Here’s a short account of gender equality in the boardroom.  It’s something I come across in day-to-day business.  When attitudes are entrenched talent is wasted.

“I’m a bewildered baby boomer. Bewildered because I can’t believe the fight to get more women into more boardrooms still goes on.

I’ve been in the world of work for over 30 years – I think advertising is called work – and see, apart from a handful of honourable and fantastic exceptions, few advances for women. I see the next generation battling the same stuff, and more. I see both women and men becoming more stressed and miserable.

Are we all under a spell? …the heroism spell perhaps?

In this year of more miserable news about pay that is still not equal, male suicide rates escalating, casual misogyny everywhere (and becoming not so casual?), general unfairness and frustration, and a world that feels more dangerous and threatening by the day – it seems more important than ever that the best brains are available to answer impossibly tough issues. Is it apocalyptic to suggest that everyone’s talent is needed now more than ever?

I’m wondering whether it’s time to shift focus. I’d like us to find an approach that unlocks the talent in everyone now.

I trained as an ad planner at Leo Burnett. (My favourite Leo advice was ‘Criticise the issue, never the man’ – we’ll come back to that). Advertising at its best is about ferreting out true human insights in order to reframe, solve a problem, and reveal an opportunity. I’ve worked in a variety of dynamic environments, I tend to read weirdly and widely, and have developed my approach to supporting and coaching business people. Some insight-stumbling happened. Insights that feel true. I’m beginning to think that we might, just might, have inadvertently colluded with a situation that suits no one.

I suspect the narrative around how to raise the presence of women at senior levels in business – a narrative we are all following – may be the wrong one.

I am here to discuss new ways to think about this ambition we share for more women in business. I’d like to start a new conversation around this ambition we share for more women in business.  Releasing trapped talent will involve the representation and presence of women where it matters. ….but I think the process needs to be about much more.

So what’s the current narrative?

There are two interdependent strands, and I hear each / both in different settings.
One is: ‘Let’s fix women, blame men a bit and tell them to shape up, and all will be well’.
The other is: ‘By hook or by crook just get to a critical mass (it’s about 30%) and the presence of women will change things for the better’.

So far, so plausible. So why hasn’t anything changed?

Looking at seemingly unconnected markets helps new perspectives and ideas appear. Does this situation remind you of anything?

Yep, the Diet industry.

Connecting the weight-loss industry with the advancing-women-in-business industry yields some interesting food (ha) for thought. Humour me while we note some parallels here.

  • Loads of money and effort spent fixing a problem. The problem remains unfixed.
  • Intervention methods involve personal pressure: self-improvement, commitment and resolve.
  • Successes are scattered – and temporary.
  • The terms ‘will-power’ and ‘character’ are used casually and punishingly.
  • No one uses the word ‘addiction’. And remember a really powerful strand within this minefield of an area is the ‘fear of what happens when we stop’.
  • Success becomes a number. In attempting to quantify the unquantifiable, progress is reduced to a score, not what might now be possible.

But we know why diets don’t work, don’t we? The problem isn’t a rational one; it’s a combination of the bloomin’ obvious and the deeply and opaquely emotional.

Is it the same with the women in work issue? Sure there are rational things we can do, but…..

Diets and food involve powerful and contradictory feelings – self hatred, trying to fit in (literally), being accepted, needing permission, masking uncomfortable feelings …. Are these emotions also at play as women advance in the workplace and seek to contribute and flourish? Are we willfully ignoring the non-rational, the unconscious axioms, that lurk beneath the surface?

When I work with senior women, and senior men, I don’t see people supremely happy in their work.

Women self report as busy, knackered, and intolerant.
Men are not as bouncy as they make out.
Women report feeling inaudible and invisible.
Men sound brave yet hurt.
We’re all just people. All fragile.

Do you recognize yourself?

So it’s not so surprising that a workable diagnosis becomes: let’s do what we can to help and build women’s confidence.

But if our ‘more confidence needed’ diagnosis isn’t correct, then our interventions will have unintended behavioural implications.

In client work with women I find that on session 3 or 4 (when we look at how to reframe current challenges in a creative way) that a truth pops out: ‘I know so much more than him’, or ‘I don’t know how he’s got to where he is’, or ‘I could do what she does in half the time’.

I don’t see a lack of confidence.
There is plenty of confidence.

I do see other things particularly true of women:
I see self-damaging blame for a tiny error. Perfectionism.
I see obsessive, tight-jawed work and meeting preparation.
I see unquestioned (and often misplaced) trust in the power of ‘reasonableness’.
I see behaviours popping to the surface that serve no one.

If I feel, deep down, not appreciated or seen or heard, then I will radiate disappointment. I won’t mean to, it’s unconscious. And natural.

If the path that got me to where I am was all about ‘work hard and rewards will follow’ then the daily evidence that this is not the path everyone else took is going to encourage me to be hugely judgemental.

If I have a view based on ‘Am I good enough?’ (oh, as if!) then I will unconsciously use that viewfinder with everyone and everything else. Or quite consciously, actually….

