That’s not fair!

Fairness, I think it’s fair to say, is a difficult concept to neatly pin down – yet it is a much used word (not least by my two teenage daughters)! The dictionary defines fairness as ‘impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination’. But ask a random group of people to say what they mean when they talk about fairness and how this plays out in practice, and they may well interpret it in a myriad of different ways; they may well also vehemently disagree! Fairness, it seems, often comes down to one’s point of view. Yet, as we wrestle with the lack of fairness that has come to light following the gender pay gap reports, and as we digest the overwhelming evidence of the bias (however unconscious) towards ‘stale, pale’ men, how can we all do better to ensure we are being as fair as we can possibly be in all areas of our lives?

The video released on International Women’s Day of Norwegian children getting to grips with gender equality and fairness is a delightful example of how they not only collaborated to help each other complete their task, but they also recognized the unfairness of how each was rewarded (more sweets were given to the boys than the girls, and so the boys chose to share their prize to make it fair). Similarly, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (thanks for flagging @LazMazHarry!) from researchers at Hult International Business School entitled ‘Do you have advantage blindness?’ spoke about the challenges leaders face in recognizing that their success will have been aided by the advantage of gender, race, class, and so on. To cite the article:

“Our research on speaking truth to power shows there is often a blind spot among the powerful, preventing them from seeing their impact on the less powerful. We call this advantage blindness. When you have advantage blindness, you don’t feel privileged. You don’t notice a life of special treatment; it’s just normal. You don’t think about your physical safety most of the time; you don’t worry about holding hands with your partner in public; when you get angry, no one asks you if it’s because of your hormones; and people in power generally look like you.”

An interesting read. The research highlights how, whilst some leaders felt challenged and even uncomfortable with the privilege afforded them, others denied an un-level playing field, citing their own hard work, or challenges in their background and childhood that meant they got to their senior positions purely on their own unique merits. The research recommended that, to counter this advantage blindness, the leaders make efforts to own personal prejudice and bias, to develop empathy for, and connect with people who are ‘other’, and to put their personal advantage to the collective good.

So, how do we, as a society, strengthen our fairness muscle? How do we create a more just society, in which everybody has the opportunity to flourish and thrive?

I was interested to come across the work of the American moral and political philosopher, John Rawls, whose thinking has had a significant impact on Western, liberal democracies. His seminal book, The Theory of Justice, published in 1971, essentially posits two (although I make it three!) principles concerned with achieving a just and fair society. Two of the three principles would be something most of us would be familiar with: namely equality of opportunity and the liberty principle, whereby each person has equal access to basic rights. However, what I was fascinated by was what Rawls described as the ‘difference principle’. Recognizing that there are inequalities in every society and that most people would, for example, expect a brain surgeon to earn more than a receptionist, Rawls argued that a just society is one in which, whilst inequality exists, the worst off in society are made as well off as they can be. Of course, being objective about how you might achieve this is hard. Rawls’ notion was to think about what a just society would look like if, knowing everything about it that there was to know, you would be willing to enter it at any random place and know that you were being treated fairly. Rawls called this the ‘veil of ignorance’ and it is brilliantly described by the behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, is this brief Ted Talk – I would definitely recommend a watch!

In Ariely’s talk he describes a large-scale survey he undertook to ask people whether they know what level of inequality there is in society and what they thought it should be. The results were illuminating. Not only was there a knowledge gap between what people thought versus what was the reality (the reality being far more iniquitous) but there was also a big gap between reality and what people desired, which was to have a much smaller gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in society.

Fairness in practice isn’t straightforward. The world is full of ambiguity (I wouldn’t have it any other way) and achieving a fairer society is hard. Of course, there are some obvious places to start that would achieve some quick wins (gender pay gap anyone?). But, as we all go about our day to day lives, perhaps we should try on that ‘veil of ignorance’ a little bit more and challenge ourselves to create a society that, wherever we found ourselves, we would see it as fair.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’.

