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On men who call women ‘darling’

I told a chap off in Pret today for calling me ‘darling’. I had to lean past him to get my coffee, and I think mostly in innocence he said, “Sorry, darling”. He was saying sorry for being in my way; a classically polite and quite British thing to do. But why did he have to call me darling? I stepped away and said, not angrily but firmly, “Don’t call me darling”. And that was that. I sat down. He and his friend sat down at a table near me, but I didn’t feel intimidated. I ate my porridge, did a bit of work, and stood up to leave. I bussed my table and just as I was stepping to the door I heard, ever so faintly, “Bye, darling”, and then some chortling.

There it is. He thought he was being funny, getting one over on me by imposing his will. He gets to call me darling. He gets to decide. If I don’t like it, he’ll do it as a parting shot to remind me of my place. But that acknowledges that my request for him not to do it was valid; he’s like a child, rebelling against an acknowledged and authoritative rule, not an adult debating two equal but opposite points of view.

I turned around, stared at them both, and gave him the finger. If I’d been feeling more larey, I’d have gone over and quizzed him about his behaviour:

“If you didn’t like it when I asked you not to call me darling, then you should have been a grown-up about it and addressed it with me there and then. Would you like to talk now about why you think you should be allowed to call strangers by a term of endearment? It seems like you didn’t want to talk, because you shouted out behind my back, to try to amuse your mate, but as I’m here and I’ve got the time, I thought I’d say some words to you that you didn’t want to hear. How do you like it?”


A success for Let Toys be Toys

As an avid social media user, when I see something astonishing and objectionable, my first thought is Twitter, for better or for worse. Thanks to the team that operate the Let Toys be Toys campaign account, however, and a very responsive PR team running the California Academy of Sciences‘ account, I’ve had a minor success, and I’ve put together a quick Storify to commemorate the occasion.

When tech companies can do good in the world

‘How it Works’, #385 from the brilliant XKCD.com

Tech companies are renowned for eyes-bigger-than-their-belly mission statements. Facebook, no exception, has the mission: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (taken from the Investor Relations FAQ section, or you can go to their oddly meta Facebook page…)

I’ve never been quite sure about whether Facebook was doing good with this mission. In the main, it has meant Facebook pushing at the norms of ‘sharing’, seeking to transform sharing — our thoughts, our information, our data, our time — into a default mode of behaviour online. (For more, see my review of José Van Dijck’s Culture of Connectivity).

However, sometimes, making the world more open and connected means working to change norms that really do need to be changed. A few weeks ago, Facebook  made public some of its training videos about an issue that affects everyone’s daily experience and makes some of us less equal than others: unconscious bias. For Facebook, propelled in no small part by Sheryl Sandberg, making the world more open and connected is supported by a subsidiary mission: “building stronger, more diverse and inclusive organisations”. Facebook has always been bold about being the change it wants to see in the world, and often that can come at the expense of individual users, with data being exploited, users tracked wherever they are online, etc. But, in this instance, Facebook is actually trying to do an unequivocally good thing. Let’s suspend speculation about precisely why and take them at their word when they say their goal is “to achieve broader recognition of hidden biases” and offer a “framework for action” by all organisations. 

Tech in general is rightly criticised for drawing the bulk of its staff from certain groups: mainly male, mainly Caucasian or Asian. #ILookLikeAnEngineer, arising out of sexist commentary about software engineer Isis Wenger’s (@IsisAnchalee) appearance in ads for her firm, demonstrates perfectly just how far we still have to come, not only in tech but in society generally. Consequently, Facebook is not the only company looking to tackle this issue. Google has also been striving to tackle unconscious bias in a public way with anti-bias workshops and coaching sessions, as it has repeatedly been called out about its biases, including in the seemingly innocuous Google Doodles: Spark Summit did an interesting report last year about the rate at which Doodles honour white men. Google Ventures even positions itself as leading the research in this field; this is rather cheeky, given that unconscious bias has been studied academically for decades…. It will be very interesting to see whether Alphabet manages to do better at being more diverse and representative across all levels of the organisation(s), at any rate.
Although tech companies might not be breaking new ground, then, they are opening up the issue, popularising initiatives that tackle unconscious bias at organisational level, and making more readily available resources that can help educate and inform everyone. It’s also an interesting corrective to the increasingly pervasive sentiment that being mindful about everything is all we need to make improvements. David Sze at HuffPo wrote recently about the limits of what introspection can achieve. Research challenges our self-images, suggesting that we are poor judges of the sum of our behaviours, and how to correct flawed patterns of thought or behaviour.

