Employers benefit by ‘talking flex’ when recruiting

Employers benefit from talking flex

In this opinion post Jessica Chivers shares her views on the competitive advantage gained by employers who state upfront on job adverts and at interview that there’s scope to talk flexible working.

“Should I mention that I’m really looking for four days a week rather than FT?”

“Will I put them off if I ask about flexible working at interview?”

“At what point in the hiring process is it best to ask about flexible options?”

These questions, and variations of, are commonplace in executive coaching sessions where women are exploring how to move on and/or up in their career.

It strikes me that many employers are missing a very real competitive advantage by not placing the words “up for talking flexibility’ on job adverts seeking mid to senior professionals for full time roles. This is particularly relevant if the organisation has made a public commitment to increasing the number of women at the top of their business, as say McKinsey has done. The employer is under no obligation to offer flex but by including these words, they’ve probably doubled the pool of people who might apply. A winning strategy, surely?

As an aside, McKinsey have just revealed their latest gender equality research (in conjunction with LeanIn.org) and show that women’s journey to the top is still appallingly slow. Change needs to come quickly.

In reality the onus is all too often on the candidates’ shoulders to ask about flexibility, and with so many stories about women noticing a negative change in the recruiter when they ask, it’s no wonder women hold back from applying for FT roles.

Where jobs adverts make no mention of flexibility, it would be useful if the recruiting manager ‘put it out there’ at the start of the interview (and not just when they’re interviewing females of a certain age – men want more flex too). “We’re advertising for a full time member of the team to be based predominantly in Manchester but depending on who we meet, there’s scope for the role to be done flexibly. We can talk about that further down the line.” There, easy.

I’m noticing a growing problematic pattern of women ‘choosing’ to stay in jobs they’ve outgrown because it gives them the flex they want (or more likely need) to be able to have a decent, wholesome family life where kids get help with their homework and at least one meal gets eaten together as a family.* There’s a belief that the only way to maintain this flex is to put it on hold, work full time for a new employer and prove oneself again (a hazy concept, but that’s an issue for another post) and then negotiate flex. The difficulty with this is it’s usually not that easy to switch to being an FT worker if you have children too young to have a key to the front door. For starters, the chances are you won’t be able to up your childcare to cover it.

A final point to ponder: could it be that the journey towards gender balance at the top of our organizations is slow because women are staying put when it’s time to move on? That they’re sacrificing stretch for flex and just not going after the next job? Giving women and men permission to discuss flexible working could be the key to change.

I’m optimistic that smart employers will soon start to print words to the effect of “up for talking flex” on their job ads and that their businesses will be all the better for it. I suspect we need some ballsy HR Directors to tap their CEOs on the shoulder to make it happen. Are you out there?

What do you think? Are you explicit about flexibility in your recruitment activities? Have you asked about flexibility at interview and had a good response?


* Yes, there are people without children who crave flex too. There are people with horses that need turning out each morning, there are people with elderly caring responsibilities and there are people who just want to have a darn good time at the weekend living a different life by the sea. They all want or need flex too and if they can get the job done without having their backsides on their swivel chair from 8.30-5.30pm every day then why not?)


Talent Fueller – Allison Page, DLA Piper

Allison Page

Talent Fueller Interview with Allison Page, DLA Piper. “Talent Fueller” is our name for individuals who are working to keep, support and fuel female talent whether part of their role or ‘off the side of their desk.’

Allison Page is a partner in the finance team of global law firm, DLA Piper. She works in the Leeds office, runs a team of around 40 people and is married with two children. Colleagues put Allison forward to be profiled as a Talent Fueller owing to her longstanding commitment to supporting and developing female talent. In this post we’ve picked out some of the golden nuggets of our conversation.

Allison kicks off by telling us she believes the glass ceiling still exists and the answer lies in businesses putting the effort into women continuously, right from the beginning of their careers. “One of the reasons I believe passionately in supporting women’s careers is that we recruit more female trainees than men and yet we end up having less than 20% female partners and even fewer in the really senior positions.”

A significant part of the answer is sponsorship, she says.

Sponsorship is vital

“A sponsor is not the same as a mentor. Sponsorship is about a senior person pushing a junior colleague’s career, giving them direction; someone who is prepared to go the extra mile for you and to represent you in the room when you are not there. There’s a direct benefit to the sponsor and the recipient and I think it’s important that the latter is loyal to their sponsor – that’s what really makes it work.  I believe a sponsor has to be someone in a position of power who can change the outcomes of your career and has a vested interest in doing so. I believe we have a greater chance of retaining our female talent if they have that level of support.

“I hadn’t realised I’d been ‘sponsoring’ women for years, probably because I didn’t have one myself. I had never heard the word sponsorship as a form of management and talent development. Licensed careers weren’t really discussed in those terms in law firms. You were either on the partnership track or you weren’t.”

Allison explains that she now has what she calls a ‘half way house’ between sponsor and mentor who’s no longer in the business but who knows it very well. “Now that I have that, life is much easier.”

