Monday, 13 February 2017

Lean in, shout out.

My last post, Killer Heels, generated much interest and there will be more to come on workplace dress shortly. Meanwhile, triggered by current events, this week’s post is about audibility as well as visibility, the right both to speak and to be listened to with respect – or ‘How to be heard when your voice is softer,’ as I say when delivering management and career development training. This can be a tall order, whether you are project manager on a construction site, a newly promoted member of a Board or a politician working in a tribal time warp.

"When a woman stands up, she is told to shut up and sit down.…But I will tell you that women are tired that different rules are applied to us in a different way." These words were spoken last week on CNN by the doughty Barbara Mikulski, the longest serving woman in the US State Congress who has just retired after 30 years.

Retired she may be, but retiring she is not. Her forceful words were made after Senator Elizabeth Warren was rebuked and then prevented from reading a 30 year old letter from Martin Luther King’s widow Coretta at the confirmation proceedings for Jeff Sessions, the controversial candidate for the post of Attorney General.  The unprecedented rebuke of Warren was roundly condemned by many, with Mikulski accusing senators of selectively employing the rule book, supporting her claim by giving examples of men who have made direct personal attacks without censure.

 “I see this as a pattern of behaviour,” said Barbara Mikulski. “Women stand up in the boardroom, the workplace and now even on the Senate floor, where we have the same job, and the rules, they’re applied differently to us and they were applied differently to Elizabeth Warren.”
The challenge for a woman is not only being heard, but also protecting her intellectual property when someone around the table takes ownership by repeating her words - to a roar of approval. That is when having a champion, sponsor or supportive colleague is so important. And last week in the Senate, there were four male colleagues who stood up to the plate after Elizabeth Warren was silenced and proceeded to read the same letter – without interruption.

Certainly Barbara Mikulski has plenty of wise words to share, after an extraordinary career for which she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She was the first woman elected to the Senate who did not have a husband or father who served in high political office. She was also the first woman to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee and served on many others including Health, Education, Labor, Pensions and the Select Committee on Intelligence. A tireless campaigner, one of her recent achievements was to push through legislation on equal pay for women.

Back to the importance of acknowledging and listening to different views, with respect. When the number of women in the Senate rose to 20, Barbara Mikulski organised bipartisan dinners for all her female colleagues, Republic and Democrat alike, with the inviolable rule that ‘the event was a zone of civility even when we disagreed.’ A rule to be welcomed in workplaces on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Mikulski warns that the Warren incident will have a long lasting effect on women’s activism, referring to the hundreds of thousands of women who have marched in protest against the newly appointed 45th President of the USA and the policies and behaviour he embodies. Like many of the men and women I marched with in London on 21 January, I find it difficult to believe that in 2017 we are still dealing with so many of the same discriminatory practices and attitudes that women protested about a century ago, but there is a growing determination to bring about change.

As I was finishing this post, Sandi Toksvig was echoing these sentiments on BBC Woman’s Hour and talking about the importance of women speaking for what they want and deserve to get. In particular she called for equal pay – a topic of much personal conjecture when she took over from Stephen Fry as host of the tv programme QI.

So what can we do? We should shout out our thanks to the increasing number of men who are supporting the diversity cause - including Sir Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow, Sir Ian McKellen who added their powerful voices and presence to the Women's March London. We should provide practical and realistic ways of assisting management to make change.

And like Sandi Toksvig, Meryl Streep, Barbara Mikulski and Elizabeth Warren, more women should shout out for themselves, for others who need support and to remind people of their presence. Like Rose AnnVuich, who became the first female member of the California State Senate in 1977 and who rang a bell whenever her fellow Senators addressed the collective members of the Senate as "Gentlemen," to remind them that the chamber was no longer exclusively male.

This story reminds me of my time on the board of a construction and property company. Unlike the FT columnist Lucy Kelleway, who does not believe that women non executives should promote or support women in the workplace, I was active in helping the company increase its proportion of women from 13% to 30% – in addition to carrying out the usual responsibilities of governance, audit and risk management.

On stepping down from the board after seven years, I presented the chairman with a mason’s gavel and block with the request that it be used to open every board meeting with the statement “Remember, the best person for the job might be a woman.”

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