Tag Archives: work

Pretty as a picture?

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Alexander Carter-Silk, the senior partner at a law firm who was taken to task by a strident feminist when he mistook the business networking site LinkedIn for a dating website. It’s an easy mistake to make. In response to a connection request from human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman, he messaged back, ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!’ The hapless Carter-Silk – whose over-zealous use of exclamation marks surely reveals his benign intent – was promptly outed by Proudman on Twitter for his sexist behaviour. Can’t a lady take a compliment?

Carter-Silk gave his online audience an insight into the subtle workings of his legally-trained mind when he sought to clarify his intentions: ‘Most people post pretty unprofessional pictures on LinkedIn, my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted.’ Let’s gloss over Carter-Silk’s sloppy comma splice and incorrect use of a subordinate clause, not to mention his gutless refusal to accept responsibility for the offence he caused. Could he just explain why he acknowledged that it might be viewed as ‘horrendously politically incorrect’ to make what was, after all, an innocent observation about the professional quality of Proudman’s photograph?

As Proudman rightly pointed out in her response to Carter-Silk, comments like his are a means of exercising power over women and detracting from their professional achievements. Objectifying a woman for her appearance is just one example; I could cite many instances of blatant sexism from my own working life. Once, at a job interview, a recruitment consultant enquired as to whether I was married. When I asked why this was relevant, he explained that my husband might be annoyed if I had to work late. On another occasion, a senior civil servant suggested that a post in the Department for Education would be ‘a nice job for a lady lawyer’, the implication being that HM Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were strictly for the chaps.

There are a thousand other ways in which women are judged, stereotyped, undermined and silenced at work. Those who say they have never experienced workplace sexism might consider how often male colleagues have talked over them or ignored their presence at a strategy meeting or a client drinks party. When women are sidelined in this way, a small internal voice whispers that it’s because they have nothing interesting to contribute: must try harder. By contrast, the standard male response would be simply to turn up the volume.

The subtle, pervasive nature of the attitudes revealed by such incidents is the reason why idiots like Carter-Silk need to be called out. I’d like to think that he has now been reprimanded by his firm and that his fellow partners will seek to distance themselves from his comment. Knowing how the law works, though, I fear this incident will simply bolster his client following and furnish him with an amusing dinner-party anecdote (cue much male guffawing at the humourless feminist who dared to speak out). In the meantime, he might want to take some advice from a PR consultant on how to frame an apology, as well as a refresher course in the basic rules of grammar.

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All aboard the mood elevator!

As a homeworker, I’m normally able to maintain a certain distance from the patronising initiatives that our bosses periodically roll out (their phrase, not mine), so it can be a shock when I’m confronted by the bunkum that my colleagues have to endure. On a recent visit to the office, I was bemused to find myself sitting at a hotdesk opposite a wall of motivational posters, the management equivalent of ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps.’ One of them instructed me to ‘Be here now’, an injunction that, far from achieving its purpose of focusing my mind on the task in hand, created an earworm that led me to waste a good half-hour tracking down old Oasis songs on YouTube. ‘Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out,’ burbled another. Well, duh, as my nine-year-old would say.

Alongside these pearls of management wisdom was a poster illustrating a vertical scale. The top half was labelled with upbeat words such as ‘resourceful’, ‘creative’ and ‘flexible’. ‘Sense of humor’ had been lobbed in there among the adjectives, demonstrating a cavalier disregard for UK spelling conventions and grammatical consistency, and contributing to the impression that the diagram had been scribbled out on the back of a beer mat five minutes before closing time. The lower half of the scale was reserved for a range of negative emotions towards which I felt myself rapidly gravitating – among them, ‘irritated’, ‘angry’ and ‘depressed’.

This is the mood elevator, an essential tool (so I’m told) for creating a healthy and fast-paced working environment and managing our corporate culture. The premise is that negative thought-patterns generate low moods, which impede our effectiveness in the workplace. It’s a neat solution, absolving employers of responsibility for their workers’ well-being. Never mind that you’re bored shitless on a minimum-wage, zero-hours contract, working for a boss who passionately believes in this kind of crap: just change your way of thinking and – ta da! – problem solved.

