Archive for the ‘Work and life’ Category

Sheryl Sandberg tells Barack Obama how to create jobs (source Reuters)

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, always leaves the office at 5.30 so that she can have dinner with her kids at 6 (via Laura at 11d). I’m pretty sure that her commute is not like the average commute of the working mother of young children (bluemilk nails it as usual), and she probably has someone at home preparing the dinner, too, so she doesn’t have to spend the first half hour with tired, hungry, fractious kids while she scrambles some food together for everyone. She almost certainly spends lots of time later in the evening working in some way, and when she is in Washington talking to the President, she might have to be a virtual presence at dinner.

But that doesn’t invalidate the value of someone that senior speaking out about the value of family time. Too often the speech is from a man like Michael Hawker talking about how he spends 80 hours a week at work because he loves what he does. And so the model of a senior person is of someone who necessarily spends all their life at work. It becomes the only model of success.

I have found that when I am open about the fact that I leave the office early (I say 5, but it is more often 5.30 when I actually get out the door), a surprising number of senior people will admit to doing the same. But nearly all of those early leavers sneak out. They tend not to admit to wanting to have dinner with their kids, or any other reason for spending time with people not from work, in case some unspecified person thinks they aren’t serious enough.

We need to have more senior people, male and female, talking openly about the ways in which they carve out time in their lives for their families. And, of course, we need more senior people actually doing it.

Cross posted at actuarialeye

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist, novelist and lecturer for social reform in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is most famous today for her novella The Yellow Wallpaper, a semi-autobiographical work she wrote after a bout of post-partum psychosis.

Gilman was born in 1860, in Connecticut to a family which was impoverished by her father leaving when she was five. She grew up moving around (she attended 7 different schools) and with several aunts (including Harriet Beecher Stowe) at various times, as her mother could not support the family. She spent a lot of time reading in public libraries, so although her formal education was fairly rudimentary, she had read widely and had great general knowledge by the time she reached adulthood.

She became an artist, and supported herself by designing trade cards, and married a fellow artist, Charles Walter Stetson, in 1884, despite not being sure if he was right for her. She had a daughter, Katherine, the year after, and suffered serious post partum psychosis, for which doctor’s treatment was “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time… Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”. By 1888, she and Charles had both decided that they must separate, for the sake of Charlotte’s mental health, and Charlotte moved to California with her daughter.

In California, she became very active in feminist and reformist organisations, writing and editing for several of them. In 1890, she had a very successful year, writing The Yellow Wallpaper, as well as fifteen other works, a mixture of poetry, prose, fiction and non fiction.

As an example of living by her feminist principles, in 1894 Charlotte sent her (now 9 year old) daughter to live with her father, and his new wife (a good friend of Charlotte’s). She believed that it was important for both father and daughter to know each other.

By this time, Charlotte was becoming an important feminist and reformer. She was a successful speechmaker, who earned her living making speeches, as well as a poet, and novelist. She represented California at the national Suffrage convention, and the International Socialist and Labour congress in Great Britain. She began writing on economics, and women, and her book Women and Economics propelled her into the international spotlight. In it and its successor The Home: its work and Influence, she argued that the domestic environment oppressed women through the patriarchal beliefs upheld by society. Gilman argued that male aggressiveness and maternal roles for women were artificial and no longer necessary for survival in post-prehistoric times. She wrote, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver”.

She moved back east to New York, in 1893, and in 1900 married her cousin, Houghton Gilman, and their marriage seems to have been a happy one. He died in 1922, suddenly, and she moved back to California to be near her daughter. In 1932, at the age of 72, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and in 1935 she took her own life using an overdose of chloroform, choosing “chloroform over cancer” as she wrote in her suicide note.

Reading the issues that she campaigned about and wrote about – the assigning of gender roles through toys early in a child’s life, the need for reform of the home to enable women to live equal lives with men, and the need for more equal relationships between men and women to make for happy marriages. It seems sad that today she is remembered mostly for The Yellow Wallpaper when she had so much more to say.


This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world.  Unusually, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was actually a feminist – most of the others have been notable for ways in which they stepped outside their assigned gender roles in times when that was very difficult. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.

