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(Nearly) Vernon Lee Week

By rights, this week should be Vernon Lee week as I continue writing up, but as most of this week is being taken up by NAVSA, I’m using the few days before as NAVSA prep. I’m refreshing my memory of some of the texts that form the focus of the panel I’m moderating, as well as the individual panels that I’m interesting in hearing. 

The trick to conferences is the prep: having a plan for which papers are most relevant to your work, and the people you’d like to catch up with; being ready for the in-depth discussion of texts that you may only have read once, a decade ago; and having a sense of how your own research and interests dovetail with your fellow conference-goers. 

So I’m going to finish re-reading Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, and refresh my memory of Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, and skim over the participant list one more time. I’m going to conference the heck out of you, Phoenix!


Why are millenials workaholics?

Millenials are workaholics, research suggests. They are more likely to give up paid leave, and to see themselves as “work martyrs”, than previous generations, and the research seems to stand up to removing the variable of age from the equation. But why?

The HBR blog reporting on this latest piece of research ties the trend to an increase in narcissism, in a belief that one is an important person, as well as increased economic vulnerability: higher levels of personal debt, unforgiving housing markets, etc. So, it’s a combination both of a sense of self-importance and a fear of irrelevance? I guess millenials have got a lot of issues to work through…

I don’t really think of myself as a millenial, but technically I am (1981 feels like a really early start-date, demographers!). So I thought I would write something about loving work, and how we learn to love it.


What do you do? Or, How do we talk about our profession?

I rather like The Book of Life, which is part of The School of Life, founded in 2008 by philosopher Alain de Botton. The School and the Book both offer a secular approach to making our emotional lives more fulfilling. In particular, I was struck the other day by their piece on how our work shapes our entire lives
Given the number of waking hours that our work consumes, and the prevailing culture of overworking (be it real or perceived) in many sectors, it is worth interrogating what our jobs mean for us. The question, “What do you do?”, although tedious, is a common one, particularly at networking events or events with friends of friends who might not share our own interests. For those of us who spend much of our social time with work colleagues, like I do, work-chat more generally can consume much of our free time.
When talking about work, we often link it to objective events and activities, day-to-day tasks and connections with things that are in the news. To focus on the psychological requirements and consequences of our work, as the article suggests, offers a radical shift away from seeing ourselves as tools that produce action in the world to see, instead, the equally real but more intangible human elements of our work. 
The question that the article poses is: “What is the psychological character of your work?” To answer requires deeper thought about elements of our professional lives that perhaps we do not think about very much at all. Except in my most cynical moments, I tend not to think about the emotional toll of my toil, or indeed the emotional rewards of it. Yet, of course, my work encourages certain of my traits and weakens others. The article suggests a set of possible traits to consider in formulating our answers to these questions:
  • Patience vs impatience: is the job ‘fire-fighting’ or strategic planning?
  • Suspicious vs trusting: does the job require getting at the hidden truth, or working with people who are upfront?
  • Speculative vs concrete: are you focused on innovation and what-might-be, or carefully attending to practical details of the here-and-now?
  • Consensus-seeking vs independent: is the ability to take a collective view more important than taking a personal viewpoint or offering an unusual approach?
  • Optimistic vs pessimistic: are you encouraged to focus on the positives, or to tackle dangers, pitfalls, and looming disasters?
  • Financially focused vs sheltered from finance: does status in the profession vary hugely with wealth, and the work encourage thinking in terms of profit-and-loss?
  • Fragile dignity vs solid status: are workers subject to deep rebuffs, with work in which they are heavily invested emotionally being easily and frequently rejected? Do capacity or qualifications dictate success?
  • Better nature vs worse nature: does the job remind you of the best in life, or introduce you to the worst of human nature?
  • Logical vs haphazard hierarchy: is it clear how progress and promotion are earned, or is there a strong element of chance, leading to anxiety and distrust? 
  • A declining vs growing industry: does it feel as though the golden age of your profession is past, or is it emerging into new arenas?