Initiatives like this are beloved of senior executives, whose bonuses and sense of self-worth depend on forcing underlings like me to waste our working hours attending culture workshops and goal-setting meetings. I wish I could just do my job, instead of filling out endless self-appraisal questionnaires and 360-degree feedback forms. What’s the appropriate response? To sink into an even deeper depression, or just shrug and go along with it?

One option is to be quietly subversive, playing the system while privately acknowledging its inherent absurdity. In her bestselling critique of French corporate culture, ‘Bonjour paresse’, Corinne Maier advocates various ways of subtly undermining our bosses. One of my favourite tips is: ‘You’re not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track.’

In the end, though, my ‘sense of humor’ fails me. Perhaps I would be able to laugh if it weren’t all so insidious. Taken seriously, many of these corporate mind-control games strip us of authenticity, turning us into cynics and manipulators. Once I was sent on a networking course, where I was taught various techniques for working a room. So now I know that the person who is rather creepily mirroring my body language has been on a similar course and is trying to establish a rapport, while ‘Can I get you a drink?’ is code for ‘Thanks, I’ve got what I wanted from you and it’s time to move on.’

My company trumpets innovation as a core value, and yet the one piece of blue-sky thinking that it’s not prepared to countenance is the suggestion that these initiatives are a massive waste of time. Another oft-cited value is diversity. Odd, then, that our bosses seem intent on making corporate clones of us all, drumming out the mavericks and weirdos who refuse to modify their ‘behaviors’ and simply want to get on with their work.

There’s no sign of any let-up. Today we received an e-mail encouraging us to create a special break-out zone in the office where individuals can contemplate their emotional well-being and mark their current level on a blown-up, laminated copy of the mood elevator. I think you can guess which adjectives I’ll be circling. Here’s a plea to management: let us be ourselves. We sell you our labour, not our identities; what we do for a living isn’t the sum total of who we are. Who knows, our productivity levels may even benefit from this refreshingly hands-off approach. Perhaps I should present it to our gullible executives as a ground-breaking new management theory.

Bringing it all back home

When I tell people that I work from home, more often than not I’m met with surprise. ‘How can you do it?’ they ask. ‘Are you not lonely? Don’t you feel isolated?’ In short, I’m regarded as a bit of a freak. I’m bemused by this reaction, because I rather like my arm’s-length working arrangement.

The moment I return from the school run and shut the front door behind me, I feel a sense of relief. Alone in the house with the smell of ground coffee and the child-free hours stretching before me, I can focus on the tasks that matter. It suits my introverted nature, and above all, allows me to avoid an awful lot of the crap associated with the modern workplace.

My would-be office – on the rare occasions when I put in an appearance – resembles a call-centre, with its banks of workstations and fluorescent glare. The hot desks, break-out zones and refreshment hubs are designed to foster collaboration but seem to have the opposite effect. Perhaps it would work better if we were beardy creatives bouncing ideas off each other, or upbeat sales reps making calls all day. But our work is solitary, requiring us to concentrate for long periods, and the people it attracts tend to be slightly mis-socialised.

The physical environment exposes my office-based colleagues to scrutiny, obliging them to be polite and restrained. It’s stifling, exhausting and infantilising to have to work like this, always keeping yourself in check. An awkward silence descends as everyone taps away at their keyboards in enforced proximity; social interaction is restricted to a tight-lipped smile over the water cooler. At home, meanwhile, I can hum, scratch, grimace, gurn, argue out loud with myself, excavate bogeys – even lift a buttock and let rip, should I so wish. Try that in an open-plan office and see what happens.

Another advantage of being based at home is that I don’t have to engage with all the corporate blather. Recently, curiosity prompted me to attend a lengthy meeting at which a group of senior executives talked about innovation, brand perspective and the company’s go-to-market capabilities. We were instructed to ‘own that vision’, engage with our stakeholders and focus on the company’s organic growth strategy. Questions from the audience were designed, not to challenge the speakers, but to demonstrate how on-message (and therefore deserving of financial reward) the questioners were. I understood not a word of it.

How did we get here, to this upside-down place in which management is regarded as a profession in its own right, elevated above all others? How can it be that chief executives are paid two hundred times as much as employees in possession of specialist, technical knowledge – the people who make the product that the customers buy, bringing in the money that pays for the bosses’ big, fat salaries?

