Beautiful Chaos is the arresting title of a book by Carey Perloff, on her life and times as director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I have a partner with 30 years’ experience as an actor but I have no professional understanding of the theatre; yet the book engrossed me with its insights into the dynamics of the world backstage. (Declaration of interest: Carey is a second cousin of mine, though we’ve never met.)
Two themes in the book struck me particularly. The first is the emphasis put on theatre as a vehicle for lifelong learning. At a technical level Carey describes the changes she made to the training programme for ACT actors, fitting them for a broader range of theatre roles; this would make an excellent case study for anyone engaged in changing professional training. She makes an eloquent case for the part theatrical encounters can have for the public at large, expanding their access to the range of human experience. As for schools, she says:.
“Children who participate in arts at school display better concentration, greater empathy, richer imaginations, and less truancy…Without arts education, there are no future audiences, since without a gateway experience to teach them the pleasures and benefits of interacting with the dramatic arts young people aren’t likely to seek out theatre on their own later in life.”
And so she and her company have made strenuous efforts to involve themselves in schools, especially in areas whose residents wouldn’t normally think of theatre as part of their lives (as it happens, one of my daughters does something similar here for the Royal Opera House).
I would only add that actual participation in the arts has exactly the same kind of effects on adults – maybe not in reducing their truancy levels, but certainly on the other dimensions. Taking an active part in the arts is a wonderful form of lifelong learning. (I went yesterday to the Almeida Theatre’s production of The Oresteia: what a rich source of material for exploring the clash between emotional ties, justice and the harsh demands of power.)
The second theme is the more PP-relevant one: Carey’s experience as a senior woman in the world of theatre. She describes the intense juggling involved in taking on the ACT director’s job a very volatile environment as a mother with a small child, and the incredulous reactions when she became pregnant again early in her time there. She overcame these by drawing extensively on what must be an extraordinarily powerful internal energy source, as well as a very collaborative husband . But there are also passages where she reflects more widely on the cultural aspects of female leadership:
“It was only in the process of writing this book,” she says early on, “that I began to realise how long it actually took me to stop playing at being a man and to acknowledge my own personal point of view on the world and on the work.” And then towards the end of the book she writes:
“I didn’t expect the female angle to figure so strongly until I realized that for a woman to see herself as the center of a narrative is a difficult and unusual task. We are so used to being supporting players that we feel bashful when we take centre stage, Or I certainly did. …. As a culture we tend to remember male successes and female failures, so that women have to succeed over and over again just to stay in the game. And once we have survived, women have to remember to talk about what we’ve learned, so that there is a mirror for the women right behind us.”
As I say, I don’t know Carey personally but my guess is that she would not normally have been thought of as bashful, even earlier in her career. It’s a telling fact that she herself feels that way. The more general point, though, is the one about how success and failure are attributed, not only at Carey’s level as artistic director of a major heater company but at all levels. Most people will not have the chance to explore this through writing a book.
The point is one that I recognise also from several occasions in my own experience, as well as from interviewees for the PP book. The more confident people are – or present themselves as – the more likely they are to be credited with success. Men generally find it easier to do this than women. The confidence often has some kind of relationship with actual performance, but it may be only partially or not at all justified. The result is some very unfair rewards, where confidence is mistaken for achievement, and lack of confidence for incompetence.
Conversely, being aware of one’s limitations has advantages and disadvantages. One of the reasons why women are generally keener to go for training is that they are more ready to acknowledge gaps in their competence. On the other hand, being too hesitant can unnecessarily inhibit you from fulfilling your potential.
The key conclusion I draw from this is not simply that women should have greater confidence in their own records (though this is often the case), but that we need to avoid making ‘confidence’ in the sense of self-promotion such a prominent factor in careers. If the convergence is all towards the male pattern, i.e. of boosting one’s capacity to make one’s own case (NB we are talking generalisations here), there will be a relentless growth in self-marketing, at the expense of intrinsic capability and performance.
In any case, Carey’s point about talking about what has been learned – positively and negatively – is surely the crucial one, and one the book admirably exemplifies.
Two heavy-duty reports came out recently, both relevant to the PP though from very different angles.
