A mentor – your critical friend?

6 11 2013

“People who grow up in difficult circumstances and yet are successful have one thing in common – at a crucial juncture in their adolescence they had a positive relationship with a caring adult” – Bill Clinton.

There are many myths and misunderstandings about what it is to be a mentor.

The quotation from Bill Clinton captures the essence of what it means – getting the right support at the right time to make a significant difference.

Firstly, it talks about ” a crucial juncture“. Timing is everything. We are not always ready to hear what we need to hear. As a young adult I would have been reluctant to take any advice from anybody. I knew best. Nobody could teach me anything. Sound familiar? Maybe you don’t recognise that in yourself, or in your younger self, but we all know people who just cannot be told. Even if the advice is perfectly sound, perfectly constructed and delivered if the recipient isn’t listening then the advice is valueless. The right advice, or rather the right intervention, is only ever really right if it is received and acted upon.

Timing is everything. A mentor should be a Samaritan; a crutch in a crisis not a walking stick for life. A mentor is someone who can provide the support needed at that moment. The support needed at different times in a career or stage of personal development will vary. If you break your leg then someone offering a crutch would be a good person to know. If you break your arm and someone offered you a crutch it would be of little use but if someone could lend you a sling, that would be of value. So a mentor, unlike labrador puppies, is not for life. A mentor can provide the right support at the right time. And from the perspective of a mentor, they shouldn’t expect or encourage a long-term dependence. It can be hard to walk away but think of it like Mary Poppins, goodbye children, my work here is done.

And “ a positive relationship“? Mentoring isn’t a one-way street. A coach can impart particular skills; instruct in areas where there is a skill shortage or a lack of understanding. It is a transaction from one who has knowledge and expertise to one who has less. Mentoring is a relationship. It requires participation from both parties. My way of looking at this is that a mentor is a critical friend. The relationship isn’t one of teacher and pupil. The mentor should be able to learn as well as teach. And it should be a positive experience. A mentor should be encouraging and supportive. A mentor should be like one of the dragons in Dragons Den, with the person being mentored standing covering in their shadow! A mentor may well have to be critical of ideas or of the direction of travel of the person they support but to be effective the mentoring dynamic should be a positive relationship.

And a critical friend isn’t a best mate. A mentor isn’t the person to stand with you chatting at the bar into the early hours of the morning, listening to your life story and various tales of bad luck and assorted other misfortunes. If you are just looking for someone to talk to, moan to or offload to then you don’t need a mentor you need what in Liverpool we would call a bezzie, a best mate. You should go to your mentor with simple, discreet, time-bound questions. One’s to which there is an answer, or the possibility of finding a solution. Life’s intractable problems and unanswereables are best left for your mum or your god.

The final part of the quotation talks of a “caring adult“. A mentor has to care about the outcome. They should be disinterested not uninterested. Being a mentor is not just throwing fine words to the wind. The mentor should be impartial but should care about what you do with the advice; whether it is acted upon, whether it adds value, if it has been used and what was the outcome. This is a learning process for the mentor too.

And finally I think that the mentor should be an adult, or rather should be a grown up. The relationship has to be an adult one. There shouldn’t be room for ego and childishness and tantrums. Constructive support positively received.

So there we have it. 32 words of quotation explained in a further 700! – the perfect analogy for mentoring.

karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective

The impact of sexism on business

6 11 2013

We are, I’m sure, all aware of the discrepancies between the number of women in senior positions compared to that of men.

Rather than considering simply the numbers, it is worth considering the type of businesses that women set up.

If we look at a comparison, by sector, of women-led SMEs versus all SME:

community, social and personal activities ~ +6%
health and social work ~ +9%
hotel and restaurants ~ +4%
production ~ -6%
construction ~ -9%

In summary women more often head up businesses within what is often termed the ‘soft sector’ rather than the ‘heavy’ industrial and manufacturing sectors.

Why might this be?

Well it’s simple, as any venture capitalist will tell you, entrepreneurs should always do business in areas they know. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many women start and run companies in ‘traditional’ female categories like food, shopping and things that are family-related, especially if those markets are profitable. The larger concern is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic were founded by men.

And it isn’t just in enterprise that women work in traditional female categories. We have many more women doctors now than we ever did, but women are over-represented in areas such as family practices and gynaecology. The same is true of female lawyers, who choose family law and non-profit work.

So while there are more women in traditionally male-dominated roles and professions than there have ever been, small “ghettos” within those professions, where women are allowed to work, are emerging. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this clustering but it is how we view that cluster. I chose the word ‘ghetto’ deliberately to reflect the value that is placed on these clusters. It is clear that as a society we tend to put less value upon areas such as nursing and hairdressing, areas where women cluster.

So it is about what we value and, though it’s subtle, what we value is attached to the masculine or ‘gender neutral’ (and often saying ‘gender neutral’ is the same as saying ‘largely masculine’). As a result we tend to undervalue the business areas that women choose. This is reinforced in the disparaging way we speak of ‘lifestyle businesses’ with particular regard to women-led enterprises operating in areas seen as traditionally female.

So you can see that we can’t really think about the types of business women start in isolation. We need to consider the bigger picture and include the types of jobs women take in the workplace and the value society places on that work.

