Saturday 15 January 2011

Smart girls

Yes, yes, more self indulgence. Now that's out of the way...

I am girl. I am smart. For 50% of the population, there the story ends. I'm afraid that for the other 50%, it's really rather more complicated than that. And here's why.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO presents a wonderful TEDWomen talk on 3 points. Sit at the Table. Make your partner a real partner. Don't leave before you leave. You can see the talk in its 14 minute entirety below, it's worth watching.

So.There are a number of issues here, for me. One, on the right hand side of the page where this talk is embedded on TED's website, other recommended videos are listed. When I looked, not one was by a woman. Which, okay, is fair enough, it's probably a random alogorithm generated listing. But all the same it would have been nice if...

Two. What is she actually saying, and in the process of listening did you check out her shoes, how she looked, what she was wearing and that her hair is immaculate but her nose is most definitely not LA? I'm guessing so. Like @fredgarnett on Twitter, did you make an assessment of her as a woman and conclude that she was a masculinised woman, who'd had to 'cross over to the other side' to become a COO? And if you did, do you have any concept of how insulting that is, not only to her, but to every other woman who quietly and secretly wishes they could be standing where she is?

I am cute and fluffy. So, I suspect, is Sheryl. 5 year old kids don't tend to cling on to women who are not cute and fluffy when with their children, on leaving them to get on a plane. So what I actually suspect has happened here, is that someone has made an assumption based on nothing more than either her job title, or the way she dresses. (I should state clearly here that Fred's assessment is based on an anti-capitalist stance and not an anti-women one and that I like the bloke really rather a lot and respect him enormously). A common occurence I suspect.

The problem is, cute and fluffy means, as Sheryl has excellently pointed out, you get second place behind those not so cute and fluffy. It means you take someone at face value when they say 'only 2 more questions' and out of politeness and the wish to adhere to societal norms, lower your hand, meaning other people's questions get answered and other people's names are on people's radars, not yours. Cute and fluffy means everyone knows you care, and so take full advantage of that, meaning you end up doing ridiculous amounts of work on a voluntary basis, to discover that the person who asked you to do it did have some funding but it went to less cute and fluffy people than you, because they refused to do something for free. It means you are not taken seriously, you are not sat at the table, you are not in the loop, you are not listened to, you do not receive conference invites, you do not get asked to shape policies and strategies despite knowing much more than those writing them in some cases thanks for personal life experience.

Instead, what happens, and I speak from 15 years experience here, what happens is you are humoured, token gestured at, doors are held open for you, people's attention wanders off and you don't call people on it, you are ignored entirely and practically walked into, it is always assumed you will take notes be it your job or not, you will always be the one making tea or coffee, whether you manage a team of 15 or not, and you will always and I do mean always feel patronised or invisible at least once a day and usually more.

Cute and fluffy does not win. When guys moan that nice guys don't get the girl, I usually react in one of two ways. Utter irritation or with a reply along the lines of 'then stop going for the girls you wouldn't be happy with if you got them anyway'. So, through discussions with assorted people this morning including @rich_w, @emmamaier, @curiousc (whose blog post sparked some of this), @fredgarnett and finally @mmarymckenna (who also contributed to some epiphanies this morning with this post on what the world looks like as CEO of a start-up.) I have come to some conclusions of my own.
  • I need to stop whining
  • Cute and fluffy doesn't win. Somehow I need to balance that with morals, ethics, politeness and confidence, belief and determination whilst never verging into arrogance. How on earth do you do that?
  • Women, in general, do not leave their hands up. Whatever the reasons for this, it's putting us on a back foot in any number of situations. Leave your goddamn hand up.
  • If you know the answer to a question, answer it.
  • Decide what you want to do, stop bloody dithering and just focus 100% on getting it.
  • Things will go wrong. CBT asks the question, what's the worst that can happen? What actually is the worst that can happen? Failure. Pfeh, been there, done that.
  • Work out how to balance a need to follow with a curiosity about leading, and work out if 'I'm not old enough yet' is an excuse or a reality.
  • Pass what I've learned so far on to as many women as possible and pick up girls who are strong and determined and opinionated and help as much as I can with retweets and replies and help and connections.
  • Push, as hard as I can, relentlessly and determinedly, for some kind of mentoring system for women, over and above one for social mobility.
  • Accept I am cute and fluffy, but also smart and curious and stop beating myself up for being me and just accept it and work around it. But also accept that image is everything whether I like it or not, and first impressions count and I must ensure always to remember that.
  • Learn to hide my emotions, not to stop feeling them.
  • Stop being embarrased when people pay compliments ansd definitely stop being embarrased about liking to think, ask questions, explore, probe and dance on the edges. No man would ever dream of apologising for any of those things, so why the hell do I think I need to?
I suspect there are very few men who would feel the need to write this post, nor that there are many men who understand why on earth this post is here. But for me, it is a declaration, of what is, what needs to change, and where I want to be.


  1. Not all women are cute and fluffy and it's not because they're masculinised, it's because that's who they are. To assume so, is to fall into the trap of stereotype that you're trying to fight against.

    And no you don't have to be cute and fluffy to have your kids cling to you or love you or to be a good mother or indeed a good father. But all good parents will be tender with their children when it's called for.

    But certainly I think there are a lot of things to take away from her talk - and I caught myself attributing a recent success to luck and not the hard work I'd put in over time - or my own cleverness (yikes, I cringe even as I write that) Yes, the timing was lucky - but if I hadn't laid the groundwork - I wouldn't have had the opportunity to take advantage of that.

  2. Interesting post. I think you are right that cute and fluffy can be a hindrance (though to both sexes in my experience, difference is cute and fluffy men can still be perceived as hardnosed and businesslike until they speak) but I also think hardnosed and businesslike can be a hindrance.

    I had a boss once, she was VERY businesslike and she did very well, but nobody liked her. She was mean and cold. I am sure if she was male, her attitudes and behaviour would have been less of an issue, though I think she/he would still have been disliked.

    Did it work for her? Well, I left her employ PDQ, and a few months later, she quit. Not because I had left, but because the pressure to perform had been too much. I am sure we can blame some of that at least on sexism at work, but I am never, ever sure that the answer to discrimination is for women to deny themselves. The answer is to change the world of work, to change the way we work, and we will only do that by having more cute and fluffy people of both sexes. Duplicating the male approach will just send us back to Victorian industrial times, and then we all lose.

  3. Ingrid - I should I have replaced cute & fluffy with caring. I really should. I am sorry. I meant no disrespect to you, you are one of the ladies trailblazing along with Emer Coleman, Hadley Beeman and many many other women who I respect and admire, who are successful and lead and whom are most definitely not cute and fluffy - but are very much _women_. I used the masculinised/cute & fluffy analogy as a personal one (latter) to how someone (Fred) was perceiving Sheryl (masculinised).

    There are other shades in the middle. The point I was badly making was there is room for, and should be room for, all management styles. That as women, we may not fit into 'traditional' management styles but that that does not mean we have nothing to bring to the table, nor no right to sit at the Table.

    Phew. I think that makes sense, somewhere in there.

    James> Being liked is tricky. Do you have to be liked to be a good leader/manager is a question a lot of people seem to keep coming back to.

  4. Lauren Currie of MyPolice put it better than anyone IMHO, when she said: "Do what you CAN, with what you HAVE, where you are, now."

    It's all about passion and purpose. And about connecting to other people whose passion and purpose fits with yours. When you do that, being liked isn't tricky. (I like you because of what you like.)

    The traditional masculine management style, in essence, is to ignore everybody else and impose your will on the world. You can't fight that culture by pretending to be something you're not. You can only fight that by being who you truly are; by having integrity. Then you will find out who appreciates you, and who values whatyou value. And you'll find that people who like you, really do like you, and together you will get stronger and stronger.

  5. Good blog with great article topic.Thanks for this information.

  6. Gordon> 'Finding the others' :O) I like that sentiment very much. And agree, there is strength in numbers and strength in support. And there is support, it just the physical support tends to all be London based, with things like Women in Technology etc.

  7. I think if you're talking about managers, COOs etc, actually being effective, I'd say recognising your colleagues' strengths and removing obstacles is the key thing to be able to do.

    So however you do it, do that. It doesn't need to be particularly friendly. It doesn't mean they have to like each other. But they do need to be genuine and to some extent understand their colleagues.

  8. Thanks for writing this Louise; You made me think a lot about it at the weekend and I shared the video with some worried female friends.

    This subject does seem to be more about masculine management style rather than simply men / women / discrimination. As others have said, this can be as off-putting for men and much as women.

    I used to work in engineering. It was Very offputting how confident the guys were whilst I googled things like 'gasket', but one guy let me in to a secret - the guys were blagging it. (And I probably experienced more positive than negative discrimination!)

    I liked the comment in the video about women being generally bad at selling themselves (as it's something me and my female friends obsess over), It's an issue of confidence: We have lots of valuable ideas, but perhaps could project more confidence when selling them (After all, You know why you think they're valuable, so why shouldn't you state that with confidence? It only becomes arrogance if you're not will to listen to feedback).

    So whilst our confidence could improve, I agree Gordon's point about not giving in to masculine mgt style (I'd still put my hand down after 2 questions. It's polite!). It's not a case of 'if you can't beat them join them'. Best careers advice I got was that a lot of people only rely on their CVs for first few jobs by which time they've found a boss that they like and follow them (or their network), the point being: find a boss / work culture that works for you.

    So whilst it's not a clear cut male/female issue (although I can't imagine a guy writing this post! I love that about women...), perhaps as more people who work better under a less masculine mgt style climb the ladder, this will cause the cultural shift.