First a commission set up by the Resolution Foundation to look at the attempts to introduce Universal Credit produced its final report, Making the most of UC. Mainly this grapples with the incredibly complex issues posed by the attempt to simplify the benefits system through Universal Credit. I’d blow several gaskets if I even attempted to summarise it here, but one of the central issues is how to enable people work at lower levels to earn more, and to keep more of their earnings. The current system often traps people in low-earning jobs, with the result that the major poverty problem is now around the working poor more than those without work.
This has a strong gender angle, not just because it’s usually women who are low paid but especially because they are usually the second earners in households needing two earners to make ends meet. The tax and benefit systems (plural, because they are two, often conflicting, systems – if indeed they are systems at all) penalise many of these women, deterring them from working at all or levying a ridiculously high level of marginal taxation as benefits are withdrawn and the household’s aggregate earnings remain below the poverty level.
The opportunity to move up the career ladder is crucial. At the launch meeting Paul Gregg pointed out the two things are needed for progression: increasing working hours, and moving up the pay scale. Emma Stewart, from Timewise, added to the list: employers need to provide better incentives for career progression and better support for those trying to make a career on a part-time basis. Adequate rewards and decent prospects for part-timers is a constant theme in these blogs. We can now see that it’s central to the reform of the benefit system that everyone agrees is needed. Will these messages get through?
At the other end of the scale are our old friends the bankers. Or rather, those working in the finance sector, many of whom are far from being ‘bankers’ even if they work in a bank. Here the evidence comes from the OECD, in a paper on pay inequality in the finance sector. Three things to note here:
a. Entirely predictably, men’s pay is higher than women’s in the finance sector in all countries.
b. The pay gap in finance is actually smaller than in other sectors at the lower-earning end of the distribution. In other words, women working in the lower grades of the finance sector suffer less of a pay gap than do their sisters at equivalent levels in other sectors. But at at the top end the pay gap is even bigger – 29% in the top decile. I don’t think anyone working at that level is going to feel much material pain (certainly not compared with those under scrutiny in the Resolution Foundation report), but it’s a big gap nonetheless, and hurts symbolically.
c. These two points cover OECD countries generally. When it comes to inequality, the UK is a remarkable stand-out. Fig 14 in the report gives separate charts for 18 countries. The chart for the UK has to use a different scaling to all the others, because the inequalities are just so high at the top end. None of the other countries need a vertical axis which goes beyond 40% for the gender pay gap; in the UK it has to go to 70%. An unenviable distinction, on balance.
I want to add in a link to the post which originally sent me to this paper, by Patrick Love of the OECD. Patrick consistently writes witty and informative blogs that give excellent access to OECD material. In this instance, he points us to a report which deserves really wide coverage. It has the unprepossessing title Finance and inclusive growth. What it shows – and here I am risking a summary – is that the finance sector, if it becomes too big, inhibits rather than encourages growth. Once above a certain level of economic development, therefore, countries should pay attention to how large they want to allow this sector to become. En plus, an overblown financial sector diverts talent from where it could be more usefully applied (now I’m into my own way of putting it – but this is the OECD’s message).
It’s the talent question that counts for PP. Finance accounts for much of the income inequality, and therefore for much of the pay gap. How far do we want women to aim for the vast remuneration available at the top of this sector? If they don’t , that’s quite a block on greater pay equality. Either way, the picture is one of distorted rewards for talent.
I went recently to a presentation by Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller, from the LLAKES centre, of their very informative work on adult apprenticeships, in the lovely Bedford Square offices of the Nuffield Foundation (one of our most effective foundations). In the pre-election period there was a rather ludicrous bidding war between the parties on how many apprenticeships they could promise. We’ve ended up with 3 million.
‘Apprenticeship’ has a good solid ring to it, which is why the parties jumped on it. It implies work-relevance, application, skill and good employment prospects. The problem is that it is now used very broadly, so broadly that it is losing that solidity and in some cases becoming simply a rebranding for any form of adult training.
Apprenticeships used to be just for the young. Not any more. The LLAKES report shows how the number of adult apprenticeships has grown. In 2012-13, 45% of new apprentices were aged over 25, with 32% 19-24 and just 22% 16-19. Whatever an apprenticeship now is, it is no longer a young man following in a master journeyman’s footsteps.
