APPG Women & Work Report 2017

Are you struggling to find the right people for the vacancies in your organisation? Is gender diversity on your agenda? Last year we hosted a ‘hidden talent action tank’ to help employers tap into the increasing number of skilled women who want to come back to work after an extended break. This week, we attended the launch of the ‘Women and Work’[1] report from a cross-party group of MPs and bring you the highlights from an employer perspective. 


The report makes nine recommendations, three are aimed at employers: 

5. Every workplace with 250 or more employees should have a carers policy detailing organisational support available for those with caring responsibilities. 

This could be cumbersome and unnecessary. In our experience what really matters to employees is being trusted to get the job done and being trusted to use flexible working in a way that works for the organisation and meets family needs. Line manager behaviours are the lynchpin.

6. Every workplace with 250 or more employees should consider putting in place paid returner programmes or returnships with guaranteed training, advice and support. 

Returner programmes can be a useful tool but they‘re not right for every organisation. See “What is a returner programme?” for the key questions to decide if a returner programme is likely to fulfill your talent pool shortages. Direct recruitment from the hidden talent pool using ‘reverse headhunters’ such as Inclusivity may be a faster, better value option.

8. Employers should promote best practice through a flexible working kitemark with official accreditation and assessment to increase flexible working visibility and actively encourage the uptake of flexible working.

Many employers we talk to are struggling to recruit women into specialist, skilled and senior roles. Employees who have built social capital in their current organisation and have crafted a flexible working arrangement that works for them are reluctant to move. We discussed the problem of ‘trapped talent’ and flexible hiring on BBC Breakfast – watch the clip here. We believe employers will benefit from advertising roles as flexible and support the APPG’s recommendation.


Shared Parental Leave

Have you found it tricky to implement Shared Parental Leave in your organisation? You’re not alone. 77% of respondents to a CIPD survey said they had to access external advice to understand the process. This headache has been for little gain as another survey of 200 employers found only 1% of men had  taken the opportunity to share their partner’s parental leave.

The view at The Talent Keeper Specialists is that SPL was introduced to normalise men caring for their children and lessen the impact of having children on women’s careers. We believe the best way to achieve this – and make it easier for employers – is to divide parental leave into three chunks: one for each parent on a ‘use it or lose it basis’ and a third for either parent.



67% of mothers in work and 64% of those not working said the high cost of childcare is a barrier to taking on more employment. [2] The Government is increasing free childcare to 30 hours from September 2017 for working families, to address this.

Our view is that employers who are experiencing talent shortages could significantly widen their candidate pool by being open to flexible working, and making this clear to candidates at the point of hiring. Read “Employers benefit by ‘talking flex’ when hiring.”


Supporting maternity returners

You know the ‘cost’ of replacing an employee is more than just the recruitment fees. Keeping and fueling existing valued and talented employees should be a priority for business. The Equality and Human Rights Commission launched the ‘Working Forward’ campaign last autumn to make UK workplaces the best they can be for pregnant and new mother employees.

We run maternity comeback workshops for returning employees and a separate session for line managers. Find out more:


About The Talent Keeper Specialists

Since we started in 2012 The Talent Keeper Specialists have delivered on time, within budget and to glowing feedback from our clients and their employees at places such as Boots, Anglia Ruskin University, The Law Society of Scotland, The Institute of Chartered Accountants England & Wales, Boots, Enfield Borough Council, Oxfam, Channel 4, PayPal, Carillion and Twinings. We work with employers to shape inclusive workplace cultures and support the transitions of returning employees and women stepping into leadership roles. Watch our 2 minute film here:


[1]  The Women and Work APPG was formed at the beginning of 2016 in response to the increasing public and political focus on the role of women in the workforce, and the acknowledgement from Government that the UK economy underuses women’s talents and misses out on a “huge economic prize”.

[2] Careers and cares: childcare and maternal labour supply, Resolution Foundation and Mumsnet, 2014

Bringing talent back – O2’s story

Over the summer we brought HR, D&I, talent and resourcing practitioners from organisations including Whitbread, EY, Accenture and Cap Gemini together to explore ways to uncover and bring back ‘hidden talent’. Thank you to Avanade & Accenture for hosting us and to O2 for sharing their story.



What and why a ‘hidden talent action tank’?

