101 words of advice – embracing change

the story of nature itself, ever-inventive, making one thing out of another and one thing into another, and nothing lasts and nothing’s lost, and nothing ever perishes, and things can always change, because things will always change, and things will always be different, because things can always be different.

Ali Smith in Girl Meets Boy, a joyful, rushing roar of a book, which was hugely comforting at 3.15am, in the midst of a sleepless night.  Read it. It’s wonderful.

(Actually that was 80 words but who’s counting? The book is a hymn to the power of evading expectations.  Now it’s 101)


Gunning for the BBC?


Has the public consultation to find out how the public feels about the BBC been  designed  so that the fewest people possible will respond to it?

The consultation is embedded in an 88-page document  with a two-page glossary of terms – (you can go straight to the questions online, if you prefer).  I imagine it’s pretty impenetrable to anyone not familiar with the  jargon of the broadcasting industry.  I worked at the BBC for five years and Channel 4 for three and I found it pretty hard going.  I suspect that many people who want to express their views on whether the BBC should or shouldn’t be doing Strictly, or how much they would be prepared to pay (or not) for Radio 4 will look, perplexed, at some of the questions they’re being asked and give up and do something else instead:

1   How can the BBC’s public purposes be improved so there is more clarity about what the BBC should achieve?

2   Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC?

3   Should Charter Review formally establish a set of values for the BBC?

10  How should the system of content production be improved through reform of quotas or more radical options?

14  How should the BBC’s commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide, be reformed?

15  How should the current model of governance and regulation for the BBC be reformed?

16  How should Public Value Tests and Service Licences be reformed and who should have the responsibility for making these decisions?

18  How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work?  What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls, should apply?

19 Should the existing approach of a 10-year Royal Charter and Framework Agreement continue?

I put some random sections of the consultation document through the Gunning Fog  index.   GF is an academic  tool which measures the readability of a piece of writing.  The people at GF estimate that:

Texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12. Texts requiring near-universal understanding generally need an index less than 8.

As a rough rule of thumb I assume that the index relates to the years of formal education a reader will need to have had in order to understand something, so a piece of text with an index of 12 should be clear to an A-level student.  The sections I analysed came back with an average GF index of 14.8, one section came in at 15.5.  Either DCMS doesn’t know, or doesn’t care that the public consultation about the single most important cultural institution in the country may only be understood by people with a degree-level education who  know what accountability structures are.

I have additional worries about what will happen to the consultation documents when they are submitted.  Will they be read (not a flippant question – I have sat in Whitehall meeting rooms with piles of unread consultation documents in a corner because no-one had the time to read them all). Who is going to analyse responses which will come in in the form of several thousand online free text boxes as well as via email and in the post: what kind of common measurement standards will they apply?  And let’s not even mention the hanging jury which seems to have been assembled to assess the Beeb’s future options.  For the time being let’s just concentrate on getting the public’s voices heard.

The Save Our BBC campaign has written to Culture Secretary John Whittingdale asking him to make sure that a Plain English Crystal Marked version of the document be produced.   You could do the same,  or you could write with your general feelings about the BBC (good or bad, just have your say), and you could  copy the letter to your MP (find him/her at They Work for You). Ask them to do whatever they can to make sure that the BBC gets a fair crack of this particularly dangerous whip.

15 or 50 – we’re all in this together

I read The Invisible Woman almost in a single sitting, and enjoyed it a lot.  It’s a cheery addition to the growing list of books attempting to re-define what it means to be middle-aged and it’s full of feelings I recognise and problems I can see looming over my own horizon.   So it seems a bit mean to be writing about it with a criticism, but…

Part of the introduction is a light-hearted list of things which get on the author’s nerves.  Among the mentions for the harsh lighting in department store changing rooms, and adverts for thermal knickers and floral sofa covers, is this:

Young people in groups – because I now find them vaguely threatening and know that while I am still able to run I will not be able to run fast enough.  Groups of young people must be passed silently, avoiding all eye contact.

I know it’s just meant to be a jokey list, but it struck me as an odd addition to a book which is, after all, a heartfelt plea for people to see past the label of “middle age” and recognise us as individuals with a contribution still to make.  It stuck out particularly because the very next item in her list of pet hates is this:

Shop assistants. or anyone else who makes assumptions without enquiry –  just because my face says I’m middle aged doesn’t mean I want you to pigeon-hole my wardrobe/menu choices/show requirements/understanding of modern technology etc etc

I know lots of young people, who’d make a similar comment about the way we over-50s pigeon-hole them. ( I still recommend you read the book, though!)

Women at work – still haven’t found what we’re looking for?