The lack of value we place on work is important as it often translates into poorer pay and conditions for women in the workplace. I was at a conference a year back that was called in order to address the issue of getting more women into board and senior management positions within the businesses that constitute the co-operative movement. The debate raged about whether quotas needed to be introduced to get more women onto group, regional and national boards. My colleague stood up to make this very simple point: ‘the movement could do more to improve the position of women not by giving more to few women nearing the top of the organisation but by paying a living wage to the thousands of women who work at the lower and middle-levels.’ I agree and would add that they should do more to value the work that the cleaners and shelf-stackers and check-out staff do.

If we are serious about changing the work women choose, we need to go right back to the start and look closely at the role models that we are presenting to the next generation, as these role models will influence the choices young women make when entering the workforce and, therefore, when starting their own businesses too.

If we are serious about changing the landscape of business we need also to look at the value we place upon the type of work women do. And here I think that we might just be on the threshold of change. In the policy document entitled, “Supporting economic growth through local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones” Eric Pickles, on behalf of the coalition government opens with the statement, “Our economy is currently too dependent on a narrow range of industry sectors.” So, a suggestion at least that there should be less of an emphasis placed on traditional industries. If we read “male-led” instead of “traditional” then maybe signs of change, or an indication of an awareness that change is needed.

Here are just a few opportunities.

With an ageing population we are going to need far more carers, a female-dominated industry. There is a really possibility that society may actually come to value care and carers in this growing market situation. It is up to women to start and lead the large-scale businesses that run and manage the care system rather than leaving it to men to head up these companies. And in healthcare there are many high growth opportunities. The biggest currently seems to be digital healthcare, which describes the development of systems and technologies that have the potential to save lives by equipping doctors with quicker and more accurate information about patients. There is no reason why this should not be headed by the people who actually come into contact with the patients, predominantly women carers.

With retail giants failing or otherwise leaving the high street there is a huge opportunity for small specialist retailers. My contention is that the high street is changing, not dying, and there is a real desire to halt the growth of commuter towns and build character back into the places in which we live and shop. This drive is personified by Mary Portas who is working, and has been given public money, to energise 12 towns. It’s not much, but it’s a sign of things to come.

While computer games have long been seen as a male-only enclave, this is changing. Games used to be sold on the quality of the graphics. This is no longer the case. The graphics are uniformly pretty good and so this aspect of the game is a given. What sells the games now is the game play, storytelling, and more than that the psychology of the characters. This opens up this whole arena to women. And I think no one would argue with the assertion that social media plays to women’s strengths in communication and collaboration.

Women have provided the backbone to volunteering in this country for many, many years. Activities like befriending, meals on wheels, staffing charity shops and supporting local PTAs. In the current economic climate, with more and more closures of public services, it is often women who take responsibility for keeping open services such as post offices and libraries. We are starting to see the emergence of social enterprise as a way of providing community services and we are seeing a new band of social entrepreneurs and these are more likely to be women.

The challenge, as before is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic have been founded by men. The opportunity is that the changing landscape, moving businesses towards care and social enterprise, will favour the female demographic. The challenge is to make sure that women are in a place where they are able to capitalise on these opportunities.

We should, then, be keen to ensure that women think big enough with their start-ups as, while men are competing to build the next Amazon, Facebook, or eBay, women-led start-ups still tend to focus on small niches. As we’ve seen the niches may be growing of their own accord, but we do need more women who are willing to build large businesses.

It may be that the rise of the social entrepreneur will aid this process as the emphasis for social enterprise is on creating surplus rather than profit and of creating value for all the stakeholders and not simply for the shareholders. Women may in the past have been discouraged at the prospect of creating billion-dollar businesses by the spectre of working in, and with, the old-style testosterone-fuelled board. By replacing that competitive environment with one more conducive to collaboration, as is often the case with social enterprise, we should see more women creating large, sustainable and profitable enterprises.

karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective

What Barcelona can teach about social impact

3 09 2013

Today, more than most days, I’ve been pondering the vexed issue of return on investment and it’s little regarded associate, social return on investment.

Return on investment in purely financial terms is easy to see today, as this is football transfer deadline day. For those of you who do not follow football, transfers of players between clubs can only happen between the beginning of July and the end of August (2nd September this time as 31st August fell at the weekend this year) and during the month of January. For those of you who live on another planet, Gareth Bale, a 22-year-old Welshman, has signed a contract to play football for Spanish football team Real Madrid for about £85m. Since his previous employer, Tottenham Hotspur, paid just £5m to secure his services from Southampton, his move to Madrid represents a massive return on their investment.

But what of the investments that all the fans of Tottenham Hotspur have made in their team? Not just all of those expensive replica tops with the name Bale emblazoned on the backs that are now worthless, but the emotional investment?

Football wasn’t always like it is today. Of the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967, the gloriously named Lisbon Lions, all but one of the 15 man squad was born within 10 miles of Celtic Park. Liverpool legend and member of the England team that won the World Cup in 1966 “Sir” Roger Hunt, used to travel to home games on the bus.

Huge amounts of money now pour into football, particularly into the English Premier League, and footballers ride in Bentley’s rather than on buses. Football is big business. But it doesn’t have to be the preserve of billionaire oligarchs.

Barcelona provide an example of how it should be. They are, self-confessedly, “mes que un club” – more than a club and offer a compelling insight into membership, control and impact on a club, community, national and global level. Barcelona Football Club is owned by its members, some 175,000 of them spread not only throughout Catalonia but across the world. Community ownership, fan ownership, is rare in the UK and has been seen as a route of last resort for failed teams but Barcelona show that you can have competitive excellence within a co-operative structure.