Women of the World Unite

With the recent prominence of ‘gender issues’ in the news, I have been reflecting on the voice feminism gives to women (to quote my guest blogger) on the ‘margins of survival’. My recent post referenced Alison Wolf’s assertion that much of middle class society is still propped up by a ‘servant class’; cleaners, nannies, women who iron our clothes, who enable the middle classes to participate in senior knowledge economy roles. This week’s guest blogger is Caroline Raine, a UNISON organiser, who supports workers, many of whom are women, who undertake insecure and poorly paid roles in the public sector to care for our parents, our children, our loved ones.  We need to give these women voice.

Since 2010 we have all been living in the downward spiral of austerity. Few of us can still believe it’s for our own good as essential services are cut, pay stagnates and job security becomes a thing of the past. Meanwhile the government continues to dig its heels in, using austerity as a political weapon not a financial necessity. Indeed, while an injection of public spending would kickstart growth and prosperity, continued public spending cuts keep the economy struggling. While no-one escapes the stagnation there is no doubt that it is women who are hardest hit. A recent analysis of tax and benefit changes by the House of Commons Library concludes that 86% of the burden of  austerity has fallen on women.

It’s not difficult to work out why women are hardest hit. We are the majority of public sector workers. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies about two thirds of the public sector workforce are women and the highest proportion of women are in the health and education sectors, i.e. the lowest paid sectors. Since the public sector has now seen cuts to its lowest level since the introduction of the welfare state it is these women who bear the brunt. According to the Joseph Rowntree Trust, English local authorities cut spending by 27% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16  Public services are labour intensive so most of these cuts have been in the form of jobs.

Not only are we being hit as public sector workers but also as service users.  Women are the greatest users of health and social care services (not least because we still tend to be the primary carers in families) so we face a double whammy of cuts to jobs and services.

It is not just statistics that tell the story. In my work as a public sector trade union organiser I see the impact day to day. While none of us are immune to the impact of stagnant pay, rising housing costs, cuts to services, etc., it is the lower paid women in insecure jobs who are worst hit. These are the very women who those of us in better paid and more secure employment depend on to be able to maintain our own earnings – the carers, cleaners, etc. And the women who are paid to work as carers and cleaners often go home to an existence of unpaid caring and cleaning.

I was recently involved in a reorganisation of local authority home care workers. Home carers do a vital job of enabling elderly and disabled people to remain in their own homes, thus improving their quality of life and saving public funds. Home carers are almost all women, they are poorly paid, they work unsocial shifts in often unpleasant and isolated conditions and have often chosen the work because the shifts fit around childcare. Some of the women I represented had young children and relied on partners who worked by day to provide childcare at night so that they could work. Even more common in the group was older women who cared for grandchildren. They did this because their daughters (it is always the women!) needed to work but could not afford the high costs of childcare so were dependant on their mothers.

Many of these women were living at the margins of survival, i.e. just earning enough to pay for essentials. So when the employer came along and said they had to make cuts in hours, for these women it meant financial survival was at risk.  But the cuts also meant the introduction of flexibility and you can’t be flexible when you need to be free to care for others at fixed times. Sadly the situation facing these women is all too common and often they are forced out of the public sector altogether as councils find contractors to provide services on the cheap. Despite limited legal protections for workers transferring to a new employer, it is always just a question of time before reason is found to harmonise pay and conditions, forcing everyone down to the lowest terms on offer by the new employer. Private sector employers are less likely to recognise unions and so it becomes more difficult to ensure decent pay and conditions in the long term.

This paints a grim picture. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe the tide is starting to turn as we have seen private contractors like Carillion go to the wall while Councils verge on bankruptcy and an inability to meet their legal obligations. The current situation is just not sustainable. But if we don’t shout about it, change will be too slow and damage too long term to undo, even in the term of a Parliament with the will to change things. Women must stand together to campaign for change. The biggest change needed is political change, a recognition that providing services on the cheap is not only painful but is counter-productive.

