Friday, 17 February 2017

What is Success to a Woman?

Cartoon showing direct path to success and the reality roundabout route

In 2016 the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) launched its Women in Business group. Lina Bourdon explained the background to its foundation. At No. 10 Downing Street she was asked what could be done to increase the 20% of women running their own businesses. The British Government was keen to increase their numbers. After the inspiring launch talks by 3 successful businesswomen, I wondered if what success means to a woman can be measured using the Government’s yardstick.

Having it all?
The male definition of success often involves billionaire status, stock exchange valuation, expensive homes and flashy cars. If success is assessed from the City’s get-rich quick perspective, then the achievements of many women will inevitably fall below the bar. The ideal of ‘having it all’ has proved an illusion for many women.

I believe that women can ‘have it all’, but not necessarily all elements at the same time. Even Cherie Blair admitted to dropping the occasional ball or two in the relentless juggling of activities that forms a woman’s life.

Wasted Talent
A lot of women’s talents go unnoticed and wasted. All too often a woman returning to work is expected to take a lowly position and is passed by for promotion opportunities. I noticed that a lot of the women at the FSB’s Women in Business were older, more experienced women. Women who take a career break do not abandon all hope of resuming a career. What they need is a different type of approach and support than the traditional start-up business.

Pic of 7 Businesswomen

Confidence and Information
According to Lina’s No.10 Downing Street contact, women complain that they lack:
 (a) the confidence and (b) the information to start a business. 
From the outward perspective, it may seem that:
 (a) is something to get over and (b) women need to do better research. 
However, from my own experiences I can illustrate that women’s complaints do have foundation and should not be the subject of out-of-hand dismissal. For theory and practice are two different things.

Personal Experiences
Mine was the classic case of a woman made redundant when she tried to return to work after maternity leave. A settlement, as close as you can possibly get to an industrial tribunal without actually stepping over the threshold, never compensated for the loss of responsibility and financial independence. I found myself in a temporary job with lovely colleagues, but without any use for all the skills I had spent years building up in higher education and professionally.

While at work I missed a couple of landmarks in my son’s development. There was no real financial benefit to the family either.  A second child and both children’s multiple food allergies made it difficult to find suitable childcare. I threw my previous work energies into coping with their restrictive diets. At this time, free-from ingredients and products were hard to come by or inaccurately labelled.

Meanwhile, my lawyer husband worked long hours in the macho M&A world. The atmosphere there made it difficult to even phone the ‘little woman’ at home to say he was working late again. Presumably, many of the other board members had their own ‘little women’ at home, but the City is not a friend to a balanced home life. No wonder the financial world is perceived as toxic to women. Such attitudes place an enormous strain on family life. I have noted that attitudes are changing as I regularly see fathers taking care of their children these days, but my generation were not as lucky.

It is important for Government to recognise the need for more affordable childcare. Early nursery school for a couple of mornings per week for my younger son rescued me from a state of complete exhaustion and saved my sanity. However, I would question whether it is good for young children to spend 8am to 6pm+ in nursery school every day. That is a very long day for such children to go without access to their primary carer. The first seven years of a child’s life lay the foundations for their future development.

Pic of three nursery staff holding a baby or toddler each

There is an incredible shortage of part-time work that offers family-friendly hours. I remember once being laughed out of a local recruitment agency. Another agency was slightly politer, but told me that they only got about 2 suitable, local part-time jobs per year. Agency gatekeepers wouldn’t even put my CV through for a local management job with language skills for which I was very well-qualified and experienced. While the law does not permit discrimination, recruitment agencies and companies will always find alternative ways to ask the questions they are not supposed to ask. Unconscious bias does the rest.

Working in London
Working in Central London only became possible once both my children started school. However, by this time my skills were out-of-date. I enrolled on an MSc course to gain vital skills in the latest technology. This led to a part-time temporary job and a chance to prove what I could do.

Women working in part-time jobs often find themselves doing a full-time role with part-time pay. Managing children makes us great multi-taskers. We work flat out during the time that we are in the office. We rarely have time for the social gatherings that would bring our achievements to the notice of senior management.

Real Life Experiences
When children first start nursery or school, they pick up every bug going as they develop their immunity. Nurseries, schools and childminders send sick children home. Elderly relatives may be too remote (even abroad today) or too susceptible to such bugs to act as an alternative carer. 

When a child first gets sick, a mother may find it easier to claim that she is sick. Invariably, a sibling goes down with the virus as the other child or children recover(s). Now, she needs a sick note… No sooner has the second child recovered than the exhausted mother succumbs to the virus herself. The first child goes back to school and brings another bug home… The cycle begins again. This is the reality of the early schooling years.

As children go through growth spurts, they become clumsier. If you have boys in particular, you will feel as if you have special reserved seating in your local hospital's accident and emergency department at times. The staff welcome you smiling with a ‘not you again’. Broken wrists x 2, cut eyes, severe sprains, suspected broken bones, concussion, playdough pushed into ear, raisin pushed up profusely bleeding nose and stuck fast, etc.

