Searching for the F word…

Last year, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary  feminism was the most searched for term online. That same dictionary describes it as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Analysing the data, the website cites spikes in searches following news of such things as the Women’s March on Washington, DC in January last year, in addition to television dramas such as The Handmaid’s Tale and the film, Wonder Woman. Revelations of sexual harassment and the #MeToo and Time to Rise movements also sparked searches.

I remember in the 90s and 00s being told by other women that we no longer needed feminism, in fact, it was all seen as a bit of an embarrassment. I used to worry that I sounded too strident, too ‘political’ (although women across the political divide are often united in equal rights for women). There was a sense, from women, that talking about feminism would damage their career prospects. Or, a sense that if they were successful then, somehow, discussing feminism would undermine the ‘merit’ that had got them there. Even more recently I recall being on a business trip with colleagues, including two more senior men. Chatting in the hotel bar after a successful day about the usual non-work things such as families and holidays, I found myself re-telling a story about my then 14-year-old daughter who had chosen sociology as one of the subjects she wanted to study. She’d connected with the idea of feminism because, as she remarked, ‘you’re a feminist aren’t you mum?’ At this remark both men looked more than a little aghast, with one commenting at how surprised he was, and that clearly, I was one of those ‘reasonable’ ones. Thank goodness for that!

So, feminism is now firmly back on the agenda.

Of course, a blog about feminism can’t leave out mention of Germaine Greer. In a speech she gave a couple of months ago (on International Women’s Day) she wonderfully argued that ‘equality is a profoundly conservative goal for women’

Greer argues:

What everybody has accepted is the idea of equality feminism. It will change nothing … women are drawing level with men in this profoundly destructive world that we live in and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong way. We’re getting nowhere.

“If we’re going to change things I think we’re going to have to start creating a women’s polity that is strong, that has its own way of operating, that makes contact with women in places like Syria, and that challenges the right of destructive nations. Women needed to aim higher and achieve more than simply drawing level with men and entering into traditionally male-dominated fields.”

 I have a lot of sympathy with this. As I wrote in an earlier post, we live in a world where the overarching narrative is male. So are we asking for equality within these existing structures, or something completely new? If we look around us: war, Trump, poverty, populism and the rise of the Right, Carillion, executive pay, Russia, Palestine, the UK railway system, Grenfell Tower, an NHS on its knees…the existing structures aren’t working very well, are they?

I recognise that Greer isn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ (too out-spoken, too strident, too radical) and her comments about trans women have not made her any less controversial, but let’s not forget that the women who got us the vote in the UK needed to be strident, out-spoken and radical in order to allow us the democracy that we enjoy today. Aren’t we pleased that Rosa Parks refused to give up that seat? Aren’t we pleased that Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t become a typical ‘first lady’? Aren’t we pleased that Tarana Burke founded the ‘MeToo’ movement over a decade ago?

Simone de Beauvoir famously said that women are the second sex, made and not born. Society is what makes us. So how do we make a society that enables true equality, one that empowers women to be who they are, confident and bold and talented and amazing, not people tip-toeing around, nudging gently on a door of so-called respectability for a share of the status-quo? As the radical feminist Jessa Crispin argues in her recent book:

“The feminism I support is a full on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists … but are actively able to reshape it.”

So, in the spirit of not being apologetic, or tip-toeing around making a case that is seen as acceptable; rather than being seen as one of those ‘reasonable ones’ I will end this blog with some lines of poetry I found in the book Fifty Shades of Feminism by the scalpel-sharp poet, Laurie Penney:

There are more of us than you think, kicking off our high-heeled shoes to run and being told not so fast . . . who dared to dance until dawn and were drugged and raped by men in clean T-shirts and woke up scared and sore to be told it was our fault . . . who were told all our lives that we were too loud, too risky, too fat, too ugly, too scruffy, too selfish, too much . . .”

I say, let’s continue to be too much!

Image: Watch out cartoon (from a postcard pinned to my kitchen notice board for the last 21 years) by the brilliant cartoonist Jacky Fleming. Jacky is also author of the wonderful The Trouble with Women.

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’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

 

Emotional taxation, but not much representation

In my last blog post I spoke about the importance of stories in connecting us to people and in forming a bridge to others’ lived experiences.  So far, 2018 seems to be a year when the experiences of women have started to have voice and, I’m hoping, that voice will continue to get louder and stronger.  In this blog post, friend and colleague, Laura Harrison, has chosen to give voice to some of her experiences.