Time to ‘slow down and fix things’

In last week’s blog post I spoke about the need to challenge the overarching (male) narratives embedded in our key societal structures and the critical need to embrace a plurality of thinking and views. In recent weeks, good friend and old colleague @corney_sarah and I have been discussing (usually over a pint or two) the ‘world views’ and possible biases that are being programmed into the algorithms that are increasingly dominating our world; algorithms that make decisions on our behalf and create ‘truths’. Of course, there is much to be said about the impact of technology on our lives (Cambridge Analytica anyone?!), and on our jobs. In this guest blog, Sarah highlights the need for greater diversity in the tech industry and time to put its house in order. Enjoy.

As a lesbian, I’ve benefitted from the greater levels of legal equality and the shift in societal attitudes over the past 50 years. Last summer we celebrated, and reflected on how far we’ve come (and have still to go) since the the decriminalisation of (male) homosexuality in the UK in 1967.

And as a woman I’ve benefited from the struggles and gains of the feminist movements. In February there was a similar period of taking stock, with the 100th anniversary in the UK of the Representation of the People Act 1918 and the (partial) enfranchisement of women voters. But as Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian in February (Will women be equal to men in 100 years?) reminds us ‘Liberation for women means digging up the roots of human culture, nothing less’. (Polly Toynbee)

So it was with dismay that I read recently of the rise of AI in the recruitment industry. The idea behind these programs is that a good prospective employee looks a lot like a good current employee. But in a workforce that still disproportionately understands a ‘good employee’ as male, white, straight, middle class, and non disabled, when AI turns that data into a score and compares it against prospective employees, who do you think misses out?

At this point in human history we’re rapidly refashioning human culture, to one that is based on technology, founded on machine learning and artificial intelligence.. Are we laying down new roots of inequality, roots that might be just as tenacious and insidious? Roots that might take an historic struggle to dig up?

After a slew of negative press and scandals (the latest the deeply disturbing revelations of Cambridge Analytica) we’re discovering that our technology isn’t ethically neutral – it’s shaped by the worldview of those who build and finance it.

I work in what we might think of as the ‘empathy’ side of tech – leading teams that build websites and online tools that very much have the user experience at its heart – in design, testing and delivery. I believe passionately in building technical solutions from a position of deep empathy for your end users – all your end users. And I’m increasingly alarmed by the rise of biased tech, particularly the algorithms and AI that we’re building to run our societies, that encode not just a poor user experience but an iniquitous user experience, particularly for women and minority communities.

The trouble with tech (with machine learning) is, as Sara Wachter-Boettcher writes in her book Technically Wrong that ‘the biases already present in our culture are quietly reinforced’. Tech inequality used to mean inequality of access and skills, but we increasingly understand it to mean how historical prejudice is being hard wired into the very system itself.

Investors are making a big bet that AI will sift through the vast amounts of information produced by our society and find patterns that will help us be more efficient, wealthier and happier.

The Guardian, Rise of the Racist Robots

But a few glimpses of the ghost in the machine allude to something darker: a Google image recognition program that tagged the faces of a photo of a group of black friends as ‘gorilla’; a Google ad that shows more higher-pay executive jobs to male job seekers than female; the now-infamous COMPAS program that disproportionately discriminates against black men in the US criminal justice system.

The problem is that these machines learn from vast sets of historical, and therefore often biased, data; they don’t invent a fairer future, rather they codify our unequal past. Without immediate-term intervention they could replicate by orders of magnitude ‘the sort of large-scale systemic biases that people have spent decades campaigning to educate or legislate away’ (The Guardian, Rise of the Racist Robots)

The problem is exacerbated further when these programs are shared with the wider tech community as open source code, using them as the foundation to build further products. For example Google’s Word2vec biased word-embedding program, designed to reconstruct the linguistic context of words. In their paper ‘Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker?’ Bolukbasi et al. argue these word embeddings exhibit ‘female/male gender stereotypes to a disturbing extent’ and their widespread use ‘amplifies these biases’.