When Jessica Chivers wrote the book, Mothers Work! she discovered vast numbers of women were returning to jobs not commensurate with their skills and abilities (all tied up with the flexible working/presenteeism problem that pervades UK workplaces). Fast forward to 2013 we piloted a workshop for the Chartered Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales aimed at supporting the return to work of members on maternity leave. What actually happened was a full room of women, the majority of whom were not on maternity leave, but those hungry to get back to work after 2-10 years out. They were struggling because the gap on the CV meant they were being overlooked – hence their pouncing on a workshop about getting back to work.

Since then we’ve run swathes of free maternity comeback and career comeback workshops (which participants love and have travelled 100s of miles to attend) but they don’t address the heart of the problem – the need for Heads of Resourcing, Talent and D&I practitioners to see the problem and commit to action. There’s just too much talent going to waste and this is a problem on many levels, but commercially speaking it doesn’t make sense when there’s still a ‘war for talent.’ Hence the ‘hidden talent action tank’ to drive change through peer idea exchange, including a spotlight on returner programmes as one tool for bringing talent back.



O2’s returner programme

Andrea Jones, resourcing lead at O2, shared the telecoms giant’s experience of running a returner programme in the operations area of the business.

Many of us drew breath when she shared research stating most line managers would prefer to hire someone with less experience than a candidate who had been out of work for more than six months. “Six months!?” That’s less than most maternity leaves. The good news is the O2 scheme was hailed a rip-roaring success and The Talent Keeper Specialists expects more demand in 2016-2018 for returner programmes.



Key stats that drove O2’s decision to run a returner programme


  • Managers would rather hire less qualified candidate over one who has been out for over 6 months
  • Gender diverse companies are 45% more likely to improve market share, achieve 53% higher returns on equity, and 70% more likely to capture new markets
  • For every 10% increase in gender diversity in the senior executive team, there is a 3.5% increase in financial performance.
  • 42% of millennial dads feel ‘burnt out’ most or all of the time
  • 40% of working women earn more than their partners
  • 1 million now work past 65
  • Only 17% of over 50s favour traditional retirement pattern as majority want to ease into retirement via part-time work
  • 50-60% of women returners want to work part-time
  • 34%-48% of women would like to work part-time
  • 27% of the UK workforce work part time. Of those, 74% are women
  • 44% of Generation Y rate work-life balance as a key driver in their career


Ten golden nuggets for improving gender balance

We grappled with five questions in the ‘action’ part of the morning. People spoke with passion, others listened intently. Ten golden nuggets emerged for improving gender balance from the talent, HR, D&I and resourcing practitioners at the Action Tank:

  • 1) Confront lazy hiring – value finding the best talent over quick recruitment. This might mean looking in different places.
  • 2) Look beyond a candidate’s last role – many women’s careers aren’t linear and strengths are transferrable.
  • 3) Create more open job descriptions – countless capable candidates (internal and external) rule themselves out at the application stage because they don’t tick every box.
  • 4) See returners as assets – they’re fresh, motivated and hungry to put their minds to work. Returner programmes tap into ‘hidden talent’ and are a good news story for your business.
  • 5) Promote flexible working in job descriptions – and offer flexibility for employees already in business, not only after returning from maternity leave.
  • 6) Use gender balanced panels to make hiring decisions to reduce unconscious bias and avoid line managers hiring in their own image.
  • 7) Experiment with new recruiting processes, such as games, to assess people’s potential rather than relying on CVs.
  • 8) Focus on opening middle managers’ minds to how flexible and part-time working can fuel productivity and performance, and be of benefit to them personally.
  • 9) Showcase senior role models who work flexibly, recruit diverse teams and have high employee engagement scores – these are the people you want other managers to emulate.
  • 10) Don’t overlook introverts or make assumptions – actively encourage ‘quieter’ people (who may not talk openly about career aspirations)  to apply for promotions and stretch assignments.

Photograph of HRDs, Talent & Resourcing practitioners with their pledges of how they're going to 'mine' hidden talent


6 pillars of success/what O2 learned:


  • Target a specific area of the business where there’s a need/desire to recruit more women.
  • Have clear benefits, timelines and costs for setting up – make it easy for the business to say yes
  • Ask for referrals to the programme from employees and partners (this went down ‘really well’ at O2)
  • Assessment centre to be a two-way process and the agenda to kept ‘light’ with lots of networking and senior leadership team to attend
  • Be flexible about how the roles work
  • Resourcing and the Diversity & Inclusion teams to work in partnership

A returner programme for your organisation?