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This is a departure from my usual Travelling Feminist post. But I’m in Norway, and Norway, in the 21st century, is proud of its position as one of the most equal countries (by gender roles) in the world.  Statistics Norway has a special gender equality index, and 40% of the parliament (the Storting) is female. Norway has gone further than most in one particular respect – they have legislated for approximately equal gender representation on listed Boards:

Companies are required to have at least 33% to 50% of each gender depending on the size of the board (see details in the document attached). The 40% requirement applies to boards of over 10 members. These percentages are for the shareholder representatives. And for those who wonder, yes, one company did have to search for a male board member to reach the target! (Source: Europeanpwn)

The process the Norwegians went through was two fold. In 2003 (when the percentage of women on listed company Boards was 9%), they introduced the concept, with a deadline of 2005, but no sanctions for non compliance. And then in 2006, they went further, and said that by 2008, those companies that were not complying would be delisted. And now Norway has more than 40% women on its listed Boards. The effect has trickled into non listed companies, as well, with the percentage of women there rising as well, to 17%. The change has been studied by a few different people.

The only quantitative study, by Amy Dittmar and Kenneth Ahern of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan found that the companies with the smallest proportion of women at the beginning of the period of compulsion lost the most value compared with their peers – their hypothesis is that they were most likely to be forced to appoint unsuitable candidates. They found that female directors were significantly different from their male peers – they were better educated (more likely to have an MBA), younger (around 8 years on average) and less likely to have been a CEO. They also found that the proportion of listed companies out of Norway’s total seemed to have reduced (with a reduction in the number of listed companies, and an increase in the number of listed).

Although their study did try and correct for the possibility that the companies with more women on Boards at the beginning were better companies to start with (which is a reasonable hypothesis, given several studies showing statistically better performances from companies with more diversity at Executive level), by comparing with similar US and Scandinavian firms to see if the performance gap was similar, and by correcting for industry differences, it still seems to have relied fairly heavily on market capitalisation at a particular point in time (compared with net assets – the Tobin Q) as a measure of which companies performed, which makes me suspicious, given that the point was in the middle of the global financial crisis. The measurements were relative, rather than absolute, but the strongest argument that comes from this study for me, is that compulsion should be more gradually introduced.

Kate Sweetman spent some time interviewing directorsof Norwegian companies who went through the change. She interviewed men and women, all of whom were already directors, and almost all of whom opposed the change. Two years later, in a series of one-on-one interviews, every single person said that the boards were measurably improved with the addition of the women…some direct quotes:

* “If I had to generalize about the differences between men and women on boards? Women are more interested in getting the facts. Much more prepared; ask many more questions. Men tend to shoot from the hip.

* “What do women bring? We used to be a fraternity of men sitting on each others’ boards. The real issue is the fraternity of men. It is necessary to break up the in-breeding. It is unhealthy how the men protect each other. They are unwilling to go up against the CEO, for example.”

* “Think about the difference between an evening out with 3 of your girlfriends, or a guy and 3 of his guy friends, or two couple friends going out. It is always more interesting when the couples go out. Very different dynamics. The group dynamics totally change. More civilized. Less swearing, less jockeying for position. The problem with jockeying is that jockeying is about the individual’s position, not about the company.”

And Aagoth Storvik and Mari Teigen, both senior researchers at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo, released a study that argued that without both the compulsory quotas and the accompanying sanctions for non-compliance, it would be next to impossible to increase the number of female board members. This articlein Der Spiegel quotes from the study, and the researcher, pointing out that 7 years after the concept was introduced, nobody in Oslo is worried about it any more.

“But after the reform went into force almost nobody seemed to object, hardly anybody is writing about it in the newspapers any more or telling us about negative experiences.”

Australia, where the percentage of women on listed boards was 8% in 2010, recently went through a period of soul searching about this issue. The same arguments as were used in Norway (here outlined by Kate Sweetman) were used as to why quotas are a bad idea:

Quotas are wrong because they are about diversity and business is about meritocracy; quotas are simply a form of institutionalized reverse discrimination–what about the men?; government has no business interfering with the workings of business; quotas on boards flew in the face of shareholder rights; if qualified women existed, we would already have them on the boards; women don’t really want this anyway.

After several people publicly called for quotas, the proportion of women changed faster than it ever has – reaching 10% in less than a year. But 10% is still a long way from 40%. Should there be quotas? The Economist recently argued strongly that this was the wrong way to change the proportion. They ultimately viewed the financial study as more powerful than any other arguments. Although their piece made powerful points that women are consistently underestimated by men (based on a study by INSEAD) and that women are less likely to have a powerful mentor than men – often key to making it to the very top of a corporate, they seem to end up with the view that the main reason that women don’t make it to the top is that old saw – work life balance – they don’t just get the experience needed to get to the very top, and they don’t want to put in the hours.