Which takes us to the gender angle. The majority of under 19 starts were men (55%). But the further we go along the life course, the more female the picture becomes. A large majority – 61% – of those starting an apprenticeship aged 25 or more were women. The patterns confirms the latest ONS figures on training generally. At 18-24 participation rates are more or less the same for men and women. But for 25-34 year olds women are well ahead (16% to 13%). The gap increases to 4 points for subsequent age groups, meaning there are about 4 women for every 3 men in training over the adult life course.
All that is in line with the PP’s point of departure, that women are accumulating an increasing share of the nation’s human capital. But there’s a bit of a twist. I asked at the meeting whether access to apprenticeships was open to part-timers. David Hughes, the chief executive of NIACE, helpfully pointed me to SFA regulations which say:
“Apprentices must have spent a substantial percentage of their time as an apprentice actually doing the job they are developing a skill in, on premises where that job is usually carried out. This will normally be for at least 30 hours a week, but may be more.”
So one the one hand we’re supposed to think of apprenticeships as a form of learning which fits in with work at any age. On the other hand it’s not supposed to apply to anyone working fewer than the completely arbitrary dividing line of 30 hours. Make sense?
This week is Death Awareness week, and I went to a Death Cafe. I’ve taken part in several of these over the last couple of years. DCs simply provide an opportunity for people to meet and talk about death. In the one I attend you gather round small tables for the first half of the evening, and then get into a wider circle for the second half. The conversation can be about people’s fear of death, or about their need to process past experiences (though it is explicitly not a therapy session); or it may just take a direction of its own, according to what the participants bring to the table.
Some people come because they’ve been afraid of death since childhood; others because someone close to them is terminally ill. We’ve had terminally ill people themselves attend. Last time I listened to a woman talk about her near-death experience and her ‘choice’ to return from it; she spoke in an entirely cheerful and matter of fact way, and I could not doubt her experience, though I couldn’t agree with the conclusions she drew from it. There is quite often a lot of laughter. Almost all participants say how much easier it is to talk about death with strangers.
Women are always in the majority. This week’s meeting saw me as the sole man present. The imbalance is predictable. To mark the Death Awareness week, an organisation called Dying Matters has brought out a report on the extent to which people talk about death. On almost every dimension women were better informed (e.g. about living wills), and had held more conversations about death and dying. This extended even to financial arrangements. Although slightly more men had made a will, more women had actually discussed finance with their families.
I’m convinced that managing the process of dying ourselves is one of the big challenges for my generation. I’m 67, and almost every one of my peers has had either a parent, a partner’s parent or someone else finish their lives in an unsatisfactory and excessively prolonged fashion. It was true in my case, with my mother dying aged 98 having lived 3 or 4 years too long (for her sake – not ours). We are the first generation to have this generalised experience, and so to have no excuse for not confronting the issue. The NHS will not solve it for us, even if a fabulous amount of money was showered on it. It needs new ideas, new procedures, new traditions and rituals, maybe new professions.
So we need to talk about death and dying more. That’s an important competence. Of course, it’s a competence to do with how people live (and die) rather than how they work, and so is a bit distant from the primary focus of the Paula Principle. But it’s only one remove. And the more people in general can talk about, and manage, their own dying, the easier it will be for all those professionals who work in the area to do their job.
Post script: Driving is another ‘life skill’. I remember an important study in the 1960s (from Essex University, I think) which showed that for a lot of people driving was in fact the most skilled activity they were likely to engage in throughout the day. This was in the days of mass unskilled and repetitive jobs. It may still be the case today. But now we have results from a different study which reveals that on everything apart from steering at speed, women emerge as better drivers. They tailgate less, keep better to their lanes, and so on. Admittedly the study’s main data source seemed to be observations at a roundabout, but there we are – another stereotype bites the dust.
A ‘World Happiness Report’ sounds rather implausible; or Orwellian. But it exists, and has been put together by some top-flight authors – John Helliwell from Canada, Richard Layard from the UK and Jeffrey Sachs of the US. Even if I disagree with the ‘happiness’ title, it’s a big step towards measuring things that are important for our quality of life. (The authors admit the label is there for marketing purposes – ‘wellbeing’ would be far preferable in my view.)