“Mentoring is important too and I think it’s important to encourage women to look for mentors who come from different sources. Mentoring can mean a long relationships but it can also work in the short-term too, depending on the nature of the issues you want to discuss.”

Pearls and The Two Percent Club

Another signal of DLA Piper’s commitment to women is its support for The Two Percent Club and The Pearls programme, both from ‘An Inspirational Journey’ – a business founded by Yorkshire woman Heather Jackson in response to her discovery that, at one time, Yorkshire was the county with the fewest number of women in board positions.  The Two Percent Club drives forward and positively influences the issue of the under-representation of women at the top of UK business. The club is a national organisation with regional representation and engages with the most senior and influential women across all sectors. The Pearls programme seeks to fix the leaking pipeline of female talent by providing career support and direction for women in middle through to executive management through a programme of events, networking and on-line resources. DLA Piper currently has 55 women on the programme. Allison was the driver behind both of these initiatives coming into DLA Piper – she’s currently Chair of The Two Percent Club in Yorkshire and is on the steering committee of the London group.

Career returners

Of course, becoming a parent is a challenging time and it’s a stage where significant dropout occurs. Allison says thinks there’s probably more DLA Piper could do to support maternity returners, “Certainly when it comes to returning to work, returning to the office space, support is really important. I think for some women, it is actually quite a difficult time. Obviously you can get used to things – you can get used to almost anything – but the transition can be very difficult for new mums.

“I also think we also need to recognise that not everybody, male and female, wants to have an all-singing, all-dancing career. Some people just don’t want that.”

Parents working flexibly

“I really encourage people to work flexibly. I don’t care if you are having your phone calls with your clients from your study or in the office.  I think it is a lot more of a challenge for us, but not impossible, for us to work on the basis that people go home at 5pm and that’s it, they’ve clocked off. Our clients tend to be quite demanding and we’re here to service their needs first and foremost. But if you want to go back to work after going home, having a family meal and putting the kids to bed, I think we should encourage that flexible approach.

“I don’t see my children very much during the week and that’s something that not everyone would be prepared to do. You have to take account of the individual circumstances and find a good way to work. What I often say to people is: ‘your career is a marathon, not a sprint’ and we need to find better ways to accommodate that.”

What’s next for DLA Piper in the inclusion space?

“We’re a very large business and diversity and inclusion is increasingly important to our clients as well as us.  You want to run a business as effectively as you can and to ignore the haemorrhage of female talent would be foolish – it’s an economic issue. I’d like to see diversity training included as part of our development programme so that when colleagues step into a management role they’re encouraged to think about what ‘valuing difference’ means and to live the behaviour.”

It’s clear that Allison is absolutely committed to supporting women not just outside her firm, but outside her industry too. Thanks to Allison’s drive, DLA Piper recently hosted a hugely successful event in conjunction with The Two Percent Club, designed to encourage more senior women across all sectors to join, and to support younger women coming through the ranks.

Talent Fueller – Carolanne Minashi, Citi

Carolanne MinashiTalent Fueller interview with Carolanne Minashi, Citi. “Talent Fueller” is our name for individuals who are working to keep, support and fuel female talent whether part of their role or ‘off the side of their desk.’

Carolanne Minashi heads up diversity, employee relations and engagement for EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) at Citi – a role comprising around 55 countries and approximately 35,000 people. Beyond Citi having a positive, pioneering story to tell on the maternity transition front – our initial point of connection – what attracted us to profiling Carolanne  is her commitment to spreading their learning externally. She says she’s recently accompanied Citi Relationship Managers to client meetings, “We’re basically trying to share our journey in diversity with the client. We’re adding value to them in a different way.”

In this piece we hear about using the ‘diverse slate’ approach to attracting more women to Citi; retaining female talent and Citi’s approach to maternity and paternity transitions. Of her role she says “I think my role is to help shape the organisation – it’s to create the policy that meets the needs of the business and creates an environment and a culture where talented people will grow and develop and thrive.”

Simplifying the gender agenda 

“As far as our gender agenda is concerned, we want to see more women in senior roles. There are only three levers we can use to achieve that:

  • You can hire more women than you have done in the past.
  • You can promote women faster (and more women) than you have historically.
  • You can lose less women.

It’s really simple and two things work in your favour: 1) the size of the opportunity that the lever presents you and 2) how hard you work at it.”

Hiring from a diverse slate

“Looking at those levers in the context of an industry in challenging times, , our opportunity  to make an impact by hiring is limited. Losing less women or ‘talent keeping’ is key. But when we do have opportunities to hire at the senior level, its really important that we are attracting women. Part of our hiring strategy is a concept called ‘diverse slates’ which basically says, any senior position – director, managing director level role that is open should have a slate of candidates considered for that job, i.e. more than just one person and where possible, there should be a diverse pool. We track the appointments made and how many came from a diverse slate.

Having that metric has meant we’ve had different conversations with our hiring managers and recruiting partners to make sure they are seriously searching the available market to get diverse talent, because it matters to us. It just might mean they have to work a bit harder to find where those women are.”

