When I grow up I want to be…

A couple of months ago a colleague of old asked me to contribute some words to a blog she was writing on what I would say now to my 16 year old self (you can find her fab blog here)  Since then, I’ve been reflecting on those words, that blog and my own experience observing my teenage daughters and their friends as they navigate the rollercoaster of revision, exams, new GCSEs, (already) worrying about student debt and looking a bit embarrassed as relatives and friends ask them what they want to do ‘when they grow up’. (With the rise of automation and reports saying 85% of future jobs aren’t yet created, how do they answer that?) For me, one way to equip our young people for the future world of work is to give them the opportunity to build those critical thinking and creative skills, to be great with people and to be resilient – probably far more than I have ever had to be (and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue at the University of Birmingham is doing some fantastic research into building the skills needed for the future). But it’s tough when you’re 16 to know all of this. As noted by experts, young people are under more pressure now than they have ever been before. Increasing numbers of under-18s are suffering from anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other conditions. In addition, more are self-harming and attempting suicide. School stress, social media and pressures to “succeed” are among the key reasons behind this rise.

As the next generation contemplate the reality of the 100 year life and the notion that they will most likely have multiple jobs, doing many different things, and with the need to constantly retrain and learn, we need to give them every opportunity and support as they start out on their working lives.

But I also recognise, as a middle-aged woman, that it’s not really for me to speak on what I think young people need. So, for this guest blog, I invited an amazing young woman, Rose, to tell her story. I met Rose via a terrific organisation, Further my Future, and they, as was I, were impressed by her tenacity, her desire to grow and learn and her bright, enquiring mind.

At 16 years old, I was in my last year of school; juggling GCSE exams, revision, college interviews and career options. I didn’t know where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do and I felt like the only option I had was to do what everyone else was doing, and go to college and then university. A few more exams down the line – and after countless all-nighters, I hated the education system, I was stressed, anxious and highly irritable! I wanted any way out and couldn’t stand the thought of going through the same repetitive process again in college.

Summer of that year came around and with exams finally done, I had some time to myself. I thought about my future and the career choices that I had made and it just didn’t feel right. It was that uncertainty that motivated my intensive research and desperate visit to the school’s careers advisor. During my meeting with her, we came to the conclusion that school, college, and uni were definitely not for me. In fact, none of the typical and “accepted” paths of education suited me. We explored other options together, one of which was apprenticeships. That idea really stuck!

I loved the idea of being hands-on with my learning and getting the training that I wanted at a young age. So, I spent my summer holidays filling out applications and preparing for interviews, but to no avail. The majority of my applications were unsuccessful, and for those that were, I didn’t get further than the interview. The worst part was that I wasn’t getting any real feedback. All the employers would say that they were looking for someone who’s older and think that I’m too young… but that’s it. I felt as though all my hard work was going to waste and that I should stop trying because my age wasn’t something that I could change. But through that process, I learned more about myself than I did throughout my entire time at school. I learned what my strengths and weaknesses are, what I enjoy and what I’m good at, and finally what I would like to improve. I didn’t let people’s stereotypical opinions of me, as a hormonal teenage girl, stop me from accomplishing my goals.

October ’17 through to March ’18, I did a traineeship in order to gain the experience that is so valued by employers. Within those short 6 months, I learned everything from incredibly important life skills such as money budgeting, to event organisation and employability. Along with that, though, came a fear of not knowing what will happen next. For those that went to college, they knew that they would most likely be in college for the next 2 to 3 years, whereas my schedule changed every week and one phone call could flip everything on its head. I worked 6 days a week at one point, at 4 different work placements, trying to learn and grow in as many ways as I could. Although I was hardly getting paid, I persevered and made myself realise that the experience that I was gaining was way more valuable and that it wasn’t all about the money. And that is what got me here, 10 months later. Having met the most incredible people, gained heaps of experience and finally secured my dream apprenticeship with absolutely amazing employers, I think it’s safe to say that it was all totally worth it!

There’s a lot of pressure on young people to achieve. The new 9-1 GCSE specification proves just that, as the A* is no longer the highest grade. Many students, including myself, feel as though they have under-achieved because of this, when in reality, they’ve obtained very good grades!

I think that so many people are at a disadvantage with their learning due to there being only one method of teaching. In my case, I can’t learn the traditional way: sitting down with someone talking at me for an hour is just tedious.

Others, like myself, were completely unaware of what’s available to them. I didn’t know what traineeships or apprenticeships were until I reached out to the careers advisor. Nor did I know that I could get help and advice on employment, education and training through the Youth Employability Service and the National Careers Service for free. In my opinion, no practical and genuinely helpful sessions were offered at school to inform about the many services available to young people.

If you are a student, take the time to know the different paths and options open to you. If your school or college has a careers advisor, I strongly suggest organising a meeting with them. If not, get in contact with your local youth support services but most importantly, believe in yourself! Be persistent and follow your dreams – even when people tell you that you can’t.

We need workplaces with people from diverse backgrounds and that includes education as well as race, gender and age. You’ll be surprised at just what young people are capable of!

Rose is currently doing an apprenticeship in digital marketing at Liftmusic which combines hands-on work in the workplace with one day a week training.
 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

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.

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!

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.