I was pleased to contribute a blog post on my career change story for my former university, University of Sheffield. They run a fantastic blog series on careers beyond the academy for post PhD students. It can be hard to know how to transfer your skills and what use value a PhD has in the wider world. The v i s t a blog helps people see what’s possible through live examples! Check out my contribution here.
Chance Encounter 1
Earlier this year, I contacted NEBIC (North East Business and Innovation Centre) to find out about their EU-funded Boost your Business course. The BIC support people to start and to grow their businesses.
While I was meeting with one of their advisors, having spotted my line of work their HR officer came to have a chat with me about the possibility of running a workshop for their staff. The BIC are currently running a series of events on wellbeing and so I created a workshop for them, ‘Being an LGBT Ally’, which looked at supporting LGBT+ people to be themselves in the workplace. Given the BIC’s client-facing work, the workshop also focused on how the environment might ‘speak to’ LGBT+ customers.
Simple things like having visible role models, some images on the website or wearing rainbow lanyards can have a big impact on whether a person feels included. They are ‘quiet’ ways of letting a person know that they are welcome, either as a member of staff or as a client. In turn, these enhance wellbeing and sense of belonging. And of course, hosting a workshop was an excellent step on that journey to becoming an inclusive organisation.
This chance encounter resulted in a mutually beneficial arrangement – some awareness raising for staff and some business for me (the BIC clearly take the ‘Boost your Business’ ethos to heart!!)
Chance Encounter 2
A second chance encounter that emerged from my dealings with the NEBIC was when I attended the Boost your Business course itself. This is three-day residential course which gives people the opportunity to focus on their business ideas as well as providing an opportunity to network with others in similar situations.
Having arrived at the hotel for the course, my first encounter of the morning was with a fellow participant who, when I introduced myself and my work, asked me what ‘LGBT’ was. I confess I was a bit taken aback at the time and it made me reflect that I do make assumptions that people know what those letters mean. I had further pause for thought as a second person later in the day asked me the same question.
While I’m not about to alter my business cards (have had too many printed, for a start), it has made me think more about how I introduce myself and also introduce the workshops I deliver, which always entail elements of terminology but I now make that aspect more ‘up-front’.
Learning for me always involves challenging established ways of thinking. Having my own thinking challenged has helped raise my awareness and made me take less for granted.
As businesses employing over 250 staff are scrambling to publish their gender pay gap data before the deadline of midnight tonight, findings thus far are looking stark, though frankly unsurprising.
In the public sector, where the deadline was last Friday, figures reveal that organisations such as councils, the NHS and universities pay women on average 14% less than men. There is no expectation that private sector organisations will perform any better.
I have seen a range of responses to the emerging data which traverse from:
- Outright denial: there is no such thing as a pay gap as the Equal Pay Act makes it illegal and ensures equal pay for equal work;
- Data quibbling: the data only records the median and mean, not the types of jobs people are in or the full-time/part-time divide – thus the data is dismissed as meaningless;
- Welcoming the data as a snapshot and a call to action.
Yes, we have an Equal Pay Act. Equal pay for equal work and has been a legal requirement since 1970. However:
(a) Because something is illegal does not mean it does not occur. No-one would say there is no such thing as burglary because it is illegal. A small proportion of the data currently being reported will almost certainly be due to unequal pay for unequal work. Confidentiality around salaries makes for a culture where this can occur.
(b) Equal pay is not the same as the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is the difference in earnings between men and women overall within an organisation. The current data being collected records the median and mean of women’s salaries and men’s salaries. Thus, women might be in different roles to men or in more part-time roles and the median and mean will capture the overall discrepancy in salaries encapsulating this difference.
It is true that recording the median and mean has its disadvantages in that it does not demonstrate the nuances of discrimination operating within an organisation. Nevertheless, to dismiss the data as meaningless is an easy way to dismiss dealing with the discrimination that is clear from these initial figures. What the average shows is an overall difference difference between the pay of women and men and it requires us to ask questions as to why women are persistently paid less than men in organisations. Why is it that the styles of working and the types of roles women tend to adopt do not offer equal renumeration with the styles and working and the types of roles that men tend to adopt?
There are a range of reasons women may work differently to men, none of them, I would argue, down to unhindered ‘choice’. Significantly, the lion’s share of (unpaid) housework and (unpaid) childcare falls to women, emerging from cultural expectations. Therefore, it is unsurprising that women may not be able to put in a 70 hour week, or even a 37 hour week, at work because they are already working maybe 20 hours unpaid at home. No wonder, then, that a part-time role appears more appealing or a promotion requiring unpaid overtime seems out of reach.