In the UK there are more clubs being saved from extinction by their supporters but even fans of larger clubs would like to see things done differently. I count myself amongst the 72% of Liverpool Fans who, when questioned, stated a preference for co-operative ownership rather than control being in the hands of US investors who, while being better than the last lot, will undoubtedly cash in on their investment at some point leaving the club at the mercy of potentially less helpful investors. Success through co-operative ownership, as at Barcelona, challenges the assumption that success can only be found by having a billionaire owner. If every Liverpool Fan paid £500, a proposition mooted when the last owners were looking to cash in their investment, there would be more than enough money to buy the club.

Being a football fan is a social activity not a corporate one. While clubs, like any other enterprise, need to prosper financially this should not be the only focus. It shouldn’t even be the primary motivation. Football clubs should not just be an advertising vehicle for pay-day loan companies, a stock market investment opportunity, a toy for a Russian oligarch or a property development business. The important point is that fan ownership would allow football clubs to be what they should be, what they once were and what Barcelona have created; an institution run by those who are most affected by the outcomes of decisions made in respect of the club, the fans and the local community, rather than being managed solely for financial gain of a few individuals. Football clubs should be managed for social impact in their communities, both local and the network of fans.

And what is true for football clubs is true for many other organisations. Community pubs are thriving in areas where they were set to close. The village pub is not just a business opportunity for a multi-national food and beverage chain, it is a community asset. In many cases where big business couldn’t make enough money from a village inn and closed, or were set to close, it communities have taken over. In running the pub for social impact they have also managed to make significant financial returns too, surpassing what was achieved by the brewery chain.

And lest you think that Barcelona are a single, unique success story you should know that the majority of clubs in the Bundesliga are organised along co-operative lines. There is a good chance that this has played a very important role in ensuring the stability in clubs like Bayern Munich, a team that won every domestic trophy last season and went on to win the European Cup and, more recently, the Super Cup; beating billionaire owned Chelsea in the process.

karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective

The collective pursuit of wellbeing

13 08 2013

The thing that amazes me most about the current financial crisis, and in particular its causes, is not the situation itself but our response to it. The vast majority suffer in silence or, at best, content ourselves by sharing our disgruntlement on social media.

It isn’t clear to me that this will always be the case; after all it was a simple dispute over the access and use of a public park in Istanbul that brought thousands of people onto the streets of Turkey to express their wider dissatisfaction with the government. I find it difficult to believe that none of us really cares and that we will all be prepared to simply sit in front of our TV’s shaking our heads at the latest excesses of capitalism, abuses of power or environmental catastrophe. So if we are sitting on a tinderbox just waiting for that spark to ignite our outrage and bring us all out onto the streets then it makes sense to consider alternatives to the current system, and to get them in place, before the whole thing blows. If we can’t stop the inferno then at least we can have something that can rise out of the ashes.

In order that people don’t continue to feel that they have no influence or interest in the way things are we need to create a people-centred economy rather than a society that focusses on, and celebrates, the mindless accumulation of possessions and wealth. The current model of capitalism, the Ango/American model, is characterised by both increased levels of inequality and decreased levels of wellbeing. This has had huge financial implications as the state, through the NHS and benefits system, has to up the bill. We have all become accustomed to the idea of maximising profit rather than maximising value in a wider sense.

Greed, the cult of the individual and philosophies of exclusion must be replaced by solidarity, community and inclusion.

From my perspective, while there is a need to create a new type of economy there is no need to create one from scratch; co-operative enterprises already have a business model that puts people at the centre of the decision-making process. By encouraging participation, by bringing people with shared values together working towards a common goal, individual and collective needs can be met.

A huge industry has grown up selling the dream of personal happiness and many thousands of books promise a quick fix for a better life. The happiness industry is like the diet industry, it survives and prospers because so many of its clients fail and have to come back again and again. While the industry grows, built as it is around individual goals and aspirations, wellbeing in society as a whole declines. How much better to take a co-operative approach and give people the means to help themselves by enabling them to co-operate with and support others. When we as individuals can find a common cause we are more open to the needs of others and this openess allows others to co-operate with us. At base level this is how early societies were established. Early humans could not hunt for large prey alone. It takes more than one person, even if that one person has a very sharp spear, to fell a mammoth! Societies grew out of the absolute imperative of co-operation in order to survive.

If the only common cause that can be found is standing together to collect job seekers allowance then is it really so surprising that wellbeing decreases? And we are born co-operators. Studies of infants have shown that from a very young age human infants will work together in order to solve a task that could not be solved by one alone. More than that, they have shown that if the rewards for working together are not distributed evenly the infant who has arbitrarily received a greater reward will share the unearned bounty with their collaborator! This sense of fairness when working together is what actually sets us apart from other primates.

This desire for co-operation and equity exists in the philosophy of Ubuntu. The most easily understood explanation of Ubuntu takes the form of a story.  An anthropologist proposed a game to children in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first won the fruit. When he told them to run, they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that when one could have had all the fruit for himself, they said, ‘UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad? Now I don’t know whether this is an urban legend, so to speak, but it does sum up ubuntu accurately and sets a stark contrast to the individual pursuit of happiness.

Ubuntu asserts that it is society that gives human beings their humanity.  As with the mammoth hunting example, this co-operation for a collective good came about as each individual came together with others as a hedge against his own crop failures and where each individual has an interest in collective prosperity. Desmond Tutu explained it like this, ” One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World.”

