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 to have some input.

Hurrah for MATHS!

oak-rootsIt’s not rocket science to understand that maths skills are at the root of success in business, finance, building, science, banking, medicine, upholstery, plumbing, football league tables… and rockets. And, having done training sessions with adults working at an insurance company who couldn’t calculate percentages, it’s easy to understand why the government is keen to support Prof Alison Wolf’s recommendation that students keep studying maths till they reach a level equivalent to a C at GCSE.  As a nation we don’t seem to be very good at numbers. It’s also easy to understand why so many parents and students must be sinking their heads in their hands and groaning.

Most people, at some time, experience the miserable mist of incomprehension that falls over one when asked, for example to describe the two points where a given parabola intersects the x and y axes; or forced to try and imagine what a nifty way of finding a value for cos might be when you have values for sin and tan (and really, why would any one care?).  It’s like a marathon runner hitting “the wall”.

Back in Scotland in the 1970’s they had O Grades and I remember doing one in arithmetic – I think they were compulsory. We all passed, though not everyone passed the mathematics O Grade. It meant we could all add, subtract, multiply and divide. We could also do percentages and compound interest. It was a jolly sensible exam that made sure you could work out useful things – like how much curtain fabric was needed for a pair of bedroom curtains, or how much income you could expect from your savings account.

I think this sort of maths, “Household Maths” or “Tesco Maths”, which helps people work out the real value of a special offer, measure things and understand consumer issues, is excellent.  Everybody should be able to work out whether 20 washes from a bottle of Persil concentrate for £6.38 is better or worse value than 32 washes of multi-colour gels from Ariel for £9.25. (The answer is Yes: Persil would come in at 0.319p per wash and Ariel at 0.289p per wash, however if one is in pre-measured gels amounts rather than pouring it into the little drawer, the gels are probably better value because we tend to over-fill, all calculations need to be reviewed if you live in a hard water area…)

This sort of maths can be extended to include food, eg how many bowls of lentil soup can you make from 200g lentils, 2 slices streaky bacon, 3 carrots, 2 onions and a stock cube, and what does it cost compared to buying a carton of ready-made stuff from Covent Garden soups. It does occur to me that many adults do these calculations automatically and accurately while protesting that they can’t “do” maths. Most children have an innate understanding of pattern and division too, witness the three year old lining up his toy cars in series; or the outrage of the 4 year old not given a fair slice of cake.  Once you can do these kinds of calculations you will have mastered some useful life skills, though if you then move beyond arithmetic to geometry and algebra the beauty really begins. While students are still in formal education there is opportunity to continue to support their learning at whatever level they can manage, we shouldn’t give up.

The obstacles, and misery, have come about in part because of rubbish PR on the part of maths. There is also a tendency to perceive numeracy skills as being too geek-like to be cool. Somehow parents and grandparents find it easy to excuse poor results in maths. “Oh, don’t worry – all our family are rubbish at maths” you hear parents of Year 1 children say as their child has become confused with numbers up to 10. Or “They’ve changed the way they do maths – it doesn’t make sense to anyone anymore, they have ‘bus shelters’ and ‘chunking’, that’s not proper maths” from Year 5 parents. Or, to a girl “Aren’t you clever doing maths and physics, girls aren’t normally any good with numbers”.

So, the Real Life Skills Maths Plan has three components:

1)      Really support our children learning arithmetic right from an early age – bribe them to learn their tables; nag them to do their maths homework; let them weigh, measure and estimate everyday things everyday.*

2)      Be positive about maths and stop using the language of inherited incompetence – just because a child’s father or mother couldn’t multiply doesn’t mean the child won’t ever be able to.

3)      Have confidence that maths – the abstract science of number, quantity and space – is beautiful, creative and philosophically rewarding. It’s magic.


*My mother pointed out recently that when she was a child not only did many families do their housekeeping with a system of jam jars where people literally divided their income for things like rent, food and utilities, they also did it all in base 12 (pounds, shillings and pence).

Class Reunion

Oxenfoord Castle School

We go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong – Remembered for ever as shoo-bop sha whada whadda yippidy boom da boom”

The film “Grease” came out in 1978, a couple of years before I left school – but its sound track defined an era. At the end of the movie, as everyone sings, Sandy and Danny rise above the school in their 1948 Ford ‘Greased Lightning’ off to the future. This weekend my class of 1980 landed together in the Braes of Balquhidder for our first reunion since we left Oxenfoord Castle School. Lots of people had seen lots of each other since, but this was the first time so many were gathered together at the same time.

The boarding experience we shared was fairly usual for its time – with some extra twists of its own. It’s hard to pick the key defining characteristic, there are several: the cold; the food; being semi-cloistered from the rest of the world; or the priceless Sèvres china collection in the Adam dining room where we ate all our meals.

Cold? We knew about being cold – there was no heating above the ground floor and the radiators in the classrooms were barely effective. Our shampoo, toothpaste and lipgloss regularly froze solid – this is a whole level of cold above having a thin layer of frost on the inside of a window pane. When it snowed the drive got blocked and the oil truck couldn’t make it through. We all remember melting saucepans of snow in the domestic science room to wash our hair.  (Though to this day none of us could understand why there was a regime of only washing your hair once a fortnight…the melted snow option was quite a rebellion).