As well as large tech firms trying to lead the way in airing these issues, there are start-ups expressly designed to act as correctives. Textio, for example, promises software that will spot gender biases in job adverts. This is an area that lends itself well to the start-up culture because the landscape is constantly changing. As certain biases are exposed — such as male candidates being more likely to apply for a job that requires a “proven track record” — others will take their place. A constant cycle of close observation and innovation are needed, and this is where re-inventive tech companies and new start-ups can offer most hope for keeping up with and tackling new problems. 

For those interested in exploring their own unconscious biases, it’s worth taking a look at Project Implicit, which is a Harvard project founded in 1998 that studies unconscious bias and offers a range of implicit association tests. The tests are completely free online and seek to measure attitudes and beliefs that one wouldn’t consciously express.

The dangers of women’s appeals to male authority

This blogpost is part mea culpa and part ‘What the hell are two grown women doing playing one-up with their fathers’ qualifications?’ 

Recently, the tenants in my building have been negotiating with the owner as part of a relatively minor but costly issue. In an inevitable way, having finally reached a resolution with the owner, we are now squabbling amongst ourselves. One woman in particular has taken point on a lot of the negotiations. And one other woman is behaving irrationally about the whole settlement. In any legal dispute, a bit of healthy “f*** you” to the other party is desirable, but those with delusions of the courts offering full vindication are dangerous. She is in the latter camp.

As part of her campaign for… I’m not sure what… she not only repeatedly hectored us all condescendingly about her view of the law — rise above it, rise above it — but she had her father (supposedly a lawyer in some capacity) email our point woman to attempt to bully her into refusing the settlement, indicating that he was “senoir [sic] counsel”. Counsel to our fellow tenant, one assumes. He’s certainly not senior counsel at any firm or in-house (because he runs a travel business).

I’m afraid that up with such bullying idiocy I will not put. I thought long and hard about it, but the opportunity to be snarky was too much for me, and I did it. As a fully grown woman with legal qualifications of my own, I leant on my father’s career and CV as a prop when I replied to our fellow tenant indicating that no, just because I accepted the settlement did not mean that I accept any liability for any future issues in her property.

Now, law, in general, is a domain constructed on the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority. So perhaps I can forgive myself for my “I know better lawyers than you” retort (although that might be a tu quoque self-justification…). But when I used to teach debating, logical fallacies were 101, and we hammered into students how to avoid them. And yet I just wasn’t able to resist. In part, my point was that we were both being ridiculous in having recourse to other people’s qualifications when we were both perfectly capable of reasoning our way to the proper course of action. But I was also quite genuinely participating in the dick-by-extension-swinging contest. If it had been her mother or sister who had sent the bullying email, it would probably not have occurred to me to bring my own relatives into it, or at least I would not have been so sorely tempted. 

Implicitly, particularly because we are women, we can treat our fathers as trump cards. They are supposed to be figures of protection, and stereotypically they are also the most highly qualified and professionally advanced of our family unit. Yielding to the temptation to resort to them as trump cards diminishes not only our achievements and capacity as women, but also reinforces these stereotypes. It is an actively damaging step that reinforces stereotypes about both us and them. It validates those who refuse to hear our ideas unless they are repeated or endorsed by a man, and each time we employ the strategy we believe in our own insufficiency a little more. 

Beware logical fallacies. 

And, so as not to end on too dismal a note, while we’re on issues of logic, Tim Minchin’s bit on post hoc ergo propter hoc remains one of the funniest logic-nerd bits ever performed as stand-up.

Image (c) YourLogicalFallacyIs.com, with some minor editing

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.

Imagination "cages"

Andrew Anthony’s article on Simon Schama was posted yesterday, but I only saw it today thanks to Fern Riddell‘s skewering commentary on Twitter, including:



This is all in response to what I’m sure Anthony thought was a charming link between two paragraphs towards the end of the article, jumping off a Schama quote about risking children’s imaginations being “held hostage in the cage of the eternal now” and remarking that Mary Beard is “never one to remain in her own cage”. It’s completely throwaway; Mary Beard is of no interest to Anthony, beyond using her to add “balance” by showing that Schama is not universally loved. (Edit: Anthony also horribly misquotes Beard to achieve this, making his apparent dislike for her doubly disturbing. Beard has tweeted about this herself.)

And that’s what makes it so disturbing. Because it’s obviously bad writing. It barely even makes sense. It’s made its way through Anthony’s drafting process and the online editors because none of them even thought about it.

The only way that one could interpret it as a follow-on from Schama’s use of the word “cage” is if we charitably assume that Anthony is remarking on Beard’s significant pedigree as a classicist. But that is a huge stretch. First, Anthony clearly disagrees with Beard; his article is Schama love-in, and so we doubt there’s much respect meant in his remark. Second, how come Mary gets her very own personal cage? Presumably because, subconsciously (come on, let’s be charitable!), the idea of women’s thinking being restrained (particularly when it disagrees with his) rather pleasantly resonated with Anthony.

So, let us romp wildly on Twitter and wherever else we can!