These programs not only encode the biases of the training data sets, but also the biases of those working in the tech industry. An industry that is emphatically white, male (and in the US in particular) from a handful of elite universities. A tech industry that prioritises, indeed lionises, programming over all other (particularly liberal arts) skills.

We increasingly have a trust issue with the tech industry. And as societal disquiet regarding its cavalier attitude to personal data and to ethics mounts, it’s starting to experience a backlash, from consumer activism (e.g. the #deleteFacebook campaign) to negative financial impact.

The threat of iniquitous tech needs to be addressed from many angles, with a web of interventions including legislative – there are some legal protections already in place or about to be (e.g. GDPR), but the law rarely keeps pace with technological change – and industry self-regulation (see for example the Institute of Business Ethics briefing February 2018).

There is increasing pressure on the tech industry to take responsibility for the monster they have and are creating. The mantra of ‘creative disruption’ and ‘move fast and break things’ is disruptive, is breaking things: personal privacy, freedom and democracy. And some working in the tech industry are slowly beginning to hold themselves and their colleagues to account (see @MariesaKDale’s Technologists hippocratic oath). Tech academics and thought leaders are also speaking out and searching for solutions to biased algorithms.

As Sara Wachter-Boettcher reminds us in her book Technically Wrong, User Experience (or UX) helped to hoodwink us into thinking that tech was our friend, to give up our personal data, with its intuitive interfaces and cutesey micro content. UX needs to grow up and take responsibility for inclusive user design and ethical testing. Designing for everyone, not just personas and defaults, and ethically stress testing AI-generated outcomes as real world scenarios: ‘would the result be the same if the person was gay, disabled, etc.?

But investing artificial intelligence with emotional intelligence isn’t easy. These are complex programs. Some of it can be done programmatically: The Turing Institute’s Counterfactual Fairness Project is leading the way on this thinking; Anupam Datta has designed a programme that tests for bias in recruitment AI. But some of it is down to the organisational culture itself: the tech industry needs to invest in diverse and inclusive teams that are more sensitive to bias and more responsible in the way that they design the programs we all increasingly rely on. ‘If your teams are diverse they’re much more likely to spot if an algorithm’s outputs disproportionately affect marginalised communities’ (Sara Wachter-Boettcher).

We need to encourage more women and minorities into tech. To quote the late Karen Sparck Jones (one of the architects of computer programming) ‘computing’s too important to be left to men’. Professor of Computer Science Wendy Hall Jones writes ‘for the good of society, we cannot allow our world to be organised by learning algorithms whose creators are overwhelmingly dominated by one gender, ethnicity, age, or culture’.

The tech industry must nurture organisational cultures that encourage and support ethical decision making at every level. It needs to hire not just for a diversity of cultural and racial backgrounds, but also for a diversity of ideas and thinking. Product teams that include programmers but also people with arts, social sciences and humanities training, who are better able to understand the historic and cultural context of the training data, who are better able to spot unconscious bias and who can deliver an ethical user experience. ‘From those differences will come a broader characterisation of the problems we face, and wider range of creative approaches to their solution.’ (Wendy Hall Jones)

I will remember that there is art to technology as well as science, and that empathy, craft, and remaining mindful about the consequences of my decisions outweigh the importance of my technical knowledge, the impulse for financial benefit, or allure of status. (Technologists Hippocratic oath)

Which brings us full circle back to those biased hiring algorithms, and why the people profession needs a strong view on this. When diversity and inclusion is part of the solution to building more ethical tech, to securing a fairer future, we need to be championing better, more diverse, more human recruitment.

Let’s hope we’re reaching an inflection point, where societies, governments and consumers begin to respond to the issue of biased and unethical tech. We must demand that the tech industry takes responsibility for the data it collects, how it processes it and the unethical and unequal outcomes of the AI that’s being built upon it. To regain our trust, the tech industry now needs to slow down and fix things.