They’re like a dungareed tribe of overgrown toddlers, these executives, forever drawing up new corporate strategies with their glittery washable marker pens, and making up nonsense words to denote divisions and directorates within their tinpot organisations. They shift their coloured building blocks around the boardroom table to represent acquisitions, restructurings and redundancies, with no regard for the effect on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. They strip away our collective bargaining rights and impose performance-related pay to incentivise us, forcing colleagues to compete against each other for a share of a finite pot of cash that amounts to a tiny fraction of the executives’ bloated annual bonus.

Welcome to UK plc. Of course, I’m not completely protected from any of this by my home-working arrangement, nor am I so precious as to suggest that I could never work in an office. I could if I had to: I have in the past, and no doubt at some point I’ll do it again. It’s just that, in the words of Bartleby, that notoriously reluctant office worker, I would prefer not to.

Parent wars

There’s nothing quite like the arrival of children for bringing out the latent inequalities between men and women. Before my sons were born, I worked full-time in an office and felt equal in every way to my partner (to avoid the slightly self-conscious clunkiness of that term, let’s call him Bob). I’d like to say that we shared household tasks fifty-fifty but, even if that’s not quite the case, at least I felt entitled to object if he failed to take on his fair share of household drudgery. We frequently went out together for dinner or to the cinema. I also made my own, separate social arrangements, often at short notice, and felt no obligation to consult him before doing so.

Fast forward a decade, throw in a couple of kids, and things look a bit different. I now work part-time in a job that fits in around school hours. I am responsible for supervising the boys’ homework, booking their numerous after-school activities and arranging their social lives. On the rare occasions when I can’t collect them from school, it’s up to me to arrange childcare. I do the shopping, cooking, washing and tidying; sort the recycling and put the bins out; organise plumbers and builders; buy birthday and Christmas presents; and pay the household bills out of our joint bank account. And when I want to go out with my friends, I effectively have to ask permission, because it’s assumed that I’ll be at home in the evenings unless otherwise stated.

Bob, meanwhile, has taken on the role of provider, working in a stressful, intellectually challenging job that frequently demands long hours. His work fulfils a useful social function and lots of people depend on it, so I can understand that it sometimes has to take priority over our family life. In fact, Bob focuses almost exclusively on his job during the week, knowing that I’m here to deal with the children. If paperwork has to be done at the weekend at short notice, he knows I’ll be there to take the boys off his hands. And whatever time he comes home, there will always be dinner on the table.

Most couples I know fall into this traditional set-up, or something quite like it, once children arrive. It’s an arrangement that often breeds resentment. The women feel undervalued and complain about their husbands’ ineptitude when it comes to doing the housework and organising the kids. One friend, frustrated by her husband’s failure to wipe the table after their toddler had eaten breakfast, scrawled ‘Weetabix + time = concrete’ on the kitchen whiteboard. Another tells of the occasion when her husband, on lone childcare duty one evening, forgot to give their small daughter her dinner and sent her to bed on an empty stomach.

These conversations with women create a sense of solidarity and allow me to give vent to my own domestic issues. On the rare occasions when he rolls up his sleeves in the kitchen, Bob specialises in partial washing-up, inexplicably leaving a small selection of crusty plates and greasy saucepans for someone else to sort out later. It almost goes without saying that he never wipes the kitchen surfaces. When I’m in one of my more curmudgeonly moods, it occurs to me that if he did his job in such a half-arsed way, he wouldn’t last five minutes.

Now that the family’s social calendar has become my responsibility, one of my particular frustrations is that it’s almost impossible to pin Bob down in order to fix dates. I have been known to chase him through the house clutching my diary, pointing out that, although it may suit him to make arrangements on the hoof, life doesn’t work like that when you have a young family. And I can’t help but notice that he’s very good at carving out leisure time for himself – the Saturday morning bike rides that are apparently essential for his physical and mental well-being, and the mind-expanding evening classes that take place while I’m hanging wet washing and packing schoolbags.

Bob and his friends, no doubt, would say that they feel under scrutiny by their wives when they attempt any household tasks; that nothing is ever good enough, so it’s no wonder that they eventually stop trying. They might point out that their partners seem to find plenty of downtime themselves, sipping lattes with their friends while the children are at school, and slipping away to pilates classes in their Boden sweatpants. I normally find it remarkably easy to ignore such accusations, but in a recent exchange of words with Bob, when I was berating him about his domestic failings, something he said brought me up sharp. He said that he envied my life and asked, ‘Would you seriously want to do what I do?’