Data quibblers also sometimes like to point out that women go into relatively low paid ‘nurturing’ careers such as teaching/nursing, thus blaming women for their own situation. The real question here is why are these so-called nurturing professions paid less in the first place? Indeed, there is research that demonstrates that when more women enter a profession, the remuneration for that profession drops, suggesting the status of a profession falls when associated with women.
A Call to Action
It is great that the government has made it compulsory for larger organisations to publish their gender pay gap statistics. The first step is recognising the issue; the real work comes in addressing it. Out of this exercise, each organisation will have data upon which to focus their attention and this publication from the Government Equalities Office and CIPD gives advice on how to start taking action.
The gender pay gap illuminates gender bias in the way an organisation is structured, its everyday culture and systems. Organisations can operate as magnifiers or minimisers of gender inequity in society at large. As well as considering the larger points of structural discrimination such as promotion criteria and processes, language in job advertisements, structural and unconscious bias, people often don’t reflect on the apparently small elements of the culture of their organisation in gendered terms.
For example, business breakfast meetings or breakfast networking events are becoming more and more the norm. Think about who is often responsible for the school run and who you might therefore be preventing from attending that 8AM meeting – women! When this happens repeatedly, this woman has fewer chances to connect with colleagues than her male peers, leading to fewer opportunities, and, down the line, she may have less on her CV when it comes to promotion rounds.
However, it’s not just mothers that are affected but all women. For instance, a gender pay gap opens up between graduates within as little as one year of graduating from the same degree programme and increases steadily year on year. This all contributes to the gender pay gap.
A Bifocal Approach
Jen de Vries has suggested that organisations need to take a ‘bifocal approach’ to address gender inequalities. The term is effective: it clarifies that organisations need to take both a short-term and longer-term view in bringing about change. Short term interventions assist women to reach their potential within systems that are not currently offering them equal opportunities.
Here, we might think of women’s leadership programmes or coaching programmes for women, women’s networks and mentoring. These are valuable interventions. However, they do not tackle the roots of the problems: structural inequalities.
Addressing structural inequalities takes the long-term view and is where real change can occur. This requires changing ways of working to eradicate discrimination in the first place so the women do not require additional support to navigate the organisation’s systems. Examples might include rethinking the organisation’s criteria for leadership and promotion or re-evaluating value and remuneration attached to different kinds of work.
Now that large organisations have a clearer view of their gender pay gap, it’s time to clean the lenses on the bifocals and get to work!
I am currently working as part of a national project funded by the Government Equalities Office (GEO) in Anti-Homophobic, Biphobic and Transphobic (HBT) Bullying in primary and secondary schools. The work is co-ordinated by the LGBT Consortium and raises awareness among staff and students. In North East England, school staff training and support is being delivered by myself and colleagues working with the LGBT Fed, a volunteer-led regional infrastructure organisation.
While the focus is on anti-HBT bullying, our work at the LGBT Fed takes a holistic approach. Thus, the training covers not only types of bullying (linguistic, physical and online, for example) and how to challenge it but, importantly, we consider ways to create a whole-school environment that works positively with regard to LGBT inclusion.
As part of the project, the GEO are funding the development of new lesson plans to add to Schools Out’s existing valuable resource, The Classroom. The Classroom has lesson plans searchable by discipline and by Key Stage, which makes it user-friendly for time-pushed teachers. The materials are also easily adaptable to teachers’ own classroom contexts.
I have found when working with primary schools, one of the concerns teachers can have is how to make LGBT-inclusion age-relevant. Underpinning this concern is a (tacitly held) perception that LGBT issues automatically imply sexual acts. In reality, whatever one’s sexual orientation – LGBTQ+ or straight – physical sexual acts are only one aspect of that identity, amongst for example, emotional attachment, desire and possibly life-partnership. If mentioning a straight couple or individual to four year-olds, sexual acts obviously do not come into the conversation, just as they would not do with an LGBTQ+ couple or individual!
One of the resources from The Classroom I have used during training is ‘Different People, Different Talents’. Aimed at Key Stage 1 PSHE, the lesson introduces students to notions of valuing difference and individuality, and gets them involved in tasks such as who can do a tongue-twister or stand on one leg! It moves through values placed on stereotypically gendered activities and also includes examples of different people, one of which is a student living with his father and his father’s boyfriend. These are gentle, age-appropriate ways to encourage children to value difference and they form part of the backdrop to an inclusive school from an early age.