Featured image is of Mary Jackson (1921-2005) NASA computer programmer and their first female engineer. Mary Jackson was also NASA’s Federal Women’s Program Manager (1979-1985), where she ‘worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists’ nasa.gov

The Pill and the Moon

All the talk in recent weeks and months about the lack of gender equality in society, from pay through to sexual harassment, reminded me of a statistic I was told about 10 or so years ago by one of my brilliant business book authors Avivah Wittenberg-Cox @A_WittenbergCox. (I wish I could remember the source she cited but I can’t – you’ll have to take my word for it!) It was the result of a poll that surveyed men and women on what they considered to be the greatest achievement of the twentieth century. The answers spoke volumes. For men, the greatest achievement was space exploration and putting a man on the moon. For women it was the ‘birth’ of the contraceptive pill. It’s just one statistic, one survey, but it made me think if we amplify that, what does it tell us about the choices that are made in all aspects of our lives? What does society place most value on? What and who do we choose to celebrate? Where do we choose to spend our money and for what purpose?

Sarah Corney’s recent guest blog cited the journalist Polly Toynbee’s assertion that gender equality and liberation for women “means digging up the roots of human culture”. On the 100th anniversary of (some) women’s right to vote in the UK, I was delighted to hear a discussion between two academics on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme – who happened to be women – Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at Kings College, London (amongst other things) and economist (amongst other things) Ann Pettifor. During the interview, which debated whether feminism is too interested in the top 1% (which is an important topic for another day) they touched on how feminism stays away from the subject of the economy. Acknowledging that the economics profession is male dominated, they suggested that this has a significant impact on the economic choices that we, as a society, make. Women, they posited, would typically prioritise and invest in the public sector, in our health and welfare system, in education. If our economic narrative is male, what stories do we choose to tell, which (to mix my metaphors) ‘green shoots’ do we choose to nurture?

It’s interesting to note that, following the global financial meltdown in 2008 (from which we are still suffering) many students of economics started to question the prevailing economic orthodoxy; what they were experiencing and witnessing at first hand was not what they were being taught. As Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England wrote in the Foreword to the book that came out of this movement, Econocracy, it was not only the neoclassical model of the economy that was ‘found to be lame’, but that policy makers placed too much reliance on narrow technical models, to our peril.

Of course, what gives me, and others, optimism, is that students across the world challenged and are challenging this prevailing orthodoxy. As Vince Cable, currently leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK and former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, says in his review of the book, “It makes the case for pluralistic economics to address such questions as financial instability and climate change.”

We need a plurality of thinking, of views, if we are to change the over arching (male) narratives inherent in our key societal structures: not just in economics, but also in the legal and criminal justice system, in education, in health care as well as in business and the world of work. Of course, diversity of thinking is not just a gender issue, but it’s a good place to start.

So, in a world of finite resources, and facing the world’s grand challenges, where would you focus your efforts, what would you address? When people look back on the 21st century and speak of our greatest achievement, what will they answer? Will it be the 21st century’s equivalent of the Pill or the Moon?

Flying by the seat of your pants – why women should do this more!

I recently caught up with a colleague of old; since working with her she’d gone on to great things (I won’t take it personally, although every time I meet her she does remind me how I didn’t give her that job I’d interviewed her for! 🙂 ) having been CEO of numerous tech and start up companies and now successfully running two new start-ups of her own.

We met, as you do, in a coffee shop (in Hove actually) and she came with her usual effervescent energy and generosity of spirit. In recounting her story of her career journey since we’d last met, she said her success was based on “10% talent, 10% bravado and 80% prosecco” – she’d always been surprised at the roles she was offered. I wasn’t. Her willingness to ‘give it a go’, to challenge her inner critic, to play to her strengths, to keep growing and developing, to be generous with her time, herself, meant that those around her thrived; those around her had the courage to ‘give it a go’ too, to learn from their mistakes, to work as a team and play to their respective strengths (when running her first tech company someone in her team had to tweet for her as she wasn’t digitally savvy!).