Stoking the female graduate pipeline

At the junior level the challenge is helping young women at university, or even before, to think of financial services as a career option worth exploring. We’ve done a number of initiatives around creating relationships with young women at university and bringing them into our organisation for a week to see what it’s like. The important thing I’ve learnt from looking at junior talent is connecting them with senior people – women who are living the life that they may have – to start to create a relationship where they feel free to ask the women what their career has been like, how they got into it, what the pressures are.

Maternity metrics

Citi are hot on the metrics surrounding maternity and paternity transitions. Carolanne says they’re measuring pretty much everything they can measure on the diversity agenda and that the gender element is the one that can be measured most accurately. She knows:

  • How many women a year in her business go off on maternity leave (200 this year)
  • How many men are taking paternity leave
  • How many people are adopting
  • How long women are taking off for maternity (about 75% take nine months, less than five percent come back within three months and the rest trickle back at the 12 month period – she encourages women to take the time they need by reassuring them that over the span of their whole career a few months won’t have much impact)
  • How much it costs (maternity leavers are paid in full for the first 26 weeks and paternity leavers are paid in full for their two weeks of Ordinary Paternity Leave and of the matched period of  Additional Paternity Leave)
  • How many people become parents every year (five percent)
  •  Retention rate both on immediate return and also 3 years later

“I wouldn’t say we’re perfect but I think we’ve made a lot of progress on how we support and engage women and dads during their maternity/paternity transitions. It’s a very quick win for an organisation to pick up on. It’s about understanding the profile of the women who are going off on maternity leave. I know that when a woman takes her first maternity leave, she’s got about 10 years worth of work experience. So these are women who are highly invested in their careers and predisposed to want to come back. I also know that a high proportion of the women who work at Citi are the main breadwinners for their family and so there is an economic orientation for them to want to continue their career.”

The role of line managers in maternity transitions

Citi’s retention rate was high before they introduced what we call ‘support the returner’ and ‘shape the landscape’ activities so we asked what made Carolanne choose to implement them.  “One of my roles is to agitate the system so the fact that something’s working well doesn’t mean to say it can’t be better and certainly doesn’t mean to say it’s perfect. I was talking to lots of women and lots of managers and what I was hearing was although we were doing a really good job providing the policy, the pay and the backup childcare, the single biggest impact on women going through their maternity experience was their line manager and the quality of their experience with their line manager. When I probed that, I knew we could do a better job.”

Citi started a workshop for line managers of maternity leavers five years ago and it’s since become mandatory. We talk about how to handle it well for the woman going off on maternity leave, for the team, for the client that needs to be covered. “It’s not rocket science; by bringing people into a workshop where you can just share some views, give them some stats, what we found was the quality of that management intervention went up and so that was great. It’s really about facilitating good conversations and I think you could do that if you were a small communications company with 20 people or if you were a manufacturing company in the north east employing 100 people, you could do that – you don’t have to be Citi with all of our resources in order to achieve the same things.”

The difference supporting maternity and paternity transitions makes

Citi’s maternity retention rate in the EMEA region is currently 95%. The line manager training has played a role in that as have the maternity comeback workshops Citi offers all maternity leavers. Out of these workshops has grown a workshop for new dads which Minashi says is making a difference in terms of being valued by the organisation. She says that to date six dads have taken Additional Paternity Leave and in every case so far, mum has been the main breadwinner.

“There’s a new generation of fathers who want to be much more involved with their kids and are with partners who expect them to be much more involved and expect that there is going to be much more of a shared work and shared care deal going on. If I look ahead, I think the majority of the leave will still be taken by women but I think it opens up the space for men to have much greater access and time off from their job.”

Retaining women more broadly isn’t necessarily about flexibility

“We’ve just completed a global study looking at the root causes for senior female attrition.  We did qualitative research with 500 senior men and women who had left Citi in recent years and approximately 30 deep-dive follow-up interviews. Before when I asked senior leaders why they thought that senior women were leaving Citi voluntarily most of them didn’t know, but within a very short space of time said it’s something to do with work life balance, family commitments or flexible work and we found no evidence of that.”

Minashi says that of the women who left their EMEA business, not one is at home looking after the kids. They’re all back in financial services (63% of both the men and women who left Citi have stayed within the industry) or running their own business. The reason for leaving? Frustration with pace of career growth and stretch, not an absence of ‘balance’ or flex options.

We found some very interesting data on flex work and work life balance and some very strong feedback that from their perspective they had the balance and their flex options about right so it wasn’t about that, but about career growth and stretch.

“Maybe it’s like a hierarchy of needs,” Carolanne reflects, “when flexibility isn’t a pressing need the next pressing issue is career development and what we found is that what women want is really stretching career opportunities that continue to grow their skills and for some of these women, we weren’t able to accommodate that quite quickly enough and completely enough and that’s why they left.”

What’s really clear from the energetic conversation we had with Carolanne is that she’s on the front-foot and committed to constantly striving to make improvements. She says her job now is sit down with Citi leaders and to talk to them about the findings (such as how women are not quitting to stay at home with the kids) and to help them understand what they can do. Helping leaders prioritise career development conversations with their team members  and mid-year feedback discussions are key.

