Change the system not the women

16 07 2013

“For a woman to get half as much credit as a man she has to work twice as hard and be twice as smart. Fortunately this isn’t difficult.”

We’ll have all heard that saying, and probably most women had a smug smile or snigger of recognition when they first heard it.

Many successful women have even been heard to use it to imply that they must be much better than their male colleagues to be in a similar position of power and influence.

But put the quotation another way, that if a woman and a man are equally smart and work equally hard then the man will enjoy four times the success, it isn’t quite so funny.

And here is a problem with the hero entrepreneur, or the “shero”, a term that is gaining currency amongst this type of entrepreneur; it encourages us to focus on what women need to do and how they need to be to succeed in the current system when what we should be doing is focussing on structural inequalities. Focussing on women who have achieved great things fortifies the illusion that all women could succeed if only they tried harder, stayed later in the office, were more confident.

Last year I was on a discussion panel which followed a presentation of the book, “Beyond The Boys Club” by it’s author. I had agreed to sit on the panel as the meeting was to discuss the vexed question of increasing the numbers of women on corporate boards. I have to confess that I only read the book on the day of the event or I probably would have declined the invitation. That said, the panel debate was excellent but the book itself promulgates the very worst aspects of the current system. It perports to teaching women how to beat the men at their own game when we should be changing the game. The rules of this particular game, enforced by the boys club, led to the near total collapse of the western economy. We need new rules not just a different gender to play the same game.  Maybe we even need a different game altogether.

There is a parallel here with the very worthwhile aim of keeping women safe. It focusses on how to dress, where it is safe to go and places to avoid, times to be on the streets and times to be tucked up in bed.I would hope that the vast majority of people would want women to be unharmed but my point is that we need to focus on creating safe societies, making structural changes,  not just keeping women safe by restricting freedoms. Far better to teach men not to rape than to teach women how to avoid being raped.

We all want to believe that we are living in a fair world, one in which everyone is able to succeed solely on their own merits but we are not.

When women like Sheryl Sandberg stand up and talk about how women can achieve the kind of success she has had she enjoyed she is not addressing all women. She is talking to the very few women who can chose where, and for how long, they work each day. Most women, indeed most men, do not have this luxury. Her experience, as shared in talks and now in her book, may help with tricks and tips to succeed and may smooth the path of a very, very small number of women who wish to follow in her footsteps. But hers is a particular, priveledged journey that very few women, or men, are able to take.

By encouraging the, “if she can do it then I can do it” attitude we fail to address the deficiencies of the system.  Accepting that because one person can do something must somehow demonstrate that the system is OK is wrong.

We are not living in a fair world. Helping a few more women, or men, to struggle to the top of mountain is not the answer. Doing something to change the landscape is.





Why women entrepreneurs (Part I) – Not enough Rooney’s to go around

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

Good afternoon.
I’m Karen Birch and since you probably have little idea who I am, partly for some of the reasons we’re about to explore, I’ll introduce myself before getting started.

I was born just down the road from here but have spent the last 20 years running entrepreneurial businesses in Scotland. They have ranged from biotechnology to advertising, e-commerce to software design. These days I spend my time supporting women-led businesses and developing co-operative and community enterprises. A large proportion of my time is spent as CEO of the 3rdimagazine, an on-line business publication. We have women and men from all over the UK writing articles on all sorts of business issues. The key factor is that we look at business issues from a woman’s perspective. You might wander, with good reason, what that means and it is an important question with regard to the rest of this discussion.

As a way of introducing the idea it might be helpful to consider how the3rdimagazine started. Essentially Phil Birch, co-founder of the magazine and author of the groundbreaking ethical enterprise system, Ethiconomics, was working with senior men and women executives and found that it was a different experience in terms of their thought processes, business practices and ambitions. In researching these differences it became clear that there wasn’t a business publication that addressed these issues. There were business magazines, which tended to be testosterone fuelled and focussed on salaries, fast cars, big houses and beautiful wives and women’s magazines, which focussed on handbags and spa days, so in true entrepreneurial fashion we decided to create the3rdimagazine to fill the gap.

