Thursday, 28 March 2013

Asking the difficult questions

My beautiful, fantastically intelligent friend, Gill Howie, died on 26 March 2013. She died of cancer, after a long illness, and she has left two young boys.

We had drifted apart over the last decade or so, for no reason other than that both of us were working hard, she had had children, and then I did. She was in Liverpool, I was in Cambridge, then Australia, then London, then moving, then management consulting, then researching, then governing bodying, then... then... you get the picture. Busying myself.

Gill was a feminist philosopher, and asked difficult questions all the time about Marxism, and critical thinkers. Gill was an activist intellectual. She thought it was vital to live out her moral investigations in her own actions. So she was a union activist, and later, once she was a professor at Liverpool, and a head of department, I imagine she looked after the interests of her staff to the very best of her abilities.

Because Gill was one of the most compassionate people I have ever known. She had this interest in other people, this love of whatever other people did— they fascinated her, others. It was their very differentness from her that she was absorbed by. She had incredibly piercing eyes, and it always felt as though she were looking straight into your soul, and your own bad faith. Yet she also had the extraordinary gift of not judging or punishing others. Despite being massively more intelligent than most people around her, she was able to hold people as they developed, rather than crushing them with her judgements. She was so patient with the foibles and setbacks of others.

But she was very far from being sanctimonious. I am not talking priestly self-effacement here. Gill may have been the best listener I have ever known, but she wasn't silent. Gill was a most vital, sensual, pleasure-seeking creature. She was utterly immersed in all that life has to offer by way of sensory experience. Gill was naughty in the best possible ways. Hers were the best parties in Cambridge, she was a magnet for some of the most talented and creative people I have ever known. Her tiny flat was a salon, full of people vying for her approval and attention, which she bestowed with queenly benevolence equally on everyone. She was a beautiful cat. How many lives has she touched?

I wish I had not drifted away from her. She was one of the reasons I wanted to do a phd, and thought it was worth the effort and struggle, she made the intellectual adventure of it feel alive and important. She broke out my idealism and my feminism, and never capitulated to that dimension of feminism which is about self-flagellation and perfectionism. For her, feminism was about the right of every woman and every person to their own liberty and pleasure, free from fear and bullying, and it was about the importance of free thought as a practice. She lived her philosophy and worked it out all through her wonderful life. I will miss her very much.

Perhaps the only way to respond to her death is to carry on asking the difficult questions she used to ask, the ones that go straight to the heart of a problem, and enable people to discuss it and resolve it. She was a very brave woman. Let asking the difficult questions be her legacy.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

What can you do in the time available?


The Real Women's Issue: Time, a piece in The Wall Street Journal by Jody Greenstone Miller, is a breath of fresh air in the stifling and ideas-free Women 'n' Work debate. 

It takes headon the idea that all ambitious women can do in the workplace is 'lean in', a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg, to mean 'assert themselves more'. 

Miller argues that, in fact, organizations and institutions could change the notion of work, rather than thinking that the only model of success is working a 60+ hour week. Let's not forget that many women (ambitious or otherwise) work that many hours a week already. It's just that, once they have a family, they ain't gonna be doing it in their place of employment. 

So — change what 'work' is. Remember that it's carried out by human beings, who still operate in lunar cycles with circadian rhythms, aging year by year, reproducing awkwardly at around the time they reach full working capacity (go figure). 

'Work' is, presumably, an activity that keeps a system going, prevents a system from dysfunctioning, or starts up a new system. 'Work' must be whatever doesn't just happen by itself. It takes work to prevent a garden running wild, to produce food, or to keep a house or a street or a city clean. It takes work to produce books, and teach students. It takes work to sew all those cheap garments we're used to buying. It takes work to triage patients and then operate on them, or give them medication. It takes work to lose weight, not lose your temper, to fundraise, to avoid workplace politics. 

'Work' takes place in real time: time that is real by virtue of actually passing, never to come again, moving in just one direction.

