Work and isolation

On the same day that I saw a journalist in London seeking to speak with people about workplace isolation, a friend in California noted that she wanted to have a little social but found that her real world community was either virtual or non-existent.

My friend in California chalked her lack of community down to her being an entrepreneur, where long hours of work mean one’s options to socialise are mainly people who are employees or customers, both of which can be awkward.

When I mentioned workplace isolation to friends in senior corporate jobs, one quipped that this isolation malarkey was all down to people opting to work in the gig economy. Another noted, with a sigh, that the more senior one became in a large corporation, the more isolated one became, with fewer and fewer people seeing one as human, and fewer still willing to speak truths to power, so to speak. Indeed the story of António Horta Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Bank in the UK, and his spiralling into depression that led to a breakdown is well-known and one of the few honest stories of the impact of isolation to come out in public.

Without even reflecting over my own career of over 20 years, I know instinctively that the gig economy did not create workplace isolation. It is an existential condition of human beings to seek both camaraderie and company, and solitude: the former perhaps to generate ideas and to rejuvenate the self, the latter to reflect, create, and indeed, rejuvenate.

My experience of isolation in corporate life came from many sources. One  of them was being a gender minority. I even wrote a piece about my experience in Cosmopolitan magazine’s India edition around 1996-97. While my male colleagues were good people, it was tricky to socialise with them weekend after weekend. The city I lived in, Delhi, did not then have public transport so it was expensive, unreliable, unsafe, or all of the above to go across town to attend book readings or see films etc.  My solution was to start learning German on the weekends, which earned me much mockery but also a career break into Europe to open a new country office.

That unfortunately brought its own flavour of isolation. This time I was in Switzerland’s German speaking region, as a gender, ethnicity, and apparently age minority in the IT industry. My coping was hugely eased by my friendship with two others in a similar boat, both foreign to the German speaking regions in their own ways.

I then transitioned to a role in the UK where my team was spread across time zones. That was splendid isolation indeed as I began work at home at about 4.30am to catch my Asia-based team members as they began the day and the work day rolled on all the way to California. Going into the office was an option but I needed a few hours in the day unplugged. This is the bit of my experience now cited in this FT article the journalist mentioned earlier was writing.

You see, there are many ways the structure of corporate work and workplaces can be isolating.

My life as an independent consultant and advisor, an entrepreneur if you will, after the corporate stint, has been a solitary experience, save for meeting clients at lunch and sometimes friends for coffee. This fits the cliched image of the gig economy that I mentioned earlier.

Yet somehow we cope. And many of us continue to thrive.

My sense is that women cope better. Most women are socialised to seek and build communities, “to tend and befriend” not just in times of great stress. The web is helping break geographical barriers and enhance some sense of community. MumsNet is a well-known example of such a community. Several closed and secret groups of women founders and leaders thrive on Facebook. Some such as Blooming Founders and NOI Club have physical world components too. With the burdensome expectations of performance of masculine behaviour, men suffer silently — and alone — in their loneliness. This does not help workplaces or society.

Institutionalised solutions are emerging too. The gig economy worker, the entrepreneur and the small-corporate worker alike now have options. WeWork provides co-working spaces, designed to foster serendipitous and organic networking. The company has diversified into providing co-living in a few cities around the world too and it is branded WeLive.

Some criticise WeLive as an extension of dormitory or student halls living but really now! In the face of all this evidence of loneliness and isolation, that is the best criticism you can come up with?

As I said to Emma in that FT article, loneliness can have an existential quality. It forces us to examine the meaning of life in ways being surrounded by people all the time does not make feasible. From that isolation emerge creativity and ingenuity. But it can also foster mental health and addiction problems for many.

The real solution for us all lies perhaps in Goldilocks’s perfect porridge — not too much isolation, not too much cacophony of human company. Each person’s “perfect” however will differ.

What does all this mean for the design of work and workplaces? And indeed for our lives and societies?