Food? Memories of tipping a plate of mince so that the fat collected in a pool away from the grey meat. Curious combinations never since repeated – crisps and ravioli, yoghurt and digestive biscuits, fish and chips with pickled beetroot. Eating countless baps and golden syrup. And talking about food – whispered conversations between top and bottom bunk about asparagus and melted butter and how many roast potatoes could have been had at home. Sweets from our tuck boxes – we were only allowed 3 single sweets a weekday, 4 on Saturdays and 5 on Sundays… we all got very good at smuggling, it was a real bonus when you got old/big enough for a bra! Sneaking walnuts from the school kitchen, only to be caught as they tumbled out of a hole in a dressing gown pocket. Liberating an egg from the same kitchen and then cooking it by boiling it in the kettle.

Being semi-cloistered had its own impact. It wasn’t just that we didn’t have mobile phones (there was one phone we could use in the evenings – it had a flashing light to signal incoming calls, but answering it was always a bit of a risk because you then had to go and find the person and the castle was quite big). We couldn’t go out very often. In a 13 week term there was an allowance of 3 weekend days and 3 ½ days of half-term. You had to be back by 7pm and I still get the abdabs on a Sunday evening if I hear the Top 40 chart countdown on Radio 1. We just didn’t see anyone much apart from each other – for 6 years. One consequence of this was being able to sort out disputes.  If an argument developed, which they did, it had to be resolved quickly because no one could stand living in a crabby atmosphere for long.  The second consequence is emotional independence. Back then, children that boarded developed pretty tough outer shells.

And the Sèvres china and Adam architecture? Our school building was originally a tower house built in the 16th century. In 1782 Robert Adam re-designed and extended the building. The Stair family, who still own it, had an extensive collection of art and miscellaneous objects d’art. There was a Watteau in the Drawing Room, displays of cutlasses, epées and swords in the entrance hall and ghosts galore in the turrets and hanging staircases. It was a Georgian Hogwarts – castellations and all.

We got together because we hadn’t for 33 years and because one of our friends is not well and we wanted to see her. We got together at her house and did not stop talking and laughing for 24 hours. My smiling muscles ache. We brought food and drink – enough to last for weeks, after all those years of fantasising about it everyone was always going to bring enough. We brought flowers and photographs – for our friend and for our memories. Memories that began like an individual patchwork with gaps and scraps here and there became a tapestry. The threads of stories repeated and re-enforced by one to another filling in our narrative with many stiches: who had dissected the sheep’s eye ball; who had played piano so well; who had taken a coveted position in the lacrosse team from another; which teacher had warned us about “babies in the air just waiting to be born”; and, of course, who had snogged who at the occasional school dances with Loretto and Fettes.

We shared our individual stories since leaving – men, marriages, children, adventures. We remembered friends not with us at our reunion. And we talked about the future. We worry for our parents and wondered about the next generation. What will they take from the values we share – what will be discarded. We also talk about ourselves and what we will do next – forthcoming art exhibitions, business projects, weddings in the pipeline and expeditions. The ability to resolve disputes has mellowed into an ability to listen and empathise without competing.

You can tell by someone’s gait, or their laugh, that they are still the same girl underneath – but we have become a group of tough, kind, funny and wise women I care for very much.

“Career Advice for Ambitious Women” from Mrs Moneypenny

Just finished reading “Careers Advice for Ambitious Women” by Mrs Moneypenny, aka Heather McGregor. Gosh, I am left feeling invigorated by her enormous energy and enthusiasm – and a little in awe of the single minded approach she advocates.  Mrs Moneypenny gives some essential career advice in a really accessible style, illustrated with loads of examples and anecdotes.  It is all about focus, connecting, getting help when you need it and discarding, or side-lining, those things you don’t need.  She is quite tough on this – discarding guilt; out-sourcing child care and some parenting; embracing the virtues of the shop-bought cake.

Much of the advice is not gender specific at all and fabulously practical for anyone with a clear vision of where they want to go. She feels very strongly about becoming as financially literate as possible* – as she points out, the people that know where the money is coming from and going to really have an inside track compared to the rest. She reckons one sure fire way to get to the top of an organisation is through managing the money – her advice: if possible become an accountant.

The two other non-gender specific items of advice are to do with “What you know…” and “Who you know…”. Mrs M reckons you should go as high up the academic tree as possible (she has an MBA and a PhD and a pilots licence). Her reasoning here is that qualifications give you confidence, as well as knowledge. While I completely agree with that, I think that university qualifications are only one, quite narrow, type of recognition.  There are currently over 10 applications for each apprenticeship.  For many young people the most basic qualification of all: a driving licence, is the one which has initially opened the most doors.

“Who you know…” is about your network and connections.  As she says “The truth is, if you want to achieve your goals in life, you need to be both good at what you do and good at building relationships with people who matter”.  The key advice here is to work at building relationships – these are the people with whom you share information and experiences. Mrs Moneypenny is interested in volume and has several ideas of how to meet and connect people. I think numbers are quite important, but so is quality. The network is best when it is made up of the people whom you would go the extra mile for and who would do the same for you.