The Talent Keeper Specialists have partnered with Inclusivity Partners and developed a returner programme we think beats what’s on the market. If bringing talent back is on your agenda or you’re struggling to meet gender diversity targets, save yourself time, hassle and budget by meeting with us.

Contact Jessica Chivers to arrange a conversation: | @TalentKeepers | +44 (0)1727 856169














Involved fathers, committed professionals

Committed professionals can be involved fathersOn a recent project for the Law Society of Scotland we heard some great examples of men doing their very best to be active fathers whilst still delivering commercial goals. Here are men in their own words reflecting on how to get off to a good start as a new father. 

“Be involved, be upfront with clients, prioritise sleep.”

“Your kids are only young once. If you don’t read to them or put them to bed now, you never will. And the benefits to your mental health are amazing. If you are zombified by a poor night’s sleep, tell your clients. Most of them will understand. Those that do not are likely to be “those clients” anyway. Sometimes, moving to another room is a survival technique if you want an uninterrupted night’s sleep – just be prepared to make up for it in other ways. Keep a picture of your children in easy view in your office; if your clients/colleagues/whoever are difficult, a look at your kids will make you smile no matter what. If you hadn’t before, learn to say no and leave the office promptly from time to time. If the culture is such that you’re expected to be there all hours God sends, you probably need to re-examine your priorities. First day of school? Take the day off and be there for them.”

Senior male solicitor, private practice @longmores

Chea Meakins“Draw boundaries, be focussed, get home for bathtime.”

“My wife and I worked out a routine fairly early on after our daughter was born. I would always be home to do the evening bath (subject to the unavoidable marketing/seminar engagements, but I try to limit these to 1 per week where possible). This means that I always have to work to a deadline and leave work at a certain time. Without this there is always the temptation to stay that little bit longer because there is always something else that can be done… The bath/getting ready for bed routine means I am always guaranteed at least one hour with my daughter per day. This sounds so little on paper but in reality a lot can be achieved within that time. I usually get back home an hour before bath time so in practice I get 2 -2.5 hours. This is also a huge relief to my wife who appreciates me taking over at the end of the day for those last few hours.”

Che Meakins, Solicitor, Rayden Solicitors @RaydensLaw


“Eat together and have a planned weekly late night at the office.”

“I’ve been very lucky to be able to balance work and fatherhood to give me lots of time with my daughter, and I am now nearly a year qualified and I feel I have also progressed hugely as a solicitor in the same time.   As I live walking distance from the office I would go home most lunch times and see my wife and child. I tried to ensure that I took my lunch each day to guarantee this time at home. I also designated Thursday evening as a ‘late night’ which I would work late before heading to my regular football practice. This meant I could head home on time the rest of the week. Having that one evening each week was really important allowing me to catch up or get on top of things outside office hours.”

Liam Colville, Solicitor, Debenhams Ottaway @DebenhamsOtt 


“Flexible working has made me more efficient.”

“There are 3 options in my view: Option 1 is ‘the continue as before’ in the knowledge that others are looking after your child well. Option 2 is to say that being a father is considerably more important than a career so you shift towards the “work to live” view. Option 3 is a mid-point between the other 2. If you intend to take option 3 then my suggestions would be as follows. First try to build a platform of a work pattern that is agreeable to both work and home. Come to an agreement with your partner that you feel allows you to be the involved Dad that you want to be whilst still allowing you to maintain your career progression (albeit at a slightly diminished rate for a period). Be disciplined. Leave work when you have agreed. This may mean having to say no to certain meetings etc. Equally, agree regular days when you will work late so you know that you can focus on work on those days. I have also found that my focus on making the flexible working pattern work (and be seen to work) has made me more efficient at work. My time management has improved due to my focus on, for example, getting everything done so I can leave to be home for bath time. Having both the set agreement and the discipline has, paradoxically, given me the flexibility to adapt such as to busy times at work where some flex in the agreement is needed or to take calls at home etc.”

Chris Purcell, Solicitor, in-house third sector.



The following prompts are designed to help you consider how you can make a positive start to combining fatherhood and career.

  1. 1) How much leave will you take and when?
  2. 2) How much time will you strive to give to work and family each week?
  3. 3) What are your top professional priorities and how will you fit them into the time you have allocated to work?
  4. 4) What points do you need to discuss with your line manager?
  5. 5) What one thing can you start to do differently for the good of family life?