Is there someone in your organisation who’s making efforts to keep, support and stretch female talent that we could shine a light on? Go on, make their day and put us in touch with him or her.

Sage advice from Sheryl Sandberg

Lean_in.JPGWe’ve digesting Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead chapter by chapter in this post. It’s an impressive, eye-opening and valuable resource for managers, leaders and EDI practitioners with no less than 35 pages of academic references.


You might prefer to take away this lengthy post as a pdf. It can also be listened to as a soundcloudpodcast (9 short bites totalling 38:28) – click on the soundcloud icon.

Chapter 1 – The Leadership Ambition Gap

In which we discover there is an ‘ambition gap’ between men and women and this partly explains why less women make it to the upper echelons of organisations than men. She rightly espouses the need for more positive portrayals of working women and less ‘I don’t Know How She Does it” type stuff. (A book I read and lapped up as a new mother 6 years ago, although I couldn’t stomach the S J-P film). We get a cultural recommendation – the album Free to Be….You and Me by Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972).

  • Is the tide turning? “A 2012 Pew study found for the first time that among young people ages 18-34 more young women (66%) than young men (59%) rated ‘success in a high-paying career or profession’ as important to their lives.” I’m undecided whether this is a good thing or a thing to be concerned about given the emphasis on money. Getting to the top is admirable but if it’s all about the wonga I feel there’s more work to do to educate this generation (to which I just scrape in) that happiness is not correlated with money beyond being able to buy life’s basics.
  • Parents beware of our biases: “Parents tend to talk to girl babies more than boy babies. Mothers overestimate the crawling ability of their sons and underestimate the crawling ability of their daughters.”
  • Mothers guilt be gone: “Professor Rosalind Chait Barnett of Brandeis University did a comprehensive review of work-life balance and found that women who participate in multiple roles actually have lower levels of anxiety and higher leveks of mental wellbeing.” This is something I covered in my own book, although the research I cite suggests this is true to a point – women working PT tend to fare better than women working FT.
  • Stereotype threat psychology:“Social scientists have observed that when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype , they are more likely to perform according to that stereotype. For example, stereotypically, boys are better at math and science than girls. When girls are reminded of their gender before a math or science test, even by something as simple as checking off an M or F box at the top of the test, they perform worse.”

Chapter 2 – Sit at The Table
Where we discover Sheryl continues to feel like a fraud at times; the power of the ‘fake it til you feel it’ technique she learned whilst an aerobics instructor in the 80s; how the wide-open warrior poses 1, 2 and 3 from yoga can help us take more career-enhancing risks and why women must take the initiative much more than they tend to (the ‘don’t wait for someone to notice your brilliance, ask for it’ philosophy – see the ‘Rocket Women’ posts on The Talent Keeper Specialists ‘latest thinking’ page for ideas and inspiration).  The personal revelations are pouring out about how her hide-my-light-under-a-bushel approach at college backfired, what she’s learnt and how she tries to do things differently. She’s self aware, humble, honest and reading chapter two I feel almost capable of being the COO of Facebook. (If Sheryl Sandberg carries this baggage around with her and is deemed a success,  I must make more of myself).

  • On undoing inaccurate thinking: “These experiences taught me that I needed to make an intellectual and an emotional adjustment. I learned over time that while it was hard to shake feelings of self doubt I could understand there was a distortion. I would never have my brother’s effortless confidence, but I could challenge the notion that I was constantly headed for failure. When I felt like I was not capable of doing something, I would remind myself that I did not fail all my exams in college. Or even one. I learned to undistort the distortion.”
  • Scientific proof for the power of fake-it-til-you-feel-it: “One tactic I’ve learned is to f’ake it til you feel it.’ Research backs up this ‘fake it til you feel it’ strategy. One study found that when people assumed a high-power pose (for example, taking up space by spreading their limbs) for just two minutes their dominance hormones (testosterone) went up and their stress hormone levels (cortisol) went down. As a result, they felt more powerful and in charge and showed a greater tolerance for risk. A simple change in posture led to a significant change in attitude.”
  • Taking the initiative and saying yes: “…increasingly, opportunities are not well defined but, instead, come from someone jumping in to do something. That something then becomes his job. Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s Chief Technology Officer, was asked by the Huffington Post, ‘what’s the important lesson you’ve learned from a mistake you’ve made in the post?’ She responded ‘I said no to a lot of opportunities when I was just starting out because I thought that’s not what my degree is in or I don’t about that domain. In retrospect, at a certain point it’s your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters. One of the things I tell people these days is there is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”

Chapter 3 – Success and Likeability

In which the need to be liked is explored and what the research says about the links between likability and competence are spelled out. Clue: it’s not easy for women to be seen as both, which is a very big problem when it comes to career progression. The shocking truth of gender bias is revealed in the not-well-known-enough Howard & Heidi experiment by American professors, Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson. And Ms Sandberg fesses up to unintentional gender biasing herself; whilst giving a talk on the subject no less. She shares how she negotiated with Mark Zuckerberg on her pay when joining Facebook but only after a good talking to from her brother-in-law.