But a much bigger obstacle to putting more women in boardrooms is that so many struggle to balance work and a family….Partly because it is so tricky to juggle kids and a career, many highly able women opt for jobs with predictable hours, such as human resources or accounting*. They also gravitate towards fields where their skills are less likely to become obsolete if they take a career break, which is perhaps one reason why nearly two-thirds of new American law graduates are female but only 18% of engineers.

I once would have agreed with them, being very cautious about the concept of quotas. Quotas can lead to adverse consequences in many different situations – just those that the Norwegian directors were fearful of. The thought of being regarded as the “token” – not there on merit, but because of a rule, is appalling. But the Norwegian experience suggests to me that it is not just a matter of lack of experience. Unless they are forced to, companies will fall back into comfortable habits when hiring people, particularly those, like board members, for whom it is difficult to define competence or success objectively.

Once more women are let into the boardroom, astonishingly enough, they add value just as they are. Quotas had the effect of forcing companies to hire women who were already capable of adding value to the companies that recruited them.  The last word should go to Hilde Tonne, an executive vice president and head of communications at Telenor, a global telecommunications company based in Oslo, from the NY Times:

“We have excluded women for 1,000 years,” she said, with a smile. “So we have already had quotas — it’s just that they were for men.”


* This is a minor point, but one that has to be made. Most articles you read about women on boards say that not enough women take the hard operational jobs – running an operational division, or being the CFO, rather than HR and marketing. Yet the Economist is talking about women going into easy jobs like accounting and suggesting that is why they aren’t Board members! Really, we can’t win.

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Every now and again, I get a work email addressed to “Gentlemen”. I’m generally cc’d, so technically the addressing is correct. But the other day, I was in the “to” list, so I decided I was justified in calling the author on it.

His justification – it had originally been to three (all male) people, and at the last minute he added me, as he realised I needed to get the email also.

Underneath the superficially reasonable explanation though, any email addressed to “Gentlemen”(whether I’m in the to or the cc list)  says to me that the author’s default (and probably entirely unconscious) assumption is that his (invariably his) work colleagues are male. And when there is (occasionally) a woman in his list, he has to change from his normal approach. Most of the people who send those emails are superficially entirely unsexist in person. But  I’m still, deep in their subconscious, the slightly odd interloper that has changed their workplace from the way it used to be.

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Today’s Book Review is The Pinstriped Prison: How overachievers get trapped in corporate jobs they hate, by Lisa Pryor.

Lisa Pryor is a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald who got 100% in her HSC (school leaving exams). She started a law degree, but ended up a (less well paid) journalist, and this book is the story of what became of her peers – high scoring high school students who ended up as lawyers and investment bankers, because the law firms and Investment Bankers have set up a superb strategy for capturing graduates like her.

This book came out of a newspaper column, and it does show. The arguments are strongest around the core – which is an essay about corporate malaise within the very well paid jobs in Sydney’s corporations and law firms – particularly amongst the twenty somethings, Lisa Pryor’s contemporaries.

Pryor describes the culture and narrow choices that occur in reality from school, to university, to the first years of university for Sydney’s upper middle class bright children. Along the way, she talks about the snobbishness of public (particularly selective) vs private schools, including this paragraph about the tutoring at Sydney’s selective public schools, which says something I’ve been thinking for a while:

To families with children at elite private schools, all this tutoring is considered somewhat distasteful. ‘Asians’, they whisper and point discreetly. Filling up the selective schools with their hardworking ways, cheating with tutoring! Don’t these Asians have any respect for the fact that the only student who is supposed to have an advantage in the race for gifted and talented classes and selective schools is the white child whose parents speak fluent English, work in professional jobs and live in houses crammed with books? Private schools like to teach their children to be workaholics in other ways. Well-rounded ways. By rising at six in the mornign for swimming squad, spending the lunch hour rehearsing with the madrigal group, taking speech and drama classes after school.

She talks about the strong pressure that teenagers feel not to “waste” their marks when choosing university courses by just choosing something they would like to do at university, rather than something they can get into, citing someone who is often berated by friends and family for choosing to be a teacher when she could have studied law.

The backbone of the book is the analysis of the recruiting methods of the  big law firms, consulting firms and investment bankers (and to a lesser extent, the accounting firms). To persuade the top university students to join their firms, their recruitment strategy sounds similar to the strategy used to win Olympic bids. Interviews take place at luxury hotels. Job offers are accompanied by ipods or Champagne. Introductory courses to the firm take place in glamorous locations (and for global firms, that can be pretty glamorous). Firms promise “cutting edge work”, which is “dynamic and fast paced”. Law firms sponsor the annual revues at universities, to give them an in with the most outgoing students.  Rhodes scholars get special attention from the management consulting firms while at Oxford.