The Talent Keeper Specialists help men adjust to fatherhood through in-house seminars and one to one executive coaching. If you got something from this post you might also like:

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 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?)


Client case study – CIPR

The Challenge

case studyThe Challenge

The 2014 State of the Profession findings were a breaking point in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in taking action on equal pay and gender balance.

Amongst other defining statistics, the survey identified a mean average pay gap of over £12,000 in favour of men, as well as a lack of women operating at a senior level. These statistics are in context of an overall industry that is just under two-thirds female. As a policy commitment the CIPR aimed to tackle this issue across five broad areas:

  • Deliver a support network for women in public relations to successfully navigate the challenges of maternity leave and then return to work confidently
  • Encourage greater acceptance of flexible working practices
  • Increase the number of female role models
  • Provide better mentoring opportunities
  • Reflect on transparent pay structures as a solution to equal pay

London, United Kingdom - Tuesday 23 September 2014, CIPR - Training Workshops.










To specifically tackle the issue of maternity leave and return to work, in September 2014 the CIPR reformed our membership offering. Made available from Monday 1 September 2014, the ‘Managing Your Maternity Leave’ package included:

  • Up to 12 months payment holiday from CIPR membership – to ease the financial burden of Statutory Maternity Pay
  • Up to 12 months discretionary CPD credits – to maintain levels of accreditation
  • Quarterly KIT (Keeping in touch) emails – providing bite-size access to the latest on-demand learning and development opportunities
  • Access to a private online community – to promote knowledge sharing, advice and support

The package was announced in context of research published in August 2014 from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) which suggested that “women begin to fall behind at the age when they are most likely to be starting a family”, and from research published on 12 August 2014 by Slater & Gordon which found that “a third of managers would rather employ a man in his 20s or 30s than a woman of the same age for fear of maternity leave and that six in ten mothers felt side-lined from the moment they revealed they were pregnant”.

This was supported by Ruby McGregor-Smith, CBE, Chair of the Women’s Business Council and Chief Executive of Mitie Group plc, the FTSE 250 strategic outsourcing company.

In publishing this package the CIPR felt they needed to offer more substance and guidance to inform and educate maternity-leavers. The CIPR’s aim was to deliver greater confidence and self-belief, and ultimately deliver a greater number of women effectively returning to work in PR.


The Solution

London, United Kingdom - Tuesday 23 September 2014, CIPR - Training Workshops.The CIPR approached the Talent Keeper Specialists to create a bespoke suite of materials for their members and non-members to specifically address an education and knowledge gap on maternity leave and returning to work.

The guides were to be produced for the benefit of maternity-leavers in CIPR membership.


The Outcome

The Talent Keeper Specialists produced a series of ten guides containing a series of hints and tips on managing maternity leave, and featuring practitioner case studies and points of view. These were published in October 2014.

Guide 10, Best practices for managing maternity leave for line managers, was made publicly available and covers issues facing ‘maternity leavers’ and their managers before, during and after maternity leave. It also features a 12-point plan and reflective exercises, including information on planning and maintaining a structure for Keep in Touch (KIT) days and how to manage broader career progression conversations.

The other nine guides, made exclusively available to CIPR members, covered:


The CIPR’s Feedback

comment“Working with The Talent Keepers was an easy process from day one. After providing a comprehensive selection of prospective solutions to tackle the challenge, a clear structure in planning out the process of creating the guides was delivered, with the team always supplying their work before the deadline.

Jessica’s understanding of the issue led to the additional production of the publicly available guide for line managers, doing this was important in addressing a knowledge gap and has proven to be popular (the third most downloaded PDF in the last quarter of 2014).

Since the production of the guides, we have seen regular stream of downloads and positive feedback on social media. Regular comments from members focus on “the essential nature” and “informative but not restrictive language” of each piece of guidance, always crediting the confidence that they inspire. This is testament to the quality of the final product.

Finally, Jessica’s infectious enthusiasm for the issue, alongside her energy and genuine drive to positively effect change make her stand out one of the most inspirational people I have worked with.

Having established an incredibly useful working relationship with Jessica, I look forward to working closely with the Talent Keeper Specialists over the coming years as we continue our work on equal pay and gender balance.”

Thanks to Andy Ross, Public Relations & Policy Manager for this case study.

Talent Fueller – Nikki Gatenby, MD of Propellernet

Nikki ‘Director of the Symphony’ Gatenby is the Managing Director of Propellernet in Brighton, one of the most progressive Search Marketing agencies in the UK. She fuels talent by asking her people to be ‘stunning colleagues’ and they’ve been hailed one of the top 25 places to work in Europe.