Flexible-Working-logo-rgb-300dpiI attended a  seminar this week on the eternally vexed  subject of women  at work.  Why is it still the case that, as the  report which sparked the seminar claimed:

“a third of working women feel disadvantaged in the workplace”

There will be more reflective blog posts on this later.  But for starters here’s a summary.

Our own worst enemies?

The event was hosted by recruitment consultancy Badenoch & Clark, so I quizzed a passing  consultant about something I heard  recently from a head hunter who claimed that women could be reluctant to push themselves forward and were too quick to share the credit for success with their teams rather than taking it for themselves.  Mr B&C agreed that it often took longer to persuade women to pursue new opportunities than men – we seem  more reluctant to move out of our professional comfort zones.  We seem to believe that:

  • promoting ourselves is just bragging and isn’t the done thing,
  • if we just carry on being really good at our jobs someone will eventually discover us, and
  • unless we meet absolutely every criteria set out in the spec we won’t be considered.

Men, it seems, are much more willing to take a punt and see what happens.   It’s taken me a while to realise this is how the world works.  I will steel myself to be less wet  (although there was also a spirited discussion about whether the macho, superman school of leadership is out of date and a more inclusive,  sharing style proves more productive.  But I digress.)

The time of peril 

But it’s not just us.  Sarah Jackson of Working Families identified the three biggest risks to progression  in a woman’s career.  Pregnancy  (the Victorians called it “the time of peril” which still seems apt), taking time out and  flexible working.

The  number of women who lose their jobs while they are on maternity leave is horrendous (one estimate suggests 60,000 women lose their job each year ). The website pregnant then screwed is collecting stories of pregnancy discrimination in UK workplaces and it is sobering reading).  While women are at home on maternity leave they risk being sidelined at work and when they come back it can often be to a downsized, re-jigged role, on a lower rung of the career ladder than the one they left.

Flexible working – a mixed blessing?

Contracts to work flexibly are the holy grail for most working women ( I know that flexible working and childcare aren’t just  women’s issues, but that’s a different post, and there’s already a risk that this one will never end…)

The problem is that very few roles are advertised as suitable for flexible working – a recent Timewise study found that just over 6% of roles — and only 2% of roles with a salary over £60k – mentioned flexible working. People often feel awkward about asking for a flexible contract, fearing that they will seem less than committed to the job, and the evidence is that women who do get a flexible contract often find that they have down-shifted to less senior roles, losing pay and potential career progression  in exchange for more control over their hours (and that well-meaning colleagues can give them less demanding projects to work on, reducing still further their chances to shine.)

So, what’s to be done?

Suggestions for changing the approach of employers  came thick and fast. Here are some (not all of them  problem-free for employers, especially SMEs, but the principles are important):

  • employers should “lay out the welcome mat” for flexible working, moving to an assumption of flexible by default. Working Families’ happy to talk flexible working strapline for use on recruitment ads is a simple way of helping applicants know they can raise the issue without fear of looking half-hearted about work.
  • career progression should be a priority for everyone, organisations should support all of their staff to progress and leaders should be prepared to be role models, making it clear that they too work flexibly.

There was a bit of a discussion about unconscious bias – the way we all tend to favour other people who are similar to ourselves ,  so male-dominated senior teams tend to self-perpetuate. I think there’s an unanswerable argument for quotas to  deal with this, and I want to write about that some other time.  In the meantime,  there was a simple suggestion to let successful women mentor younger men coming up through an organisation  in an attempt to head off some of the bias before it becomes entrenched.  And I loved the sound of this – Textio, a new tool that can analyse the language of a job ad and predict how well it will do the job of attracting the right candidates – including highlighting any lurking gender bias.


The bliss of having teenage children

“Now I don’t have children any more…” I found myself saying to an old friend  this afternoon.  Until she brought me up short by reminding me that, yes, actually, I still do.

And of course I do.  Two delightful, charming, intelligent, beautiful, talented,  beloved children.  I was mortified to have said such a thing.   I am writing this as an attempt to assuage the guilt of even temporarily denying their existence.

Except, I also, sort of don’t have children any more.

I didn’t have to dash home from meeting Louise to pick them up from school.  I can,  for the first time in years,  make plans that aren’t dependent on  finding a responsible adult to  look after them until Richard or I can make it home.

There are times when I really miss the having of children; the privilege of being absolutely at the centre of someone else’s life.  And I love (almost) every minute I spend in their company.  But I do have to say, emerging on the other side of the babysitting years has its advantages too.