So, why women entrepreneurs?
Clearly this is a topic that could fill a whole module not just an hour long lecture so I’ll keep things simple. This will no doubt mean that you have lots of “please miss, what about…” moments which I’ll be happy to address at the end.

Before we move on it is worth taking the time to consider what I mean when I use the word entrepreneur. Personally, I’m not a fan of the ‘mumpreneur’. Writing a book about bringing up baby, self-publishing and then spending the rest of your life tweeting about it does not, in my opinion, make you an entrepreneur. That’s not to say that it isn’t enterprising or that it shouldn’t be applauded. It is and it should. But for me the term entrepreneur implies a little more ambition for growth. J.K. Rowling was smart, or lucky, enough to create a character in her books that had huge film and merchandising potential. Is she an author or entrepreneur? Some definitions are based on turnover and I find this problematic too. My current business would not qualify me as an entrepreneur on consideration of turnover – the magazine was created as a co-operative to ensure collaboration and independence rather than to generate vast wealth. My previous ventures would have qualified in terms of business value. So am I now an entrepreneur or not? Perhaps better to say that I am entrepreneurial? And what of someone who has just sold a business for a fortune as it at the early stages of creating a new one? Do they have their status as entrepreneur suspended until this new business reaches a certain size?

You can see the difficulties so for the purposes of this discussion I will use the term entrepreneur very loosely to simply mean someone who has started a business. I’ll discuss why we need women entrepreneurs, how they are different from male counterparts and why this difference is important.

So, we all know women. You only have to look at the shelves of magazines in supermarket to see how women are viewed; models, gossips, victims, celebrities. I’m not making a feminist point here as it is as much about how women present themselves as how they are presented. I was at a conference a wee while ago hosted by RBS and called something like “Women into Business”. It was aimed at new and early start women-led businesses. All of the speakers, apart from the senior bank executives (we’ll come back to that later), were women and without exception the first thing that they said was to draw attention to the ‘fabulous’ shoes that they were wearing and how tricky it was to walk to the lectern in killer heels. Now, I’m a biologist, was a biologist, and there is well respected line of research that looks at the adaptive advantage of seemingly debilitating physical features such as the peacock’s tail. It may be that high heels fall into that category, after all Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, but I think not.

And we know entrepreneurs.
So who do we think of? Richard Branson? Alan Sugar? Maybe the internet billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg. Most people would struggle to name a woman in their list. Even the recent Woman’s Hour poll of the top 100 most powerful women in the UK was woefully short of business women. The Queen was voted in at number one and the invisible Home Secretary that is Theresa May was in second. After that I pretty much lost the will to live.

So why is the lack of enterprising women in the public eye a problem?

Just this.
According to the study, “Girls’ Attitudes Explored… Role Models 2012”,

  • we have a generation of young women whose role models come from reality TV

In particular programmes such as TOWIE and Made in Chelsea where the female characters aspire to be nothing more than WAGS.

I go into primary schools and even girls as young as 11 say that they want to be pop stars, on the TV, work in a beauty salon or a tanning shop. And why are role models important? Here’s one reason why, according to the same survey,

  • One in six girls said that they were put off careers in engineering as they didn’t know that women worked in that industry.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. One of my first jobs when I left university was as a water treatment engineer. For those of you that don’t know what one of those is, probably 100% of you as I didn’t know either when I applied for the job, it involves climbing up to the top of high buildings to check chemical levels in cooling towers and visiting dirty basements to check chemical levels in boilers. I was the only woman working in the industry and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job if I’d known that. But if we are going to get more women doing these jobs we are going to have to have more women doing these jobs. By the time I left I’d recruited two other women and suddenly water treatment engineer was a job that men and women could do.