In an instant we know Propellernet is a special place to work when Nikki tells us her job title is not so much MD as ‘Conductor of Our Symphony’ – a job she says is about creating unity and harmony from diversity. Propellernet was the Best Place to Work in the UK 2013 and the Top 25 of the Best Places to Work in Europe in 2014 by the Great Places to Work Institute & The Guardian.

Nikki was MD of the Year at the Brighton & Hove Business Awards, partly for Propellernet being recognised as one of the most democratic businesses in the world by Worldblu 2012, 2013 & 2014 and achieved the Investors in People Health and Wellbeing award (one of the smallest companies in the UK to win an Investors in People). Their clients include Marks & Spencer, Sportsshoes, L K Bennett and The Telegraph.

Incredibly high colleague retention



“Attracting and retaining talented people (55/45% male/female split) is my top priority – we put on a high impact experience for our clients, buy pulling together multiple different disciplines and personalities.

Both women and men are equally important here and each person is treated as an individual, based on their own personal circumstance.   One of the outcomes of the way we support and develop our team is really low staff turnover, at less than 10%, with our nearest competitor being c30% – and our clients love it.  Our Net Promoter Scores this year across our client stands at an industry leading 94% and we regularly get new business through client referrals.

It commands leadership that is intuitive and emotionally intelligent, wrapped up and an obsessive interest in others (rather than self). You have to be completely aware of everyone’s personal circumstance and the environment in which they operate best – it’s the same for men and women. Everyone is an individual and we all have needs beyond the company.

You also need to recognise when it is time for someone to take on a new challenge or experience and that may not be with Propellernet. I actively encourage the team to take up a travelling adventure or go for a role with a client if I truly believe it will benefit them.

Personalising flexibility


45% of us are parents, again, pretty evenly split between men and women. The responsibility to care for the children and get back to work can fall on either party and we make great efforts to support the mums and dads. We have enhanced maternity and paternity to offer paid leave and flexibility on hours on return to get into the swing of things, but there’s so much more;

One of our dads became a father to twins who were 3 months premature. We thought about what would support him the most at this worrying time – a mixture of dog walkers, cleaners and ready prepared luxury food parcels were on the menu, along with extended flexible working to allow him to visit the hospital during the day for the 3 month period before his full paternity leave kicked in. It was an agreement we came to together and totally based on personal circumstance.

A lot of our working parents want to have the flexibility to work different hours than the standard working week. 25% of the company work a mixture of part time on 3 or 4 days a week, shorter working days over the full week, 4 longer days over the 5 day week or variable mornings or afternoons at home or a mixture of all of the above! Whatever is needed.

Saying that, it’s not just parents. Recently one of our team was really passionate about writing a book, as we encourage diversity of learning and experience, we changed her working hours to enable her to take a day a week to concentrate on writing her book – which is going great guns.

Each of us taking personal responsibility, makes flexibility work. We have a set of values, but also a set of behaviours that work well for us. We’re focusing on this quite a lot right now and one of the key things in terms of behaviours is ‘to be a stunning colleague.’

This is not about employer – employee relations. This is human to human care and attention.

Education, Education, Education


I’ve been experimenting with better ways of working in competitive digital agencies in London, Paris and now Brighton over the last 15 years.  Having graduated from Kingston University and alumni of London Business School and Cranfield University, I have a keen focus on personal development and continuous learning for everyone in the company.  I don’t believe there is a week that I come away from work without having learnt something and I expect others to be able to feel the same.

We have developed our own internal Propellernet Academy, where everyone in the company, male, female, oldest, youngest , technical, creative, PR etc has a role to play in sharing and learning. We are in a fast moving environment and need the collective energy and intellect of the full team to keep us all up to date is imperative.

As such, we don’t bill out all of our time to clients. We aim to limit it to 80% (in previous agencies, this often goes over 100%). The rest of the time is to learn, share, read books, go to events, take part in the Academy.

Our Academy ‘lunchtime learnings’, ‘bitesize briefings’ and ‘shareback Thursdays’ all take place during the working day, to enable those with time bound responsibilities, such as picking up children, to still be able to take part.