As I see it, we may need a complete rethink of our shared and personal spaces. For workplaces, it could mean the provisioning of both open spaces to socialise and banter, and closed, quieter spaces to think and do actual work, sometimes energised by that interaction. Our living spaces need similar possibilities, if not within our own homes, then within the larger context of our neighbourhoods and cities we live in.

Politically and socially, we seem to be in an upheaval worldwide. Many are selling us the nostalgia of a glorious past, which, some argue, keep us from imagining better futures.

In this churn, could we hope to create a new order of things that are actually designed to serve the humans that use or inhabit them? Much like the Arts & Crafts movement’s thinking on spaces, a hundred years on?

I need to reflect on this. Alone. Perhaps you do too. Let’s convene later!

The medium is the message

President Obama wrote a piece on Feminism for Glamour magazine.

Curious minds want to know why that specific magazine. Here is whom the magazine is for, according to its owner Conde Nast: “Glamour is for the woman who sets the direction of her own life and lives it to its fullest and chicest. Her point-of-view is unmistakably American, unwavering in its optimism and wide open to the possibilities ahead. The dream job, the perfect look, the right guy: All are in her reach.

How would writing in that magazine ensure the article gets read by men, someone asked. Legit question.

Here is how.

Several media outlets men might read – Vox (under Policy and Politics, no less), New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time, and many others – have picked up and paraphrased the essay’s main ideas for easy reading by men. Obama thus neatly sidestepped men wondering why he is lecturing to them and got a standing ovation from women for his approach as a Dad.

And yet he is getting heard by men, as the conversation on those paraphrased articles shows. Several men are commenting on these paraphrased pieces that while they disagree with Obama politically, as fathers of young women, they agree with him completely on this matter. This is not a surprise. Research evidence shows that when daughters are born, men change their attitudes to traditional gender roles for women. Indeed many young women may be making their dads read the article. There is also the possibility that Hillary Clinton’s popularity among young women could get a boost from this, because he spoke with them but not quite at them by referencing his daughters in the essay.

There is more to this than meets the eye though. More than Obama. More than feminism.

There is a quiet but firm change happening in the magazine world. And so-called millennials are leading it. With guidance and nurture from older, steadier, more experienced hands in the trade.

Here is a Teen Vogue piece on a young woman, presumably a teenager, on how she became a feminist. Here is a piece on how queer identity may make a person a target for violence, and another on how American culture fuels homo and trans phobia.

Glamour and Teen Vogue are not magazines common prejudices about “girlie mags” allow us to expect to do a great job of hosting and enabling such discourse on identity. But they are doing it. Anna Wintour, the tour de force in Conde Nast, is guiding a team of millennials which is doing a great job getting the unfairly reviled younger persons reading serious stuff. In other words, emergent generations are being engaged using old fashioned tools.

Their views have a platform. Their voices are being amplified by “curation” led websites that “grownups” read. Change is quietly happening, while we are too busy stereotyping millennials and younger generations.

The revolution, it is clear, is not being televised.

It is being written and read and discussed on channels that allegedly responsible adults dismiss as pointless, past-it, dying or any number of hand-waving adjectives.

Be there, or be square.

And Obama is no square, as we all know by now.

Four For Friday (26)

For me, this was a week full of books, reading about books, and headlines about publishing. A new publishing house, called Juggernaut Books, was launched in India with unusual fanfare. There is much promise, albeit not much detail made public yet, of revolutionising publishing using the magic of tech. The business is of interest to me as someone who reads, “techs”, is interested in business model innovation and financing of new business models, and watches women in leadership roles in creating such innovation.

Over here in London, the first volume of Niall Fergusson’s two-part book about Kissinger was finally delivered. In hardback. I am sure I will only ever read it at home because it is so heavy.

Kissinger by FergussonA personal pattern however is becoming evident. My recent purchases have all been paper. I have company. Digital books have stopped evolving, but why? The rational argument about closed ecosystems resonates with many of us, perhaps, but most of us are committed (read: locked-in) to one or the other closed ecosystems.