It might be possible to establish a generic profile for work, such as in academia. I am not, currently, an academic, but I am a PhD student, as well as holding down a full-time job in an organisation with some clear homologies with academia. I often think of whether or not I wish to jump ship and move into academia. Perhaps the way to make the best decision is to think not of the tasks that the job requires, but to think of the psychological profile of the career path. It would be easy to construct an ideal image of academia, founded on trust — a meritocratic, rational set of peers — and solid status, but that is clearly not the experience of a large number of people working in the industry. So, for those currently working as academics, how would you sum up the psychological profile of your job, and its impact on you?

Image used under a creative commons licence

Work-life "balance" and career planning

This is the final week of Diana Bilimoria’s Coursera MOOC on Women in Leadership. It’s been a short, but interesting course. As a whistlestop tour, the major issues and dismal statistics have all been covered, but the course hasn’t dwelled on them self-pityingly. Instead, the focus has been proactive, starting from the basis that knowledge is power.

Week 1: Developing your Leadership Identity
Week 2: The State of Women’s Leadership
Week 3: Your Presence as a Leader
Week 4: Tools for career advancement


There were only two readings this week: a Harvard Business Review article from March 2014, Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life; and a chapter by Bilimoria et al on profiles of women’s career development over time.

I love HBR, and this article was no exception. Based on thousands of interviews, its focus is on how leaders can get away from ‘firefighting’ and towards making meaningful, deliberate decisions about how they work that can enable them to have more time for family and community, “vigilantly manag[ing] their human capital”. They draw out five main behaviours:

  1.  Defining success for yourself;
  2. Managing technology;
  3. Building support networks at work and at home;
  4. Travelling/relocating selectively; and
  5. Collaborating with your partner.

For me, the most interesting of these is managing technology, as I’ve written a lot about incorporating technology into my academic life (acwri tools), working practices (particularly time planning), and hobbies (particularly running). ‘Managing technology’ in HBR’s context describes “corralling” emails, calls, and other messages as part of “deciding when, where, and how to be accessible to work”. 

The article links this very personal question to the dangers of 24-hour availability from a work-performance perspective. The article emphasises the increase in creativity that can come from being focused on mundane tasks rather than the issue at hand, as well as the importance of effective delegation for empowering teams. The issue, then, is not so much managing the technology as managing how we decide to use it. A leader who checks their emails compulsively because they want their team to run every decision by them has a problem not with their smartphone but with their leadership style (or with their team!). Our uses of technology say much more about us than they do about the technology!

The chapter by Bilimoria et al builds on the idea of there being three chronological career phrases: a ‘sprint’ idealistic achievement phase; a ‘marathon’ pragmatic endurance phase; and a ‘relay’ reinventive phase. Alongside this is a parallel model, whereby women in an early career phase focus on challenge, developing into a focus on balance mid-career, and then a focus on authenticity in later career stages. The chapter offers three composite profiles based on interviews with women in these various phases. I actually found something a little sad in these profiles and the presentation of the two models. It had the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy about it, as though women would inevitably find their workplace sexist or demeaning, or otherwise disempowering. 


The first exercise was to evaluate how we currently spend our time between work, family, friends, self and community, and to compare it with how we want to spend our time. It also invited us to define what success might look like, including what it will enable us to achieve, and what we need to do in order to reach that goal.

I often think about my life as a narrative, and ask myself whether choices I make will enhance it, offering coherence, variety, depth, etc. Focusing on my life as a story about who I am and what I have achieved means taking a long view and being willing to critique my own actions and choices. Success, for me, means writing an impressive, diverse life story that offers me insight, and that can hopefully inspire others through my mentoring and coaching. To achieve it means seeing my time and attention as resources that need to be invested wisely, and not depleted, reminding me to focus also on the actions of self-care that replenish my internal resources.

* Image taken from The Job Crowd: http://www.thejobcrowd.com/news/who-are-best-employers-work-life-balance.

