Coming out of the patriarchal shadow

If you haven’t heard of Meghan Markle, you will probably have by now with the media fanfare surrounding the royal wedding. But had you heard about the newest member of the royal family prior to her being Prince Harry’s wife? If you knew she was an actress, then good for you. You must have been checking out the American acting scene. But many people arguably knew about her via her connection to Prince Harry, which is not good.

How many times have we seen women only prominent when linked to powerful male figures? Unfortunately this perpetuates the stereotype of women being subservient to men. The media are keen to mention women in relation to men, but not the other way round. Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook. Do you know who Sheryl Sandberg’s husband is? That’s right, you wouldn’t. But that’s because the media don’t often print it.

You may also attribute this to the fact of the glass ceiling in many corporate organisations. Not many women reach high enough positions to merit mention. By the way, while you may know ex Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife is Samantha Cameron, do you know who current Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband is? Anonymous.

There are many examples such as this throughout the course of history. Fanny Hensel was an accomplished pianist and composer. She composed many piano works and her skill was said to be as good as any a composer’s but why did she not became even more popular? According to a piano teacher in Muswell Hill, it was because in a patriarchal society, her worth was only judged by its link to men. Which is why Fanny Hensel gets more recognition when she is known as Fanny Mendelssohn, brother of Felix.

We need to promote the role of women. Society is changing and women must emerge from the shadow of men!

Positive and Negative Stress

So I haven’t posted for a long time – but life has been busy and stressful – which leads me to my latest topic.

Stress is a serious problem. And we are the only ones who can solve it. As much as we would like our workplaces to hire more staff, fire all the difficult people, and give us more time off and better pay, it’s not going to happen. Work will always have some element of stress, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need some level of stress to help us feel motivated and get work done. This is called eustress or “good stress”. We don’t want to eliminate this energizing stress at work because it keeps us engaged. In contrast, we do want to reduce the negative stress that work generates. Often good stress can shift into negative stress when there is too much of it. It’s great to have a project to work on and deadlines to work to, but it’s not so great to have five projects to work on and five impossible deadlines to meet.

Identify what your stress triggers are as well as what gives you energy. I love autonomy, creative work, helping people, and getting things done. These things make me feel energized and engaged. I dislike and am not very good at paperwork, logistics, or anything to do with technology. I can’t avoid those tasks as they are part of my job, but I can minimize how much time I spend on them. I lasted three months in a job as a receptionist because every task that the job required wasn’t a strength of mine. I didn’t enjoy what I was doing or the environment I was working in – everyone else was stressed out too. I quit, went back to school and found a different job. My new job was a better fit for my natural strengths and was far more satisfying.

It can be terrifying to quit but it’s worth it to find a job that is right for you. If you have trouble identifying what your strengths and passions are, an excellent and affordable tool to help you do so is the Gallup Strengthsfinder. It’s based on research, accurate and affordable.

Knowing your strengths and passions, and working with them, can significantly reduce your negative stress and increase your positive eustress. We need to pay more attention to our workloads and notice when our “eustress” starts tipping over into stress. Ideally, we want to pull it back as soon as we notice signs that we are feeling stressed out or anxious. The sooner we become aware of this shift, and seek to balance the situation, the easier it is to manage.

Most of us know our individual signs of a rising stress level – a kink in the neck, impatience, irritability, difficulty falling asleep, feeling cranky, or frequent headaches. Learn your stress signs, and when you start to see them, do everything you can to reduce your stress. Unfortunately, many people let their stress pile up and then they end up burned out and exhausted. There are negative consequences of ignoring your stress, including major health issues, relationship breakdown and job loss.

Working more than 10 hours a day is associated with a 60 percent jump in risk of cardiovascular issues. 10 percent of those working 50 to 60 hours report relationship problems; the rate increases to 30 percent for those working more than 60 hours. Working more than 40 hours a week is associated with increased alcohol and tobacco consumption, as well as unhealthy weight gain in men and depression in women. Little productive work occurs after 50 hours per week.

Nothing is worth compromising our health or our relationships. It’s crucial that we recognise stress and act to reduce it, as soon as we notice that it is impacting us.

Work is only one element of life, and not the most important one. As one of my clients so eloquently put it, you can always find another job but you only have one family.

There are many sources of workplace stress: feeling overwhelmed, feeling disempowered, a lack of clear roles and expectations, an unrealistic workload, workplace politics and interpersonal conflict. It’s unlikely that you are going to eliminate all of these sources of negative stress. That is simply reality. Rather than hoping for some fantasy world where there is no stress, what we need are tools to manage these stressors so they don’t have as much impact on us.

