Pushing for Progress
I don’t come out to play very often on this subject but was prevailed upon on this occasion. So here it is for what it is worth.
If anyone had told me when I joined the insurance market in 1978 that we would be spending so much time 40 years later still pressing for change, I would have been shocked and not a little depressed! I do understand that I talk today very much from a British perspective and I very much look forward to hearing more this evening from your Singaporean perspective.
But I sense that we are finally on the edge of very fortunate times for women at work. By fortunate times I don’t just mean legal equal opportunity and potentially now actual equal pay but, very importantly too, fortunate due to a sizeable shift in recent years in male attitudes towards women in the workplace and also to the vastly improved employer understanding of the need for all employees (men and women) to have a work-life balance.
This is of course still work in progress. We should not forget that 150 years ago any property owned by a woman became her husband’s when she married, even if they later divorced. Only 100 years ago were women given the vote or permitted to train as lawyers and accountants. Only 60 years since we were liberated by the automatic washing machine and 50 years since contraceptives became available. And, finally, just 27 years since rape in marriage was made illegal, something that I believe has still not occurred in Singapore.
The change that I believe we are now seeing is partly the natural result of the ongoing progress that women have been making for 100 years. And partly because women as a result now have a far louder collective voice to effect the change to what up until recent times, let’s face it, were inevitably largely male rules at work.
I never viewed my role as promoting diversity and inclusion. That was a bi product. My mindset was just to work hard, think deeply and do a good job. But I was of course still conscious of being female in a male world and the wider “responsibility” of getting respect for my professional abilities and not messing it up so as to play into the hands of those who might want to say “well she’s a woman so what do you expect? (which was how it was with many more people in those earlier days of my career).
But I think the point is that by having a mindset of never doubting that I could do the job at hand, my approach was always that actions spoke louder than words. And my experience was largely that they did.
The issue outside one’s control of course was whether there was prejudice in the mind of the boss which might be hard to overcome and therefore potentially reflect itself in slower promotions/ less approaches for jobs or less pay. That WAS and maybe in places still IS a serious issue. People have a tendency to vote for people in their own image. Plus strong women can be tricky, maybe because they don’t have a tendency to play the game and roll over.
I was of course lucky in that I always had self-confidence in my own knowledge and ability. It was not built on sand - I put in the hours to understand the bigger picture. I never doubted and have never failed to get a job that I wanted and set my mind to. Indeed, one of the reasons that I went self-employed in the middle of my career (apart from the dilemma and wish to do equally well by my children at the key period when they were growing up) was probably to stand or fall by my own abilities rather than await upon others’ recognition (or not).
When I started work, I did so on what I subsequently understood were pretty male terms. We obligatorily worked long hours, we drank every lunchtime, our employers sat on us from above to get our work done. If we wanted to play with the big boys it was up to us to sort our lives outside work around our work (including any issues with children). There was also considerable either overt or unconscious bias that younger women would stay for a few years and then be gone to have children. When I became more senior and before I had children 25 years ago, men (and actually even the women) would say at that time that they presumed that I had chosen work over children. As if the two were mutually exclusive.
A few years later, it was not easy to combine seniority at work and young children at that time. Most men would have been critical if I had thought it reasonable to be late for work or work flexibly because of a child issue. This was simply not how men behaved - the vast majority just left their wives at home to cope with it. So we largely had to deal with any issues at home without drawing attention to them. That made it somewhat stressful while holding down a senior job and I made some very good long term female friends at that time because we sought each other out and supported each other. Not by chance therefore that many women who went through the legendary glass ceiling to the top did not have children - even to this day we see that legacy with Angela Merkel, Theresa May, even Lloyd’s CEO Inga Beale.
But of course it would be wrong to say there was no upside! The men enjoyed some female company, they always modified their swearing in front of women and always let you go through the door first! Actually I remember going on a business trip to New York around 1984 with Liliana Archibald who was the first woman to be admitted as a broker at Lloyd’s in about 1973 - and we kept smacking into each other as we were both in the habit of rushing politely to be first through the door!