In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind. An open stack is not strictly necessary for this, but it certainly helps.

But the main, and I think the real, reason for some of us falling back into the arms of physical books is emotive.

The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

This was the week that celebrated Urvashi Butalia, founder and publisher of Zubaan Books, for her path-breaking contributions to publishing women’s and other marginalised voices.

Concerns over the growing acceptability of violence against women – in their homes, in workplaces and public spaces, in conflict zones, by fundamentalist and communal forces – fed directly into today’s ongoing debates on women’s freedoms and the attempts to truncate those freedoms in the name of safety.

Through these tumultuous times, Zubaan and Kali for Women functioned also as archivists and as participants in the organically evolving network of disparate groups that formed the Indian women’s movement.

“We’re putting together an archive of the interviews we’ve recorded with authors, organisers, women on the front lines,” Urvashi says.

Recorded over the decades, these will be an invaluable oral history of Indian women, many of them far more focused on getting the job done in any given moment than on chronicling their thoughts.

A recurrent theme in conversations with my erudite women friends is about frivolity. Or at least perceived frivolity. Can feminists be interested in fashion and style and clothes and jewellery? “Yes, they can and they should,” is my answer. If for not much else, then to redress this.

But can feminists enjoy romance novels? Sure, they can, argues this piece.

‘I am of the opinion that a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience, even if that experience is codified and structured within patriarchal, established boundaries, is inherently feminist,’  says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a US-based website devoted to reviewing romance novels through a critical lens.

Wendell grants readers of all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds permission to enjoy their fantasies – be they feminist, sadomasochistic, paranormal, or male-on-male. For Wendell, this permission is the genre’s beating heart. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing,’ she said. ‘Her orgasm is important! And so is her security, and so is her ability to access birth control.’

The eagle-eyed amongst you have noticed there are only 3 links here. There is a fourth link embedded in the text which is my sneaky way of making it good on the promise of the post.

Four For Friday (25)

This week marked one year of India’s famous, frugal, successful Mars Orbiter Mission.

(Source: http://www.thealternative.in/society/10-indian-women-scientists-you-should-be-proud-of/)
(Source: http://www.thealternative.in/society/10-indian-women-scientists-you-should-be-proud-of/)

Aptly enough women in design, science, business, politics, art all caught my eye this week.

Allowing for the usual hyperbole and USA-centricity of TechCrunch’s reportage, here are 30 women, who have revolutionised male-dominated industries.

Unbeknownst to the world, Ursula Burns joined Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 and would later become the most powerful woman in the company. In a period of just a few short years since she became CEO in 2009, Burns drove Xerox to transform from a global document company to a massive enterprise with a diverse set of services and clients. Though she remains busy with her current position, Ursula is a board director of the Ford Foundation, American Express and Exxon Mobil Corporation and is a leader in various non-profit organizations.

It would be remiss of me to highlight the USA-centricity of such lists, and then omit to mention Elmira Bayrasli’s forthcoming book. Adversity creates entrepreneurs and in places we cannot stretch our imagination to.

The Daraprim (pyrimethamine) story this week was a chance to dig into the real story, of Gertrude B. Elion who developed it. She was a Nobel prize winner whose work led to the development of retrovirals as we know them now.  Here is a partial list of what we owe her for:

6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia and used in organ transplantation.

Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.

Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.

Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.

Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.

Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.

Nelarabine for cancer treatment.

Here is what she did after her “official” retirement:

During 1967 she occupied the position of the head of the company’s Department of Experimental Therapy and officially retired in 1983. Despite her retirement, Elion continued working almost full-time at the lab, and oversaw the adaptation of azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug used for treatment of AIDS

And anytime you feel “old”, stop and think of the amazing Barbara Knickerbocker-Beskind! At 91, she is an active and busy inventor and designer.