And returning to the celebrity issue,

  • The girls asked could only name a handful of successful businesswomen, most of them because they have an established celebrity profile

Women like Stella McCartney and the grumpy woman from Dragon’s Den, who were known by dint of their celebrity profile rather than because of their business acumen. The lack of role models is important as it affects the attitudes of those thinking about starting a business, with women being far less confident of their abilities than their male counterparts. 45% of men, compared to just 29%, of women, felt that they had the skills, knowledge and experience to start a business. Role models play a crucial part in encouraging the “I can do that” mentality.

Again, from my own experience, I talk to many women’s groups, particularly to those women thinking about going into business. If anyone comes up to me at the end of the talk and says, “ I couldn’t do what you’ve done”, I know that I have failed. As a role model in these situations it is important that the women there do feel that they can do exactly what I have done – and hopefully much more. My fear is that the current ‘hero entrepreneur’ model, with a lone speaker talking wisdom to an audience much as I’m doing here today, is not a good one. It tends to, end is used to by many businessmen, illicit feelings of awe rather than feelings that it is possible to achieve similar success.

So the first reason why we need women entrepreneurs is to encourage aspiration and to broaden the horizons of the next generation of women. It is OK to want to be a singer or a dancer but it is about expanding the choices available. And anyway, not every young girl can be a WAG. There simply aren’t enough Wayne Rooney’s to go around!

And here’s where you all come in. For the women in the room to have the confidence to know that you can start your own business. And for the men in the room; you have a responsibility not to perpetrate the falsehood that there are certain jobs that are ‘men’s jobs’.

And we don’t have to speculate about what would happen if we had more positive role models. It has been fashionable, in the wake of the global financial crisis, to look at the Icelandic experience for guidance. True to form there is some great work going on to reduce gender imbalance across all sectors of business, including projects that help women to start their own business. Here’s what they have to say;

  • The increasing positive media attention on successful businesswomen has had an influence on the entrepreneurship culture. These women become role models, and the existence of role models is an important driver for women to start a business.
    (Bjarnheiður Jóhannsdóttir, Project Manager of Brautargengi )




Why women entrepreneurs (Part II) – Lessons from Zoology

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

Now we come to the second reason, and here I have to confess that I have a considerable advantage over most business students.

My first degree is in Zoology and as part of that degree course I studied Human Evolution, so please bear with me if my argument becomes overly complex and too scientific. The early record of human evolution threw up a number of incredible metrics, some of which are as true today as they were when early hominids first started to move from the East African Rift Valley.  The most important statistic for our discussion today is the staggering revelation that 51% of the population are women. Yes, women are not a minority group …. BUT

  • women make up just 22.5% of women MP’s. The picture is slightly better in Scotland but the number of women MSP’s is the second lowest in four Holyrood elections at just 34%

Staggering though this is, it is the high point as,

  • women make up just 15% of High Court Judges – which may go some way to explaining why prisons are filling up with single mums whose main crime is a failure to cope. But that is a discussion for another day.
  • according to the Davies Report women make up only 12.5% of the members of the corporate
    boards of FTSE 100 companies. Admittedly this  does represent an improvement from 2004 when the figure was just 9.4%. At this rate of growth it will take 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’s largest 100 companies. Under Lord Davies’ recommendations, FTSE-listed boards are required to have 25% of positions held by women by 2015. We’ll look at progress in this regard a little later.
  • just 10% of bank CEO’s are women. In 2011 the EU issued draft proposals to force banks to take on more women directors. The proposal calls for women to make up one-third of bank directors.  At the time the proposal was launched, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group had female representation on the boards lower than 10%, at HSBC it was 25%,  at Barclays 15% and Standard Chartered 13%.  Ana Patricia Botín of Santander is the only female chief executive of a major bank.
  • only 5% of national newspaper editors are women – and remember what the Icelandic experience tells us about the importance of a positive media profile.
  • and 0% of the monetary committee are female. I’m not a fan of (the late) Margaret Thatcher, to put it mildly, as I was still in Liverpool when she was determined to destroy economic development in the city, but she did suggest that balancing the national budget was little different to what every woman did week in and week out in the home. I quote, “”Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.” I can’t help feeling that under the current economic circumstances having more women on the committee wouldn’t be a bad idea.

