The Economist recently ran a long piece on ‘Holding back half the nation:  Japanese women and work’.  It chronicled the challenge facing Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, as he seeks to change the position of Japanese women in the economy.  Japanese women are amongst the best-educated in the world, but 70% of women who have children stop working for a decade or more, and many never come back.   The  economic participation rate  for women is just 63%.  Fertility is, predictably, low.

Japan and Korea are probably the most powerful examples  of the PP at work, with exceptionally well-qualified women almost all of whom have poor career prospects.   Mr Abe faces a tough knot of cultural and economic factors in his reform quest.  Even those  women who stay in, or those who do not have children, face barriers which are familiar to outsiders, plus some which are not.  “Nominication’ mixes communication with nomu, the Japanese term for drinking.  It refers to the Japanese habit of corporate drinking sessions which extend long into the evening, and at which colleagues exchange confidences.    Women are apparently allowed to drink plum wine and dilute it with soda, but the tradition is not one that appeals to many of them.

I recently interviewed a Korean colleague, Hyun-Joo.  She, a teetotal vegetarian, described  how she had to take part in a dinner at a restaurant which specialised in dog meat, accompanied by regular alcoholic toasts.  The corporation in this case?  one of Korea’s most prestigious universities, where she was working at the time.    Hyun-Joo found it too difficult to take, and actually left the restaurant – an act of courageous cultural defiance which didn’t do her career there any good at all  (though she has made a successful one over here).  This may be a slightly extreme example, but the cultural factors are powerful.

Very different in character, but with similar effects on women’s employment,  is the Japanese practice of sanshoku hiruni tsuki – ’3 meals and a nap’, the pampered life of the salaryman’s wife.  This is being eroded by economic circumstances which may it more difficult for salarymen to sustain their wives in this style.  On the other hand, the Economist reports a growth in the proportion of Japanese women who choose to stay at home.  Perhaps this is simply because there are not the jobs out there for them.

All the PP factors are at play.  The gender pay gaps in these countries are bigger than any other OECD countries, not surprisingly.  Korea in particular has leapt up the educational league tables in recent years;  like Japan, they may now be starting to think about the half of the nation that is clearly held back.   It will be fascinating to see how they tackle the  issue.  It would not surprise me if in a few years we had lessons to learn from them.

Lucy Kellaway’s column in today’s Financial Times puts forward the idea of middle-aged trainees, with her usual reflexive wit.  (Sorry, I can’t give you the link – no FT online sub…)  She contrasts her own early traineeship as a ‘sneering waster’ with the knowledgeable commitment likely to be shown by anyone who is taken on in their early 50s.    Older trainees might be quite willing to work at trainee rates, at least initially, if they had paid off mortgage , kids were off their hands etc.

The key behind this, of course, is the increased duration of our working lives, from 40-odd to 50-odd years.  That makes an investment of this kind realistic and worthwhile, for the individual and for organisations.  I well remember one friend saying to me , in her late 50s, that she had considered doing a Master’s a few years earlier and decided against it on the basis that she’s only have a very few years for it to pay dividends (professionally as much as financially).  Now she regretted that decision, being aware that she would have had 12-15 years of work still ahead of her.  By the time we spoke she thought she was back in her original position, i.e. just too late to do it (though I encouraged her to do it anyway).

Interestingly, Kellaway doesn’t specifically mention the particular advantage to women from thinking in this longer context.  Indeed, her example – presumably the prompt to the piece – is of a hedge fund manager who had recently talked himself into some kind of trainee position at the FT.    Of course, many women might find it difficult to go back to a trainee wage if they had already interrupted their career.  But the principle of career reinvention, and starting again, seems to me hugely beneficial for everyone.  And the more that both sexes do it, the better for breaking up the notion of full-time continuous jobs as the only real model for people who want a career.