The WHR focuses on six determinants of happiness/wellbeing: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, absence of corruption and generosity/giving. Much of the report is unsurprising in itself – there’s a big gap between rich and poor countries, the Scandinavians come out very well and so on. But it’s a powerful mapping of the position, and one that will gain momentum as it continues.
On gender there are, again, few really remarkable results. On the whole, women evaluate their lives slightly more positively than men. What I looked for, of course, was how this might relate to their experience at work. I came across this (p68):
“In many countries, increased levels of educational attainment and changing gender role attitudes have allowed women to embrace professions once the prerogative of men. This may have made their lives more interesting and financially rewarding, and it may have allowed women to feel more useful to others and society…..On the other hand, work in the marketplace may have led to more pressure from competition, more stress, and more worry or guilt regarding their traditional female responsibilities. Indeed, [the] incidence of stress is higher among both men and women of working age. In addition, some women may have experienced discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace.”
The report goes on:
” Researchers have investigated changes over time in happiness in the United States from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, a time period that saw a substantial increase in female labor force participation. They found a reversal in the female advantage in happiness, which they argue is paradoxical. But it is possible, given the uneven rewards of many jobs, in terms of the six key variables explaining life evaluations, that many women who are now engaging in market work do not experience higher overall quality of life compared to women who choose instead to become homemakers. With the exception of highly educated women who likely enter “careers” rather than “jobs,” that seems consistent with our evidence.”
Education enables women to enter white-collar work and this is likely to make them evaluate their lives more positively. But here is then a ‘sag’, as the work they get does not contribute much if at all to their wellbeing (and brings with it negative features such as stress). Only for the highly educated is there a further upturn. So the next step is to track these very broad trends, and see whether a better matching between their education and their work brings an upturn for the majority. Another argument for focussing on all those levels below the glass ceiling.
In the past couple of months I’ve been to two different productions of The Merchant of Venice. I posted earlier on the Almeida’s brilliant Las Vegas-style version, and the very PP-relevant way it interpreted the final act.
Last night it was the Globe Theatre’s production, with Jonathan Pryce as Sherlock and his daughter as his daughter (i.e. Phoebe Pryce as Jessica). I have to say that I found this production a good deal less gripping, though I always find it a delight to be in that setting, especially on a fine night with a crescent moon, and there was lots to appreciate.
As I noted in the earlier post, choice is a very strong element in the play: most obviously by the male suitors for Portia’s hand – and the price they pay for choosing wrongly – but also in the ways women can or cannot choose. Early on Portia and her maid Nerissa are discussing their prospects. Portia is bemoaning her lot, but Nerissa gives her a sharp reminder of how lucky she is:
“You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are. yet for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean. Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer.”
Naturally my ears pricked up at the mention of competency. Shakespeare meant sufficiency rather than skill, so Nerissa’s point is that high levels of consumption may not actually be that healthy, whereas having enough, and understanding what having enough means, are good for one. It occurred to me that one ‘competence’ (in the modern sense) that would do much for our quality of life would be a larger capacity to do just that – to understand what is a sufficiency.
This has particular salience in the current febrile election atmosphere, where so much focus has been on highly contested claims about standards and costs of living. I have been very disappointed by the failure of the Greens to use the platform they have been given to talk about a green economy (I’m not a Green, but I would like to see environmental issues higher up the agenda); but at least they have included the need for a different metric for whether we are doing well or not, one that goes beyond simplistic GNP measures.
Earlier in the day I had an interesting session on the Paula Principle with mixed sixth-formers from Blatchington Mill School near Brighton, as part of the Speakers for Schools programme. I thought that the female students there were certainly aware of how much more choice they now had in one sense in their careers, compared to previous generations; we didn’t have time to explore what they felt were the most important constraints. Nor was there much time to find out what the boys felt about their options. But the taxi-driver told me that his 11-year old son had already decided to be a vet – and the family dog had so far survived his ministrations.