Perhaps I’ve made sacrifices, the full implications of which only become apparent gradually – so I’m going to feel guilty. Guilt is often wincingly close to resentment.

Generally, women are often driven by a deep wish for harmony in all things. In a competitive environment this is going to be tiring. In a co—operative environment it may close down exploration. Contortions to avoid conflict are a constant, and tiring, strand of the female experience in the workplace.

And then the male colleagues: I see men receiving only certain parts of the communication wavelength, working with a selected bandwidth, and of course wanting to run away and resist change. It’s a constant drain on effort to escape, talk over, or reduce exposure to what must feel like a level of incomprehensible and powerful static.

Part of the context everyone is battling, I suspect, is the increasing abstraction of office work, of the distancing of daily ‘thinking work’ from…reality. Both men and women unconsciously find ways to negotiate a world of work in which the very nature of achievement and success is not only highly subjective but also changeable; where the valuable may not be valued.

…where a sense of personal worth is assembled and constructed rather than lived.

Where there is only subjectivity, all of us will be much more compliant with cultural norms. The description that springs to mind is ‘shape shifting’.

I’m going to suggest that there are two connected truths here: women are effectively being trained for a part, to not be themselves; and linked or resulting behaviours (both men and women) make creative and productive communication between men and women very, very difficult.

And the more I think about it, communication between men and women is what we should really be aiming for, not just a representation number.

I heard two approaches to changing things in the workplace recently. There’s a clue to creating a new narrative here…

I attended a talk by a hugely senior Civil Servant about Diversity. Lots of ‘initiatives’ were in place apparently– all about training and preparing the (paltry number of) senior women to become Leaders. You know what it sounded like? That just outside a golden kingdom was a waiting room where women would be sculpted and trained to be more like the kingdom’s (male) residents, so that they could then enter.

Yet a day or so later I was talking to an HR big cheese at BBC Worldwide. Not only was Diversity expressed as ‘Inclusion’. A higher order issue was raised: how could this person help everyone, everyone, be the best they can be?

That’s the clue, isn’t it? It’s been all about fighting to join the game.

I want us to be about changing the game.

To some market thinking, to change the game…..
Imagine we’re in a marketplace called – let’s say Commerciania.
There are two brands – lets call them, I don’t know… say ‘boyso’… and girlio? The girlio client comes to us and says I really want 50 % of this market. I don’t have a fraction of the market distribution, R&D or campaign budgets of the market leader.
Well the first piece of advice we would give our client is that the number 2 brand never ever, ever, ever, ever, copies the number 1 brand.
Number 2 looks for ways to revalue, to change the game, to grow or redefine the market.
In fact the favourite strategy of number 2 brands is to subvert, is it not?
Success for a smaller brand in any market place comes by standing for something different.

The second brand transcends, innovates, sets a new agenda.
And in so doing the market place becomes revitalized, and new consumer benefits emerge.

Doesn’t that sound more exciting than the old story?

A dear friend of mine often quotes advice she was given early on in her career by Mary Soames: ‘To do what the men do would be so unimaginative’

It’s time to be imaginative.

Look, this thinking out loud is just to start us off, to encourage us to think afresh: a sort of ‘state-interrupter’, a prelude to a new and real conversation. A conversation I think should be taken into companies, probably into politics, where real engagement makes a difference.

I want your help.
I want to start discussion on a new narrative.

What I do know is that the new narrative will not be about ‘just’ equality. It will be about helping real communication and connection between men and women, and finding new ways to solve new (terrifying) problems together.
Men and women are finding communication very hard in the current climate. The ‘who’s fault is this? Just fix it!’ surrounding everyone is damaging.

We are all very, very fragile under our coverings.

What is brand 2 going to stand for?

It’s going to take a while. I think there will be phases. For phase one lets at least have a new mindset, a new set of attitudes.

Lets start with this mantra that a fantastic advertising colleague was given by her predecessor as she took over the reins of the business:

‘Seek excellence not perfection’

And perhaps we could work on these attitudes…
you don’t know the answer yet (‘not knowing’ is a powerful place)
thinking may come from a strange place (anywhere in fact, just keep eyes open)
be kind (you knew this…)
park that favourite business word ‘focus’ (It leaves no space for discoveries that might really matter)

And perhaps we’ll need some practical tips, for men and women, to start experimenting with real connection and communication. I have some ideas: join me. That hero thing is going to take a while to weaken.

I ask for help and brains to develop this.
Let’s not be seduced by a myth of success, or by numbers that misdirect.
Let’s develop a new definition of heroism, of success.
Let’s start changing what the workplace is for and explore a new way for businesses to be in the world.

We all know deep down that ‘if we do what we did,
then we’ll get what we got’.

A little thought. As all good physicians know, the weight thing gets sorted when an emotional /attitudinal breakthrough happens. This breakthrough, so experts tell me, has two components.

Step out of your story. Trust yourself.

Penny Hunt
Sept 21 2014


Penny coaches in constructive confusion and curiosity, with compassion, and has nothing at all against the rest of the alphabet.


tel: 07977530130