Mrs Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, was held up in the 1980s as a role model and a symbol of women’s progress and the epitomy of the successful woman. While I had high regard for her energy and resilience, even at the time I never felt she was the role model for women of the future. Her rules seemed to me still to be rather male.
I increasingly felt that it was important to do it my way. It should not have needed to be different but somehow it felt as though it did. I wanted to work collaboratively, even openly sharing and debating ideas to reach the right decisions. I expected an honest debate but it was surprisingly hard to get men to do that in a formal forum. That really surprised me when I also got to a senior decision-making level. It was frustrating, for example, to see those in charge making decisions which it was apparent others in the room did not agree with. But strangely the others did not always speak up to challenge. I sensed that they worried that their career progression could be affected if they were seen to be 'offside'.
I do feel very strongly that such acquiescence, and even the resultant group-think, is a real risk in business.
Perhaps I overstate it and generalise too readily but it feels to me that women perhaps want a more pragmatic honest debate. I am not saying that we are less ambitious in a professional sense than men but I do wonder if our values are more grounded in the common good and less ego-centric. Speaking personally, I know no other way than to be true to myself and have no interest in playing power games just to climb the ladder.
In Britain, we are helped a lot now by the PRA, our chief regulator, who have specifically identified challenge at Board level as a prerequisite for a healthily-run company. Not by accident, in my view, that this coincides with the increased understanding of the value of women in the Boardroom. My Boardroom experience leads me to conclude that diversity challenging perceived wisdoms and helping to inform leadership decisions really is very valuable.
Whether I am right or not, men and women ARE different and that is a great asset when it comes to running companies. Women do impact in a different way. Women do have different ways of approaching things and different perspectives to offer. Strong women in my experience around the table absolutely DO speak up.
It is inevitably sometimes still hard to affect the way the room responds when you are the only woman in the meeting so we do need greater balance and more than just the token woman. As we get a greater diversity in the Boardroom, I have hopes that we may see different behaviours and approaches emerge and even some different fundamental decisions on the key values embedded in those organisations. One of the issues that I would like to see addressed is the, in my view, appalling Boardroom greed and self interest that has seen not only a vastly increased disproportion in the past 20 years between CEO pay and that of the average employee (a ratio of 250 : 1 in the largest US and UK companies compared to 20:1 50 years ago) but also the absurdly vast payouts to the Boardroom executives which frankly incentivise them to sell their companies and often leaving employees uncertain or unhappy about their changing circumstances.
So our time may be coming. There is now a generation of women who have grown up equal alongside the guys and neither of them views the other as lesser. That plays to a bright future.
From a work/life balance perspective, how lucky we now also are that the world has moved on both in terms of attitudes and technology so that work can often be on much more flexible and accommodating terms. And vastly more men now accept the equal distribution of non work issues between themselves and their wives.
Having the freedom to work hard at times which are not so strictly prescribed, and which can accommodate the freedom needed to meet family needs, as well as work, is really valuable. In my day I chose to go self-employed to achieve that. I was lucky that I had the confidence and knowledge by then that I was able to build my own business. Not every woman is so lucky so that’s why the working environment that is more accommodating to a work/life balance must be encouraged.
So I say to all the women in this room, be glad that you are born into this era, have the confidence to approach work in a way that feels right to you, don’t just play the game by the male rules, and you may not only find your way to the Boardrooms, with equal pay but also be able to shape the next stage of corporate life.
Finally, if the going gets too tough because you are a high achiever and you may be putting yourself under too much pressure and aspiring to a ‘have it all’ life, my solutions are twofold. First,, get out into the countryside, get close to nature, do something outdoors, physical and not cerebral. Urbanisation means that many of us are sadly losing touch with nature and I believe that that is half the reason for modern day stress and depressions. Secondly, consider finding somewhere where you can help those whose lives are well-removed from ours and seriously disadvantaged. That will help put your own stresses in perspective, make you feel better about yourself; it will enrich your soul in the process and make you remember how very lucky you are.
It will also give you something to talk about other than insurance!