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? 😉

The Courage to Be

Nearly 30 years ago a very dear friend gave me a copy of the book The Courage to Be by (I now know) the world-renowned twentieth century philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich. Born just before the turn of the twentieth century, Tillich’s life experiences saw him witness at first hand the brutality of the First World War where he was chaplain in the Imperial German Army, and later led him to speak out publicly against the rise of the Nazi movement. Whilst an agnostic at best (depending on which world view you’re coming from!), I was curious about Tillich’s liberal, non-literal, existentialist theology. Whilst Tillich’s Christianity saw him finding courage via the ‘ground of one’s being’ (something that didn’t speak to me directly), I was intrigued by the notion of finding ‘courage to be’, courage as engagement with the world ‘in spite of’ all that is uncertain and challenging.

Thirty years on this book came to mind after I received a note from a very wonderful woman following my post from last week. Acknowledging the sense of bombardment that the process of change can give rise to, she reminded me of the need to see all change, however seemingly unwanted, as opportunity. However much we can feel out of control with the change that is happening to us, we can, ultimately, control how we choose to respond. And that takes courage: courage to believe in ourselves; courage to do the right thing; courage not to act in one’s own self-interest; courage not to put our head in the sand; courage to speak truth to power. If we look at those in positions of power now, do we see evidence of this courage? (And I mean courage in the sense of inner strength and commitment to a greater good, not the language of ‘bully boy’ posturing.)

Which leads me on to celebrating the incredible courage showed by all those extraordinary Suffragettes. As we mark the 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People Act in the UK that added 8.4 million women to the electoral roll (and an additional 5.6 million more men) it is right to both take stock of all that has been achieved in the pursuit of gender equality (maternity leave rights, equal pay, domestic violence legislation) whilst also recognizing that there is still much to be done and courage required to do this.

My Christmas stocking this year contained the book Women and Power: A Manifesto by one of my heroes, Mary Beard (@wmarybeard), the Cambridge scholar and classicist. In it, whilst she recognizes that women in the West have a lot to celebrate, Beard also notes that there is still much to be done. As she writes in the book’s preface “I wanted to work out how I would explain to her (her mother) – as much as to myself, as well as to the millions of other women who still share some of the same frustrations – just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them…from the centres of power.” And we only need to look around us now to know this is true – equality legislation does not equal empowerment.

Of course, as eloquently noted by Laura Harrison in her opinion piece A Few Good Men, women should stop thinking that they need courage to try a bit harder, work a bit longer, conform a bit more. Instead, women need the courage to be themselves, courage to trust in what they know to be right and courage to make the change they want to see, as our Suffragette sisters did over 100 years ago.

 

The Change

The Only Thing that is Constant is Change

These wise words, acknowledged to be from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, over two and half thousand years ago, hold true today now more than ever. We regularly hear this refrain in the workplace and in our lives more generally. The accelerating pace of change, caused by technology and globalisation amongst other things, is disrupting the old world order. The world is moving at such speed that, at times, I feel I am having to hold on for dear life!

This giddying pace of change often refers to external drivers, tectonic plates that are shifting the ground beneath our feet: automation, the rise of populism, demographics. These external drivers are giving rise to grand challenges, many of which are hard to comprehend and, to be honest, make my head hurt!

Hand in hand with these external forces of change, is the rise of movements for change, groups that come together striving to work towards a common goal. High on my radar (as a woman and mother of two teenage daughters) are the events that led to the #metoo campaign and the desire for women, once again, to give voice to all that is unjust and wrong about women’s treatment in the world. And sadly, here, the pace of change is dizzyingly slow. But this lament is not my focus for today and, thankfully, is given voice by many others.

Instead, an often neglected narrative in the story about change, are the physical changes that men and women, but most especially women, experience throughout their lives, changes that can have a huge impact on their mental, economic and social well-being. As a middle-aged woman, a mother and person who has spent over twenty five years in the workplace, I am only too aware of the many transitions I have experienced as a result of my biology, but which have had a significant impact on other aspects of my life. Transitioning back into the workplace after having children is much documented and discussed (although that doesn’t mean we’re there yet) but the transition or ‘the change’ that women in their mid-40s and 50s experience is little discussed.

A recent poll by Comres for BBC Radio Sheffield and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, shed a sliver of light on the profound impact the menopause and perimenopause is having on women in the workplace. The poll found that 70% of women did not make their employer aware they were experiencing symptoms, whilst nearly a third said they had not visited their GP. Staggeringly, nearly half of respondents said the menopause had affected their mental health, while a quarter said it made them want to stay at home. Some had reached disciplinary stages at work, as they did not want to alert their organisation to the debilitating symptoms they were experiencing as a result of the menopause. Other stories highlighted how successful women had given up their work, their careers, as they could no longer cope.

Cliched ‘women’s problems’ are difficult to discuss and are often taboo. As someone who has very real experience of crippling insomnia, heightened anxiety and the joys of joint pain (and at a point in my career when I was chipping away at that glass ceiling) I am very aware of the embarrassment, sense of failure and mockery one can experience at this stage in life; a stage of life when experience, expertise and wisdom should mean women are at the height of their powers.

Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 wonderfully celebrated Menopause Week with a section of their programme dedicated to this subject. But let’s not make it a week once a year or something that’s only discussed on Woman’s Hour (as one of my girlfriends jokingly said, “when are they not discussing the menopause!”)

Let’s make it something that not only more women understand and can transition through successfully, but let’s also make it something that organisations take seriously, with policies and approaches that help women successfully transition through this stage in their lives.