The common good, “greatest-happiness principle”, is a philosophy most often attributed to Jeremy Bentham and developed by John Stuart Mill in the late 19th century. Mill argued that it is not one’s own happiness that matters but the greatest amount of happiness altogether and proposed economic democracy rather than capitalism, substituting worker co-operatives for capitalist shareholder owned businesses.

So from common good comes another co-operative principle, common ownership. In a business setting, there is empirical evidence of positive productivity gains from a worker take-over. There is also evidence that the businesses that result are more resilient to economic downturns. Workers often see potential in a business not seen by investors. By anchoring jobs and capital locally worker co-operatives have a significant positive impact on the social cohesion of the local economy.

On a global scale, nobody goes hungry because we have no food. Nobody is homeless because there are no building materials, nobody lives in poverty because there is no money.  People go hungry because the food isn’t where they need it at a price they can afford. People have no homes because they cannot afford housing. People live in poverty while, indeed because, a few accumulate massive wealth. We are accustomed to thinking that we live in a world of scarcity. We do not. We live in a world of abundance but one where that bounty isn’t fairly distributed.  Oxfam recently reported that “the world’s 100 richest people earned enough in 2012 to end global poverty four times over”. As a good friend pointed out when reading the first draft of this article, we can even take issue with whether the richest 100 actually “earned” their wealth at all.

And we need to feel that we have some control over our lives. Democracy doesn’t feel like democracy when decisions are taken far from the place where those decisions will have impact and by people with whom we have little or nothing in common.  Far too often communities have solutions thrust upon them, often from well-meaning groups. Solutions that probably seemed reasonable on paper but which lose relevance and resonance when parachuted into a community that has had no say in the process. Urbanisation and distant state control undermines empathy. We need to bring decision-making back into communities and allow people to have democratic control over their future.

Sociocracy offers a way forward in collective decision-making. This methodology has developed from the Quaker tradition of peace and of valuing the individual and from modern systems thinking. It differs from a democracy in that it is a method in which people work together to govern themselves. While it shares the values of democracy, equality and freedom, it is based on specific governance methods that ensure these values.  It is governance by companions, by like-minded co-operators if you will, based on each giving consent in the decision-making process.

Co-operative enterprise places people at the centre of economic decision-making which leads directly to a sense of fairness and equality. When we have a voice, when we have a fair say, when we are heard, we feel better about ourselves. In a very real sense, co-operative enterprise can be seen as the collective pursuit of wellbeing.

Here comes the cavalry

8 08 2013

It has become a bit of a mantra, a favourite one of mine if I’m honest, to assert that the banks and the bankers are responsible for the current economic downturn, as it is euphemistically called. But even though it is certainly true, it isn’t the whole truth.

Consider the facts, simply expressed. The banks had accrued too much debt. They had so much debt that lenders stopped lending to them. Under this pressure the banks themselves stopped lending any money. The economy got into trouble and the banks got into even more trouble. So bad was their situation that the government (using our money collected by taxation) had to bail them out.  And why did the banks have so much debt? Because they had taken out loans, ie borrowed lots of money, in order that they themselves could lend money to people who wanted to borrow it from them in order that they could buy stuff, particularly property.

So there is a case for saying that the economic crisis wasn’t created by reckless lending but by reckless borrowing. The banks, as any other business dedicated to creating value for shareholders, was simply responding to the marketplace they found themselves in in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A global economy fueled by conspicuous consumption.

And neither is it good enough to say that the banks were too big to fail in a way that implies that it is a fact that not only cannot be disputed but one that  is nothing to do with us.  In the 1980’s British banking laws were changed to allow building societies to demutualise if more than 75% of their members voted to do so. In practice the societies transformed into banks not just with the consent of their memberships but with the enthusiastic support of their members. There was a rush to open accounts so that individuals could benefit from demutualisation, so called carpet-bagging. But while this practice did occur, most of the pressure to demutualise came from members looking to cash in on a quick windfall.

So it is partly our own faults that we now have a banking system which, unlike the vast majority of other developed nations, is dominated by a very few banks that were deemed to be too big to fail.

A side-effect of the model of capitalism we have created is the hero entrepreneur, lauded for creating multi-billion dollar businesses, many of which have been shown to be socially irresponsible in their determination to avoid their fair share of taxation.

So this crisis has proved beyond all reasonable doubt, that a world economy fuelled by ever growing consumption is not a viable option, that banks as currently structured and regulated cannot continue and that we need alternative models for entrepreneurs. We need to rethink capitalism to move away from the idea that if we all keep buying stuff everything will work out alright in the end.

So here comes the cavalry.

The era of self-congratulatory entrepreneurs, of businesses focused only on shareholder value, if not quite over completely, is certainly coming to an end. We are on the brink of what Tony Bradley writing in the3rdimagazine, has termed societal entrepreneurship.  This is different to social enterprise, I think, as this sector has up to now tended to create social entrepreneurs in the same mould as the hero entrepreneur. Individuals striving to create value for themselves and just a few others.  Societal entrepreneurship, or co-operative enterprise as I’d prefer to call it, focuses on creating value for all stakeholders; those within the enterprise, clients, suppliers and the wider community.  A co-operative, societal enterprise takes the hero entrepreneur out of the picture, or at least places them amongst a crowd.