And the imbalance continues when we consider entrepreneurial activity. Women are only half as likely to be involved in entrepreneurial activity as men. The figures are woefully low in the UK for both sexes actually, with the result that only 5% of women are involved in entrepreneurial activity.

And it is reflected in the statistics showing who has control of the small businesses in the UK as over half of SME’s are run entirely by men. For those that don’t recognise the acronym, SME’s are small or medium-sized enterprises and defined as those businesses having less than 250 employees. For completeness the figures collected in 2010 show that

  • 52% of SME’s are entirely male led
  • 9% of SME’s are majority led by men
  • 25% of SME’s are joint led
  • 14%of SME’s are majority female led

Returning to the issue of women on boards for a moment, after an initial upsurge in female board appointments in the wake of the Davis Report, progress is slowing.  This is not just my opinion but that of Business Secretary Vince Cable responding to the latest report from the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders.

The latest figures show that the percentage of female appointments to FTSE 100 boards in the last six months is 26%. This is a considerable slow down from the previous six month period measured by Cranfield, where female appointments to the FTSE 100 were 44% . To dramatically emphasise just where we are now;

  • Right now there are only 18 women in executive positions in the FTSE 100, compared to 292 men.

So the second reason is the simple one of equity. It seems only fair that a gender that represents over 50% of the population should be proportionally represented in offices of state, in the board rooms of our major corporations and in SME’s.

As a post-script to this part of the discussion and an affirmation of Part I, Penny de Valk, Chief Executive of Cedar, said in response to the slow-down;  “The lack of female role models in senior positions feeds a vicious cycle, where the summit looks like a risky and alien place for women and the personal cost of success may seem too high.”

So we need more women entrepreneurs;

  1. To provide role models for the next generation of young women and
  2. Simply as a matter of fairness

The 3rd reason, which we’ll discuss next, is the simplest and most compelling, because it makes economic sense.





Why women entrepreneurs (Part III) – It’s the economy, stupid

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

If the first two reasons weren’t compelling enough, then the third surely will be as economic argument often wins over claims for fairness of outcome or opportunity. As expressed so eloquently in Bill Clinton’s election campaign in 1992, It’s “the economy, stupid”.

I’ve said that most businesses in the UK are small, but exactly what do I mean by that?

Well, 71% of businesses in the UK have 0 employees.
That is to say an individual has work for themselves and employs no-one else.

A further 24% of businesses in the UK employ between 1-10 people

So, a staggering 95% of businesses in the UK employ less than 10 people
Perhaps Napoleon would still recognise the UK as “A nation of shopkeepers”. We are certainly still a nation built around small businesses.

We’ve seen how existing businesses are managed largely by men, but what about new starts? What would be the effect of encouraging more women to start businesses?

As early ago as 2007, in a report into the state of women’s enterprise in the UK by R Harding, it was stated that,

  • “any significant increase in (overall) business formation will only come from encouraging more women into business”

If we look at the US for inspiration, as we are often encouraged to do, then women there are twice as likely to be active entrepreneurially than women here in the UK. What would it mean to the UK economy if we could achieve that level of entrepreneurial activity here?

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking at the Advancing Enterprise Conference in 2005, said

  • “If the UK could achieve the same levels of female entrepreneurship as the US, Britain would gain three quarters of a million more businesses”

750,000 more businesses!

Well, maybe that might be too ambitious; thinking that women in the UK could be as entrepreneurial as their US counterparts, though interestingly, the figures for male entrepreneurship are about the same on both sides of the Atlantic, so how about increasing activity in the UK?