Some kind of prize to the Resolution Foundation for the cover of their recent report on how to boost low wages; I say that even though the boosted person looks very male to me, so maybe doesn’t fit best with the Paula Principle. In fact as Susan Harkness’ piece on women’s wages makes clear, women’s wages have dropped by less than men’s, thus closing the gender gap but in a way that doesn’t exactly call for hurrahs.
Harkness argues that this convergence is partly due to the fact that it’s more the male-dominated employment sectors that have borne the brunt of the recession and subsequent wage squeeze. She also points our, crucially, that wages for the under-30s have now more or less converged, but the diverge rapidly with age.
The chart below, from her chapter, shows how the importance of women’s wages within a household varies across the earnings spectrum. It’s not surprising, but none the less important, that women’s earnings are so much more important for poorer households.
When it comes to recommendations, Harkness rightly wants opportunities for flexible working. She argues for promoting more full-time jobs for women, on the basis of experience from Sweden and Denmark on the impact of prolonged part-time work. At the same time she commends Timewise for their efforts to improve the quality of part-time jobs. As PP readers will know, I think this is crucial, but will only happen when significantly more men work part-time; and when the binary divide between full- and part-time work is discarded.
Incidentally, I spoke last week to a group of American Democrats Abroad; in looking at the US experience in preparation for this I noted (which I already knew, but only vaguely) that their cut-off point for part-time is 35 hours. Since the meeting was happening in France, I remarked that this meant that the majority of French workers must be part-time by American standards.
Finally, I want also to commend Alison Wolf’s piece in the Resolution Foundation report. She very crisply points out how skewed our current education system is in favour of full-time higher education,and how phoney a lot of apprenticeships have been:
“Promising ‘3 million apprenticeships’ in the next five years (Conservatives) or ‘an apprenticeship for every 18 year old’ (Labour) is a feel-good activity for them. It should be a heart-sink for anyone listening.”
The UK Commission on Employment and Skills has just published an excellent report, Growth Through People. It sketches out, in considerable detail but in clear language, the puzzle of how the UK has a high level of employment; relatively high levels of high level skills, measured by graduate level qualifications; but low productivity levels. Productivity, as yesterday’s budget yet again showed, is crucial to our general prosperity.
The most important implication of the UKCES analysis is to shift the focus from simplistic assumptions that boosting the sheer numbers of highly qualified people is a solution to our economic problems, to a much more nuanced and complex consideration of how skills are actually used in the workplace. Qualifications are not the same as skills – obvious enough; but add to that the evidence that skills/qualifications are not themselves enough to raise productivity and it’s clear that we need a much closer understanding of how jobs are defined and people managed if we are to find a positive way forward.
Investment in training has been in decline over the past few years, so that we should not be lulled into thinking that because we have greater numbers of highly qualified people coming out of the education system that is enough to sustain the overall competence of the workforce. “There are various different indicators of learning across the UK. Worryingly, these point to one important and common trend; a significant decline in engagement, whether captured through participation rates, average training volume or funding….the NIACE Adult Participation in Learning survey, which covers the whole of the UK, has also seen a decline since 2001, with participation in learning in the last 3 years falling from 46 to 38 per cent of adults in 2013. Perhaps more significantly, over a similar period, the duration of training fell sharply, with the result that the average training volume per worker declined by about half.”
But back to the key point about utilisation. Two quotes sum this up:
“A large number of workers remain overskilled or overqualified. In both cases, underutilisation represents a waste of talent and has significant consequences. “
“The stable level of 30 per cent of graduates mismatched to jobs requiring lower skill level means a much larger number of overqualified graduates than we had before .”
The report points out that UK managers tend themselves to be rather less well qualified, relative to their staff, than in other countries. One consequence may be that they are less good at making use of the talent at their disposal: not just in recruiting the right people, but in enabling them to work to their capacity, to be properly motivated and rewarded, and to progress in their careers. If this is the case, my guess is that it is not so much a matter of individual failings as of the general culture of management, including the incentives which managers themselves operate under.
And so we come to the PP-relevant issue: how far is this underutilisation a matter of gender? In other words, since we know that women embody an increasing proportion of the nation’s skills, is it these skills which are not being properly recognised and rewarded? The report has little to say about this; I’m hoping that the UKCES can be persuaded to extend its analysis further. It might do something to unlock the productivity puzzle.