Banks are leaving poorer communities which leaves room in the market for pay day lenders. Ironically, reforms to the banking system here in the UK, which mean that banks have to have larger cash reserves to protect themselves against the level of debt that they faced in 2008, will make it more difficult for competitors to enter this market place. So how are we to create the diverse banking systems found in, for example, countries like Germany? Well, ideas are coming from the most unlikely places. The Church of England has committed itself to forcing pay day lender Wonga out of business by encouraging the greater acceptance and utilisation of credit unions.  A credit union is a member-owned financial co-operative democratically controlled by it’s members and operating to encourage saving and to provide credit at affordable rates. Many credit unions also support community development. By employing this model of financial institution stakeholder, rather than shareholder value is improved. The role of the credit union goes beyond finance into societal, community enterprise, as with the micro-finance of the Grameen Bank system developed by Muhammad Yunus.

There is a growing desire from investors to have at least some of their capital generate a social as well as a financial return; to have social impact.  Social impact is a way of evaluating just how the organization’s actions affect the surrounding community.  The creation of tangible, measurable social impact is increasingly important in the development of business models, public policy and finance.

And large corporations can no longer simply pay lip service to their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy. It was once acceptable for big business to send out their staff once a year to clear some wasteland in the name of team-building and CSR or to sponsor a charity.  Corporate businesses must start to consider all of their stakeholders and to make sure that their actions have a positive impact, not solely in terms of job creation, in the communities in which they are based. If they don’t move this way themselves then investors will increasing push for them to do so. Some companies, like Unilever, are starting to take this seriously with a commitment, set out in a sustainable living plan,  to double the size of their business while simultaneously reducing their environmental impact.

While capitalism may well outlive the current turbulent economic climate there is at least a movement towards sustainable capitalism. Adoption of co-operative enterprise, encompassing community development and community based finance is a powerful first step.

Please no, Mr. Darcy

2 08 2013

Mr. Darcy: May I have the next dance, Miss Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Bennet: [taken aback] You may.

This is the kind of radical writing that has caused such a fuss is it? Well no, not quite.
The constant obsession of the female characters in her novels to find a man to marry them may have been a reflection of the times in which she was living but it hardly picks her out as a radical, feminist icon for the 21st Century. Putting Jane Austen on bank notes may annoy me since there are many more deserving women but she is a safe choice and not one “to frighten the horses.” But it would seem that the fact of her being a woman at all has been enough in and of itself to alarm certain sections of the community.

My first point is this. If we had more women in senior positions in the Bank of England then it would have been unthinkable that Elizabeth Fry would have been replaced by Winston Churchill on the £5 note in the first place. There would have been someone injecting a bit of common sense and stopping the bank making such a glaring mistake. That the men at the top thought it would be OK because the Queen is on all the notes and she is a woman is outrageous. Then again, they can prove me wrong by having all of the men on the notes replaced by women as soon as Charles or William or George takes the throne and their place on the currency.

Secondly, the campaign to have a woman on the banknotes could not have been more reasoned or reasonable. Led by Caroline Criado-Perez it simply pointed out that there had been only one woman on the notes in circulation and that soon there would be none and that this didn’t seem fair when 50% of users of currency were women.

But anytime a woman puts her head above the parapet, for whatever reason, it’s time to unleash the trolls.

The most common defence I’ve seen is freedom of speech. This only serves to show that the trolls, perhaps not surprisingly, don’t really understand what freedom of speech is and why threats and insults are not it. Freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas. In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute and is commonly subject to limitations; for example libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, ethnic hatred, copyright violation and revelation of information that is classified. I’m sure Edward Snowden would like to claim that he was only exersizing his freedom of speech when disclosing secret documents. His defence is a morally sound one but it is not freedom of speech.

The right to freedom of expression is slightly different and is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds”. However Article 19 also goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “be subject to certain restrictions” for example “respect of the rights or reputation of others.”

So, I would hope that it would be clear to anyone that freedom of speech or it’s close cousin freedom of expression doesn’t allow for the kind of vitriolic abuse that a number of women have been subjected to this week.

The problem is two-fold. The abuse and the technology used to deliver the abuse.

The internet was given to everyone by Tim Berners-Lee. We need to keep it that way. But every community has guidelines which all agree to follow. There are pages and pages of terms and conditions which we all sign, every day, when accessing technologies: from installing an app. to downloading an ebook, from joining a dating site to opening an email account. True enough, we never read them, goodness knows what permissions I have given to Apple over the years. If company representatives turned up tomorrow and said that I had signed over my house in the small print on the latest iTunes upgrade I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Anyway, the thing is that Twitter isn’t the internet is just one, albeit very large, community. Twitter can police their system as firmly or as lightly as they want to. It’s their system, their rules. I really can’t see why they are dragging their heels about buttons to report abuse or to introduce systems to detect those opening multiple accounts, a regular habit of trolls to multiply their trolling capacity.

This isn’t the complete answer as the technology and the trolls will continue to dance a lobster quadrille as they each try to best the other. But it would show us non-trolls that Twitter is taking this at least a little bit seriously. And actually, Twitter is a business. If they don’t do something, or at least give the impression that the are doing something, then as soon as someone offers a similar platform that cuts out the abuse all of us non-trolls will take our 140 characters elsewhere and Twitter will go the way of Bebo or MySpace.

And it isn’t just Twitter. I saw this tongue in cheek post in the comments section of the BBC football website following an article about Rangers FC. “Perhaps somebody from the BBC would like to come on here and confirm that it was always their intention that the Comments functionality of their website should be used as a high-profile platform for bigots and religious zealots to express their views.” In fairness to the BBC the abusive comments had been removed but I include the example here just to show that any site open to comment is open to abuse.