Below is a comment submitted in response to a blog of mine challenging Mrs Moneypenny’s sense of value. I’ve kept it anonymous at the request of the author  (let’s call her K) but quote it in almost its entirety because it encapsulates so many PP issues.  In particular:

1.  Fairness is and should be central.  The driver is K’s sense of injustice at her discovery, not her desire for more money.    People should not have to work to find these things out, nor happen on them by chance.

2.  Part-timers often give better value.  Another, rather different, example:  I was listening the other week to Brian Moore – the former English rugby player, renowned ‘pit bull’  - on Radio 3′s Essential Classics.  Moore was a solicitor at the time he played for England.  The game then was amateur, so he had to take time off for training and, especially, for the Lions tours, which lasted several weeks.  This did not stop him bringing in his share of the firm’s income – as he (no doubt with fair force) reminded a colleague who once in the lift unwisely queried his absences.  As I say, a rather different example…

3.  Men’s level of attention to their comparative earnings status (or, as K says, their beliefs about this).  Yes, it’s a gender generalisation, but I’ve heard it from so many different quarters.  The issue for me is how to make management systems reward competence, not respond to perceptions of others’ earnings.

4.  Career horizons.  I find K’s comment on the ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?’ question very telling.   It’s fine for people to have done some thinking about their futures, but it’s not at all clear to me that it’s always a positive sign if a candidate for a job, or an existing staff member, is (or pretends to be) unblinkingly sure about their future several years down the line.  (Carrieres a Ciel Ouvert, an e-book by Soleine Leprince-Ringuet which I’ve just read,  is funny and insightful about career-testing questions put to high flyers).

5.  Men being more like women.  Yes, at least as far as attitudes to work and working time are concerned.  I’m still working out how to phrase this appropriately.

Anyway, here’s the post.  Thanks, K.

Nearly fifteen years ago I was a partner in a big law firm. I had a small child and was running a profitable, growing dept in 4 days a week. I resigned after I found out a male contemporary running a smaller, less profitable dept than me and billing fewer chargeable hours was being paid £40k more than me. £20k of the difference was because my pay was pro-rated down to 80% for my 4 day week (though on every measure, I was doing more for the firm than the full-timer). The other £20k was for, well, who knows. I didn’t actually resign because of the pay difference – I resigned because the managing partner refused even to justify it to me. Ironically, the same man declined to accept my resignation for 6 weeks because he didn’t want me to leave. Since then, with two (male) business partners I’ve built a restaurant business with over £20m t/o. I still take out less in salary now than I did as a lawyer, as we re-invest heavily to achieve growth without external funding. That drop in earnings doesn’t matter to me. My satisfaction comes from seeing a young team grow and mature, providing great customer service and building the business. But. It is highly noticeable that the men within the business demand more in pay and bonuses – and equity – than the women. And they do it not on the basis of their competences, but on the basis of what they were paid elsewhere, or what they believe other people are being paid elsewhere and therefore they ought to be paid.  I still work part-time. I have a teenager whom I want to have the time to support properly, I have a home and garden to keep under control, I write novels, and I like to have time for friends and family, for exercise, music, reading and thinking. Sometimes I feel foolish for not demanding what the other fellows demand, for staring blankly at the paper whenever I’m asked that supremely male career question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?”, for not understanding why anyone thinks offering me a bonus will make me do a better job. (I wouldn’t do the job if I didn’t intend to do it to the best of my ability.) But honestly, I don’t think I am foolish. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking why women are less greedy and are more keen to spread their talents and skills over a broader range through their lives. Maybe we should be asking why men aren’t more like women.

I’ve been reading How Much is Enough?, a thought-provoking tract for modern times by Skidelsky pere et fils.  Robert Skidelsky is an economic historian who has written with massive authority on Keynes and his legacy;  Edward is a philosopher.    Robert is giving a public lecture tomorrow (25/3) at the Working Mens College, part of an excellent series which the College has been running over past months (declaration of interest:  I chair the WMC governing board.)