The secret art of life-curation: book review

The title here is not strictly the book’s title, but I think it ought to be. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying is, at its heart, about the prioritising and ordering of things in life that bring joy. The book is a bestseller, and Kondo can be seen in YouTube videos helping people implement her eponymous method (#konmari). 
Tidying, along with decluttering, is en vogue. So en vogue that here is also something of a backlash, exemplified in Dominique Browning’s New York Times article ‘Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter’. However, the Konmari approach to tidying need not be anti-‘clutter’ in the sense of being utilitarian, as at the heart of the exercise is joy. We can have all the ‘clutter’ in the world if we like, as long as it brings us joy and each item has a place in our home. 
Konmari offers a set of instructions that are, apparently, failsafe or relapse-proof. She advocates tidying one’s home thoroughly, all in one go, and tackling clothes first, before addressing books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items like stationary and DVDs), and finally sentimental items. The purpose of the ordering is to help you hone your ability to make decisions about what items to keep, based solely on whether they bring you joy. This is why I think Konmari can be best thought of not as tidying, but as life-curation.

Increasingly, we all have an instinct about life-curation. On social media, in our CVs, in reading or listening to reports of how being mindful and authentic will improve our lives, relationships, and health, we all spend time thinking about how we are in the world, and how we wish to appear to be. A healthy approach to that is to look inwards and ask what brings us joy, rather than ask what we ‘need’ to keep up with the Joneses, or are supposed to own or enjoy.

So it was with a sense of hopefulness that I endeavoured to implement Kondo’s method in my own little London one-bed. The first task was clothing. Fair enough. I was rigorous with myself. And I have done many such wardrobe exercises in the past. I was feeling like a pro, but trying to be more thoughtful about my decision-making. It took a while, but the pile of remaining clothes was notably smaller than the pile I had started with.

Having done all of the clothes, however, I ran into a difficulty: my home is too small to have all the things out all of the time. I needed to put all the clothes back. Before doing that, I had to seize the opportunity move the furniture, clean the walls, empty the other parts of the bedroom too, so that I could put things where I’d eventually want them. By the end of day one, I had just about managed to put all the clothes away again (barring shoes and handbags), and get out all of the books (see top photo). Given the number of books I own, I was starting to feel worried about the ‘all in one go’ doctrine.

I ploughed on. It was a three-day weekend, and I had started, so I had to finish. Books were also the most challenging area. I love my books. And although I respect Kondo, her feelings toward books are not mine. In discouraging people from keeping both unread and read books, she says, “‘Sometime’ means ‘never'”, and that “books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember”.

I had close to 600 books when I started the exercise. I recycled/donated about 150. But I kept both unread books, and those that I’d last read years ago. Because ‘sometime’ often does come for me, and I cannot be satisfied with her casual “even if you don’t remember”. The physical books are there to remind us. It is one of the reasons why e-books generally don’t work for me. A chance encounter with a book, a glance at its title or front cover, is about memory, and often sparks ideas for me.

More generally, ‘reliving’ memories is the way in which we construct them, bring them into a sense of order, draw them into the stream of our lives. Taking care over the things we keep, and arranging them so that we can encounter them time after time, is about establishing a space that is part of our lives, rather than just the location for them. This is what Kondo’s method brings to the fore: the care we should take in ordering the threads of our life and making them ready-at-hand for ourselves. To wit, a William Morris poster, long buried in a cardboard tube, revived as part of one of my many bookcases.

For those who want to be more mindful about the little things, there are worse places to start than with Konmari.

The state of women’s leadership

The above is a snipped from a wonderful comic by Toby Morris, which illustrates the idea of accumulated (dis)advantage. You can see the whole thing here

Welcome to week 2 of my journey through the women’s leadership MOOC taught by @DianaBilimoria of Case Western. This week’s theme was the current state of women’s leadership at the top of organisations.

Key takeaways for me are:

  1. Identify and fight for ‘hot jobs’ that are visible, mission-critical, or international. Do not be ashamed of holding decision-makers to account for how they allocate such roles.
  2. Be prepared to ask, “How and why do you feel abraded?” And, yes, use those terms: put the onus on them to own their emotional response to you, and highlight how ridiculous the terminology used for criticising assertive women can be.
  3. Be conscious of what (dis)advantages you and others are accumulating. Do not be afraid to point out their accumulation, but speak up for others who are accumulating disadvantage, not just yourself.

Bonus takeaway, courtesy of Gloria Steinman:

If you are with those who have more power than you, learn to speak. If you are with those who have less power than you, learn to listen.


