Sunday, 9 October 2016

Frailty thy name is woman?

There were two significant stories about attitudes towards women in the news yesterday. The first most newsworthy reportage was regarding the ever charming (not) Neanderthal US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s tactics for hitting on attractive women.  (*shudder*) The other, less sensational report hidden in the middle pages of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph was the comments by Lady Barbara Judge, who stated that long maternity breaks are bad for women as they may lose their jobs.
Although the thought of Trump as president chills my blood, it was actually Lady Barbara’s comments that caused me far more offence. Lady Barbara is the current Chairman of the Institute of Directors (IoD). The IoD website proudly states that their new chairman was once described as the best-connected woman in Britain, …… has had a long and very distinguished career in law and banking before becoming the IoD's first female chairOh dear - it does bother me when any report uses the phrase 'first female' - when will the powers-that-be rate an individual on who they are and not the number of X or Y chromosomes they sport?

I am a member of the IoD and am also proud to be in their Policy Voice group which is canvassed regularly for views on current legislation, business issues and working practice. These views are shared with the relevant government ministries and I gain great satisfaction from knowing that my opinions are noted in the corridors of power. Never does the questionnaire ask me my gender – as quite rightly this simply is not significant.
The article in the Daily Telegraph was reporting on Lady Barbara’s keynote speech at The Wealth Management Association’s Women in Wealth Forum when she claimed that she took just 12 days maternity leave when her son was born. She should be neither proud nor ashamed of this fact but grateful that she had choice. And this is the key point – despite Lady Barbara’s view that maternity policies in the UK mean that women may ‘come off the tracks’ – paid maternity leave gives mothers choice. They can choose to take the paid benefit, they can choose to extend the period of leave further and they can then choose to return to work. This choice is not always driven by financial need but also an emotional and personal decision. Yes of course any absence from a job for any reason has its risks –the highest being that the absentee may not have the appetite to return to their respective coal face. However in my experience, although re-integration can be challenging and the pull of a small person at home heart-rending, many women return from maternity leave with a renewed vigour for their role and a pragmatic approach to business that can have the net effect of improving performance.
The article goes on to report that Lady Barbara believes that American law where companies with more than 50 employees are only obliged to pay 12 weeks of unpaid leave is better than the British system. Lady Barbara may believe that current employment law allowing up to a year off, with 39 weeks paid absence is over-generous to women but is she really advocating that we go back to those dark days when a woman had to choose between being a mother or having a career? As she is the ‘front man’ for the IoD, I truly hope this is not the case.
It is interesting to note that the Women in Wealth Forum, where this controversial view was aired, make no mention of these comments in their press release outlining Friday’s event. Instead and perhaps even more surprisingly, they focus on Lady Barbara’s comments regarding appearance: “70 per cent of first perceptions is based on how you look, 20 per cent is how you sound and only 10 per cent is based on what you say. When you walk into a room, you can't make a second first impression and so you want to take charge of other people's impressions’. I have seen and heard this charismatic, intelligent woman speak and she gives off an air of wealth and privilege, which in itself is not necessarily a negative thing, but she also possesses the sheen of a bygone era and sadly it would appear that her views echo this impression.
I admire Lady Barbara’s courage in voicing a potentially unpopular view but feel that this does not help the case for family friendly workplace policies. The biggest challenge facing most businesses is finding and retaining the best skill mix to keep the business moving forward. Appropriate employee benefits and fair workplace practices are absolutely crucial in maintain this skills base with their associated intellectual property.
Interestingly again – the Wealth Forum’s purpose is stated as ‘Perception, tackling unconscious bias and creating a flexible culture discussed as key issues for Women in Wealth Management’. ‘Flexible culture’ resonates….
Apparently Lady Barbara quoted her mother who, (in the 1950’s I suspect) said ‘When a baby is born it needs to be fed, bathed and diapered. An 18-year-old girl can do that. Your job is to get the money to pay the 18-year-old girl. When you have to be there is when the child gets smarter than the nanny’.  Ouch
I believe that the most important message for any woman (or man for that matter) in business is to aim high, do your best and believe that you can achieve anything you put your mind to. This is irrespective of whether you take a career break for whatever reason. This was the message that my mother gave me and the one I have passed in to my daughter.
I very much hope that the progress that women have made over the last few decades in achieving work life balance, raising families and pushing through the glass ceiling (yes – I admit it still exists) will not be hindered by the archaic views of a minority.


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