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’.

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? 😉

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.