Project-based working is fantastic, as is flexi-time (at least on paper). Trust is another key ingredient — if you take all that trouble to recruit, don't you want to trust your people? If you run your work around your people, the work will get done. If you treat them like battery chickens, they will lay for a little while, and then leave, and you'll have to train up a whole new bunch of expendable chickens. And they'll hate you for it. 

For my money, project-based work, trust, and a very calm working space are the biggest keys. You can add to that training project managers to help them communicate with clients and manage unreasonable expectations. Finally, transparent office calendar systems (online calendars can be abused and filled up with pointless meetings — you want something wall-mounted that everyone can use). Scheduling the most important meetings within school hours is perfectly feasible (most people are at their best then anyway, and need the time to write up notes etc at the end of the day). 

Ultimately all this points to the ideal of emphasizing quality over quantity. Leave quantity to statisticians and nerds, who love to aggregate and average, and unitize. People are not the same as the stuff that goes on shelves, or gets typed into computers. They are people. 

All of this thinking applies whether you are male or female. Women are forced to think about time more intensely and creatively, because they are the ones confronted with double and triple workloads once they have children, and so they have found ingenious ways round it. 

I don't really see how it's a "loss" if ambitious women leave workplaces that demand their souls. Those same women don't lie down and die, they start new businesses of their own, they work freelance and parttime, they grow far stronger networks than they had before, they welcome the notion of portfolio careers, they undertake project-based work around their families, they have more time to breathe, and they work until they regain control over their lives. Isn't that a key definition of success?  

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Sugar Trials

This weekend I was put on trial.

My daughter, aghast that the biscuits had been finished, demanded to know who had scoffed the lot.

It was me. I had made a lovely cup of coffee and had leant against the sink, gloriously inhaling Hob Nobs one after the other, until they were all gone. I'd consumed about six, without really thinking about it, and enjoying every single one. I'd had a momentary pang of guilt, remembering that my daughter and I had purchased said biscuits together the previous day. But it hadn't been enough to prevent me polishing them all off.

My daughter thought for a moment, whisked upstairs, and came back down with a white woollen shawl draped across the top of her head, long woolly flaps hanging down each side, and wielding a hair brush gavel. She was my judge.

She asked for witnesses. There were none. She demanded evidence. No biscuits in cupboard, empty wrapping in bin. She extorted a confession. I shamefacedly gave her one. She sentenced me to two days without sugar of any kind. Then both children wrote up my sentence, and blu-tacked it to the kitchen door.

I found it pretty darn hard to get through that first day. Over and over again I reached for the biscuit cupboard, or looked sadly in the fridge. Not least because we had friends for supper, who brought chocolate, and my husband supplied chocolate too.

In fact — and I'm not proud of this — I didn't make it. I sneaked a biscuit at the dinner. I had a chocolate when everyone was gone. My cheese biscuit was a digestive. I failed.

But during both days I managed not to, say, eat palm sugar and golden syrup from the cupboard, eat the kids' snacks, or do more than have a lot of fruit, nuts and smoked mackerel (yes, I know).

It was one of the hardest things I've done in years. Harder than giving up alcohol. If I hadn't been able to drink coffee, I would have gone under in fury and frustration.

Yet it was the first time I have ever been able even to try to stop eating sugar. I have tried to trick myself so many times, or beat myself up, or play games with myself about it. My best method has always been not to have it in the house. But with children, sugar's really hard to avoid. Although strangely I'm very good at depriving them of sugar (not because I've eaten it all already, I hasten to add).

I found my strength of purpose (such as it was) in the idea that my daughter was justified in her annoyance, and that I owed it to her to atone for my rather greedy thoughtlessness. That if I expect her to do maths, and play piano when she doesn't want to, and get cross with her, and every so often sanction her, then I should be able to take my own medicine. Otherwise it's a tyranny.

It surprised me that I was (mostly) able to stick to my purpose when it was to honour my daughter's hilarious judgement of me. I really didn't want to let her down.

Maybe I'll try again this week.