My mind whirs as I synthesize the information, constantly coming up with practical tweaks women and workplaces can make to their approach to make the working world better for women. One is to have peers speak up for one another at pay review and bonus time – women feel much more comfortable blowing someone else’ trumpet that they do their own. And with good reason, as Sheryl explains. This is truly the chapter all managers, business leaders and equality, diversity and inclusion practitioners must read.

I underlined large swathes of this chapter, a selection here (and all assertions are backed by academic research – do buy the book for these references alone if you are EDI professional):

  • Gender biasing “Our stereotype of men holds that they are providers, decisive and driven. Our stereotype of women holds that they are caregivers, sensitive and communal. Because we characterize men and women in opposition to each other, professional achievement and all the traits associated with it get placed in the male column. By focusing on her career and taking a calculated approach to amassing power, Heidi violated our stereotypical expectations of women. Yet by behaving in the exact same manner, Howard lived up to our stereotypical expectations of men. The end result? Liked him, disliked her.”
  • Women are better blowing each others’ trumpets “Jocelyn Goldfein, one of the engineering directors at Facebook, held a meeting with our female engineers where she encouraged them to share the progress they had made on the products they were building. Silence. No one wanted to toot her own horn. Who would want to speak up when self-promoting women are disliked? Jocelyn switched her approach. Instead of asking the women to talk about themselves, she asked them to tell one another’s stories. The exercise became communal, which put everyone at ease.”
  • Double standards for men and women who do and don’t support colleagues “When a man helps a colleague, the recipient feels indebted to him and is highly likely to return the favour. But when a woman helps out, the feeling of indebtedness is weaker. She’s communal right? She wants to help others. Professor Flynn calls this the ‘gender discount’ problem and it means women are paying a professional penalty for their presumed desire to be communal. On the other hand, when a man helps a co-worker, it’s considered an imposition and he is compensated with more favourable performance evaluations and rewards like salary increases and bonuses. Even more frustrating, when a woman declines to help a colleague, she often receives less favourable reviews and fewer rewards. But a man who declines to help? He pays no penalty.”
  • Arianna Huffington on getting over not being liked by everyone “Early in her career, Arianna realized that the cost of speaking her mind was that she would inevitably offend someone. She does not believe it is realistic or even desirable to tell women not to care when we are attacked. Her advice is that we should let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticised evokes for us. And then we should quickly move on. (Like children do).” This is sound advice and the approach I advocate with clients who seek coping strategies from me on the guilt they experience as working mothers.

Chapter 4 – It’s a Jungle Gym Not a Ladder

In which we discover a powerfully different way to market ourselves to a prospective employer and Sheryl recommends we adopt two concurrent career goals: a long term dream and an 18 month plan. (Recruiters take note: ’and where do you see yourself in five years time?’ is out of fashion, although really, it was always lame). And get this, the dream needn’t be realistic according to Sheryl. How wonderfully liberating is that?

Key points:

  • A new paradigm for career progression “Ladders are limiting – people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.” I read this and feel thousands of career breakers and women returners breaking into a smile. She’s right of course and a client I’m currently working with in is the midst of grappling with her next career move which may be a 75 degree  diagonal move rather than straight up.
  • Seek out high growth companies if you want to get on “Eric (Schmidt, the then CEO of Google) responded with perhaps the best piece of career advice that I have ever heard. He explained only one criterion mattered when picking a job – fast growth. When companies grow quickly, there are ore things to do than there are people to do them. He told me ‘If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.'”
  • Get a growth mindset “An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements. This difference has a ripple effect. Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it.'” Couldn’t agree more – anyone worth working for recognises potential and ability to learn when they’re recruiting. This idea is something I touch on in this post about imposter syndrome.

Chapter 5 – Are You My Mentor?
In which we learn not to ask Sheryl Sandberg ‘will you be my mentor?’ and her belief that women seeking out mentors has become a problem: she believes it’s creating dependency on others and compares the search for one as being the ‘professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.’ My view on mentoring (mentor = trusted advisor) is why have one mentor when developing relationships with several trusted advisors as any one time is better and why go looking for ‘a mentor’ when people will naturally appear throughout our careers. It is this contrived seeking out Sheryl objects to, rather than having a mentor per se.

Some helpful tips:

  • The difference between a mentor and a sponsor: mentors are people who will advise; a sponsor is someone who will use their influence to advocate for us. “Both men and women with sponsors are more likely to ask for stretch assignments and pay rises than their peers of the same gender without sponsors.”
  • Approach a mentor when your PD rating is strong: “Studies show that mentors select protoges based on performance and potential. We need to stop telling (young women) ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.” Love this nifty nugget.
  • Use a mentor’s time well: It should go without saying that a mentee needs to be respectful of their mentor’s time and highly focused in the way they use it. Whilst Sheryl probably doesn’t label herself as a mentor, she remarks on several people/conversations where that other person undoubtedly sees her as a mentor and praises two of them for ‘never asking a question she could have answered on her own’ and for doing their homework, being crisp, focused and gracious.  “Mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions. Most people in a position to mentor are quite adept at problem-solving.”
  • Meet a male mentor for breakfast: A study published by Harvard Business Review found 64% of men at VP level or above are hesitant to have a 1:1 meeting with a junior woman and half the junior women surveyed avoid this kind of contact with senior men. Sheryl says it must end “Personal connections lead to assignments and promotions so it needs to be OK for men and women to spend informal time together the same way men can.” A breakfast meeting in a public place can help put both parties at ease – dinner after work looks far too much like a date.