Having arrived at the coffee shop in my usual jeans, T-shirt and boots attire, I left wearing red and white boots, blue pants, a red and gold top, indestructible bracelets and holding my lasso of truth. (The inspiration for the original Wonder Woman was taken from early feminists, in particular birth control pioneer, Margaret Sanger.)

In a recent post, I talked about the need for courage; it’s a value I hold dear. Courage to do the right thing, courage to believe in yourself, courage to try new things, courage to make mistakes, courage to fly. Not long after meeting my friend, I listened to an interview (on Late Night Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 – I know!) between the host, Lauren Laverne and her guest, Viv Albertine (guitarist with the punk female band, The Slits, amongst other things).

In the interview Albertine talked about all the brave things she’d done; play in a band when she ‘couldn’t really play’, break the conventional ‘rules’ in the 1970s (through dress, through attitude), direct films, write a book and tell an ‘untold story’. The Slits were on a mission to ‘change things for girls’ a mission that caused them to experience some threatening and scary situations. As Lauren Laverne described it, they were ‘pantsing’, flying by the seats of their pants, and challenging the status quo and existing structures as a result.

In another Radio 4 interview (I know, I know!) I heard the film director, Sally Potter (famed for Orlando amongst other films) talking about how women have interiorized the (male-dominated) structures out there, and how, as a result, in addition to battling against the lack of gender equality in society, we also battle against our own ‘self-limiting unconscious chorus of disapproval’. Potter’s brilliant response was to “try and write faster than the speed of my doubt”.

So, today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day and it’s 2018 campaign to Press for Progress, don’t limit your own selves, don’t censor your own voice, don’t under estimate all that you are capable of.

Whether it’s M&S, Victoria Secrets, Thongs or Big Pants, women of the world, let’s pantsy!

Radical change and rainbow alliances

In last week’s blog post I made mention of the importance of voice and, in the spirit of championing a diversity of voices, I asked an old colleague and friend, Sarah Corney (@corney_sarah), who is passionate about LGBT rights to write something in celebration of LGBT History Month. Enjoy. 

February is LGBT History Month (#LGBTHM18) and a moment to reflect on our #LGBThero (s). And so I found my thoughts returning to my early encounters with lesbians in literature. After reading The Well of Loneliness (yes, really!) at 19, I was surely ready for Rita Mae Brown’s breakthrough lesbian bildungsroman, RubyFruit Jungle and the sassy, sparky Molly Bolt. But my joy soon turned to disheartenment. As our hero Molly walks into a downtown lesbian bar and clocks the butch clientele, she declares:

“What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation man? Hell, if I wanted a man, I’ll get the real thing not one of these chippies.”

Rather than viewing the butches at the bar as people who subvert and challenge gender identity, they’re viewed as women who embrace patriarchy’s strict binary codes. But, it seems to me that Brown was also seeking to change social attitudes by claiming legitimacy for an emergent (real, femme) lesbian identity, by setting it up in opposition to the (delegitimised, butch) Other. Can we only have #LGBTHeroes if there are #LGBTVillains?

February 2018 also sees the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which extended the franchise to women over 30 (as well as adding 5.6 million more men to the electoral register).

This anniversary has seen much comment on the subject of how much has changed in 100 years. And watching this clip from 1970 election night special – and the supernova levels of condescension meted out to Janet (now Baroness) Fookes – it’s true that sexism is at least (generally) less overt than it was in my mother’s day. But with the backdrop of #MeToo and almost-daily scandals (the Presidents Club and the ‘swimsuit sexism’ of the gambling industry just the latest), there’s also much reflection on how much more needs to change.

Women may have won many legal rights over the past 100 years, but we have yet to live in an equal society. Many of the old structures of patriarchal power are still in place.

