Only Connect

poppyIs it indulgent to review a year when the change and developments started in 2014 are only partially completed? Probably. But, to quote E.M Forster from A Room with a View, “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice”.

In May I found myself in France with a group of fabulous British and French women – brought together by a project aiming to support women’s continuing professional development (WPCD). It was brilliant to meet a diverse range of women – from young company directors anxious about how to offer their staff opportunities and support without impacting the bottom line; to the stretched middle-agers confronted with demands from children and elderly parents and changing health of their partners AND yearning for self-fulfilment; to older women full of vim and vigour, not prepared to be consigned to pre-determined old people activities. Objectively it is easy to chronicle each similarity and cultural context, wryly observing traditional leitmotifs. But it’s not so easy when you know each person – with all the idiosyncrasies that make her unique.

By being in Caen and walking on the Normandy beach just before the commemoration of the D-day landings I was aware of the shadows left by the men killed there. Each of my sons is on an age where they could have been fighting in 1944. We are lucky.

Endeavouring to take on the challenges of chance and location (and, frankly, taking my own advice to seek employment prospects in IT), I found myself from September at the UEA studying computing. Fair to say it’s not like a being an undergraduate in the 1980s. For a start there’s all these computers…  A doctor friend of mine assures me that the process of learning is not only critical to prevent my descent into decrepitude – but also one that gets better with practice. “It’s like a muscle and the more of a work-out all the little synapses in your brain get the easier it will be to learn more.” I truly hope he is right. It is re-assuring because my progress feel painfully slow – I am hoping for a tortoise-style race win come next summer. The hares will all have made it through the finish posts months earlier. Writing computer code is a skill like any other, you just need to stick at it (OOPS! My unconscious supportive self has slipped out – better than my conscious unsupportive self that alternates between anguish and despair… “You are useless!” and “Why did you think this was a good idea?” being the two favourite mantras of that unhelpful cow).

In November the issue of war and its futility once again had prime place in many thoughts. Seas of poppies extended from the Tower of London to primary schools and beyond. While it is undoubtedly crucial to respect and remember the sacrifices of previous generations, as I reflect on the ceramic poppy made by my daughter I have a strong sense that we have to ensure our young have the confidence and ambition not to be constrained by history. We really are lucky in so many ways, but with such luck comes responsibility to make the most of opportunity. We need to help our young, and ourselves, imagine and build a better future.  A further quote from E. M Forster helps me conclude my thoughts – “Only connect… only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”


Frozen eggs really the answer to diversity?

frozen dollIt appears that corporate giants Apple and Facebook are now offering to pay for women to have their eggs frozen so that they can delay having children, giving them a chance to advance further up the career ladder before reproduction interferes.

I appreciate the issues of when, how and whether a couple can have children are complex. I’m also not qualified to know what the success of such an intervention might be – though I’m not concerned about using medicine and technology to alter the odds. It’s the overlap between employer expectation and individual freedom that seems worth challenging. We, that’s society, that’s us, should be asking if this is really the best way to encourage women to stick with a career and industry.

Encouraging diversity isn’t meant to entail encouraging women to be more like men because their reproduction window has been extended. Diversity is about embracing differences; extending opportunities for corporate growth; overcoming social, cultural and gender inequality; and being mindful of finite natural resources. A solution that tries to intervene at gender/age is bonkers. Suggesting that women can have jam (babies?) tomorrow in return for advancement on the greasy bread of corporate life today isn’t a solution at all. Women and men are different – particularly when it comes to reproduction (duh! as Bart Simpson might say) and, I would suggest, it is these real, or potential, different life experiences which enrich us all.

Employees of a corporation work for that corporation. They are paid to do a task in order to create a profit which ultimately benefits the shareholders of the company. That’s the deal. It is good business for companies to encourage employees to be healthy in body and mind. An expensive gender specific intervention, however, may create additional obstacles to employing women.

People come in different shapes and sizes – and we are all subject to the laws of gravity and nature. It would be better for people, companies and nature if we could find a way to embrace the range of humanity, not try to subvert it.



“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.