Chapter 6 – Seek & Speak Your Truth

In which discover Sheryl was parented by a very enlightened mother and the swathes of academic references run dry. It’s a very personal chapter where Sheryl shares her belief that showing emotions in the office (including tears) can be helpful and that we should bring our whole selves to work – no separate sides saved for work and home (which she admits has been an evolution for her rather than the ways she’s always done things). We hear her advice on giving feedback (on this point I recommend The Mind Gym book ‘Wake Your Mind Up’ – pages 166-181 give an excellent overview on offering praise and constructive counsel) and learn her relationship with her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, is strong precisely because of this real-time, free-flowing feedback. There’s more of the ‘here’s where I got it wrong, look at all the mistakes I’ve made, and here’s what I do differently now…’ which makes her really quite endearing and worth listening to. She clearly has a huge need to be liked which resonates with me.

Chapter 7 – Don’t Leave Before You Leave

The core idea of the book, ‘Don’t leave before you leave’ is another way of imploring women to ‘lean in’ to their careers and put to one side worries about ‘what ifs’ (thinking about pregnancies and babies before they’re a reality). In discussions I have with clients who are looking to return to work after children, the subject of ‘is it worth it given the cost of childcare?’ sometimes comes up. I have a role to play in exploring this from different angles with my clients and Sheryl’s view is that not having a bean left after paying for childcare is probably worth it as it’ll help your career in the long run. I agree that this is the case for the vast majority of professional women – there’s good evidence that time out harms pay trajectories as I discuss in my book, Mothers Work! We learn Sheryl is comfortable asking female employees about their child-bearing plans, which she makes clear to us and them that she asks out of concern for the individuals (who may be ‘leaning out’ before they need to). She acknowledges this would give employment lawyers a heart attack but I think she’s making a great point. Sadly I don’t think this level of trust and concern for the individual’s career exists between the majority of line managers and team members in the UK, and without those two elements, the question would indeed lay an employer open to all sorts of charges.

  • Trying for a baby shouldn’t preclude you seeking a new job: “In 2009 we were recruiting Priti Choksi to join Facebook’s business development team. After we extended the offer…I went for it (saying) ‘If you think you might not take this job because you want to have a child soon, I am happy to talk about this.’ I figured if she didn’t want to discus it, she would just keep heading for the door. Instead, she turned around, sat back down and said ‘let’s talk.’ I explained although it’s counterintuitive, right before having a child can actually be a great time to take a new job. If she found her new role challenging and rewarding, she’d be more excited to return to it after giving birth. By the time she started at Facebook she was already expecting. She later told me that if I had not raised the topic, she would have turned us down.
  • Watch the small decisions: “When it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them. I have seen this over and over. Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make lots of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices tat they believe will be required to have a family. Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that they leave before they leave.” She’s right and I consider my own departure from the corporate world and into working for myself six months after I got married in 2004, partly due to this.
  • Lean in: “The time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back , but the critical time to lean in.”
  • Your career may depend on how many hours your partner works: Men who work 60+ hours a week have wives who are 112% more likely to quit work than women whose husbands work 50 hours or less/week.

Chapter 8 – Make Your Partner a Real Partner

In which Lean In and my book, Mothers Work! overlap greatly, specifically chapter three ‘See your family as a team.’ Sheryl and I have a shared outlook on equality in the home, both believing it is a mindset more than anything else. I write ‘…partnering up, like equality, is an attitude more than anything else. Equality is when you both recognise the need and see the merit in deciding together how you can best manage the totality of your lives. Equality isn’t about dividing everything down the middle.’ Sheryl writes on her marriage to Dave ‘We are never at fifty-fifty at any given moment – perfect equality is hard to define or sustain – but we allow the pendulum to swing back and forth between.’ We learn 18% of women in the UK earn more than their husbands (trailing behind the US by 12%) – which Sheryl explains can be a problem as there’s still significant discomfort for many around this – and that Sheryl herself has experienced the ‘double-bind’ of working motherhood despite having such a fantastic husband.