And one arrest so far? This leads to the more fundamental point is the abuse itself. What makes some men think it is OK to threaten women, physically, verbally or remotely and why it isn’t taken more seriously in our society. The collection of accounts in Everyday Sexism is appalling. Only today Yale University has downgraded what we would all call rape to something they call “non-consensual sex. Of the six students found guilty of this new offence in the past six months not one of them has been expelled. Four were given written reprimands, one received probation and another was suspended for two semesters but will be free to return next year to graduate. As a society we are simply not taking offences of violence against women, physical or verbal, seriously enough.

And there is a freedom of expression case to consider. I’m pretty high-profile. I’m very well-known, particularly in Scotland, both in business and community initiatives. I speak regularly and often controversially to anyone who will listen. Yet I no longer put myself forward for Question Time, or Woman’s Hour or any other high-profile media event. Why not? Partly because I don’t think the adversarial style of debate is helpful but partly because I don’t relish a high-profile in the lands were trolls abide. And I’m not the only one. In days gone by you could appear in the press or on TV and if there was controversy it was gone quickly. The 15 minutes of fame. But now controversy is shaped and followed and fixed forever on the internet. Things may eventually blow over, as they did in the past, but they take much, much longer and the nature of the attacks can be more vehement as abusers hide between multiple, anonymised profiles.

This is the real freedom that we need to protect. The right of women, and men, to be able to express an opinion with out the fear of trolls.


There’s always a bigger boat

31 07 2013

It is a truth universally held that money doesn’t buy happiness but lots of people are making lots of money by persuading the unhappy to part with their cash in the pursuit of happiness. There are, so I’m told, more councillors in the UK than there are GP’s and with the creeping privatisation of the NHS the imbalance isn’t likely to get any less profound anytime soon. And life-coaches outnumber all other mammals on the planet by 3:1.

OK, I made that last bit up but there are thousands of them as everyone who isn’t a life-coach, and most of those who are, is searching for happiness. And they want it quickly. How about, “Change your Life in 7 days”, one of a myriad of similarly named self-help books, this one from ex-TV personality Paul McKenna.

At least the books are cheap, a day course with a self-styled life-coach can, and often does, cost hundreds of pounds.  And who are these life-changers? The field is unregulated and includes those with no qualifications. But what qualification would be appropriate for someone who claims to coach you to happiness in a week? Does anyone really believe that they can change another persons life in a course lasting a day, a weekend, a week?

I mean REALLY change that person’s life in a real and permanent way? Not just that sugar-rush of having spent time in a room with someone telling you how wonderful you are and how much you deserve to be happy.

If such instant transformation was tangible and lasting then why do so many people go back for a second course, and a third and so on? And why do coaches boast of their regular clients? Surely if the life-coach could do what they claim to do then they would only ever have one-off clients.

It’s like chiropractor. You go along with a problem, they snap something back into place, you feel better – for a while. But since they have treated the symptoms rather than the cause you’ll be back again a few weeks later. I have a friend who has a bad back and swears blind that her chiropractor is fabulous. She is happy to go along every few weeks to be fixed, at great expense, and happily ignores the fact that very soon after she is broken again.

I don’t doubt that some people, maybe lots of people, are unhappy but is sitting in a smart hotel room with other people who can afford the almost £300 these courses typically cost the right way to find happiness.  I don’t think so.

So what makes people happy? Nobel prizewinner Danial Kahneman showed in his research that we are actually pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy.  Certain things, like being poor, do make you miserable but finding things guaranteed to bring happiness is not as clear-cut.  We adapt to pleasure and will choose things that give us a short feel-good burst: chocolate, buying things, spending a day in a room with a life coach.  But the feeling of happiness quickly wears off. It’s a sugar rush.

So how about this for an idea? And you can have it for free – though it’s OK for you to send £300 if that makes you feel better, after all we are talking about happiness here – caring about other people makes you happier.

To rephrase, to make sure you are getting your moneys worth as you are not getting this message in the comfort of some expensive hotel room from the lips of an expensive presenter and so might doubt its veracity, stop trying to find something to fix inside yourself and look outwards.

One thing that research has shown is that we judge our lives against other people. I remember being in Monte Carlo when I was much younger and more easily impressed by stuff than I am now. There was always a bigger boat. That is, all the boats lined up in the harbour were massive and would have dwarfed those in any other marina in the world. Here these boats were all ranged next to each other and were much less impressive because of it.  And none of the boat owners seemed happy. While their yacht may have turned heads in their home marina here they had just another boat.

So, knowing that we judge ourselves in comparison to others, stop pottering round in your middle-class world feeling that life isn’t as good as it could be, that you are not as happy as you should be, and visit a soup kitchen. You will feel better to have helped someone else and you will have saved £300.

And the biggest impact on happiness is having good relationships, good friends. So rather than spending £300 to sit in a room full of dissatisfied strangers deepen the relationships you have with your friends. Use the money you just saved on a mini-break to the seaside with your pals.

And if you ever feel the need of a life-coach go for a coffee with a mate and send me the remaining £297. I’ll donate it to a really good cause. You’ll feel better, your pal will feel better, I’ll feel better, the good cause will feel better. The only person not feeling so good is the life-coach who has just missed out on £300. But if the life-coach is as good as they say, they can fix themselves.

What if the voters say No?