This week’s readings focused predominantly on corporate/for-profit institutions, although in the forums there were a lot of interesting reflections about different areas, including academia. Readings included a statistical overview of women in the workplace, from Catalyst.org, an organisation focused on expanding women’s opportunities in business; studies about how women are given less favourable development opportunities and about how the ‘double bind’ manifests itself, causing women to be judged critically whether they are assertive or not; and an article from Fast Company about how ‘abrasive’ is a gendered term in performance reviews.

The statistics are, I hope, well-known. The US and the UK do not even break into the top 30 countries for women in senior management positions, a table topped by Russia, Indonesia and Latvia.* Grant Thornton call out the UK, particularly, as “stagnating” on this front.

Developed countries, by and large, are less equal in this regard than developing countries. Perhaps there is an element of economic complacence for the former countries, so that they do not feel sufficiently motivated to leverage the whole of their workforce (even following the 2009 crash). It is interesting to see that such countries and cultures are clinging so hard to unconscious gender biases that they go against rational economic self-interest — companies with more women senior leaders financially outperform those with fewer — as well as the national, societal interest, as those firms with more women leaders also have higher levels of corporate social responsibility. There should be strong internal and external incentives for companies to boost their numbers of women at the top. And yet, progress is exceptionally slow. (Perhaps we should remember Germaine Greer’s assessment that women have very little idea of how much men hate them…)

What, then, are the barriers that women face in advancing their careers? Unfriendly corporate cultures continue to alienate women in some industries (tech has recently been under a lot of scrutiny over this), and there is always the human bias towards homophily in making promotion decisions (i.e. promoting those who are like ourselves, particularly in terms of gender, race, or class).

This tendency towards homophily is also reflected in the lack of strong mentoring for women, and their exclusion informal networks, both of which are invaluable sources of information and learning. For example, a good mentor might give crucial advice about which projects to fight for or accept — which are ‘hot jobs’ — and which to pass up. Catalyst suggest that approximately 20% of our learning and development comes through these mentoring and networking activities (with 70% coming from on-the-job training and 10% from formal training). 20% can clearly make all the difference, and I am certainly going to be thinking about how best to developing leadership networks and mentoring systems, as I now have a role in the development of ‘high potentials’ in my organisation.

To my mind, the most crucial element is the failure to judge men and women on an equal footing, however. Various studies have indicated that, with identical CVs, men are more likely to be hired than women, such as one from Cornell looking at recruitment in academia and evaluations of whether a candidate had completed sufficient teaching and research.** The Fast Company article notes how, in reviews, women are routinely described as ‘abrasive’ and given personal feedback, whereas men are not judged in this way. The classic ‘double bind’ whereby women are rarely judged as both competent and likeable, but are either ‘abrasive’ (i.e. competent but unlikeable) or ‘sweet’ (i.e. presumed incompetent at higher levels, but likeable). Such evaluations of female performance typically come from second-generation bias, or unconscious assumptions, rather than explicit discrimination. Second-generation bias is also reflected in the way that women are channeled into certain leadership roles over others, such as HR over finance, on the basis of an assumed ‘female’ skill set.

It is important to note that advantages or disadvantages accrue over time, as the Toby Morris cartoon at the top of this post illustrates. Like interest on an investment or a debt, things can spiral beyond our control. Once labelled ‘abrasive’, women can find themselves passed up for roles that would involve them managing challenging teams, which are essential for building experience. It can be very difficult to call out colleagues or senior managers on small things, but it is essential.


One of the exercises this week was a consciousness-raising one: to research the statistics for our own organisation, industry and nation. In brief, as I noted above, the UK’s progress has slowed to a virtual halt. Within the civil service, the split is 62% men, 38% women in senior leadership positions (according to the ONS in 2014).

My organisation occupies a small niche of the UK public sector, with only 15 senior managers. However, our statistics are slightly worse: 64% to 36%, including one female senior manager who has been on a career break for several years (making the current proportions even worse: 69% to 31%). And this is after a senior male manager left quite recently.