Never underestimate the size of the task to reverse all history since time began. To recreate society so women are fully equal to men, we are making a revolution more radically profound than any other ever. Forget French or Russian political revolutions, liberation for women means digging up the roots of human culture, nothing less. (Polly Toynbee)

So it was depressing to read of the current battle within the Labour party between (some) feminists and (some) trans activists over access to all-women shortlists. As Gaby Hinsliff writes in The Guardian, “it seems odd … to exclude a minority not currently represented in parliament from measures to make it more representative’.

If gender equality is a revolution that means nothing less ‘than digging up the roots of human culture’ there is neither room nor time for internecine squabbles. Legitimising and empowering one group by Other-ing another undermines the broader momentum for change.

Radical change is only possible when we don’t merely accommodate but celebrate difference and work together to deconstruct the neo-liberalist, patriarchal paradigm to build a more equitable society. Progressive political alliances, rainbow LGBTQI networks and intersectional feminism all recognise, as Jo Cox put it in her maiden speech to Parliament, that ‘we have more in common than that which divides us’.

Does that Make Sense?

Last week we celebrated a 100 years of the Representation of the People Act in the UK, an Act that, through electoral reform, began to give voice to women (and all men) through the ballot box. Recent months have also given witness to a depressingly sordid account of women’s experiences in the workplace: be it in the film industry, parliament or as women trying to earn a living in an economy where low pay is endemic, zero hour contracts rife and being told to dress in short skirts and high heels to satisfy the needs of powerful men is the best you can get.

Having voice is a central tenant of any democracy; the means by which a country’s citizens get to have their say on matters that affect them. (Of course, the most effective way to give voice is much debated and something I will leave to others more qualified than I to speak on.) I was fascinated to learn in last week’s celebrations of the existence of Suffragists, the women who, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, believed they would achieve this end using peaceful means – if they were seen as intelligent, polite and law abiding then women would prove themselves responsible enough to participate fully in politics. We now know that Emmeline Pankhurst became impatient with this ‘respectable’, gradualist approach and so the Suffragette movement was born under the motto ‘deeds not words’ and a more militant approach was adopted.

Reflecting last week – on voice, on words and deeds – also caused me to reflect on my own words and deeds and on how I use my ‘voice’ to best effect, particularly in the workplace. How do I, as a woman, express myself? How do I assert my authority and influence the decision making process, whilst remaining inclusive, ‘warm’, open and good-natured? As a woman I am only too aware of the classic dilemma we often face; too assertive and I’m classified as bossy and aggressive, too timid and I’m not taken seriously, my ‘voice’ is easily dismissed. Something I was much less aware of, but which a good friend and colleague recently pointed out to me was how, in meetings, I often finish what I’ve been saying with the question “does that make sense?” In my head I am using that question to connect with my audience, to check-in on understanding. However, what my friend pointed out (and it’s something psychologists have researched) is that, as a woman, in asking this question, I am communicating that I, the speaker, am not sure myself in what I’ve just said. I think what I have said might have been incoherent; so rather than check-in on understanding because I’ve communicated a novel or complex idea that needs time to ponder and digest, I give licence for my audience to think that what I’ve said actually doesn’t make sense! And I’ve discovered, that in women, these verbal ticks are hard-wired.

How often have you as a woman (or observed other women doing) stood up to make a presentation and apologise for taking the audience’s time? Reassure them that you’re nearly through your slide deck? How often have you started a sentence with a disclaimer, “of course, you’re all much more expert on this than I.” (In fact, rather ironically, I’ve even done that myself in this blog.) Research tells us, that men, as they are by default held in high status, are perceived as both warm and competent from the get-go. Women, as history and the present shows, don’t have that automatic ‘status’. So, for women in the workplace, and in society more generally, whilst these hard-wired speech patterns shouldn’t matter, they do.

As I started this working week with this new awareness, I made a commitment to myself to start re-wiring those verbal ticks. I want to find a way of communicating that doesn’t begin by apologising to my audience or finish by undermining myself. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop being myself; I will still seek other’s opinions and insights, I will still be collaborative and open, I will still seek out connection. But I will do this in a way that does not diminish my own competence, experience and point of view.

Does that make sense? 😉