Patricia Hewitt on “Sexism in the City”

Patricia Hewitt on “Sexism in the City”

So, I’m back from California – what a great time. Now, let the blogging re-commence.

Why does September always feel like the start of the new school year? New courses, new teachers, new pencils and pens … old habits and memories die hard. And why, I wonder, don’t we make “September Resolutions” instead of (or perhaps as well as) ones in January? Of course, there are lots of changes for me personally this September; I finished my job of eight years on 1st September, then went on holiday and am now back to face all manner of new things.

Whilst away, I had a permanent hair straightening treatment in Santa Monica – check out Jordana Lorraine’s site for details of the really quite amazing “Brazilian Blowout” (™) treatment which has, no exaggeration, changed my life 100% for the better. This may sound like a trivial thing to mention but honestly, unless you’ve suffered with unruly, frizzy hair for your whole life as I have, it’s hard to imagine how amazing now waking up Every. Single. Day. with straight hair can be. I love it and am hugely grateful to Jordana for fitting in her desperate English client on my first day in California. Here I am, looking happy with my New Hair:

Cleo with straight hair, at the Grove in LA

Anyway, moving on, as indeed I am … I struggled big time to get over the jet lag after this trip. Although I’ve travelled all over the place over the last three years, it’s been a while since I’ve had an eight hour time difference with which to contend and it’s taken me almost a week to get back on track.

One thing which was hugely helpful was absolutely HAVING to get up and get suited and booted in order to travel into central London in order to attend an event one morning earlier this week; I’m still trying to find a new pattern to my days and knowing that I had paid for my ticket was a useful motivator and gave a shape to my day. The event in question was British Telecom’s Executive Women’s Network meeting, which they had opened up to external, ticket buying guests. The meeting took the form of a “Question Time” panel event, with four panellists and a moderator doing the David Dimbleby bit.

For some reason, the not-David-Dimbleby bloke didn’t either introduce the panel or even mention their bios prior to launching in to the Q & A bit, so I’m not entirely sure of full names etc, but they were, I believe, two women from the consultancy “Everywoman”, Chris Ainslie, BT’s male, flexibly working “gender champion” and Patricia Hewitt, Labour MP, former cabinet minister and a BT non-executive director. I’d been invited to the event by my friend Pauline Crawford from Corporate Heart, so I kept her company in the front row of BT’s auditorium (and I must commend them on the seats; extremely comfortable, even for me, who usually starts to wriggle around and feel back pain in most such seating).

Most of the questions had been submitted in advance (I was too busy swishing my straight hair around in the Californian sunshine to do this) and had a common theme of examining female involvement in either the past (avoiding the credit crunch – could Lehman Sisters have had a different path?) or the future (re-building it to incorporate female strengths and talents). Patricia brought up the “sexism in the City” tagline when she argued the need for what she dubbed “cognitive diversity”, by which she meant having a variety of thoughts, strengths and skills brought to bear on a business issue, therefore leading to “less risk of things going haywire.”

She specifically cited as an example of, I assume, a lack of such cognitive diversity when referencing the “Edinburgh mafia” which, until recently, ran the Royal Bank of Scotland and brought it down so very low. I was interested to hear her mention that the major UK banks have 61 board positions between them, of which a mere FIVE are filled by women; and depressed to also learn that this is unlikely to improve anytime soon (in spite of such research as the McKinsey report on “centered leadership” which suggests that women are more likely to look at minimised loss rather than maximised gain) – due to the economic crisis causing a reduction in the range of people joining the banks’ leadership teams from non-banking backgrounds.

Pauline asked the panel for their views on the key attributes which women need to get into the boardroom, and their replies were as follows:

• You have to “really want to be there” (although I’m afraid this made me think, somewhat irreverently, of that infamous Saturday Night Live sketch from last year wherein Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin told “Hillary Clinton” that she’d nabbed the VP slot on the 2008 campaign because she “really, REALLY wanted it” – cue much grimacing from HRC).
• Ahem. Back to BT, and the panel also thought that authenticity and being yourself was vital to success –
• – as was bringing your own skills and passions to the boardroom.
• Be confident that you have the right to be there; ignore the “little voice” in the back of your head which says that perhaps you don’t (Imposter Syndrome, yes?)
• And Patricia urged us to make sure that we really “understood the finances; don’t just sit back when the numbers are being discussed”.

Other questions asked and answered were around issues of how to find (and be) a mentor, on how flexible working isn’t just a woman’s issue and how when a senior man like Chris works flexibly (he works a “compressed hours” week and hence doesn’t work on Fridays) it sends out very strong messages to both men and women as to what is both possible and acceptable within the corporate culture.

I didn’t get an opportunity to ask Patricia my own question but, with my Downing Street Project hat on, it would have been this:

“Do you foresee that the forthcoming election will see an increase in the number of female MPs from the current very low level of 19% and what will need to change for such an increase to occur?”

And I also missed out on a chance to share with Chris my own definition of a Generation Y person and how they differ from their older colleagues – but here it is.

A Generation Y person is someone who doesn’t have a landline. Think about it, and ask yourself how many 25 year olds you know who live independently (ie, not with the Bank of Mum & Dad) and have a landline. With the advent of the dongle bringing a portable and alternative way to access the Net, it’s not even needed for that anymore; plus most of the friends that I have in that bracket use their mobile/smart phones for most of their on-line access these days.

Perhaps, though, upon reflection, that wouldn’t have been a welcome nugget for a senior executive from one of the world leading telecom companies.

It’s good to be home!

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