The Skidelskys’ challenge is to the dominance of GDP and income as dominant measures of how well we are doing, as individuals and as a society.  They make trenchant and, to my mind, effective criticisms of current economics as a supposedly value-neutral discipline, and argue instead that we should be open about debating the values which underpin our choices.  As they say: “It is only our impoverished public language [impoverished by modern economic thinking - TS] that denies that the state has to make ethical judgements on a wide variety of matters.”

These ‘matters’ include working time.  The subtitle of the book is The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life.  The inspiration for it is Keynes’ wrong prediction that by about 2030 average working hours would have fallen to about 15 hours a week – because productivity gains would have enabled most of us would have satisfied our material needs (he was talking about the UK, not the world), and so we would be free to devote most of our time to other activities.

Keynes greatly underestimated capitalism’s ability to generate new ‘wants’, which is why most of us carry on working quite long hours, and some of us, even those who patently do not ‘need’ to (because they have big incomes), work very long hours.  Just last week a report from Eversheds, a city law firm, suggested that many young lawyers are rejecting the traditional long-hours culture of the law.   This is right on the PP nail, since it  excludes many women from rising beyond a certain level.

Hom much is EnoughI’ve addressed the  general issue of  reduced working time more than once in previous posts.   The Skidelskys are aware that they risk being accused of paternalism in arguing that people’s current economic behaviour – their spending patterns and apparent desire for ever-increasing income –  does not reflect their real ‘needs’ or even ‘wants’.  But they are unrepentant in saying that it is time we challenged the spurious neutrality of modern economics-dominated thinking.

Their final chapter is titled ‘Exits from the Rat Race’.  It contains suggestions on how we might shift general behaviour in favour of ‘valuable’ activities and away from consumption.  The proposals include a progressive consumption tax and a move to a basic income, available to all citizens, which would make it easier for people to work part-time.

Productivity is central here, as it was for Keynes.    The ‘productivity paradox’ is starting to gain attention – though I suspect a lot of us shy away from the word, for a variety of reasons – as we try to figure out how employment has stayed quite high whilst the economy is trudging through the mire.  The answer – or part of it – is that we have generally very low productivity, so we employ more people, but at low wages (and with high vulnerability).  Before proposals for a basic income are dismissed as pie-in-sky, it’s worth noting  how much more productive we could be, if only the people with capital would invest it productively and managers would manage their resources effectively .

So let me make the suspiciously simple  link to the PP:  many women work below their level of competence;  productivity is low;  enabling more women to work at their level of competence might therefore be linked rather closely to raising productivity .  Just too simple?   Maybe, but since women have far less trouble than men in thinking about working part-time, it looks to me like a link worth making.    I look forward to putting the question to Robert Skidelsky tomorrow night.



One of my recent interviewees, Margaret, told me how she had just gone for a job interview at a prestigious university.  At the end of the interview she had effectively withdrawn her candidature, in spite of all the advantages and status that the job offered.  She felt intuitively that it would not have allowed her to maintain her identity, or authenticity as a researcher.  Yet the process had been an encouraging one for her, because she felt that it had validated her competences.  I don’t think this was just because she had come close to getting the job.  It was also because it had helped her clarify what she felt she is good at, and what she wants to do.

Many of us will recognise the way putting together a job application can have this effect.  But her comment, and the general line of our conversation, took me back to David Riesman’s famous work on the orientations of middle-class Americans, The Lonely Crowd, published in the 1950s.  Riesman’s well-known distinction was between inner-directed and outer-directed people.  The former shaped their lives by reference to their own values, paying relatively little attention to the views of others.  Riesman argued that in the mid-20th century an increasingly materialist and status-concerned society meant that more people were influenced by the views  and attitudes of others, so that  their choices were shaped by how they felt they appeared to the outside world.