Note-worthy points:

  • The single most important career decision: “I truly believe that the single biggest career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully – and I mean fully – supportive of her career. No exceptions. In a 2007 study of well-educated professional women who had left the paid workforce, 60% cited their husbands as a critical factor in their decision.”
  • Fathers please lean in to your family: “Women who breast feed are arguably baby’s first lunch-box. But even if mothers are more naturally inclined towards nurturing, fathers can match that with knowledge and effort. If women want to succeed more at work and if men want to succeed more at home, these expectations have to be challenged. As Gloria Steinem once observed, ‘It’s not about biology, but about conscientiousness.’”
  • Let men do it their way: Another point on which our books cross-over, “Anyone who wants her mate to be a true partner must treat him as an equal – and equally capable – partner. And if that’s not reason enough, bear in mind that a study found that wives who engage in gate-keeping behaviours do five more hours of family work per week than wives who take a more collaborative approach.”
  • Benefits when men ‘lean in’: “…children with involved and loving fathers have higher levels of psychological well-being and better cognitive abilities. When fathers provide even just routine childcare, children have higher levels of educational and economic achievement and lower delinquency rates. Their children even tend to be more empathetic and socially competent. When husbands do more housework, wives are less depressed, marital conflicts decrease and satisfaction rises….the risk of divorce reduces by half when a woman earns half the income and a husband does half the housework.” All of these assertions are carefully referenced and the last point on divorce risk comes from a 2006 study of US and German couples.

Chapter 9 – The Myth of Doing It All

With lines such as ‘no one has it all, ‘done is better than perfect’ (on a poster hanging at Facebook HQ) and ‘perfection is the enemy’ Sheryl and I are back in the same space. This chapter pedals the same message as the chapter ‘Go for good enough at home’ in Mothers Work! As I read a thought bubbles up – I hope there isn’t value in authors still writing this stuff when my daughter becomes a mother.

Sheryl shares her evolution as a parent and how she didn’t get things right with baby number one (checking e-mails constantly, exhausting herself by working when he newborn was sleeping etc), but learned to relax and set boundaries with her second child. I nod away emphatically as she puts the ball firmly in women’s courts with “the best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately – to set limits and stick to them.” This chimes with one of the key messages I’ve conveyed in many a talk on how to unravel the grip of the triple-bind of working motherhood: we must take charge because no one will do it for us. I do wince though at the ‘life’ and ‘career’ dichotomy – this implies the two are separate, which they are not. A good, rounded life involves both.

I’m dismayed that Sheryl almost applauds another executive for putting her children to bed in their clothes to save 15 minutes in the morning. Behaviour like that should ring alarm bells for a family and be a trigger for re-evaluating priorities.

Noteworthy points:

  • Colin Powell, output not input at work is important: “I wanted them to have a life outside the office. I am paying them for the quality of their work, not for the hours they work. That kind of environment has always produced the best results for me.” This makes complete sense yet most organisations do not work to these principles. A ‘bums on seats’ culture flies in the face of research of by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow who found Boston Consulting Group consultants forced to work less became more effective (see note 14, p 212)
  • The ‘always on’ culture: “A 2012 survey of employed adults showed that 80% of respondents continued to work after leaving the office, 38% checked e-mail at the dinner table and 69% can’t go to bed without checking their inbox.” And later “Sleeping four or five hours a night induced mental impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level above the legal driving limit.” Whilst I only became aware of this fact whilst reading Lean In I’ve often thought the ‘baby on board’ signs people display in their cars are a useful warning for other drivers to stay clear of what could be a dangerous, sleep-deprived parent at the wheel. My view on overcoming the ‘always on’ culture is to make a point of regularly unplugging. Constant communication has become a fact of life and because there is never a state of ‘finished’ or ‘job done’ when you are combining career with family you may as well draw your own markers in the sand. I now hold myself back from checking my iphone before I go to bed asking myself ‘what are you going to do if there’s something ‘urgent’ in there? Attend to it now, right before bed when you want to achieve restful sleep?”
  • We’re doing more parenting than we ever did: Sheryl and I draw on the same reference in making the point about parents doing more parenting than we did in 1975. It is all the evidence we need not to feel guilty about combining careers with a young family. “In 1975 stay-at-home mothers spent an average of about 11 hours per week on primary child care (defined as routine care-giving and activities that foster a child’s well-being, such as reading and fully focused play). Mothers employed outside the home in 1975 spent six hours doing these activities. Today stay-at-home mothers spend about 17 hours per week on primary child care, on average, while mothers who work outside the home spend about eleven hours. This means an employed mother today spends about the same amount of time on primary child care activities as a non-employed mother did in 1975.”


Chapter 10 – Let’s Start Talking About It

In which we learn Sheryl was rightly incensed as a teenager when patted on the head by ‘legendary’ Tip O’Neill (Lib Dem speaker of US House of Representatives) and told over her head ‘she’s pretty.’ Although oddly, in the following years, she denounced feminism, believing it wasn’t something she wanted to be associated with and that it was redundant. The end of the chapter makes clear ‘feminism’ as a concept needs to be properly understood as only 25% of US women consider themselves a feminist, yet when offered the definition ‘a feminist is someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes’ it rises to 65%. I wonder if the other 35% need their ears syringing. We learn how and when Sheryl decided to start talking about gender equality: seeing large numbers of female friends leave the workforce and having the support of colleagues Susan Wojcicki and Melissa Mayer at Google.