And I have to admit that, no, I wouldn’t. The stress, the long hours and sleepless nights, and the pressure to earn enough money to support a family I’d see for only an hour or two at breakfast and bedtime? No, thanks. I’ve sometimes sensed a slightly disapproving attitude towards the mothers at my sons’ school who work full-time and send their children to after-school club. But those women aren’t doctors and lawyers, who largely work by choice and can afford nannies. Many of them are public sector workers – teachers, midwives and social workers – struggling to fund a decent family life on a relatively low dual income. Some are single parents. And most of them look knackered.

The fact that I don’t have to do that – that I can keep my work within reasonable limits, be here for my children most of the time, and take an active interest in their daily lives – is an enormous privilege. In fact, I’d say that, between Bob and me, I’m the one who has the better end of the bargain. There, Bob – I’ve finally said it. Let’s just hope you don’t read this blog post.

Dressed to impress – or frozen out?

The runaway success of Frozen, the Oscar-winning Disney cartoon, is hard to deny. On dressing-up day, the school playground teems with wannabe Elsas and Annas, primping and preening as they parrot their favourite songs from the movie soundtrack. Meanwhile, The Observer reports that spin-off merchandise is flying off the shelves, leaving parents desperately trawling shops and websites for overpriced dresses and dolls.

I saw the film with my children several months ago and found much to admire. Early on, there’s a cheesy solo by Anna about finding ‘the one’, provoking much eye-rolling from cynics like me who think they know what’s about to unfold. Then comes the clever subversion: the prince turns out to be a villain and the women are saved, not by a knight in shining armour, but by self-empowerment and their sisterly love.

But let’s not get too excited here. This is Disney, after all, and the film wouldn’t be the highest-grossing animation of all time without the presence of at least some familiar fairytale elements. So, inevitably, the two lead characters are bug-eyed beauties with impossibly cinched waists and hourglass figures, and there’s a handsome suitor waiting in the wings in the shape of the muscle-bound Kristoff. The message is clear: a woman can triumph in the face of adversity but she still has to look attractive to men.

Others have written much more knowledgeably than I could about the unrealistic physical proportions of Elsa and Anna and the message that sends out to the film’s young female audience. But what also struck me about Frozen was the sheer impracticality of the sisters’ clothing. Seriously – you’d pirouette across a frozen landscape in princess pumps and a full-length cape? Sashay up the steps of your ice palace in killer heels and a diaphanous off-the-shoulder number with a skirt split to the thigh? Personally, I’d have donned my Merrell snow boots and several snug layers, topped by one of those shiny padded jackets that make any woman over a size eight look like the Michelin Man’s obese brother.

But is Elsa and Anna’s preference for the stylish over the practical so very different from the attitude of real-life women? Let’s not even talk about our party outfits: what we wear to work is far more telling. Over two decades ago, I attended my first job interview in a fitted jacket, a tiny pencil skirt and pantomime heels. I could barely walk from the tube station and had to sit through the interview with my legs awkwardly crossed so as not to reveal my nether regions. It was a toss-up between embarrassment and relief when the dress code turned out to be jeans.

This heels-and-tight-skirt combo – which, frankly, looks a bit dated these days – is still favoured by many high-powered women: think Theresa May or Rachida Dati. But how easy is it to stride briskly along a corridor with a pair of four-inch spikes attached to your feet? Or to chair a meeting when the mere act of sitting causes your skirt to ride up around your armpits? Give it a moment’s thought and it’s hard to imagine a less professional get-up.

Let’s be clear: high heels and tight skirts are designed to exaggerate the shape and length of our legs, and thus to enhance our sexual attractiveness. There’s nothing wrong with that – indeed, women should have the right to wear what they want, when they want. It just seems an odd choice in the workplace, to the extent that you have to question whether there’s some external pressure at play here. We’re increasingly expected to shimmy up corporate ladders and smash through glass ceilings, yet many of us still feel we have to truss ourselves up like a fairytale princess ascending an ice-sculpted staircase. Are we doing it for ourselves, or in order to conform to a male fantasy that should have no place in the professional sphere? To quote from another Disney classic, ‘go figure’.