around one hundred adults and children came together in my street for a communal barbecue, followed by homemade cakes and puddings.

My street in London is very ordinary and is like thousands of others all over the UK – a row of terraced houses,  built in the Edwardian years at the turn of the twentieth century in order to house the growing middle class population of white collar workers such as bank clerks and office staff.  Some of the houses are owned,  some are rented;  some are single family units,  others are let out as individual rooms to a transient population of twenty-somethings from a variety of countries.  Most of the houses have now been updated from their original build and have had new kitchens, bathrooms or loft conversions bolted on,  although some do have the ancient 7’ x 11’ galley kitchen and prehistoric bathroom fittings still in situ (we inherited the original loo,  complete with overhead cistern and hanging chain, when we moved in in 2001).

Above all though,  we have a huge diversity and richness of talent in the street that I never really appreciated until one of my neighbours heard of the Big Lunch,  then in its early stages, last year and leafleted the street to see if anyone was interested in helping him organise our very own street party.  Before the 2009 Big Lunch,  our street was fairly typical,  in that some of us knew our immediate neighbours (and we are only a road of 27 houses,  so not a huge population) but nobody knew everybody.

I remember when there was a discussion a year ago over what entertainment to put on for the children and someone exclaimed: “What children?  Do we even have any kids living here?”

But we actually have nearly 30,  if we’d only known it at the time.

And diversity?  At this year’s lunch,  we had participants from the following countries: all four corners of the UK,  the USA, Canada, Poland, Bangladesh, Jamaica, India, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Russia and the Netherlands.

And this diversity of backgrounds also brings with it an amazing array of jobs;  a quick poll told me that amongst us we have a:

psychotherapist, a BBC producer, a professional sitar player,  an opera singer, an actuary, a CBT therapist, a vicar, an actress (who once had her own story arc in “Sex and the City”!), a motorbike salesman, some freelance musicians who teach drums and play in a band, an HR manager for a museum, a midwife, a man who makes models for film sets such as “Gulliver’s Travels”, assorted sales assistants, a primary school teacher, a management consultant and various people who “do things in IT”.

(And me).

What was great about the Big Lunch was not only the way in which this kind of event truly brings people together in a social sense,  but also the way in which people contributed their skills to the organisation of it all.

We had three barbecue stations on the go; Paul made us a playlist and plugged his iPod into someone else’s speakers so that we could have music.  I ordered all the food and took delivery of a huge Ocado order,  but that food was then stored overnight in multiple fridges up and down the street.  Wei-Hei used her discount card to buy the disposable plates, cups and cutlery at a great price from the cash and carry; Glynis spoke to a friend at a local church and arranged for us to borrow their tables in return for a small donation to the church roof fund (there’s always a church roof fund, isn’t there?).  Liz went up and down the street,  saying hello and getting people to sign up for the lunch; Russell used his great graphic design skills to knock out newsletters for everyone,  but particularly for those of our neighbours who don’t have email (which,  given that some of them are in their 70s and 80s,  is very much the case).

Astrid bought and stored all the drinks; Bevan collected the “Road Closed” signs from the local council depot; other neighbours contributed bunting (made out of what looked like old pyjamas), a gazebo, tables and chairs.  I did all the email communications with the Mayor’s office,  the local community policing team and our local ward councillors;  TLS was in charge of the budget,  on the basis that he’s great at getting money out of people and he also used his truck to fetch and carry various signs and bits of furniture.

Most crucially,  in terms of the atmosphere on the day,  our local musicians,  who form a truly fabulous band called Storey (check them out on iTunes and Spotify)  gave us a completely brilliant two hour concert.  They played their own stuff (with which quite a few of us are now familiar,  as we try to go to their local gigs when we can),  then went into some great covers and finally got members of the audience to join them on drums, tambourine and backing vocals.  Who knew that Mark was such a great drummer,  or that Ingrid could sing so well?

And I guess that’s the whole point of diversity – how do you know what skills people have,  unless you open up the doors (or the street) and include them?  I’ve had several job interviews (yes … still …) recently in which I’ve been asked: “What does diversity mean to you?” – and my answer is – it’s always all about the talent.  Just like the childless person who assumed that, like him, our road was childfree, I think that many unenlightened leaders think that having more people like them in the leadership team is the only way to lead the company,  or organise the street party.

But for me,  the Big Lunch events are a great reminder of a couple of things:

-       That I’m so lucky to live in this lovely street in this fabulously multi-cultural city;

-       That not sweating the small stuff is generally a great idea – and we will usually get there,  wherever “there” may be,  in the end;

-       And that the greatest outcome can always be achieved by having a mixture of talents and inputs from a wide variety of people.

