Career outlook for girls…

Flat outlook for girls I recently did a ½ hour talk to some Year 10 (15 year olds) on “A Career in Human Resources”. It was part of a whole pic-n-mix day of career options and, given I was up against the RAF, finance and medicine I was pleased to see about 50 curious types pitch up. Obviously about two thirds were girls and, as it so often the case, the boys were the first to answer.

“What is HR about?” I queried.

“It’s about making people happy” replied one chap

“That’s fine, and why would you want people to be happy?” I reposted

“Because happy people make a happy company and a happy company makes a better profit” answered this sagacious young man.

Once we’d established the point of having an HR function, the school children’s interests settled on two key areas: how much could you get paid and how quickly could you get to top-dollar. The boys and girls were also intrigued to know where on the scale shown on the screen I was; “I’m in a small box somewhere near the fire escape labelled ‘Self-Employed’” I quipped – nowhere near a ladder of progression and salary increases.  As I looked at the sea of happy, shiny optimists I didn’t want to tell them that as things stand the boys might get to  the FTSE 100 HR director £500,000 salary, but that the majority of girls wouldn’t – albeit they would make up 70% of HR professionals, and might get better grades, and acquire more qualifications and so on – but come the final board room reckoning the chances are they would be somewhere else (making Pudsey cupcakes if it’s this same week in November in 20 year’s time…)

I wondered about a notional geography teacher from the 15th century telling class that the world was flat and that Mr Columbus was unlikely to return. My conceit was that he would have been teaching what he took to be the truth when revolutionary change was just around the corner; and maybe the balance and options for women are just about to change too. Keen to pursue this idea for my blog, I Googled ‘flat earth’ for material to support my thesis. Well, blimey, turns out that back since the days of Pythagoras people knew the world was an orb, a ball, round like an apple spinning silently in space. And people all over the globe knew this, not just the Greeks. Believing that the ancients thought the world was flat is, apparently, one of the great misconceptions of history.

By this token maybe we do know how to give girls career routes to sustain their momentum, it’s just that the thinking is a bit fragmented still.  It needs to be dragged together because otherwise we will not benefit from the skills, ability and energy that women can bring to every level of an organisation – they are, literally, a human resource not being fully utilised.

Talking to an HR friend I suggested ideas that had occurred to me, like no longer using a 5 day week – or having a working day that runs in 8 hour chunks – or having completely goal orientated jobs where you get to go when you’re done. “Oh,” said my friend, “we already do lots of that in the NHS”.

Maybe lots of good new things are already happening – we just don’t all realise it? Opportunity Now, the gender equality campaign from Business in the Community, is currently doing a survey to find out more about gender balance at work. If you have a couple of minutes it is worth adding your experiences, whether you are male or female and if you are older or younger than the 28 – 40 focus. Go to www.project2840.com to have some input.

Different perspectives

CyberportTravel – broadens the mind and gives a different perspective on life.  During a recent trip to Hong Kong I find myself still reflecting on the issue of women’s contribution to economic well-being following the previous blog, and wondered what happened in Hong Kong. Given the people I meet tend to be well-educated and well-off I appreciate my pool for analysis is tiny. Despite this, I have come across a couple of small businesses which offer a particularly mother-friendly business model, one in out-sourced business services and the other a publisher.

When I mention that in Britain women tend to be employed part time; be better educated; and be paid less than men, there is agreement that things are similar in Hong Kong.  Both businesses employ “back to work” mothers and, certainly for the business services company, are happy to offer a 9.15 to 2.30pm working day. Both businesses tended to employ people that live close by and, since they work out of residential areas of Hong Kong (Discovery Bay and Pok Fulam) this is straight forward.

In terms of qualifications and previous experience there was a real sense the businesses were getting a bargain by employing these women. Many of them had had high level corporate jobs, with commensurate qualifications, prior to starting their families and were bringing these abilities for a fraction of their normal market value. The mothers were happy to do so though since it was convenient, interesting and kept their skills current.  In terms of pay the reason the women got less was because they worked fewer hours – on a pro rata basis it would appear they were paid a similar rate for similar work, albeit the work was not as high level as they had previously done. One lady, for example, was on 1/16th of her previous salary as a banker.

Two key differences between Hong Kong and Britain go to make the options for employing women unlike the UK.  The first is employment law which is much more generous to the employer: a woman is only entitled to 10 weeks paid maternity leave and no requirement to keep a position vacant beyond the 10th week.  Especially for small companies, this effectively removes one of the obstacles when employing women. The second factor is the affordable nature of childcare.  Within Chinese families there tends to be a comprehensive network of grandparents, aunts, and cousins etc. who help look after children allowing women to go back to work. In the better-off households there is a system of using “helpers”. Mostly from the Philippines, the helpers do everything in the home allowing women to go back to work without worry – and without needing the higher level logistics skills many British women have to develop to organise people, place, time and fee, hourly rates or favours in order to have their children looked after. Also, the women working in these small companies tended not to be the primary bread-winner for the family, having a “significant other” that made most the money.

And in other sectors the picture seems as skewed as Britain.  As one employer waxed lyrical about the lovely ladies who worked for him he suggested this supportive environment was normal for Hong Kong.  “It’s not like that in banking”, flatly replied my banking sister-in-law, ”we just did some management training on unconscious gender bias and in my group of eight I was the only woman. One of the group swore and then apologised to me with the phrase ‘Ooops, ladies present’ – when I suggested that was sexist since he hadn’t apologised to the men he hastily said he never used such language in front of his daughters – so I suggested he was infantising me by comparing me to 17 year olds.” (Poor man) Go girl!

And the picture – it’s of the Cyberport in Pok Fulam.