19 07 2013

In about 14 months time I’ll be able to vote on whether or not I want the Scottish Parliament to separate from the English Parliament. I won’t be just me, of course, millions of Scots will have the same chance. If you are in England you won’t get that opportunity. It’s not like a marriage where both sides goes to relationship counselling and together decide on a separation. It’s more like us in Scotland deciding whether to leave you or not.

I might vote yes, as I tend to feel that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who are affected by those decisions. I might vote no if I can be persuaded that the Scottish economy wouldn’t be sufficiently robust on its own. If I see many more comments on facebook like this one,”The majority of the yes bunch are morons that don’t have a clue. Majority are a bunch of racist muppets that don’t want to be associated with England”, I might just move to Canada.

I’m English, so it feels a bit odd to be voting on the future of Scotland. But since I have lived here for the past 25 years and have a Scottish son and intend to live out my days here, moving to Canada notwithstanding, it is actually a vote about my future and the way in which I wish to be governed and not about nationality.

One of the things that has emerged, particularly from those who don’t want independence for Scotland, is the feeling that October 2014 will look just the same for Scotland as August 2014.  It won’t. Nothing will stay the same, whether the vote is yes or no.  The very fact of holding the referendum is like beating egg whites. They are still egg whites at the end of the beating but they look a whole lot different. Scotland will still be Scotland but it will be a whole lot different.

In some ways considering the landscape is easier after a yes vote. All powers will be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. There will be discussions to be made, on Trident and the Pound amongst others, and agreements to be signed, but government will be from Holyrood and power will rest in Edinburgh.

But what if the vote is no. It will not mean carrying on with things in just the same way as we do now. Further powers will, in all likelihood, be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish MPs will still be elected to seats in the Westminster Parliament. Earlier this year the McKay Committee report concluded that MPs from Scottish constituencies should not be allowed to vote in Westminster Parliament on issues that affect only England and Wales. For example, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on matters affecting English Schools as the education systems are separate, and control over education in Scotland is already in powers devolved to Holyrood. This change would be supported by over 80% of English voters so it will be hard for the coalition, or any future Westminster Government to refuse it in the long-term.

On the face of it, fair enough, since English MPs cannot vote in Holyrood and, therefore, cannot have a say in how Scottish Schools are run why should Scottish MPs have an influence in matters concerning the English education system? But how will this change be handled and what effect will it have? The coalition is suggesting that any Bill that affects only England and Wales will have an extra reading. All MPs will be able to engage in the first three stages but in the final vote Scottish MPs will be excluded.

Again, this seems reasonable and fair at first glance but it will have the effect of creating two different types of MP. Since Scottish MPs would not have the right to vote on all Bills passing through Westminster they would become a second-class member and, since they would be unable to vote on all key issues, it would be unlikely that they could sit at the political top table, the Cabinet. And it also raises the question of who decides which pieces of legislation have impact in England only? Not every issue will be as clear-cut as education or the NHS.

And what about the Labour Party. It relies on the large number of Scottish Labour members that are returned to Westminster to form a majority government. It may very well be that Ed Milliband or his successor could become Prime Minister and have a majority of Labour members of parliament. But if the Scottish members were, in effect, non-voting members any changes he wanted to make could be blocked by English MPs. For example, imagine the Labour Party is elected with a decent majority in the house of some 40 MPs. Now imagine that they want to bring forward a Bill to reverse some of the education measures introduced by Michael Gove. Taken that in a majority Labour government there are likely to be over 50 Scottish MPs, none voting MPs when it comes to education issues, the overall majority of 40 is actually a working majority of -10. Labour will find its English legislation impossible to pass.

When I visit my parents in Cheshire they happily express the opinion, mainly as it is repeated endlessly in the Daily Mail, that England pays too much towards the upkeep of Scotland. My mum firmly believes that her taxes paid in England pay for my free prescriptions in Scotland. When they came up from England to meet me in Edinburgh at the end of a charity walk I completed there it was fun to point out on our way back to my home in Crieff that, thanks to her taxes, there is no longer a toll on the Forth Road Bridge.  Setting aside the vexed question of whether this is true or not, these perceptions mean that English voters are already tending towards the view that Scottish spending should come solely from taxes raised in Scotland.  But it is unlikely that it will go this far, rather that some sort of formula will remain in place to allocate monies to Scotland based upon UK Treasury spend. So the amount that the UK treasury decides to spend will still have an impact in Scotland.

I read a good explanation of how this works and it goes something like this; lets pretend that Holyrood is responsible for just three things and  treasury decides to cut funding for all three of these areas in England by 10%. In this instance the block grant to Scotland for provision of these services will be cut by 10%. If the treasury decides to cut just one of the areas by 10%, leaving the others unaltered, the block grant falls by 3.3%.  In each case it is up to the Holyrood parliament then decides whether to cut the service by an amount equal to the reduction in the block grant or to spread the deficit across the services or to make up the shortfall from elsewhere. This is the way the devolved administration works under a block grant system. The point here though is to see that decisions made in Westminster do affect services in Scotland. To put names to services, imagine they are NHS, education and policing. All devolved services. The treasury will put forward proposals for spending in these areas for England. Westminster MPs will debate the issue but Scottish MPs will be unable to vote as they are English matters. But these English matters do affect Scotland in terms of the allocation of block grant. Do you see the problem here? The relationship between England and Scotland will change from one where we pool our resources then ALL MPs decide how the spending is allocated to one where only English MPs decide on these key issues.

And surely it wouldn’t be too long before the parliament in Westminster started to wonder just what use these second-class Scottish MPs really were? Westminster will be acting as an English Parliament with Scotland having representation but no voting rights.  Perhaps at that point England would be looking to sever relations?