I’ve scrawled a lot in the margins of this chapter, picking out counter-intuitive ideas on meritocracies and anti-discrimination laws. As well as those there are some positive points of change in some well-known organisations:

  • Increasing female promotions at Google: “Goole has an unusual system where engineers nominate themselves for promotions and the company found that men nominated themselves more quickly than women. The Google management team shared this data openly with the female employees, and women’s self-nomination rates rose significantly, reaching roughly the same rate as men’s.”
  • American Express CEO pauses meetings to point out discrimination: “Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, openly acknowledges that in meetings, both men and women are more likely to interrupt a woman and give credit to a man for an idea first proposed by a woman. When he witnesses either of these behaviors, he stops the meeting to point it out. Coming from the top, this really makes employees think twice. A more junior woman (or man) can also intervene in the situation when a female colleague has been interrupted. She can gently but firmly tell the group, ‘Before we move on, I’d like to hear what (senior woman) had to say.’ This action not only benefits the senior woman but can raise the stature of the junior woman as well, since speaking up for someone else displays both confidence and a communal spirit. The junior woman comes across as both competent and nice.”
  • Eradicating the male-female performance gap at Harvard Business School: “Even a well-established institution like Harvard Business School can evolve rapidly when issues are addressed head-on. Historically at HBS American students have academically outperformed both female and international students. When Nitin Nohria was appointed dean in 2010, he made it his mission to close this gap. He began by appointing Youngme Moon as senior associate dean of the MBA program, the first woman to hold that position…he also created a new position for Robin Ely, an expert on gender and diversity. They visited each classroom and discussed the challenges women and international students faced. Without calling for major overhauls they tackled the soft stuff – small adjustments students could make immediately. They held students responsible for the impact their behaviour had on others. (They) introduced small group projects to encourage collaboration between classmates who would not naturally work together. They also added a year-long field course, which plays to the strengths of students who are less comfortable contributing in front of large classes.

By commencement, the performance gap had virtually disappeared. In a result many considered surprising, overall student satisfaction went up, not just for the female and international students, but for American males as well. By creating a more equal environment, everyone was happier. And all of this was accomplished in just two years.”

Chapter 11 – Working Together Toward Equality

In which Sheryl encourages us all to be supportive of people’s choices, most notably her friend and newly appointed Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer’s decision to take a very short maternity leave. She touches on getting over the mommy wars; that is, ending competitions to prove that staying at home or going out to work when our children are young is the best or right thing to do. This is a message I open with in Mothers Work! Still on the theme of choice, Sheryl makes clear that both men and women need to be able to choose to stay at home or have full careers, she writes “Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don’t have a real choice.” The key word in that sentence is ‘colleagues’ which could have been prefaced with ‘male’ because if women are working alongside men who don’t do domestic stuff and whose wives stay at home, the evidence suggests they can have a negative impact on their female colleagues’ careers. See note 10 p217 for more on this. She goes on to say “And until men are fully respected for contributing inside the home, they don’t have a real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.”

Lean In is a remarkable piece of work which clearly sets out the many ways employers and employees can contribute to righting the imbalance of ease and opportunity for women in the workplace. As an emotionally-charged scientist I’ve relished the rigorous research and heavy academic referencing interwoven with Sheryl’s personal stories and feelings. I thoroughly recommend reading the whole book – indeed I implore you to read it if you’re an EDI practitioner or people manager – and I leave you with a selection of sound-bites from the final chapter:

  • “Sharon Meers tells a story about a school parents’ night she attended in which children introduced their parents. Sharon’s daughter Sammy pointed at her father and said ‘this is Steve, he makes buildings. Kind of like an arhitecht, and he loves to sing.’ Then Sammy pointed at Sharon and said, ‘this is Sharon, she wrote a book, she works full-time and she never picks me up from school.’ If more children see fathers at school pickups and mothers who are busy at jobs, both girls and boys will envision more options for themselves. Expectations will not be set by gender but by personal passion, talents and interests.”
  • “It is a painful truth that one of the obstacles to more women gaining power has sometimes been women already in power.”
  • “Research suggests that once a woman achieves success, particularly in a gender-biased context, her capacity to see gender discrimination is reduced.”
  • “There is hope that this is attitude is changing. A recent survey found that ‘high-potential women’ working in business want to ‘pay it forward’ and 73% have reached out to other women to help them develop their talents. Almost all of the women I have encountered professional have gone out of their way to be helpful.”
  • “The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves. Acting like a coalition truly does produce results. In 2004, four female executives at Merrill Lynch started having lunch together once a month. They shared their accomplishments and frustrations. They brainstormed about business. After the lunches they would go back to their offices and tout one another’s achievements. They couldn’t brag about themselves, but they could easily do it for their colleagues. Their careers flourished and each rose up the ranks to reach managing director and executive officer levels. The queen been was banished and the hive became stronger.”

And that’s what I call a result. Thank you Sheryl Sandberg, for giving us Lean In. We also applaud James Allworth’s thoughtful reflections on ‘Lean In’ via Harvard Business Review. He says “it wasn’t the women who were lacking confidence – but it was the men who were too confident. To put it bluntly, a lot of (Lean In’s recommendations) are making women more like men, without proper consideration of whether that would actually be a good thing.”

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