The final part of the book deals with what it is like being at one of these big firms:

The life that big firms promise is not the life they deliver.  Some time during their twenties, when study is finished and work begins in earnest, a person can realise life is not quite what they planned or were promised in the brochures.

The hours worked by new recruits may be high flying but the work is not. Even the areas which are optimistically described as ‘sexy’rarely are.

Life at these big firms seems quite stifling after a while – Pryor describes the money trap that it takes a fair bit of money to maintain yourself so that you are taken seriously in a big firm. Good clothes, living in an acceptable area of the city, getting takeaway all the time because you’re too tired to cook, hiring a cleaner (ditto) and keeping up with your peers –  things like weekends away, dinners out, and drinking after work. So taking a pay cut and doing something slightly worthier (like the activism you did at university to embellish your cv) seems impossible, because your spending habits are so extravagant (although that peer group would be a lot easier to keep up with).

Pryor is most concerned here that our most talented students are being lured into careers that they didn’t really want in the first place – and that aren’t actually the best place for them to use their talents. Although the market is supposed to be the best allocator of resources, the human reactions of people facing the big decisions about their careers are swayed by the short term incentives that are on offer by the firms with the most money to splash around.  Of course, that isn’t just the fault of the law firms and the merchant bankers. The students are reacting as they always have – to external markers of success. They’ve moved from marks, to the prestigiousness of their employer, to the “glamour” of the area of the firm that they end up in.

Pryor’s solutions to all of this seem a combination of unrealistic and inadequate to me. They include removing the single mark used for university admissions, targeting scholarships better to students who actually need them, and not facilitating the recruitment by the firms with money on university campuses. And she wants university graduates to be braver about following less traditional paths.

I haven’t lived in quite the same circles as described in this book – it is mostly about law firms and investment banks, rather than traditional corporations or accounting firms. But much of the culture was familiar to me, having worked in a big accounting firm, and with many lawyers and investment bankers. The depressing thing about the book is that is largely a tale of woe. There are no great answers, just stories of people realising that a 12 hour day in a corporate environment isn’t the fun it’s made out to be by those recruiting. That does seem to be a case of some degree of market failure, to me – the kind of market failure that results from people valuing current consumption over investment – but I’m not sure it makes for a wonderful book. It’s definitely worth reading for university students, as they think about what they want to do with their lives, but it’s hard to imagine that a university student would be willing to read it. The various blog whinges referred to in the book are probably more useful as cautionary tales.

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This (sartorial) life

On Friday, one of our major suppliers treated a few of us to a Boardroom lunch. It was very stylishly done, with good conversation about a mix of business and personal topics.  Amusingly, as we were leaving, our host commented that it was a shame it was on a Friday. “We usually wear casual clothes on a Friday, so it was a bit of a nuisance to put the tie on.” Amusingly, our office has dress down Friday also, so we had all dressed up just for each other.

Next time, maybe we’ll know each other well enough to go casual.

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I’m not necessarily the best person to write about this. I have a very full time job. Both maternity leaves, I came back part time, and ended up full time quicker than I intended, as it just seemed easier to go in for that meeting every single day…

But I feel I do a reasonable job as a boss, in a large corporate, of making it work for my team. Usually I think that what I do is just sensible – it’s not that easy to get good staff these days. But then I run into people who tell me that flexible work is impossible in their teams (monthly deadlines, etc, etc) and I think that maybe I have some insights.

I have a team of nearly 40 people. In that team, I have various flexible arrangements:

  • most actuarial students are studying some pretty tough exams. They have a day off a week study leave, during their peak exam season (2 months or so before the twice yearly exams). So all actuaries are used to organising who gets which day off (Wednesday is always the most popular – usually the senior students get that one).
  • a uni student who comes in a day and a half a week. She does the mundane data crunching that everyone else turns their noses up at
  • a guy with irreplaceable corporate knowledge, who was keen to take serious paternity leave when his wife went back to work. He is working a day and a half a week, one full day, and the rest what he can fit in, while we try and make sure we take advantage of his substantial experience
  • Someone who works from home three days a week, two in the office – a completely full time load. I thought I had her forever, with that set up, but unfortunately a 50% pay increase was enough  that she was prepared to go into the office five days a week again for another company (the extra pay was enough so her husband could stay home with the kids).
  • My deputy is four days a week (but five days for three months a year during year end). He started doing that when his youngest child was three – five years later, he would go full time again for the right job, but hasn’t found it yet. His wife is now working three days a week, so he values his day at home more than ever
  • Two more people work 60% jobs, one of them two days in the office and one at home, and the other 9 – 2 every day.