Below is a rather depressing table. I’ve taken it from a piece by Michael Handel in the recent ippr publication Technology, globalisation and the future of work in Europe, which draws on data from the European Working Conditions Survey.
First, it suggests that the quality of work in the UK dropped significantly over the decade to 2005, absolutely and relative to other EU countries. We started well above the EU average on both complex tasks and problem-solving at work, but 10 years later we had dropped significantly on both these scores, so that we were below average on the former and only just above on the latter. This is not a healthy direction of travel: towards more simplified (i.e. routine) work.
Secondly, we share with most other countries a drop in the proportion of working people who say they are learning new things at work. Our decline is sharper than almost all the others, from a proud 82% in 1995 (bettered only by the inevitable Scandinavians) to 71% in 2005. In a sense this fits with the first point: less complex work requires less learning. But it’s not encouraging.
Obviously the figures are quite dated. Information for 2015 will be available in due course, and they will make interesting reading. Handel seems to think that they are not likely to show a change of direction. We know from other studies that the UK’s performance on learning at work is not improving.
I’m asking for the gender breakdown so we can see how this bears on the Paula Principle. I know that there is other analysis, notably from Francis Green, which gives a more optimistic view on the quality of UK working life generally, and which suggests that women report having a higher quality than men, in spite of the pay gap. In any event, this kind of information is important as the focus of employment debate may be shifting from the absolute volume of jobs to the quality of the work that is offered.
It seems very likely that all this is closely linked to our productivity puzzle. Matching people’s skills better to the work they do is surely an essential part of this, especially in human services, where women predominate and which are less dependent on technology for their productivity. Take the care sector: it is, to a large extent, a matter of choice whether jobs are designed/defined as complex and problem-solving (and rewarded as such); or are routinised and low-paid. Who decides which path to take?
It’s the day after International Women’s Day, and I just thought I’d share two responses I’ve had to the PP book manuscript. The first is from a publisher:
“There are two problems. First they feel that some of the material is not wholly unfamiliar – my colleagues who read many more business books than me tell me that they have read books which cover the subject and they are not sure this breaks enough new ground. And second – and I am not sure how one resolves this problem– they feel it would be a sales obstacle for us to publish a book on this subject by a man. It probably has to be written by a woman. ”
and the second from a literary agent:
“The author’s research and structure were impressive and clear. I also thought he had a robust website which is a plus. But I’m afraid I was put-off by the fact that it is a man writing on the topic. I don’t think Lean-in could’ve been written by a man, and I’m not positive this could be either. Maybe it simply needs s different spin, or a slightly different framing (more sociological, less motivational in a way so it doesn’t feel like a man telling women what’s wrong with this picture.) This is no feminist rant—I’m thinking really only from a sales perspective, of how this could be pitched so that it never sounds like a man pointing to what needs to be fixed, for women.”
I’d be interested in people’s reactions, a) from the commercial/sales point of view, and b) more generally. (Nice about the website, at least.) Comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More importantly, I was struck by some figures in Christine Lagarde’s recent London speech, as well as by her emphasis on the negative economic impact of inequality. The IMF head concluded:
“There is one more dimension of inequality that I wish to discuss here—one that is close to my heart. If we talk about inclusion in economic life, we must surely talk about gender. As we know too well, girls and women are still not allowed to fulfill their potential—not just in the developing world, but in rich countries too. The International Labor Organization estimates that 865 million women around the world are being held back. They face discrimination at birth, on the school bench, in the board room. They face reticence of the marketplace—and of the mind.
And yet, the economic facts of life are crystal clear. By not letting women contribute, we end up with lower living standards for everyone. If women participated in the labor force to the same extent as men, the boost to per capita incomes could be huge—27 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, 23 percent in South Asia, 17 percent in Latin America, 15 percent in East Asia, 14 percent in Europe and Central Asia. We simply cannot afford to throw away these gains.” Christine Lagarde, Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture, London Feb 2015.
The figures would be even greater if we looked not just at economic participation per se, but at jobs which matched skills.