If you find yourself dealing with overwhelming stress, speak to someone. A listening ear is always helpful and can provide advice or an alternative view to things.

Gender inequalities in the workplace are perpetuated from childhood

Women’s careers aren’t just in the ether, they’re on the front pages of newspapers, inside glossy magazines, on the radio, across the internet and they’re being discussed on a daily basis in governments all around the world. It’s amazing that there’s so much buzz around women and careers; people are really talking about women’s rights at work, and attitudes are changing.

Things are getting really exciting for women at work. Sure, if you look at gender-split job statistics, the situation is pretty much as depressing as it’s ever been. But – BIG BUT – the John stat doesn’t account for what’s swirling around the media, and is inside the meeting rooms and minds of career folk (women and men) across the globe. Women have been legally entitled to the same respect, pay and job titles as our male friends and peers for many years and slowly but surely the reality is catching up with the legal framework. We want equality, but we want something more than that too: we want to stay uniquely and wonderfully female. The same pay, yes, opportunities, of course, but we don’t want to have to abandon our femininity at the office revolving door. For us, gender parity does not imply gender uniformity.

While everyone deserves to be received and treated equally at work, women must do it their own way, because being a woman is part of what makes you, you. The side-by-side vision of a naked female and a naked male validates the simple fact of life: we are different versions of the same species. There’s the obvious stuff and then there are the mysterious workings inside our heads. Our brain is arguably the most important thing about us. It makes us human and is the instigator of everything that we think and do. It’s our life control centre, and science tells us that for men and women there are brain wiring variations.

In the past, we’ve been wedded to the notion that men have better connectivity within each hemisphere, whilst women have better connectivity between the hemispheres. In an everyday sense, this explained why men excelled at spatial awareness and women at social cognition and multitasking. Neuroscience is notoriously complex but the latest large-scale research shows that gender brain differences may not be as clear-cut as we were led to believe. While some recent studies suggest no significant difference in crucial parts of the brain at all, the most recent research leads to the centre of the brain – the hippocampus, the part associated with emotion and memory. This is usually larger in men than women, but, without wanting to get too technical, some women have a larger, more male-style hippocampus and some men have one that is smaller and more female in style. This suggests the idea of a continuum of femaleness to maleness for the entire brain. Scientists found that the majority of the brains studied were a mosaic of male and female structures, meaning there is no one type of male or female brain.

I like this because it validates our own stance of overlap. The most successful person in the workplace, research says, is the woman who retains her female brain but who isn’t afraid to borrow some stereotypically male traits when the opportunity requires it. Success isn’t about pitting yourself against a man, it’s about learning to be your best – it’s about finding your place on the continuum and making it rock. Interestingly, brains aren’t fixed organs, they are constantly evolving and changing as we age, depending on how we use them. Neuroplasticity, as it is called, in part explains why little girls end up studying languages and the arts and little boys get filtered into STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects that frequently lead to more lucrative careers. Repetition reinforces the networks within our brains: baby girls and baby boys might start off with exactly the same brain software, but over time, as we unwittingly encourage boys towards Lego and trucks and girls into social situations that require capable communication skills, the map of association in our childhood brains is sculpted so that the function of the hardware is constantly altered by experience. We lead our girls to dolls and our boys to the top of trees, and then we wonder why society ends up treating women and men differently.

Hormones also play a part in this lifelong divide, as does parental nurture. More interestingly, though, this has a much more subtle impact – it defines what we believe about ourselves. We self-stereotype against ourselves as women, and then we live up to these restrictions.

There is a recent study using Asian-American women that perfectly illustrates the point. The group was divided and set a maths test. Just before the test commenced, half of the group were reminded that they were Asian, invoking the stereotype of Asians having a high maths ability. This half did better in the test. However, when they were reminded of being female (which invokes the stereotype of poor maths performance), they scored lower on the test than the control group. The point is that while men do tend to outperform women in assessments of mathematic ability, for example using the test results of American SATs exams, in reality women aren’t actually worse at maths (see here), we’re just stereotyped into thinking that way.

In the workplace, this presents as women not reaching for leadership positions, or being too conservative in their entrepreneurial expectations for the simple reason that we believe that we don’t belong at the top. We aren’t all professors in waiting, but we should all be able to imagine ourselves where we really want to be at work. Not where society or our stereotyped brains expect us to land. Your career brain, the one you rely on to muster confidence, the one that assists you in awkward networking situations, pay negotiations and everything else in between, may not currently be on your side and thats in part due to stereotyping and nurture. When you know the reasoning behind where your brain is at, it allows you to make positive changes to redirect those channels – to change the hardware, so that your brain (your unconscious thinking) is aligned to your reach-for-the-stars career dreams.