As well as embedding such content into the curriculum, the whole school environment is an opportunity to communicate the school’s ethos around diversity and inclusion. From the images on the walls to the language spoken in the classroom, playground and staff room, the school can work together to create a positive environment. OFSTED and the requirements of the Equality Act and Equality Duty require schools to be proactive, yet knowing how to do this is where training and expertise can really help.
In our training, we aim to equip staff with greater understanding of issues such as the social model of discrimination; types of discrimination and how to combat it; what exactly the law requires; terminology and differences between equality, equity and social justice. With raised awareness and understanding, staff can become more confident in not only introducing new material into their curriculum but in embedding LGBT inclusion in the whole school environment.
This was my diary entry for my first day as a non-academic. It was in my diary from the moment I heard my request for voluntary redundancy from my employer of twelve years had been accepted.
The simple graphic makes me smile. I love the way the arrows indicate I will be ‘free’ for the rest of my life (!) precisely from 1st June 2017, that I have literally drawn a line to mark the end/beginning and that the freedom glows from the page!
The word ‘free’ had come to take on significant resonance for me following an earlier coaching conversation. I was receiving coaching as part of thinking through a career change, and without much of an idea what I wanted to do. The coach asked me this incisive question: ‘What would it feel like if you weren’t working as an academic?’ After a short reflection, my response was: ‘I would be free’.
My use of that word for the first time hit me powerfully, the implication being that at that moment I felt the opposite – trapped? – held back? – in chains?!! It all sounds rather dramatic!
Yet, the realisation I was ‘doing the wrong thing’ career-wise had hit me like a bolt one random evening a few months previously. It literally formed as a sentence that I said out loud to myself: ‘I am doing the wrong thing’. The suddenness of it came as a surprise and was somewhat overwhelming, yet the steady erosion of my sense of satisfaction with my choice of career had been working away for many years.
Thinking through a career change can be a huge, daunting task. Then at the age of 46, I felt I was young enough to make a shift but old enough to get cracking on with it! If I had wobbles about leaving academia, and of course I did, I would say to myself – ‘Julie, another 20 years’. The thought of another 20 years doing the same job felt unbearable; I knew that whatever I ended up doing, it would be better for my mental, physical and emotional health than staying put.
Careers are bound up intimately with our identities and status. On social occasions, when people meet for the first time, one of the initial questions is ‘What do you do?’ I had a relatively high status job which was reasonably secure and with a good salary. I also had some absolutely brilliant colleagues with whom I loved working. Academia had offered me so many privileges and opportunities, to research and to teach what I enjoyed.
However, I decided to leave, a move which was either bold or bonkers, or quite possibly both! The strength of needing to do something more in line with my values was what propelled me. I was keen to work where I could have more of a direct impact on social justice. I also needed to be ‘freer’ than the restrictions of working in a huge organisation such as a university permitted. I realised I could pursue my interests beyond the confines of academia more than within it.
So, I took small steps to open myself up to new experiences and to looking at things differently. I became (and still am) a trustee and volunteer with two amazing charities that support and develop women and girls:West End Women and Girls Centre, Newcastle, and Team Kenya CIO. I knew that I would need support thinking through the process of a career change so I had some coaching and also signed up for an online course in changing careers. I took a coaching qualification to broaden my skills. It was hard fitting all this in while still in a busy full-time job; however, I made time because it was so important to me. It was the difference between freedom and constraint after all!
Now that I am starting up as self-employed, I feel excited and scared at the same time. But mostly I feel thrilled that I can create my own job and do what I really want to do – make a difference, I hope, with regard to gender and LGBT equality and help people realise their own potential through coaching.
In a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ moment, the final seminar I taught at university was on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (on a core literature module not designed purposefully by me!). The play is an experimental drama, part of a movement known as Theatre of the Absurd. As the name suggests, Endgame offers a reflection on endings. It is a dark comedy dealing with, amongst other things, themes of entrapment and circularity. Its opening words are spoken by the character Clov:
‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause]. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. [Pause]. I can’t be punished any more.’
While students in the group wondered if finishing the module on this text was a ‘lecturer’s joke’, I had to wonder what kind of joke it was on me! To finish a career teaching in various English Literature Departments on such a literalised symbolic moment was ‘absurd’ in itself.
What I know now, writing this piece several months after leaving, is that I have grown enormously. I still have my academic colleagues and friends and we are finding ways of working together while I have the added bonus of meeting and working with colleagues in new fields. I am so enjoying the learning and challenge of setting myself up as self-employed. I have done things over the last couple of years I would not have thought possible and I am absolutely looking forward to doing more that I don’t even know about yet!
And yes, I feel free!