The situation post referendum will not be as it is now, in Scotland or in England. There is a lot of talk about what Scotland might look like after a Yes vote but the debate needs to widen so that there is a better understanding of how the political and constitutional landscape will change should the voters say No.

All in it together?

17 07 2013

So, how’s the coalition’s austerity programme working out for you then?

Chances are, if you are a woman, that the answer is ‘not well’.
Women have been hit hardest by the austerity measures that have been introduced as a response to the meltdown of our financial institutions and subsequent recession.

Women are most disadvantaged by the continued withdrawal of public services, including fewer refuges and refuge places and reductions in support services.

Changes to benefits and tax credits cost women more than twice as much as they cost men, widening the gap between men and women’s income and pushing more women into poverty

Women in low paid jobs and lone-parents, on the whole lone parents are single mums not single dads, bear the brunt of the government’s welfare reforms. Cuts to childcare and reduction of help with childcare costs may push women out of the labour market while cuts to adult social care will increase the burden on unpaid carers. As with lone parents, these unpaid carers are mainly women.

And, like the poor, some things are always with us. Like the persistance of the gender pay gap. In Scotland it is 14% for full-time workers while women in part-time work will be paid a massive 35% less than men.

Women’s jobs have been lost in increasing numbers, primarily as the public sector continues to shrink. Data published by the Local Government Association earlier this month showed that the number of women working in the sector had fallen by 253,600 to 1.43m, while the number of men in local government has fallen by 104,700 to 452,300. Here in Scotland the level of female unemployment is the highest it has been in 24 years. While there may be early signs that growth is returning to some sectors of the economy the jobs lost in the public sector, largely women’s jobs, are likely gone forever.

The shrinking of the public sector is a double whammy for women as it impacts women as workers, and women as service users.

Let’s take as an example the issue of domestic violence, where services for women facing violence are under threat

  • The police and crown prosecution service are both facing budget cuts which may reduce the support available to victims and survivors.
  • Cuts in the police service may lead to even fewer successful investigations and prosecutions
  • The NHS is facing budget cuts which may reduce the level of support available to victims of violence, with more on-going mental, physical and sexual health problems for women
  • Cuts to legal aid reduce the ability of women suffering violence to get the legal help and support they need. Almost two thirds of all legal aid claims are made by women.
  • Cuts to housing benefit make it harder for some women to move area to get away from their attacker, leaving more women trapped in violent relationships

And women are not benefitting fro job creation measures. The proportion of unemployed men is down by 0.5% to 8.2% while the number of women without employment has risen by 0.4% to 7.3% since the coalition government came to power in 2010.

In so many ways the hard won gains for women’s equality are in danger of unravelling. We can argue about the causes of the current economic climate; bankers, hedge funds, reckless lending, but whatever the cause one thing is certain. Women did not cause this crisis but we are paying a disproportionately high price.

Rushing to judgement

16 07 2013

I meditate, generally using my breath as a guide but sometimes using the metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation. This is a buddhist meditation where the mind is not cleared but encouraged into kindness, peace and loving thoughts directed first towards self, then to someone close, then to someone you feel neutral about and finally directed towards someone you find challenging. It is a beautiful meditation which I find does work in engendering feelings of loving kindness towards myself and others.

The relevance here is that I find it really hard to find someone who I feel neutral about. When learning this meditation my teacher suggested bringing to mind someone who you knew of but who you didn’t really know. Perhaps someone who had served you in a shop or the postman. But it is hard to visualise a person without invoking the feelings that you have about that person, even if it was just a brief encounter. My postman is always cheery despite being barked at by my dog from the other side of the door virtually every morning, while the guy in the post office is a grumpy old devil despite the fact that I always smile at him.

I don’t know either of these people but I have made a judgement,of sorts, from scant knowledge.

My father, then a director of a multinational was, once a year, involved with the university milk round. He interviewed the brightest and best for the wide range of management training opportunities offered by his conglomerate. He is retired now and the multinational he worked for long since split into its many component parts so I feel safe in making this disclosure. There were many traits that would guarantee a students failure at interview even before they spoke.

For example, wearing slip on shoes meant that you were lazy. If you couldn’t be bothered to tie your own shoelaces then you were very unlikely to be inclined to put yourself out for the company. The same went for beards, wearers being clearly too lazy to shave. A coloured shirt with white collar, popular in the 80’s and making something of a comeback at the moment, was a clear indication of being flash, and therefore not to be trusted. And red ties? No real reason but these, and braces incidentally, each condemned the wearer to the fate of receiving the thanks-but-no-thanks letter a couple of days after the interview.

It used to horrify me that such banal physical things could, in my Dad’s mind, be indicators of moral failings and I was appalled that he would rush to judgement in that way. But my metta bhavana experience shows that I do it too, probably we all do…which is why I have a tattoo.

I don’t like tattoos. I never have. They are a sure-fire indicator that the wearer is ignorant, ill-educated and part of society’s underclass.  This is my gut reaction to seeing someone with a tatoo, my rush to judgement. My own tattoo, therefore, is a challenge to myself not to make instant decisions about others. To try to see beyond the first impression and to try to understand what has led people to make the decisions that they have and to lead the lives that they do.

So, the young man sitting opposite me on the train as I write this, wearing his bright white Nike track suit and talking too loudly on his phone is probably charming if you got to know him and kind to his Mum – probably!