Lonely Crowd

There’s a strong link here to the PP.  One reason why women volunteer more for training than men is that they want not just to boost their competences, but to be able to point to the fact that they have done this, and not leave it to the foibles of managers.  External formal validation is something they have to have more regard for.  On the other hand, my guess is that women will, like Margaret, pay attention to other, more informal, ways in which they feel that their competences and professional identities are ‘validated’.  That’s just an impression, and of course I have to enter the usual caveat about these being gender generalisations.  But  I’ve also been told several times that women are more focussed on the intrinsic aspects of work, on getting a job done, and are less likely to do something just because it promotes their career.   So there’s an interesting and rather complex set of relationships here:   do women and men differ in their overall inner- and outer-directedness?  as a specific aspect of this, do they differ in how far they use external authority to define their competences?  and if so, how do these match with their own perceptions?

Beyond the differences, there’s the broader questions of how well we reckon we do, as a society, in recognising and validating competence; and in encouraging people to have confidence in what they can do, and to choose for themselves what they want to do.

Here’s an interesting initiative, Valuing Your Talentlaunched by a consortium including the RSA, the UK Commission on Employment and Skills and several major personnel/management bodies such as the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development.

It’s interesting in part because of the crowdsourcing approach, aiming to amass a host of ideas and opinions but also offering something back in the way of a £10K prize to help develop the best idea.  An Insights phase has just started, to be followed by an Innovations phase which will explore how the ideas might be put into practice.

Substantively it’s a challenge to all those who say ‘people are our biggest asset’ to come forward and say how they can show that they mean it;  and to all those who genuinely think this is or should be the case to get hard-nosed about it.  The rationale is that unless we develop a stronger framework for measuringing skills and the investments made in skilled people,  the rhetoric about valuing them will remain just that.

The arguments in favour of such an initiative are not altogether straightforward.  I’ve been dimly aware of the debate for a couple of decades, since OECD started trying to encourage what it characteristically called Human Capital Accounting.   Some people object on ethical/ideological grounds to this ‘commodifying’ approach, as it sets out to turn people and skills into numbers.  Others object on much more technical grounds – indeed there’s already been quite a detailed critique of the VyT initiative from an HR consultant called Jon Ingham.

So it’s definitely an area where one’s critical antennae need to be waving.  But from the PP viewpoint I see this as a real opportunity to add weight and depth to the argument that women’s competences are being under-utilised.   At this stage I’m simply flagging it up as something to keep tabs on, and which may well be worth contributing to actively.


I’ve just had a fascinating  discussion with David Hemery, the former Olympic gold medallist hurdler, and founder of 21st Century Legacy, a charity devoted to raising children’s aspirations to greatness.


The meeting was set up to explore our apparently opposing views of aspiration.  David is absolutely committed to getting children to find their spark of greatness and to pursue it.  Too many people say how ‘passionate’ they are about something when they don’t really mean it;  David didn’t use the word, but he evidently is, in a very unassuming way, passionate about linking aspiration to social justice.  So he’s for onwards and upwards.

By contrast I’m  interested in people – women and men – who make a positive choice not to go further up the vertical career path .  Of course I support raising aspirations (and social justice)  But my argument is that more people will find fulfilment if we think of careers more broadly than as the ascent of a vertical ladder.   Staying at a particular job level doesn’t mean that you are not a committed person with professional ambition.

So shouldn’t we have been arguing against each other?  Well, I do believe that there may often be a tension between the kinds of single-minded concentration needed to realise greatness (at whatever level), and the need for balance in life.  We also want to avoid people rising to their level of incompetence.   But I thought it fairly unwise to go head to head with an Olympic winner who still has great energy to press his arguments.  Happily we found ourselves very much in tune with each other.

The key, I think, to reconciling our two perspectives is to have a lifecourse approach.  There may be periods, long or short, in our lives when a focus on a single goal is what is needed.  There will be other times when life is full of different activities, none of them with particular priority over the others.  A life characterised by a single goal, or type of goal, throughout its course is less likely to ‘succeed’, in the sense of true fulfilment.  But the trick is to achieve not just balance at any single moment, but over time.