The advice specifically for women is about how to resolve the conundrum of how to “have it all” while remaining a sane, lovely mother/wife/daughter/friend. Her answer is that “having it all” is not possible, Superwoman does not exist and so you need to prioritise what’s most important to you. She also recommends you get help so that you are not trying to do alone all the things that are expected of you as mother/wife/daughter/friend. Affording help can be a problem if your chosen career isn’t well paid – the book is quite City centred where things may be different. And some things are not the same outsourced. Last week at the National Schools Rowing Regatta I spotted a healthy, muscular adolescent being congratulated on winning a medal, he looked quite pleased – and then his whole face lit up as he saw his father appear through the crowd “Look, my Daddy’s here…”

This is a robust book with some good ideas and I would recommend it to women wanting a no-nonsense, and speedy, read. After some thought I have concluded that the areas that I take issue with are related to parenting (Mrs Moneypenny has three sons: Cost Centres 1, 2 and 3) – and, as she says herself, this isn’t a parenting book. So, I’m off to try some of the homework exercises that come after each chapter – as Mrs Moneypenny writes “It’s never too late to move forward, whatever your ambition. You can do it!”

“Mrs Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Ambitious Women”, Heather McGregor, published by Penguin, 2012

* For women historically this was an area of particular weakness – I know women of a certain age who still don’t understand their own house-hold finances because their husbands “do” all that stuff.  And as Mrs Moneypenny points out, women need more money than men because they live longer, on average earn less and are more likely to end up as single parents raising a family on a limited income. That’s a pretty grim thought.

HR – jobs for (mostly) girls?

This week I am going to a school’s careers fair to make the case for a career in Human Resources. It is such an interesting, exciting business area with such enormous range in terms of activities – which affect everyone in a business – you’d think all bright young people would be keen to get into HR. And maybe tomorrow I’ll find that they are – however I’m up against lawyers, doctors and financial services… I suspect I might also be up against a bit of prejudice. The response from several (male) contemporaries has been quite old-school (hum, that’ll be a euphemism) with mutterings about it being like the hapless Celia Imrie character from the 1990’s Victoria Wood comedy “dinnerladies”. Certainly she personified the ditzy personnel lady with dippy cotton skirts, silk scarf and clipboard, but she didn’t encapsulate modern HR by a long way.

Historically HR in its various guises has been a business area with relatively more women than any other – certainly from the employer’s side. Starting with “welfare secretaries” looking after the protection of women and children in work at the turn of the 19th century; to personnel assistants implementing government bureaucracy during the war; to human resources managers of today, there are a lot of women in HR.  Currently the profession is dominated by women –in both the US and UK women account for around 70% of all Human Resource staff. Many of the executive board positions held by women are as HR directors. As one commentator put it, the glass ceiling is thinnest over HR.

Why are there so many women – and whether it matters –is an area for hot debate. There is the school of thought based around the traditional flexibility of HR jobs – easily made part-time – being good for women juggling families. Then others describe it as inherently appealing to mothering/nurturing skills; or as being an area where being able to multi-task (like women do) is at a premium. These commentators note that men in HR tend to go for recruitment type roles where thinking is described as being more linear. The bias is a cause for concern because it could mean the HR team is out-of-touch with the rest of the organisation – particularly if they are predominantly male.  Judging by the number of (female) HR managers lamenting the absence of men on their team, a young bloke able to demonstrate multi-tasking, right brain thinking, nurturing moments (who could put up with a room full of women) would be a shoo-in.

All the same, I don’t believe it is quite that simplistic. Back in the mid-1990’s, when I was interviewed to do my CIPD at Heriot-Watt university as standard questions was “Why HR?” and the best answer was not that one “liked people” or was a “people person” – the primary objective was always to support the organisation to achieve its mission and strategic goals – albeit often using the range of softer skills, such as collaboration and negotiation which can be very effective. Providing a shoulder to cry on was never a core activity.

Secondly, there are some left-brain thinking, target driven, strategic visionaries out there who happen also to be female. Most recently Yahoo!’s new CEO, Carol Bartz and the new head of HR, Jackie Reses announced the end of home-working for Yahoos …the expectation now is for everyone to be at their desk under one roof – chatting together at the water cooler, bumping into one another in the corridors, having great ideas and discussions – and no longer emptying the washing machine on company time. Not all the employees are thrilled, and there was particular criticism of Bartz on the grounds that she has young children at home. It’s curious, since she obviously doesn’t expect to have her “stay at home and have a brilliant career” cake and eat it, so why should others expect her to demonstrate both full-on mothering and Machiavellian corporate stratagems?

I hope that I can encourage many bright young people to consider HR as a career option. There’s obviously room for right and left thinkers; nurturers and nutters; dippy skirts and power dressers. And, failing my hand-outs and rolling Powerpoint presentation, I shall have a large bowl of Maoam chewy sweets to attract them – see, soft skills!