Oh, and?  Street parties are way more fun when you get blue skies and sunshine (2010) rather than dark skies and rain (2009).

World Cup fever …

12 Jun

I guess it’s my week for writing about contraception.

Following on from my earlier blog about the Pill,  I was amused to receive a press release from none other than Britain’s major (something like £1 of every £8 spent in the shops of the UK is spent here) supermarket chain, Tesco.

They have leapt onto the World Cup bandwagon with alacrity and are urging us to “Lie Back and Think of England” with this cut price condom offer, “Won Sixty-Six”,  which they “hope will be a winner”.

Oh yes.  And there’s more:

“The excitement won’t stop after England finish their matches so we’re doing our bit to help it go through the night.

We chose the £1.66 price [for a pack of condoms] because we want to restore England supporters’ pride and help them to remember it is possible to go all the way, as we did when we won the World Cup back in 66.”

OK, then!

Moving on from contraception,  but still on the football theme (isn’t everything this week?),  the admirable pinkstinks campaign team have come up with an alternative take on the usual WAGS (“Wives and Girlfriends”) acronym with this alternative and amusing WAGS logo, available on t-shirts and tote bags.

Check out their fund-raising shop here.

On Pill popping

7 Jun

Over the last ten years or so,  “fertility” to many of my female friends, colleagues and wider circle of acquaintances has often been about encouraging the arrival of babies,  rather than preventing them.

Inadvertently, I’ve become familiar with words and phrases like IVF, surrogacy, Clomid, cervical mucus and the like.  Although two-thirds of British women in the 20-24 age group take the Pill, when you’re in your 40s (or even in your late 30s),  you tend not to do so, either by virtue of your age (and weight, or smoking status) or because you actively want to have children and so popping a daily pill from its little multi-coloured blister pack is an act from the past.

In series one of iconic TV show “Mad Men”,  there’s a scene where ambitious Peggy,  newly working in Manhattan and determined to be independent,  goes to see a doctor (who smokes throughout her examination – another example of how this visually stunning TV show uses props to invoke a sense of time, place and era) in order to obtain the Pill.

It’s the early 1960s and,  for the first time, there are doctors who will provide (unmarried) girls like Peggy with the tool to free them from their fertility.

I’m nearly as old as the Pill,  a fact of which I was reminded by this article in the weekend’s Observer,  which celebrates the Pill’s 50th birthday and reminds us of how far we’ve come since Peggy’s day. How about this quote?

“Well into the 1970s, women in Britain and America were still pretending to be married in order to get a prescription; some used to pass around the same battered wedding ring in the doctor’s waiting room.”

And as novelist Margaret Drabble comments:

“I think I would have had a child a year if I hadn’t started taking it.”

So, happy golden birthday to the Pill, an iconic symbol of late 20th century autonomy for women.

So are we tiptoeing towards quotas in the UK?

3 Jun

“Slowly, slowly, we approach the nervous foal with our hand out,  proffering a sugar lump,  or perhaps a chunk of carrot,  walking softly and gently on the balls of our feet so as not to startle him, speaking in a low, gentle, moderated voice so as not to cause him to veer up, startled and afraid”.

[As I'm sure David Attenborough never said].

But this approach is how these proposed new regulations from the Financial Reporting Council read,  when the nod towards the foal is so small as to be almost invisible – here’s the wording (my use of bold,  their use of underline):

“To encourage boards to be well balanced and avoid “group think” there are new principles on the composition and selection of the board, including the need to appoint members on merit, against objective criteria, and with due regard for the benefits of diversity, including gender diversity.”

And as Andrew Hill commented in the FT:

“it’s hard to understand why some companies feel threatened by the Financial Reporting Council’s decision to insist on annual re-election of boards and to nod, gently, towards gender diversity.”

Well, quite.

I await further media revelations as to which companies feel “threatened” and why … and what their share prices look like, too.

And the new Deputy Mayoress …

27 May

… of Ealing is my friend, neighbour, political campaigner/candidate and fellow blogger,  Rupa Huq.

Congratulations, Rupa!

Can we book you to come and open our street party celebrations for The Big Lunch next month, please?!

Not so wizard in Oz

26 May

It wasn’t until I started, as part of the consulting work which I’m doing for emberin, researching the status quo in Australian business circles with regard to women in corporate life, that I realised exactly where Australia currently sits on the gender diversity totem pole.

And the answer is … low. Here’s some data which I researched for an emberin paper on global best practices, sourced from such respected bodies as Catalyst, the FTSE 100 2009 survey of women on boards and Australian body the Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) – pretty shocking, isn’t it?

Country % of women as board directors
United States 14%
Canada 13%
United Kingdom 12%
Australia 8.30%

As I read and researched for my paper, it became clear that the (in)famous Aussie macho, blokey culture, described here in a piece on The Glass Hammer, and also in an interview with emberin founder Maureen Frank, is a huge part of the problem.