Collage of x-rays of various human body parts
Boys and visits to the X-ray department - a fact of life!

Schools and Sickness
When I was at school, mobiles did not exist. We didn’t even have a landline when I was at primary school. If I fell ill during school time, I would have to go and wait in the medical room until my mother arrived to collect me at her usual time.

School attendance is closely monitored today. If you keep your child home when sick with recurrent bugs, you will get an officious letter that sometimes even warns you about prison. If your child is sick in school, staff are very wary of giving medicine. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

There are occasions when it is better to give your child an aspirin-based product than a paracetamol-based one. Attitudes and prescriptions have changed. The school medical room once asked me to go to the doctor with my child to get a medication note. What about my parental authority? My child was in pain with a broken wrist, but couldn’t keep missing school. He had had Nurofen on a number of occasions without incident. Luckily, I was working at home. I went and gave the necessary dose myself. This was a result of Local Government regulation changes. If I had still been working in Central London, the trip would have taken 3 hours out of my working day.

I once had to do the 1½ hour journey from Central London two days running because my elder son had been hit on the head with a tennis racquet. On the second day, he got hit on the head while sitting out of the PE lesson. You couldn’t make this stuff up. It is the sort of real life incident that makes it difficult for women to work and get promoted. Schools are now wary of litigation. They call a parent to cover themselves with the slightest knock on the head. It is hard to assess the situation at distance. Schools are understandably reluctant to take the responsibility - especially if the child’s father is a barrister/lawyer.

After school clubs are great. However, if you finish work at 5.30pm in Central London, you cannot get back for the closing time at your child’s school in Zone 3 in 15 minutes. Running over the time, delays staff and incurs extra costs. Arriving late for an anxious child can have clingy repercussions for days or weeks afterwards.

Attitudes of Other Women
Some colleagues have a tendency to regard you as unprofessional simply because you are not available all the time. They forget that many other colleagues may be away from their desks too. At the FSB event, Lina quoted:

 “Hell has a special place for women who do not help other women”. 

Women managers are often tougher on their female reports than a male manager in the same position. Maybe it is because they fear being criticised as too soft, so they actually over-compensate?

Law in Practice
The law has got tougher on discrimination towards pregnant women, but such changes are not always an improvement. Both company and employee tread on egg shells. This results in some bizarre, no-win interview situations with unstated conflicts of interest, if you seek to cover a maternity leave role.

Pregnant woman at work smiling sweetly c.VadimGuzhva 

Ageism is rife. Companies feel obliged to interview older candidates to comply with the law. However, as soon as you work through the door, you know that your potential future manager would prefer a younger candidate and is merely going through the motions. The well-meant law is simply a waste of everyone’s time in practice.

Redundancy and Unemployment
During a period of unemployment following redundancy, I had personal experience of the Government’s Universal Job Match and punitive measures. I found that the database kept sending unsuitable jobs which I had to decline. The system did not understand the basic difference between a translator and an interpreter. It kept sending me court interpreting jobs for which I am not suitably qualified and experienced.

I also kept receiving jobs for languages that I do not speak or in the wrong direction. I do not translate from English into Japanese. It takes years to learn a language to a sufficiently proficient level. I now understand how a Polish plumber came to present himself as a court interpreter as described in my article for Multilingual Magazine in April 2012.

Pushed into any job however unsuitable?

The system made it appear that I was constantly turning down jobs. A string of rejections looks like someone being difficult. The ethics of the professional bodies to which I belong oblige me to turn down jobs outside my skill set. At the end of the 6-month phase just before Christmas 2013, I was prevented from attending my appointment at the door. The man on the door claimed that I was late. I disbelieved him so checked my mobile. It was very odd that my mobile had suddenly lost all charge.

Any number of times I had arrived too early and been sent away. Job centres under the Coalition Government very obviously didn’t want anyone to visualise how many people were out of work. It was scary. Next thing I knew I starting receiving lots of post from Belfast. This post felt threatening to me. The system is cruel and soul-destroying. I wondered how many others had been treated the same way when the Government celebrated its reduced unemployment figures in the January.

Fruitless Government Schemes
Is it so surprising that women lose confidence now? While unemployed, I had asked the Job Centre for self-employment information. I was sent to a local, dilapidated-looking address to write a business plan. I was shown a pre-recorded video. I could have watched that same video at home without the Government incurring fruitless costs.

Many of the start-up schemes are not interested until you have been in business for around 3 years and/or are generating a high income. The British Library wants a turnover of £100k plus. Most freelance translation businesses cannot even hope to reach that threshold -  and yet we provide so much help for other businesses seeking to export.