What would it mean if women in the UK were as active entreprenerially as men in the UK?
Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, Former Minister for Women and Equality said that,

  • “In the UK, if women started businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 extra start-ups each year”

Slightly less impressive but still impressive numbers.

And it is not just about starting businesses simply for the sake of starting a business, to make the government statistics look better, but it is about sustainability. As Chief Executive of the Small Business Service, Martin Wyn Griffith put it,

  • “A pound invested in developing women’s enterprise provides a greater return on investment than a pound invested in developing male owned enterprise”

Why might that be?

We know from experience with the likes of the Grameen Bank, who put small, often very small, amounts of money into women led enterprises in developing countries, that the women use the money to grow their businesses and also to support their families and communities. I know from my own experience in Fair Trade co-operatives that Edinburgh based tea and coffee importer, Fair Exchange, buys only from women-led co-operatives as they also have shown that when you buy from women the money stays in the community rather than disappearing with the men to the nearest big town with a bar. Now I’m not suggesting that money invested in male-led businesses all ends up supporting cocktail bars in the city, though I would quite like to know what corporations do with all that money as it doesn’t appear much of it goes to paying tax, but we do need to take some of the learning from overseas developments into our own struggling communities.

And the 150,000 women-led businesses that Jacqui Smith felt could be created, there is likely to be a much more immediate effect on the economy than if those start-ups were from men as around one in five women come into self-employment from unemployment compared with around one in fifteen for men. Put simply, men are more likely to leave a job that they already have to start up on their own – net economic gain 0 jobs. Women entering the workforce from unemployment – net economic gain 1 job.

We have seen that 71% of businesses employ no-one but there is still the tendency to dismiss women in self-employment as running “life-style” businesses. A man with a white van and a ladder is entrepreneurial in setting himself up with a window cleaning businesses. A woman with a white van and a hairdryer is either working for pin money or biding her time waiting for mister right to come along – presumably bringing his ladder with him!

I’m in two minds as to whether we should try to reclaim the term “lifestyle business” or whether it is already so badly debased that it is beyond reclaiming. Fundamentally all businesses are lifestyle businesses, it’s just that Bill Gates has a different lifestyle to you and I. And why should a plumber be more respected than a hairdresser?

There is nothing wrong with running a business that provides work for just one woman in order that she can support herself and her family. And when it comes to hairdressers, mine employs more people than I do, and hires out space in the salon to beauticians and other therapists, creating and supporting jobs in the town. Yet it is me here talking about entrepreneurship! Something wrong somewhere?

And it is worth considering the types of businesses women start, and why, and I’ll do that next.





Why Women Entrepreneurs (Part IV) – Doing what we’ve always done

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

It is worth considering the type of businesses that women set up.

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

  • community, social and personal activities ~ +6%
  • health and social work ~ +9%
  • hotel and restuarants ~ +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 gynecology.  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’ was 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 echoes my earlier point about 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 businesses 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 chose, we need to go right back to the start of this presentation and look closely at the role models that we are presenting to the next generation as these role models that 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 businesses 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” as we have showed is a reasonable replacement earlier, 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 PTA’s. 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.

 





Women in Innovation and Technology

8 12 2010

While I was growing up I wanted to be a scientist, swimming with dolphions with Jaques Cousteau or tramping through jungles with David Attenborough. My heroes were the great men of science and I read and re-read a dusty old tome of my dad’s that described the life and works of these giants, like Faraday, Boyle and Mendeleev.  I even skethched a mural of portraits taken from the etched plates in the book which I titled, somewhat pretentiously but accurately “Our Fathers”.

But where were the women?

Those of you who are my age will no doubt remember those black and white storyboards that were part of Blue Peter, narrated by Valerie Singleton and telling, in a way that made even the most exciting story uninteresting, the stories of great deeds and discoveries.

The only women I remember were Madame Curie, endlessly stirring vats of pitchblend, Florence Nightingale and that bloody lamp, the heroic Grace Darling and the pathetic and doomed Ann Frank.