The very few women who have made it to the top of a minority of leading Australian companies describe a sometimes hostile environment built of what federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick calls both “belief barriers” (cultural convictions around the maternal role and what an “ideal” worker looks like) and “structural barriers”, such as issues around childcare and attitudes towards flexible working.

One of the ways in which this culture may end up being changed via force is through the introduction of some new legislation which will apply to Australia’s top 200 listed companies. About six months ago, the Australia Securities Exchange (ASX) dropped a bombshell in which they outlined their proposals to expand the existing corporate governance principles to include a mandatory gender diversity policy, thus parachuting diversity to the top of the agenda for those ASX 200 companies.

Described by Broderick as “the first structural intervention we’ve had”, the plan will force companies to publish a gender breakdown of directors and senior employees and to set both objectives and targets for gender diversity.

In essence, the proposals mean that publicly listed companies will need to consider reviewing existing diversity policies, or creating new ones, to cover board and company wide diversity initiatives.

The recommendations will require listed companies to:

• Establish a “diversity policy” that includes measurable objectives relating to gender diversity as set by the board;
• Disclose in their annual report the measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity as set by the board in accordance with the diversity policy, and –
• Disclose in the annual report the proportion of women employees in the whole organisation, in senior executive positions and on the board.

The first step for ensuring compliance with these new regulations (currently scheduled to be implemented on 1 January 2011, with recommendations to be finalised by 30 June 2010) – is for listed companies to prepare a diversity policy for their boards and to create a diversity strategy to support the policy, which is of course where emberin come in.

What I think will be particularly interesting will be what will happen to those companies if they DON’T comply; presumably, there’ll be fines but will the next step be to follow in the steps of Norway (2008) and France (2009) and introduce quotas for female representation on boards?

The “quota” word is always a real debating point in this space; for some, it’s regarded as the only way to force specific and measurable change, and to accept that the situation of low female representation won’t fix itself; for others, it’s the complete opposite of a meritocracy and is tokenistic and insulting to women’s talent, implying as it does (perhaps) that they’re only present on the board or in the leadership team in order to make up the numbers.

I was reminded of this when I went to register for a diversity conference and was faced with the following pop-up survey as part of the registration process:

“Do you think the UK should impose quotas to increase the number of women at the boardroom level?”

The instant answers were interesting but unhelpful:

53% voted yes, 47% voted no.

My own view on quotas is that they should be the last chance saloon, an “if all else fails” tool if establishing and monitoring targets hasn’t worked and nor have any of the other cultural change mechanisms available to companies who are really serious about increasing the number of women in key corporate roles.

A few months ago, Deutsche Telekom (DT) announced that they were introducing quotas in order to fill 30% of their middle and upper management jobs with women by 2015. This is a bold move and the company hopes to shift the female numbers from the 2008 level of 13%. The BBC report went on to say that DT will use tools like its recruitment policy and executive development programs to reach the targets, in addition to expanding the company’s parental leave, childcare and flexible working programs.

But, as with the ASX directive, it is unlikely that this comprehensive suite of measures will succeed without the final missing ingredient of monitoring – and, in all honesty, some kind of punitive measures.

Women of Britain: please vote!

6 May

Rocking the vote in Florida, 2004

Whatever you do,  wherever you are today,  please go and vote; a hundred years ago,  you wouldn’t have had the option.

A hundred years ago,  women died, were imprisoned, starved themselves in prison, so that we, their future daughters,  would have the right to go to a polling station and exercise our vote alongside our husbands, fathers and brothers. 

Voting,  particularly for women,  is not only a right,  it is a hard-won privilege. 

If you think that “politics doesn’t apply to me”,  as I have been told so many times by so many women – then think about all the things in your world, in your life,  which do apply to you:  the environment, education, hospitals, employment, medical care, crime.  By voting today,  you are  using your voice to make a conscious choice about how your country is run and by whom.

Please – make time to vote today, whether it’s because you want to have a say in how UK plc is governed for the next five years or in memory of the brave suffragette fighters who suffered so terribly so that we would have the rights which they were denied. 

Here’s an extract from the 1909 diary of suffragette Laura Ainsworth,  in which she describes being force-fed:

“They hold your arms and legs … You have a towel wrapped around you. One doctor kneels at the back of your right shoulder and forces your head back.  He forces your mouth and the other doctor pushes the tube down your mouth about 18 inches. You have a great tickling sensation, then a choking feeling and then you feel quite stunned.”

(For more on these brave women and the debt owed to them by 21st century women,  check out “The Ascent of Woman: a History of the Suffragette Movement” by Melanie Phillips).


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