Easy to say, much harder to do.  It’s especially hard to get a longer-term horizon into one’s life, and anyway  how many amongst us really want to try to map out our lives that far in advance.   David quoted John Harvey-Jones, usually known as a jovial business guru, who said that momentum is more important than direction, provided the momentum is forward.    Tacking may be the appropriate image.

David left me with two encouraging episodes, to share:

-       A deputy headteacher who had to act up as headteacher.  She was unhappy at leaving teaching altogether, but got her job description rewritten to allow her to remain an active member of the profession

-       The choice of Jessica Ennis as a sporting role model –  by a bunch of 13-year-old boys at Wallingford school.

I’ve been doing a few interviews for the putative PP book, and they’ve prompted some thoughts about how different kinds of organisation do or don’t foster careers and progression.  In particular, is working in a large bureaucracy more likely to help or to hinder a woman making her way up, at whatever level?

I caught some of Lucy Kellaway’s radio series, broadcast last year, on A History of Office Life.  One episode dealt with the invention of the career ladder (it’s from that that I pinched the Dickensian illustration below), another with nepotism vs meritocracy.  A third covered the arrival of women in the office.  She slily sketches in the way office life evolved over the decades .


In principle, bureaucracy goes along with meritocracy.  There are transparent rules governing such things as promotion, and this should reduce the scope for nepotism and unfairness.   Everyone can understand what is required for going up the ladder, and those who make the decisions have to abide by them.   This does indeed happen, and it allows leverage for making the process more fairer to all those involved.  One of my conversations was with a former senior civil servant, Bella, who described how she and a colleague had changed the profile at the top of the service by a mixture of active argument (civil servants being on the whole rational folk), target-setting  - with tight criteria and public accountability –  and several other nudges.  The combination brought about significant advancement of women through the upper ranks – though Bella was not completely sure it would be sustained.

I also listened in to several  groups of women, from the central civil service and from a local authority, discussing the PP factors.  I was very struck by three things.  First, they were were very conscious of the gradings in the system, and of the procedures which operated for promotion between grades.  This is, in one sense, what you would expect and what should happen in a bureaucracy – cf above on transparency.  Secondly, though, they were alert to weaknesses in the procedures.  I heard several times how ‘sponsorship’ was still needed, with ‘words in the ear’ still counting for a lot.  No  one spoke of nepotism, but there was a strong sense that you needed a personal backer to get that promotion, and men are more likely to have these.

Thirdly, all these women were serious about  their work.  They were mostly middle- or lower-grade professionals, and had no aspirations to be high-fliers.  But they all wanted appropriate recognition (and reward), and to have a sense of progression.  There was no torrent of complaint, but there was a general sense that the organisations they worked in were not making this happen as well as they might.

Finally, I talked to a younger woman, Ursula.  Daughter of two professionals (a successful and unusual cross-race, cross-class, role-swapping marriage)  she had not taken up a university place when leaving school ten years ago, but tried her luck at a musical career.  In order to do that, she worked in a variety of jobs, but not just to earn money (and has now gone back to study – to Birkbeck, hurrah).  So she has a track record of professional employment, but no obvious career path.  I suspect, though, that  she has gained experience of how to choose jobs and occupations without needing to have the steps laid out in front of her.

So one the one hand bureaucracies should favour women’s careers – and since the public sector is largely dominated by bureaucratic organisations, these are where most women work.  On the other hand, women may learn  to make their own paths if they follow less organised routes.  It depends heavily on how competences are recognised.  I’ll come back in a future post to consider whether social capital (networks) may be gaining in importance relative to human capital (qualifications and skills), and what the PP implications of that might be.