Sexism in TV? What If…

Olenka Frenkiel’s piece in today’s Guardian about sexism and ageism at the BBC reminded me of something I really need to do when I’m Queen.

At the everyday ageism conference I was in a session about the invisibility of women over the age of 50 in TV.  “Think of some solutions”, encouraged the Chair of the session.  “The crazier the better – what’s the thing we could do that would make a difference if only we dared?”

“So what”, I thought  – only semi-flippantly – “if, every time a presenter or lead reporter of a news or factual programme at the BBC retired/resigned/moved on, they had to be replaced with someone of the opposite gender? I’m not planning to sack anyone (though there are people I’d love to see the back of)  Just neatening up the balance by a process of evolution.

Just think how different the world would look.  We could have a female economics editor, business editor, political editor and social affairs editor telling us what gives on the 10 O’clock News.  We could have a female chair of Question Time, a female presenter of This Week, a female-fronted equivalent of the Marr Show on a Sunday morning.  There would be female presenters on Mastermind, University Challenge, Match of the Day, Top Gear and Gardener’s World.   The General Election  coverage of 2020 would be fronted by a woman.  We’d have to concede ground on Watchdog and Antiques Roadshow.  And Great British Bake Off would suddenly have three male presenters and a lone woman, but I feel it would be a price worth paying.

It will, of course, never happen.  But something needs to.  I came up with this list off the top of my head, first thing in the morning and against the clock – I’ve got a train to catch.  I bet there are lots more I could have added.  And the question I’m left with, is why does it feel so utterly normal that all of those jobs are done by men?   What if?  Why not?

#everydayageism – what’s the brand of the over-50s?

As I got closer to my 50th birthday I started to collect newspaper stories about the over-50s.  I was going to put them into a light-hearted post with some self-deprecating jokes about putting the punk LPs into storage now I am old enough to go to tea dances, and how I’ll soon need help getting out of the bath.

Then I hit 50 and the joke started wearing thin. I deleted the links I’d saved.  I wish I’d kept them, there were some crackers in there which, radicalised by the recent  Age of No Retirement conference  I could send to the #everydayageism campaign, calling out examples of ageism in the media.  I might start by sending them this from yesterday’s Guardian readers’ Q&A with Tracey Emin:


Why “old dears”? – and why shouldn’t they be within touching distance of a Tracey Emin exhibition?

What’s the brand of the over-50s?

In an advertising-drenched age we are used to weighing-up brands whenever we make a purchase.  What’s the brand image of the over-50s?  What values do you associate with being older? I bet it’s not powerful and dynamic, sexy or daring. And that matters.

“We live in an age where people pity older people and think old women are funny”

commented  one debater in a session at the Age of No Retirement conference. That might explain why 2.9million people between 50 and state pension age are currently out of work in the UK, even though  many of them would love to carry on working – “employers can smell 50”, as one delegate commented, ruefully.

Bring on the language police

Mary Beard was reported recently calling for the word ‘old’ to be reclaimed:

“I think about it in terms of other kinds of reclamations of vocabulary we’ve had over the years, such as ‘black’ or ‘queer”

She has a way to go. I can think of lots of uses of “old”, none positive – old dear, old fart, old fogey, old maid, old codger.  All of them imply staidness – a certain stuck in the mud quality. Doddery-ness.  You don’t think of an innovative old dear, an open-minded old codger, an entrepreneurial old bat.

I think old bag has possibilities.  I like the idea of embracing my inner battle-axe. But if we’re going to establish “old” as a positive thing – or even a neutral one – we may have to think about banning the others.  And while we’re at it, can we do something about some of the other words used about the over-50s?  So, no more “silver” (-surfers or -foxes) and a pox on “sprightly” and “young at heart” .

I’m torn about the use of the word “grey” –  as in “grey pound” or  “grey vote”. Even though grey has been having a bit of a fashion moment recently, it’s hardly a signifier of passion and energy.  Anyway, I don’t spend a grey pound, I spend a shiny gold one, just like everybody else.  But if we are going to start making advertisers think about the over-50s as anything other than Wonga grannies or knitters of Shreddies, perhaps we have to use the power of the “grey” consumer and flex some financial muscle.   £1 in every £5 spent on the high street comes from people over 55 – and there’s good news for marketers, apparently  talking to old people doesn’t have to be scary:

Reassuringly, not everything needs to change when targeting 51-70 year olds – they are not that different to younger consumers. Our research shows older consumers are just as willing to change their views, behaviours, brand, and category choices as younger generations. They are also just as likely to spend money and the drivers behind purchases are similar: 51-70 year olds want the best quality, an acceptable price, and a brand that won’t let them down.

Who’d have thought it?