Our weekly ‘New News’ company meeting on a Friday is hosted by me and another of our Directors, but owned by everyone – the agenda self forms each week based on what individuals feel they would like to share to inspire or simply keep each other up to date. It’s like a family breaking bread together around the dining table, sharing stories and experiences.

Opportunity cost of the Academy in terms of billed out hours last year was over £1m. But the actual strategic return across the business is invaluable.

The Academy, headed up by one of our part time working mums, has been recognised by our industry as leading the way in talent development, winning awards most recently of

  • Brand Republic Award 2014 – Talent Management Expertise
  • Guardian Best Awards 2014 – Best Development of Agency Talent

Values. And putting your money where your mouth is.


Our agency values are Creativity, Innovation, Adventure, Fun and Wellbeing.  They are woven into the very fabric of the operation. For example, good health and wellbeing puts us in pole position to develop and grow – so everyone qualifies for Propellernet funded healthcare (extended to their families)and we allocate 5% of our profits every month to specific wellbeing activities. Thus ensuring our individual and collective creativity rises and that we remain energetic about our business.

Wellbeing activities can be anything that the team deem valuable to do; such as subsidised Pilates, attending Improv classes, Community work (such as supporting the Brighton Fringe or Brighton University)and  pre-payday lunch to gather everyone together on a regular basis, just before the payday pinch happens.  There raft of options grows each year.

A spirit of adventure and expand our experiences puts us in pole position to develop and grow – so everyone is given a day a month, a Propel Day, to get out of the office and ‘Propel yourself forward’ – in whichever way you see fit. And after 5 years service, we offer the opportunity of a sabbatical, to take a month off, paid, to go and experience something wonderful.  There is no difference between those who are full time, part time or working flexibly. The opportunity is there for all. The one thing we expect back is for everyone to take on the personal responsibility of delivering great work and being a stunning colleague.  And it works.

Rewarding colleagues – the dream machine.


By focussing on the right things, people development being one of them, we have experienced triple digit revenue growth. But there’s always room to take it up a level. Imagine if your employer could help make your dreams come true? Or you could help your employees dreams come true…

We have a Dream Ball Machine at Propellernet – an old fashioned sweet dispenser filled with individual dream ball capsules.  Each capsule has a person’s name in it who works at Propellerne and when we hit a major milestone or target, we aim to release a dream ball and make someone’s dream come true. I have Dream Consultations with each person at the agency and ask them how they are going to make us more successful and if we succeed, what we can do to help make one of their dreams come true.

When we won the Great Places to Work award, we pulled two dream balls – last year Steve and Jim took the trip of a lifetime to the World Cup in Brazil, something they’ve both wanted to do since they were small.  With a mix of time, connections and a bit of budget, we got them there.

Carla’s dream ball dropped last Christmas and she took a dream family holiday in the Alps for her father’s 60th birthday – all put together based on our connections in travel and people in the Alps

It’s not all about waiting for a dreamball to drop though; Sophie wants to go on Safari so we’ve started working with a company in Namibia to promote their Safari’s and part of this is Sophie living her dream by spending time out on safari whilst supporting the company in their marketing activities. Mark wants to create a sci-fi-rock-opera – we’re in the process of giving him the time and space to do it, with our collective connections with writers, journalists, those in the music and video industry…watch this space

And there’s many more.

The point being, if you create a company that encourages people to lead full lives and follow their dreams, you can land a full roster of creative, innovative, award winning talent – that makes everyone’s lives better.

The motivation to be different – make life better.


We have a real sense of purpose behind our business.  It comes from a vision to ‘Make Life Better.’ If we can make life better for our clients customers online; help them find what they need – great content, great answers to their search queries online, in our connected world, they are likely to talk to their friends about it, to share it and promote our clients

If we can make our clients lives better by having consistent teams, doing great work, getting them results, making them famous, whatever it is they need, they will value our relationship all the more and make our lives better

If we can collectively make life better for each other within our agency team, we are all going to be happier, more creative and productive and enjoy our time at work.

It’s really that simple.

Without this culture….


  • We wouldn’t have such good growth figure or great client feedback.
  • Our turnover would inevitably be higher as would our recruitment costs.
  • Less parents would come back to work.
  • All our key metrics would take a hit.
  • The journey wouldn’t be half as much fun.
  • There would be no point, no purpose.

As our CEO once said, after being blown away by meeting the genius of Nile Rogers and listening to him talk about creating great music with soul last year: “Music without soul is just noise, business without purpose is just admin.”

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.”

Your thoughts?


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