So I was heartened to hear an edition of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg which looked at the role of women in science in the Age of Enlightenment which goes some way to answering the question, “Where were the Women?”

While it is true that the Age was not hugely enlightened about the education of women;

“The education of women should always be relative to that of men.  To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable…  Even if she possessed real abilities, it would only debase her to display them”, J.J. Rousseau, 1762;

and that women were  excluded from scientific societies, universities and learned professions, the fact that science became a more acceptable way in which a gentleman could earn his living and that some areas of research were conducted in the domestic environment allowed a few women to make their mark.

Since most research was conducted in the home women became involved firstly as assistants to fathers, brothers and husbands, and with intellectual discussions also taking place in stately homes and salons women gained exposure to scientific discourse in their role as hostess.

Take Veuve Cliquot. François Clicquot died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of a company. Under Madame Clicquot’s guidance the firm established their wines in royal courts throughout Europe.

When Lady Mary Montagu was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of inoculation against smallpox and had her son inoculated.  On her return home she had her daughter inoculated and went on to promote the practice throughout the UK. Her actions follow the perfect template for scientific practice in the enlightenment;  Observe – Test – Scale Up – Publicize.

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze is most commonly known as Madame Lavoisier, wife of Antoine Lavoisier the famous French chemist but her contribution extended far beyond being simply his laboratory assistant.  She was an acommplished translater of scientific papers and not only translated the work of Newton but also tested his theories and converted the complex mathematical equations into simpler formulae and understandable prose. While her contribution to his work was not acknowledged in Lavoisiers papers contemporary accounts do attest to her contribution and she continued to run the salon long after his death in the French Revolution.

The burgeoning field of astronomy afforded the perfect oportunity for women to contribute to scientific enquiry. Telescopes were largely housed in the homes of wealthy gentleman and often women were involved in making the masses of observations and measurements required or confirming the recordings of the men. Indeed it could be suggested that Elizabeth Hevelius, then only sixteen years old married the fifty two year old astronomer Johannes Hevelius maily as it allowed her to pursue her own interest in astronomy! Following his death, she completed and published Prodromus astronomiae, their jointly compiled catalogue of 1,564 stars and their positions, an achievemnt that earned her the title “mother of the moon charts.”

Caroline Herschel was another astronomer, sister to Sir William Herschel. Caroline had wanted to be an opera singer but was forced to support her brother as his workload increased and they worked together throughout his career.  Her most significant individual contribution to astronomy was  as the first woman to identify a comet. In 1835, along with Mary Somerville, she was elected to honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society; they were the first honorary women members. Again Caroline’s work extended beyond the death of her brother,  as she continued to verify and confirm William’s findings and producing a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel in his work. In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal for this work – no woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996!

So women were there providing assistance, yes, but performing acts of innovation and discovery in their own right too! It is not just that “behind every great man there is a great woman”.

While the marginalisation of these women and their accomplishments might be understandable in the society of 18th Century Europe it couldn’t still be the case now, could it?

Consider this then; we’ve all heard about Watson and Crick, heroes of mine as I had ambitions to be a genetisist at one stage in my university career but what of the long-overlooked contribution of the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of DNA structure? I was at university before I became aware of her work as it is largely overlooked in school text books.

So we all need to work to laud female innovators and technologists. There are plenty about!

There are more women millionaires under the age of 44 than there are men. If you’re reading this, how about putting some of that monen into supporting young innovators?





Where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?

1 11 2010

My Dad has lots of sayings, picked up from books, plays and tv down the years that have passed into family lore. One of these, recited in an iffy west country accent, is “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?” As with most of my Dads sayings, I didn’t know where this came from. I’d never asked as most of his offerings are conjugated from several phrases and don’t have a single derivation, but I was listening to a radio play, The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley, who found further fame as Corporal Godfrey in the tv seies Dads Army, when I heard the station master say “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?”.

I was delighted to hear this refrain from my childhood. It brought a huge smile to my face. The real significance was the timing. I’d been sitting with a blank piece of paper considering the theme of this months issue of the3rdi magazine, ‘confidence‘, and writing, or failing to write this editorial and then this phrase “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?”

Confidence then. Where does it come from?
We all have it at birth, I think. When my son was about 3 years old we were on a family holiday in Portugal. We were having a meal in a beautiful courtyard and, as with most children, he got fidgety when he’d finished his meal and wanted to head off to play. We were still finishing wine and coffee so he had to stay close. Whay he did was to stand in pathway and smile at people. He didn’t stand in their way, he wasn’t pushy, he just smiled. If they didn’t smile back he smiled more. Everyone smiled. Imagine having the confidence to do that now. Street entertainers do this everyday but most of us feel nervous meeting new people and don’t feel we have the confidence to make an impression.

One of the most interesting stories I heard this week was about the neice of a friend. She had been looking for a job and my friend had suggested that she take a look at her LinkedIn contacts and see if there was anyone there that she might like an introduction to. The young girl looked at LinkedIn and decided that there were indeed great contacts to be made so, without third-party introduction, she contacted key individuals, including the CEO of a major Knightsbridge retailer and asked for an internship. He responded personally and has given her many great contacts and introductions to help her along the way. Would you have had the confidence to make that direct contact or would you have waited to be introduced? Her confidence came from not knowing that you’re not supposed to do that. But who says that you’re not supposed to?

At speaking engagements and through the3rdi magazine I tell people all the time that they can contact me personally and directly to get publicity for their business stories. Few do. While this is not all about lack of confidence, it may be that the time isn’t right to look for help or publicity with the business, but it often is that people don’t feel confident enough to introduce themselves.

So we all start out with confidence so where does it go?
There are many suggestions in the3rdi magazine this month of things that may, over time, erode our confidence. The media driven imperative for young girls to attain the perfect figure is one. The celebrity culture that has led young girls to aspire to be a WAG or a reality TV star, and berate themselves if this does not happen for them, is another. Something as simple, and beyond our control, as being the middle child of three is another example given by one of our contributors for lack of early self-esteem. The point is that the list is endless and infinitely variable. Things that may have happened to me to shake my self-belief may have left another unaffected. Business setbacks that may have fatally undermined someone elses ability to prosper have not dampened my desire to succeed. We are not all the same and the reasons for our confidence being built on shaky foundations varies.

So how can we build firmer foundations.
There are hundreds of suggestions in the3rdi magazine this month. Each offers a solution to particular crisis of confidence. I want to offer my own, broader based solution. AS ever, I’ll explain by way of a story. There are several times in my life that I have felt utterly indestructible, times when nothing was a problem, when nothing could shake my confidence. I can remember each time very clearly and the funny thing is that none of these times is closely linked to a moment of particular success. They seem to have arisen independently of the circumstances in my life at that time.

For example one time, very early in my career I was a salesman and I remember driving north up the M1 listening to Black Man Ray by China Crisis as I drove. I felt indestructible. The feeling didn’t follow a particularly successful call, I hadn’t just earned a huge bonus and I wasn’t driving a brand new car – all causes for euphoria if your in sales! The feeling just was.

If the feeling can arise without obvious cause then we are free to create it within ourselves. If you act like a confident person then people will think that you are a confident person.

And a final point about confidence. We all assume that other people have it! When we walk into a crowded room at a networking event everyone who is already there looks relaxed and confident. Think about this. Two minutes ago they were exactly the same as you are now; feeling a little nervous about entering a room full of strangers. It is not confidence that separates you, just two minutes. Once you are in the room and settled you will be the confident one, so take that ‘two minutes later‘ feeling with you into the room.

Think of a time when you were indestructable and take that feeling of how it feels with you wherever you go.