Wednesday, 15 May 2013

We all need, somebody, to lean on....

Bill Withers knew all about leaning, way back in 1972. And oh we sang, but we didn't take the message seriously. Sheryl Sandberg is leading the charge now. She's been on her book tour, selling women on the benefits of leaning. She's pitching it to a new wave of talent, the next generation. Meanwhile, I am fixated on mine and the fine mess we could find ourselves in.

What can't be explained away and consistently fails to be addressed, starts with the wage gap. Across the EU, according to a report published by the European Commission, a women has to work 59 days of a year for free, given the gender pay gap. They even tried to draw attention to it on February 28th, by celebrating the 2013 European Equal Pay Day, 59 days after the New Year began. Somehow, I missed, what must have been some party. In the USA, it's no better for either sex. An average wage earner has to work for a month, to make what their CEO's make in an hour. Wrap your weary heads around that reminder of your worth.

When reality fails to meet expectations, disappointment reigns and then what? We need confidence, which is in short supply; when vulnerability is immense and trust is very thin indeed. The holders of half the sky who only get .77 cents out of every one of those $1.00's earned by a man are also raising kids and caring for ageing/disabled relatives.  But women  get told that it's up to them and it's in their power to change things, if they are serious about getting what they want. And even more confusingly, this will happen, without anything else changing. Who honestly thinks that can work?

Women may be starting more companies, but even back in the world of the Sheryl Sandberg style of female success, women may ask but still only get a pittance of funding from venture capital. That rare air is also notorious for its male dominance. Meanwhile, capital availability from banks, in the form of loans to SME's, is slow and procedurally tedious. Finding the what for, to lean in, when there is no visible means of support to lean against, is a physical impossibility.

And it's not just a business phenomenon. I was invited to an academic conference last week. It was a fairly esoteric gathering of cerebral power. Just over thirty people and full of complete brainiac, navel gazing stuff. Anyway, we were seated in some Alice in Wonderland room with massive fireplaces, mirrors and gigantic oil paintings. I had  a brief, while intense moment of clarity.

There were three oil paintings on the wall and  two of the portraits were of women. It occurred to me that proportionally, there was a greater likelihood of a woman being on a wall in that room, than on one of the seats. While the chair for the day was a female colleague, not a single woman presented, nor asked a question. Leaning in isn't exactly happening in the hallowed halls either.

We are living in a time of increasingly regular exposé's and disappointments - think PIP breast implants, LIBOR rigging, energy price fixing, Bloomberg snooping, IRS targeting to name a few of this weeks top hits, but this goes deeper. While the global news streams a daily scream of injustice about the inhumane treatment of girls and women, the sisterhood is struggling from Delhi, to Cleveland, to Oxford.

They are not doing it for themselves because they can't. And it will take far more than liberal platitudes or even the folksy wisdom and last century career building tips from Warren Buffet. Even though he has latterly concluded, that women are the secret to the future economic success of the US!

When Sheryl was interviewed by Eric Schmidt at the Computer History museum in San Joseshe said that Silicon Valley needed to wake up! She said that she had enrolled her daughter in a summer computer camp at Stanford and of the 35 kids on the list, only 5 were girls. Along with her daughter and two nieces, she had been responsible for getting three girls there.  Still, it's not just Silicon Valley that needs to wake up. It's going to take women, including every woman out there who ever gave life to a son or a daughter. Women must wake up and see that being a feminist means believing in equality - period and that nothing less should be expected or accepted.

"Lean on me, when you're not strong". That anthem, in the age of longevity, is about to take on far greater significance.

Deborah Gale

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