I was surprised by this, as I thought we would have been slightly better than the average, but we are not. Emotionally, we feel defensive about organisations or places where we are happy, to the point of minimising failings. In my organisation, there are many difficulties around career advancement because there is relatively low churn at the top levels, which people can reach quite quickly in their careers. With so little space for people to climb into, it is easy for promotions to have the appearance of fairness, but there may well be implicit biases that go into those decisions, shaping the organisation’s decision-making for decades to come. In small organisations, every promotion is key to the organisation values and culture.

Previous weeks

Week 1: Developing your leadership identity

You can find out more about the course itself (and still join!) on the Coursera website.

* Statistics taken from Grant Thornton International Business Report, 12 March, 2014
** There have been similar studies comparing rates of hire for those with names that might identify someone as non-Caucasian, such as a study from the University of Chicago. Although the course, and therefore this post, 

Women in Leadership: Inspiring Positive Change, Week 1

I haven’t done this for a while, but I thought I might blog about a MOOC that I’m currently taking. It’s  being taught by Professor Diana Bilimoria at Case Western Reserve University via Coursera, and the course description is:

By offering more complex understandings of issues related to professional women and work, the course will help you increase self-knowledge about your own values and vision, as well as enhance your capabilities as a leader, manager, and team contributor.  We will examine the opportunities, challenges, trade-offs, and organizational dynamics experienced by women in work organizations, as well as reflect on and practice effective individual behaviors.

This is my round up of take-aways for Week One (Yourself as a Leader), with more detailed reflection below:

  1. Network with intent. Identify key influencers or gatekeepers, and build relationships now that you might be able to use later.
  2. Think about what will motivate you to stay in a profession/career, as well as what obstacles you might have to overcome.
  3. Leading includes modelling behaviour for those far beyond ‘your’ team.


There are ‘lecture’ videos online, but I’ll focus here on the readings, which are more readily accessible.

There were two sections this week: the Welcome, and Leadership Values and Vision. Readings were on Centred Leadership (2008 McKinsey article), Inclusive Leadership (2012 Bilimoria article), ‘Engaging People’s Passion: Leadership for the New Century’ (from Leadership, 2005), and Personal Vision (2014 Bilimoria/Buse article).

Centred Leadership’s fivefold model of leadership struck me as a bit waffley. ‘Think positive’! ‘Engage’! ‘Do what you love’! The article refers to how women are special(ly emotional) snowflakes who “tend to experience emotional ups and downs more often and more intensely than most men do”, and suggests that those with strong networks and good mentors get promoted because “they feel a sense of belonging, which makes their lives meaningful”, rather than because they get a helping hand from friends/relatives.

Overall, I wasn’t so impressed with this first reading, but there were some interesting points relating to networking that I found useful. The first was that it prompted me to think about was the different natures of the networks that men and women build, with the former building broader but shallower networks that, in the long-run, can offer a sort of ‘cumulative interest’. The second was that women tend to be close to fellow employees who are not influential, whereas men are more inclined to build relationships with influencers that can reap rewards later.

Personal Vision was a very interesting analysis of the engineering profession in the US, which is notably unequal in its gender ratio, and the reasons why women stay in the profession. Turning the retention question around in this way reminds us why it is so important to be authentic in the workplace.


The exercises required interviews with five colleagues, friends, or other acquaintances to build a picture of our ‘best self’, and an exercise setting out a set of values and a description of our ‘vision’. As I do self-reflection routinely as part of my organisation’s review process, I found the first exercise fairly simple to accomplish. The second was not something I’ve ever actually focused on, though, and I found it a really useful exercise. It was framed as a set of ‘complete the sentence’ prompts, and my answers are below.

The area in which I want my leadership to best contribute is… in achieving an equal, diverse and healthy workplace. 
The core purpose of my leadership is… to ensure that we take pride in our work — and have work in which we can take pride — whilst also remaining consistent with our values and individual’s needs.
My leadership serves… the organisation as a whole, which can serve as an example to others by modelling a twenty-first century, inclusive workplace.
The leader I want to be is… one who is authentic, leads by example, is collaborative and open, but is also able to give clear direction and feedback. I will own my decisions and support and protect my team wherever I can.
Through my leadership… we will continue to deliver high-quality results in a way that respects individual employee’s rights to equal treatment and to a healthful work environment.
My leadership will be recognised for… achieving results and building a sustainable team.