Throwing stars at elephants

Burnham Overy beachIn autumn 2013 I attended a business women’s lunch in Norwich where Dr Haya Al-Dajani  presented some of her research into women’s economic position in New Anglia. I was really struck by her findings, particularly when I considered them in conjunction with my own observations. It’s not just the pay gap (in Norfolk, for example, there is a 15% pay gap between men and women, in Suffolk it’s 19% – but I’m not sure British people ever talk about how much they are really being paid, let alone work out disparity), or the “glass ceiling” and the “sticky floor”, it’s also the way so many women appear to vanish from positions of organisational power as they have children or, to quote Erika Clegg from the New Anglia LEP in the EDP in December 2013 “There is a profligate waste of skills dropping out of the workforce along the career pipeline”.   The old-school call to get more efficient in order for women to have it all seems a bit surreal  – even if women batch cook, use a personal shopper and delegate children, so many are still forcing themselves into roles that are defined by a patriarchal society where tasks and responsibilities are divided along Neanderthal lines – which also take so many women right back to caring for elderly parents, often just as children leave home.

Some argue that creating more full time jobs and getting women back from the school run to the office would be good because it would represent an increase in tax income – so what’s good for the economy now would be good for everyone in the long run.  And yet, and yet, children with parental involvement with their education have better social skills, learn well, progress strongly and, ultimately are able to add value to our society. Referring back to my personal observations, it is striking at school events how many of the parents there (mothers and fathers) are self-employed and able to design their working day to fit in sports day, or hot chocolate break etc. Does this offer an alternative? I can hear you, all those people sucking their teeth and pointing out that they, and many like them, successfully combine childcare and career;  I can also hear people muttering the stories of terrible stay-at-home parents who only eat carry-out food, never turn the TV off and haven’t shown their children how to “work” a book.

Despite this, I’m not sure at the moment that we are seeking 21st century solutions to balancing work and life – and family – and hobbies – and volunteering – and the environment. It seems to me we are still trying to use an industrialist expansion model that isn’t fit for purpose anymore. Examples of people being valued because they work 60, 70 and more hours per week; success measured on financial products that can’t be understood by most people because the product has so lost contact with the fundamentals that should be anchoring them; a Victorian (not in a good way) approach to using raw materials and resources.

No answers from me – yet – but a few analogies and metaphors to help encapsulate the issues: I’m thinking of this an an eLLephant. Why? Because the only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time. Because faced with the task of describing an elephant through touch there is a story about some blind gentlemen who found it to be hard and long, or like a rope, or like a basket (depending on whether they were touching the tusk, tail or ear). Because the elephant in the room is that women give birth to children which makes them different to men. And, (often people join in at this point) because elephant society is matriarchal.

Recently a wise librarian suggested a further analogy to help define, describe and develop my notion – the story of the star thrower, which I hadn’t heard before. A young man is noticed at the high tide mark on the beach. He picks up star fish and places them back in the water so they are safe. “Why bother?” queries a passer-by, “the beach is enormous and you will never get round them all”. “I know”, he replies, picking and throwing one more back into the waves, “but it matters to that one.”

Making work work

beachWorking early in the morning of her day off, my financial analyst editor friend sighed deeply.  She works for an international banking house and was editing a 150 page report on energy in China. “Interesting?” I queried. “Not really” she replied. “Maybe lots of people will read it?” I pursued. “Not really” she replied, “I’ll read it, and one of my team will read it and that’s probably it – who, apart from us, has time to read 150 pages?  Even though it’s taken the young analyst hours and hours and hours to prepare”.

A recent report in the Financial Times (18/19 January 2014) highlights similar issues. Some young bankers report working 90 hours weeks, a majority reckon they put in 60 hours. Fuelling themselves on coffee and peppy drugs; devoid of social lives beyond the office and gym; these young, intelligent and high achieving people must wonder what the point of so much effort can possibly be. Research into reward and motivation shows that, apart from mechanical, low skill tasks, money does not make people work harder, better or faster. It does not make them more creative or kinder – so it can’t just be the £££££s and $$$$$$s. Why do people go on working like this, and why do organisations apparently endorse it? The positive input from an inexperienced new graduate at 1am can only be marginal at best. 150 pages of unread report my friend has to edit is probably not adding to the knowledge pool. One commentator suggested it was the modern equivalent of “fagging” – or the notion that if “it were good enough for me, it’s good enough for them”.

There is considerable wringing of hands and discussion around more flexible working hours and better work / life balance.  It seems to me there are two things that might help.

Firstly, tighten up on job descriptions and audit whether the tasks defined are (to use an old management cliché) SMART*. If more people are needed to achieve the tasks, employ more people – even if it means each salary is a bit less. If the task is so critical to the organisation’s success it requires 90 hours a week spent on it, pay for two people who are on top of what they are doing rather than one person who is caffeine crazed, sleep deprived and depressed.

Secondly, let’s set some goals for a better working life balance. A very wise self-employed friend of mine defines her perfect working schedule as 6 hours per day. 4 days a week, 40 weeks a year. Working to this standard she was able to look after her two daughters, house and husband as well as following her own interests and hobbies – and she made enough money to be able to eat.  I appreciate this model won’t work for everyone – but why not start defining what better might look like in the future? As natural resources become scarcer, and if we value and respect human resources, we need to find a new way to make work work

*Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely