Not much has changed for women

When I was a young, enthusiastic uni student (still enthusiastic but not so young!) I believed that we had really made some head-way with equality in the workplace. Sure, there were some pockets of sexist idiots but basically the feminist project had worked. As I get older and gain more experience of the world I am, sadly, revising my position on this. All of the media activity in the past 24 hours has got me thinking about this again. It seems that the media is full of discussions about women in leadership in Australia and why there seems to be so little progress in getting more women into the top echelons of management in both large and small organisations.

For example:

Australian firms trail world for women in top roles –

Female Leader concerns despite triumphs of ASX200 –

While this is important I can’t help but think that this is not where we should be spending our energy. Of course we need more women in leadership roles (if they want to – that’s another story). I think that there is definitely a lot of work to do about entrenched sexism in the Australian workplace generally, not just at the management/executive level. By and large, these are educated women who can look after themselves and potentially seek employment elsewhere with a more appreciative or flexible employer should the need arise. It is the women further down the workplace food chain that worry me. The women too dependent on their jobs to take a stand, the women with few skills who think that they have no options, the women with no confidence who don’t feel like they can argue back. These are the women who still need help. An older female colleague once said to me (rather unbelievably) that we shouldn’t “rock the boat”. Her perspective was that she’d made it by “playing the game the boys’ way” and that the problem was, more or less, “solved”. I couldn’t, and still can’t, believe this attitude from a woman who really could have made a difference.

Just yesterday I was powerfully reminded of this by a phone call from a friend who had just had an appalling experience when applying for a job. My friend, a woman, works in hospitality management, specifically managing pubs and clubs. She has a lot of experience in this area and had applied for a new role that would be a promotion. Although this can be a male dominated area she’d never really come up against blatant sexism before…until last night. She got an email follow-up to her interview. They told her that she was a great candidate and they would definitely hire her for one of their other pubs but that for the job she had applied for the selection committee had decided that they needed a man to do the job. They actually put than in an email. She was, naturally, shocked, angry and upset. The only reason they had given for not getting the job was her gender. The most galling thing was that there doesn’t seem to be any recourse. Sure, you can go back to the employer and complain but where will that really get you. Legal avenues are risky and expensive. She doesn’t want her currently employer to find out that she’s applied elsewhere and she’s conscious that this is a small world and she doesn’t want to get a reputation for “being a trouble-maker”. What else is left?

I can’t believe that this can happen in 2012. At least these guys were honest though to give them some credit. How many employers make decisions like this every day but cover themselves with platitudes about not being the right candidate, stiff competition and all that. None of that helps my friend and women like her though. This is a situation that must play out repeatedly across many industries and roles across the nation. I’m lucky, I’ve always worked in a female dominated field. That hasn’t always stopped inappropriate questions about when I might start a family or whether my husband agrees with a decision I’ve made but by and large that’s as bad as I’ve ever had to put up with. The fact that I’ve ever had to put up with this at all is a truly sad indictment of the Australian workplace and we need to do something about it. My daughter is one year old and I am sad that this is the world she will one day need to navigate.


Paying it forward (or “proper” networking)

This week I had a wonderful experience that was, in part, a result of something I did a number of years ago.  A few years back when I was working for a large multinational, we had reason to need a skilled leadership coach and facilitator. I knew of just the person through his excellent reputation and wholeheartedly recommended him. Even though I had never worked with him directly, I’d seen him present at conferences and heard glowing reports about his work. I was proved correct and he has gone on to do continuing work with the organisation for a good few years now even though I have left. I’ve kept in touch with this acquaintance over the years. We are often working on the same stuff and his years of experience in LOD mean that he can be a good sounding board. This week he offered to spend his own time with me to help coach me through some research quandaries for which I am extremely grateful – just what I needed.

The point of this little gush is that it made me think about networking since I had another experience that very night when I went to a “networking event” for HR practitioners. The atmosphere could not have been more different. The tension was palatable. More than once I felt passed over as my conversational companion saw someone who they “just had to talk to” or even someone who looked more interesting. When it became clear that I was actually there to hear the speaker instead of to offer people jobs or buy their wares the conversation suddenly went south.  Obviously not everyone is like that and I have had great experiences at these sort of events but nevertheless, the two experiences on the same day got me thinking.

We are often told that we must network as professionals, in any field, to keep our skills and knowledge current and to seek out new opportunities. Indeed, research shows that is exactly what successful learners do. They create networks full of interesting and knowledgeable friends and acquaintances from whom they can learn. The big question for me is how this is achieved. I think that the relationship I had with my business acquaintance where we only physically see each other once every five years or so is infinitely preferrable to my experience at the so-called HR networking event. The difference, I humbly submit, is intent. My colleague and I are happy to know each other, share ideas and offer occasional advice or assistance. For people thrown into a networking situation (not all people obviously, I generalise) there seems to be more of a goal to get as many introductions as possible and to evaluate their usefulness in the spot. This is unhelpful and counter-productive to building up a truly good network full of people whom you know and trust.

It is those networks where things like jobs and sales happen. Where mutual trust and a sense of reciprocity are gained over time. Where paths fortuitously intersect at just the right time or perhaps repeatedly over many years. In short, there is no quick way to network, no quick fix, no book that can give you the hot tips because ultimately it’s still about building relationships – the same thing humans have done for thousands of years. I think it’s time, for the sake of our careers and our learning, to start thinking about our relationships more than our networks.  We have relationships with people and a network is simply a collection of linked people. The network isn’t the thing – the people are.

The brave new world of technology

This morning I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a breakfast in Sydney where the guest speaker was Matt Barrie from He spoke about current macro trends in technology and society generally and the implications of these. It was great. It was one of those presentations where you are engaged every minute. Partly because you are really interested and learning and partly because it suddenly articulates to you things you were already thinking but hadn’t quite gathered together in the echoing chasms of your mind yet.

Overall the future (or rather now) is a very exciting time to be alive. There are so many technology trends shaping everything. I won’t go into the minutiae of the whole presentation but he did talk about learning looking at MOOCs and websites like the Khan Academy, Coursera and Udemy. I happened to be sharing a table with a whole bunch of L&D people who surprised me by asking what those were and wanting the website names to look them up. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised? I do that a lot. I know something so I expect others to as well. I don’t think that’s it here though. To me, to be successful in your learning career (or any career for that matter) you need to keep up-to-date. As Matt Barrie correctly pointed out, MOOCs and their cousins in cyberspace are the future of learning and will change how we look at learning in a myriad of ways that we can’t yet imagine. This aspect of the talk reinforced my thinking completely.

We are stuck in the past in the learning game. We are too attached to the idea of face-to-face training that an “expert” learning person needs to prepare and deliver. That is rapidly becoming obsolete. Perhaps the days of the LOD specialist are numbered. They are definitely numbered in their current form. I am constantly amazed at how many talented LOD practitioners can espouse the “correct” stuff about informal and flexible learning but if they look at learning within their own organisations they inevitably go for face-to-face training – maybe with a little on-line to make it “blended”. Even the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD) publishes a confusing mix of informal learning articles and how to be a more effective “trainer” within their journal. Their professional development is almost exclusively geared towards traditional facilitation and instructional design.

The time to start changing is now before we’re all out of a job. Today’s young learners are going it alone using the Internet as their classroom for a just-in-time learning experience. Imagine what will happen when they start work and are confronted with a face-to-face, one-day Induction Workshop…will they even show up?