I tried to retire five times – as an OT, as a private practitioner, as an author – but it never works. I went back to school to become an artist in 1997 and that has been helpful in drawing my inventions.

 

In 2013, I saw David Kelley – the founder of the design firm IDEO – on the TV programme 60 minutes. When I realised he accepted, and really respected, people from a varied background, I thought, “I have a unique kind of life experience and designing skills – I could be of value to their firm.” I was 89.

Bonus: you will have to read these answers yourself. Some brilliant lessons in history! What are some things where the first person to do them was a woman?

Men in women’s fashion — the gender imbalance we don’t talk about

A few weeks ago, rumours abounded about Tom Ford possibly returning to Gucci, after Frida Giannini’s departure. While there is no doubting Mr Ford’s all-round creative nous, from couture to perfume and makeup, and film making, it would have been disappointing if he did return to the role. In the event, Ms Giannini was replaced by Alessandro Michele.

The technology industry isn’t the only gender-imbalanced industry in this world. Women’s fashion world redefines the imbalance between the customer base of women, who spend but where value appropriation is disproportionately made by men.

It is men, who overwhelmingly own stakes in, invest in, and lead companies that serve the women’s fashion market. For instance, Richemont, that owns Net-a-Porter, Chloé , Azzedine Alaïa, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier amongst others, fields, at the time of writing on March the 8th, 2015, a board consisting of 18 men and one woman! Doing better is Kering (formerly PPR) led by Francois-Henri Pinault with a board of 11 of which 4 are women. Kering owns, to varying degrees fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta amongst others.

Men are also overwhelmingly the creative leads in many of women’s fashion brands. Here is a roll call for the uninitiated — Nicolas Ghesquière at LVMH, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi, Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane at St Laurent Paris, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the eponymous brand which is fair enough but he was at Hermès 2003-10, Rodolfo Paglialunga at Jil Sander, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, John Anderson at Loewe, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, and John Galliano having recently returned with Maison Margiela (he was earlier at Dior).

Which makes it worth celebrating Miuccia Prada at Prada, Donatella Versace at Versace (with Anthony Vaccarello at Versus), the incomparable Vivienne Westwood, Jenna Lyons at J Crew, and Hermès’s 2014 appointee Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski.

The magazines that serve women’s fashion market, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to name but two, are owned by corporations – Condé Nast and Hearst respectively – where almost all board directors and senior executives are male. Hearst has one female board director, Condé Nast‘s imbalance is tipped by the presence of Anna Wintour, the well-known industry heavyweight.

In fact only a minuscule 3% of creative directors in advertising, that drives women’s spend, are women. A staggering minority no matter how one looks at it!

I should however point out that mainly British women are in charge of some of the most influential fashion magazines including Glenda Bailey and Justine Picardie at the Harper’s Bazaar respectively in the USA and the UK, and Anna Wintour and Alexandra Shulman at the Vogue respectively in the USA and the UK. Thank goodness also for Vanessa Friedman, Suzy Menkes, Jo Ellison, Christina Binkley who witness, document and report on the fashion industry from the front row and beyond!

So why is it that when we talk of gender imbalance, we get stuck at the technology industry and Silicon Valley?

Why not start at the obvious — where women are spending money but where the value appropriation is overwhelmingly not made by women?

It’s not the pipeline for sure. A good 71% or more of the graduates of Central St Martins, the alma mater of late Alexander McQueen, and a reported 74% of the graduates of London College of Fashion are women. The number is 77% for women students at Parsons The New School for Design.

The industry is also traditionally not seen as no place for women.

But the industry does keep up with the tradition of notable wage gap between men and women, so much that there are no women in the top-20 highest paid executives.

So while we sit in the middle of Paris Fashion Week and mark another International Women’s Day, we ask yet again — what gives?

And more importantly, as we seek that elusive goal of gender equality — can we make it happen?

The theme for #IWD2015
The theme for #IWD2015