Mrs Moneypenny, a Financial Times columnist, wrote this weekend about how depressing she finds it that Mary Barra, the new head of General Motors, is being paid a basic salary of $1.6 million.  This is 25% less than her male equivalent at Ford.

The gap is a significant one, and not atypical, though I find it hard to get too worked up about discrimination at this level.  What I find depressing is Mrs M’s subsequent argument.  Apparently Ms Barra’s predecessor at GM is being rehired as a consultant, at $4m (we aren’t told if this is an annual fee, but I assume so). Mrs M comments:

“That is someone who knows his value and negotiates well.  That might be the role model I would want my non-existent daughters to look at.”

I’d take a rather different line.  Ms Barra’s predecessor looks to me like someone who is well in with a group, presumably heavily male and certainly all wedded to very high remuneration levels which multiply massive inequalities, who make decisions about financial rewards at GM.  The same men probably also sit on remuneration committees for many other large corporations.  Markets in any true sense don’t come into these decisions much.

money cake

I am all in favour of women learning to negotiate for a fair deal for themselves.  I recently interviewed a woman who loved her work at the interface of journalism and politics, did not care that much about money, but felt justly hurt at finding out that she was paid less than her equivalents.  She felt undervalued – and had been coached by her partner on how to negotiate a fair deal in her next job.  Great. There is a big distinction, though, between getting a fair deal, and extracting the maximum.  ‘Value’ in this context is not something that is determined by some impersonal process;  it involves particular people with particular outlooks and interests making particular decisions.

The key point for me is whether we want our organisations and their remuneration systems to be governed in ways which applaud the kinds of individual  behaviour geared to extracting maximum personal reward ;  and as a result encourage women to behave like the men who do this most successfully.  We need changes in the reward system, very much so.  But I’d rather see movement on this taking a different direction:  instead of cheering if more women become like men in procuring (a good term, I think) outlandish salaries and bonuses, we should be asking how we get an overall fairer and less unequal reward system – because this will benefit far more women.

I would certainly like my daughters to know their value, and to negotiate well.  Indeed, I’ve just been advising one of them on how and when to ask for a pay rise.   But someone who extracts huge sums of money because their position and contacts enable them to do so is not what I think of as an ideal role model.  I’d like them to have a really sound idea of what they are worth.  This should certainly include relativities – what they are paid compared with their equivalents.  But I’d like them to have their own sense of value and worth, against which they can judge what they want to negotiate.

We’re working our way through a box set of Bergman films, and came last night to Autumn Sonata. It stars Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman, as mother and daughter.

There’s a lot of quite heavy duty digging-down as LU reproaches her mother, a high-flying classical pianist, for neglecting her and, especially, her handicapped sister. In this film at least, Bergman doesn’t leave much to the imagination as far as psychological exploration is concerned. At the time, this very explicit examining of parent-child relationships must have been revelatory. It still packs a punch, due especially to Ullman’s extraordinarily expressive performance.

autumn sonata



There’s a scene in which LU, or rather her 6-year old self, waits outside her mother’s studio for her to finish a practice session. She slips in quietly, to find her sitting in a chair relaxing. The mother immediately says to her, ‘Don’t disturb Mamma now, she’s working.’

The girl has waited eagerly but patiently for a pause in the practice, and hasn’t interrupted her. So it’s tough on her to be sent away, even though it is done quite gently.

I found this scene particularly striking. If IB had been the father instead, I think we would have seen it as unremarkable, a man preoccupied with his work and gently but firmly excluding the child. Here, given what we know about the pianist’s absence as a mother, physical and emotional, it becomes a painful, even heartless, rejection. It’s true that the IB character is a self-obssessed, egotistical drama queen who probably deserves the earful she eventually gets from her daughter, but her behaviour still attracts a kind of double criticism.


A more cheerful image just to counterbalance: at the Paul Smith exhibition in the Design Museum I came across this delightful picture of girl-hard-at-work.

screwdriver girl

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