Perhaps 2018 will become known as the year when Time was really Up. When the fight for equality became supercharged. In fact, when it came into its own as a fight rather than a bashful, polite request.

It’s a weird time. I’ve found the openness of apparently powerful women thought provoking. Female actors, leaders, ‘celebrities’ are revealing that despite their fame, money and accolades, their power is limited by context and structure. Their stories have poked at buried memories from my own education and career. Buried perhaps because I normalised them. These incidents are painful to re-encounter. And I wonder how many other women are going through the same: Oh god, yes, me too.

I’m going to describe some of these recollections. All of them leave me feeling vulnerable. None of them are in any way as bad in the humiliation they aroused or the harm they did as many women suffer daily at work. But what they have in common is that I’m sure I suffered emotionally way more than the other party or parties concerned. I paid the emotional taxes for the incident. Why did I bear the larger tax bill? Because my gender is under-represented and is too often treated as the imposter or the exception to the masculine norm.

So, some stories:

I was preparing for an important client meeting that I was due to attend with two, more senior, male colleagues. ‘Don’t worry,’ one said, ‘you’re just the eye candy…’ What was the emotional tax I paid? Ten minutes of seething anger? Boredom at the effort of having to put two antediluvian colleagues straight on this crazy thing called sex discrimination? Nope. The tax was hours agonising that they were taking the mickey out of me because obviously I wasn’t pretty enough to be ‘eye candy.’ My anxiety was that I was being demeaned, objectified and called ugly all at once. I was a professional woman with a good job, but my inner thirteen year old had been needled and I was mortified. My attractiveness, or lack of it, was an issue, and I was ashamed.

A university lecturer offered to coach me. ‘You’re very bright, but you’ve a lot to learn.’ His hand was on my knee and his arm around was my shoulders at the time. The tax I paid was to avoid him for the rest of the academic year, missing all his classes and diving into the loos if I saw him coming down the corridor – and of course to only scrape through his class. Had I ‘led him on?’ by asking for his help? Was I pathetic because I’d freaked out and (literally) run away at his advances? Months more of anxiety. I imagine the tax he paid was the effort involved in shrugging his shoulders; you win some, you lose some. Who was she again?

A trusted male colleague, senior to me, took me out for a drink to commiserate over a project gone sour. At about 4pm, after a lot of wine had been consumed, he lunged over the table at me, grabbed the back of my head. It was not a romantic moment. My tax – horror and shame. Is that what you’re asking for if you agree to go for a drink, alone, with a male colleague? The next day I couldn’t look this man in the eye, nor could I, properly, again. He had no problem. After all – you win some, you lose some.

I was the only girl in my physics class for A’level. The teachers and the other students bantered and joshed – football, sex. The not-very-subtle subtext was exclusion – this isn’t for you. That was a different kind of tax, a time tax, I taught myself physics A’level from the text book. And arrived at university to study science to be greeted by a wall of photographs of the departmental lecturers. Every one of them was male.

Worse perhaps, the empathy taxes, where you want to help but can’t. Because all the channels involve revealing vulnerability, hurt and sometimes shame, which at work must be held at bay. A dear friend was shocked – I guess in the physiological sense – by being sent a digital photo of the back view of a naked woman bent over an office desk. The email came from her male boss. She never complained, she was too embarrassed, was worried she’d done something to ‘ask for it.’ I shudder and feel sick on her behalf at the memory. She was once criticised for not having a sense of humour. A friend was passed over for a promotion she clearly deserved. Her colleagues and team were behind her. An unqualified man, deeply embroiled in a bromance with the male leadership team, got the job. What can you say? Don’t fret, don’t spend money drowning your sorrows over pinot grigio or on retail therapy? See a lawyer? Speak to someone? Resign? Find another job? Whichever way you look at it, the tax bill’s too high.

I’m wondering – and hoping – that the burden of emotional taxation is becoming more evenly distributed. That those with more-than-adequate representation are reflecting on past behaviours and present attitudes and challenging themselves to be better. The media at the moment is full of men apologising. An apology isn’t a tax. The tax would be to take the time to feel the shame or horror or regret at what’s gone before and to resolve to change. And to fight for a reduced burden of emotional taxation on women, and better representation for them too. No taxation without representation.

Laura Harrison is a senior leader in the fields of business transformation and organisation development. Her career has spanned consulting and corporate roles as well as working in the non profit sector.  Most recently she was Strategy and Transformation Director at CIPD. You can follow her on twitter @LazMazHarry.

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’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

 

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!