Much local assistance was not appropriate for my type of business. It seemed more suited to sandwich shops, cupcake vendors and hairdressing. I was surprised that so many local businesses are allowed to set up in the same line of business, when the country is crying out for more digital skills. I do wonder every time I meet yet another career coach, how much great experience is being wasted by not being rechannelled immediately upon redundancy.

Export Assistance
Starting up a business with a European interest was probably not the best timing with Brexit looming. However, I was surprised at the extent to which UKTI pursue Chinese export opportunities and exports to other countries with vastly different time zones and cultures. Isn’t it easier for a business to make its first export a European one?

The obvious answer was to seek EU support. I enrolled on a seminar at the British Library. However, on arrival, I discovered that it had been cut short. The expected senior EU representative did not attend. I gained very little useful information. I did wonder if the sudden change of agenda had anything to do with the presence of a representative from the Greater London Authority? I started to feel that because of my language direction, my business efforts were being hampered. My child’s schooling prevented relocation abroad.

I had to go all the way to Manchester to attend a much more interesting session on how a freelancer might get involved in EU contracts. It was already apparent that the EU’s decision-making process was too slow for any chance of work before the looming Brexit referendum. I have since spoken to someone who completed the whole time-consuming process and won a contract. She never received any work afterwards.

Pic of signpost with different types of advice marked
Where do you go for advice?

So, yes there is information out there. You will have several abortive attempts getting to it. A working mother’s time is precious. She doesn’t want it wasted. I ended up picking and choosing my own courses according to my own training requirements and the needs of my business. Many of the translation industry’s training schemes were not available at the right time, or not with enough flexibility to allow for my existing experience and training. Some schemes are more about promoting the presenter’s business than about genuine new business assistance.

Translation as a Second Career
A lot of very intelligent professional women choose translation as a career precisely because it allows them to balance an intellectually challenging job with family concerns at home. Companies are now very reluctant to take on employees. The freelance lifestyle can be a very precarious one in the early days.

Hampered by Competition Law
Prices are under considerable downward pressure in the translation industry. However, competition law prevents institutes from discussing pricing for risk of being accused of a setting up a cartel. On a number of occasions, I have been offered contracts with extremely restrictive terms. A minimal amount of work could leave me unable to pursue business opportunities for up to 3-5 years with certain companies or in certain domains. To me this appears more anti-competitive than any attempt by a professional body to help its members establish fair rates.

What Future?
The working world appears to have changed irrevocably. The advent of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning suggests that some sections of the community may not be able to get employment despite their best efforts. Punitive unemployment measures are out of place. How can the economy adjust to support everyone? People need to have a sense of purpose in their lives if they are to remain mentally and physically healthy.

It strikes me that what women need is a different type of support. We also need the realisation that a business that keeps a woman and her family is a valid proposition. It may never make a fortune, but it may work well and keep a number of other women (and men) gainfully employed. If they are making a living, they will not be claiming unemployment benefit. All a modern business may need is a free and/or inexpensive, local co-working space, a computer, access to a printer/copier, business stationery and some training.

PIc of white people silhouettes against a digital backdrop
Assistance and advice for a digital future?

Flexible, Family-friendly Options
No. 10 needs to acknowledge that what women need are options and the ability to choose what is right for them and their families at any given moment. This will not be the same for any two women or any two children (even in the same family). If a woman chooses a career break, she still contributes to society in other ways.

Experience and Maturity
When an experienced, mature woman returns to work she will be a different type of employee or business owner. No difficult colleague or customer can phase her after safely negotiating toddler tantrums or teenage truculence. No work crisis can hold a candle to the overnighters in an overworked A&E department with a very sick child or the health crisis of an elderly parent. What could the working world possibly throw at her after she has handled a child with sickness and diarrhoea and a raging temperature in the middle of the night? Or a loved one with dementia?

Redefining Success
When the time is right to return, a woman should have the right training and support to lift her confidence and help her progress. So what if for some women the only perceivable success may be her child at that point? Extremism is a concern today. If a mother’s child is a future engaged and law-abiding citizen, it’s a success. If all her disabled child can do is smile so that the local community smiles back, it’s a success. It may not be in a currency that City lawyers and accountants understand, but in my book that upward curve spells success.

Pic of 5 children in bright clothes smiling into camera
Happy children spell success

Success to a woman is not about a big, flashy car. It involves balancing the conflicting demands of her loved ones and overcoming all the professional obstacles placed in her path. Success is resilience. Success is achieving something that a woman can be proud of, however modest that achievement may seem to others. 

Pic of road turning into upward pointing arrow with word Road to success on it

Whatever future business success comes my way, my proudest and greatest achievement will always be my two sons. I know many other women feel the same way. And saying so shouldn’t be frowned upon professionally. Such prejudice already wastes far too much talent and potential in local communities and the Economy.

Karen Andrews is a freelance French to English translator, transcreator, content writer and editor. She has a strong background in global marketing.

Email Karen for further information via in French, German or English.

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