And the one that cause me the most soul searching. I replaced one of my senior managers recently. The best candidate, by far, was someone who wanted to work three days a week. She had been doing that for the last 8 years. I really didn’t think the role was doable three days a week, but talked to her anyway. She convinced me that she was good at managing it. Three months later, it is working out much better than I expected. If she was working full time, she probably wouldn’t have taken the role – she would have had a bigger choice, and taken something more senior, with more challenge. But with the savings from her working only three days, I’ve hired an extra junior person in her team.  She is giving space to her team to grow and develop, but at the same time adding much needed experience to the team.

Part of the reason I took the risk on my new hire was that I passionately believe that the workplace has to change to give opportunities to people to work less than a five day week. I have the opportunity to make that happen, in a small way, in my team. So I went for it. But next, I realise, if I really believe in this stuff, I need to show my colleagues how well it works – to help them realise how much wider your talent pool can be with a bit of imagination.

In this current depressed environment, there are opportunities – many companies are actively asking people to go part time. But many more should be taking the opportunity to get a bit of experience at a cheap price, by going for someone who is keen to do a part time role.

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Setting KPIs

One of the things I’ve been doing lately at work has been setting KPIs (key performance indicators, for those readers lucky enough not to have to keep up with corporate jargon).

Coincidentally, this TED talk appeared in my itunes podcast feed:

Basically, Pink says that if you are asking someone to do something that requires creative (as opposed to sequential) thinking, then offering a monetary reward for speed is not just useless, but counterproductive. The main KPI I have for my team (from my manager) is “insightful analysis”. That means that I want my team to come up with new and interesting insights about our business, to help the business manage better. That is unlikely to be a sequential, defined task – some of it might be, but the good stuff really requires insight and creativity. So setting that KPI, and offering a hefty bonus for it is possibly counterproductive!

That’s the structure of remuneration at my company – set a KPI, and offer a differential bonus to go with it. But I’m starting to think that my previous manager was right  – make them vague, and offer a bonus based on judgement of the overall job done at the end of the year.

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Flexible work

I went to a love in at work recently – 60 or 70 senior people from my part of our organisation. One of the topics was how to improve the proportion of senior women (as an aside, I found it pretty amusing that all the men at my table were shocked by the statistics – 16% women at our level – when we were at a conference with (gasp) 16% women – they were completely oblivious).

We had a fabulous speech from one woman who had made it to very senior levels (more senior than nearly everyone in the room) which outlined a few home truths. The most fascinating thing, for me, is that this was her second time with our organisation. The first time, she had left in disgust after coming back from maternity leave to a nothing job, with no desk, no job title, and being made to feel completely invisible as the organisation couldn’t figure out what to do with someone part time. Her children are now older, so she is willing to work a very full time job (although she takes more school holidays), and more importantly, she has the self confidence to demand what she wants out of a role – self confidence that isn’t easy to have coming back from maternity leave somewhat sleep deprived. But she did a lot of soul searching before coming back to an organisation that had basically discarded her 10 years before.

The powerful point about her story for me, was the importance of thinking about stages of life when thinking about flexible work. The woman who is looking for a very part time role now is probably a great asset to an organisation now. But she also has the potential to be a much greater asset later – her children will grow older, she will have more headspace to take on something more challenging and full time. And if you make it hard for her now, you’re not going to reap that reward later when she is ready.

We had a brainstorming session, and so many people said that they were all for flexible work, but the roles in their teams just couldn’t be done that way. It is much  harder to organise roles part time than full time. It takes more imagination. But you expand your talent pool enormously – in the short term a bit, but in the long term an enormous amount.

Edited to add a link to the article Suze pointed to in the comments below.

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Wildfire scarcely seems an adequate term for what happened over the weekend in Victoria.  To give a sense of the intensity, many cars are unidentifiable, because the numbers on the engine blocks have melted. This article compares the temperature in the worst of the fires to the Dresden firestorms.

John Quiggin has done his usual wonderful job in coordinating blogosphere donations – he’s well over $1,000 now.

Several others have urged blood donations if you’re local – burns victims need lots of blood products.

Anything I can do from Sydney seems woefully inadequate, but this is one of those times that I’m glad I work for an insurance company. The stories from our claims teams for the last few days have been tragic, and worse, but I’m glad to be part of a process that pays money to people when they need it most.

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