A Good Time To Be A Girl

I read A Good Time To Be A Girl on Easter Sunday 2018, an appropriate thematic read. That is 246 pages of writing excluding 18 pages of references etc. It is an easy read and Ms Helena Morrissey deserves credit especially for being honest about the warts and difficulties she overcame with the support of her partner and her mentors, and with her own inner strength.

This is a book about an idea whose time has come, the idea that the prevailing patriarchal system hurts women and men, and it is time to change it. In that sense this is not your Lean-In manual of 2018 but something that exhorts you to think and act altogether differently.

Helena Morrissey is uniquely positioned to have written the book. At 35, she was made the CEO at Newton Asset Management, in an industry where women fund managers are still a low double digit number. Stewart Newton was her mentor. She has given birth to nine — and by all accounts, stellar (they are mentioned in the book with their views in relevant places; one of her daughters won a prize for Sanskrit, which is how she and I first started interacting on Twitter) — children. Her children of both genders provide an interesting personal crucible in which she has been able to observe how gendered views are formed.

In 1999, when the idea was mostly unheard of, her husband Richard became a stay-at-home dad but more crucially, as it comes through in the book, remained a strong partner to her. Ms Morrissey is the founder of the 30% Club which now has chapters in 10 countries, at the time of writing this review. She has also undertaken several organisation wide researches on gender disparity. She is currently the head of personal investing at Legal & General.

Ms Morrissey argues — rightly in my view as I wrote in this Quora answer several years ago — that the patriarchal system in today’s workplaces hurts women as well as men.

Using her own experiences as well as research, citations to which are listed towards the end of the book, she has made a strong case for changing the workplace and our idea of work.

Chapter 6 is a valuable read for CEOs, and if as a CEO you read only one thing in this book, read this chapter. Ms Morrissey addresses right away the resentment of the majority who see D&I initiatives as an exercise in political correctness, and who are anxious about positive discrimination. She mentions the ineffectiveness of unconscious bias training, a tool that has gained currency — which I agreed with and have written about in Inc. She rightly points out that the past, well-meaning approaches aren’t effective any more, and citing Iris Bohnet, she makes the case for changing mindsets and work environments, and hence the need for CEOs to being a whole new strategic lens to it, starting first with a look in the mirror about their commitment to building a truly diverse organisation. Andy Haldane’s recruitment challenge that Ms Morrissey mentions is thought provoking. Since reading the book I have tested it on several corporate bigwig friends and watched their puzzlement and then delight at recognising its value. The chapter goes on to discuss mentoring, tutorials and giving innovative thinkers the stage, concluding with a practicable checklist for CEOs.

Chapter 7 is written especially for young girls and boys and is very good in my view. Like me, you may want to share it with the teenagers and youngsters you know too.

Ms Morrissey discusses in the book that cultivating one’s own network is more valuable than relying on recruiters and headhunters, something I would endorse from personal experience.

Ms Morrissey, for all her superior achievements, is still represented poorly by some of the UK’s “newspapers”. “Billion dollar babe” was one such early reference, whereas when she was made Dame, “mother of nine media favourite” was how she was described. This sort of stuff can do a lot of damage. In Chapter 9, Ms Morrissey’s daughter talks about “acting like women” which summarises the challenge of narrowly defined ideas of femininity (and masculinity), and many leadership qualities hitherto aligned with masculinity. She recommends several ways to drive change there e.g. not using the word Diversity, and also discarding use of other loaded words such as “flexible working” in favour of “agile working”.

There were however a few points where I was a little disappointed in the book. The idea of intersectional disadvantages faced by many women and men is discussed briefly but quite underdeveloped. Related to that, I found the discussion on Islamic extremism oddly overdeveloped.

Further, the main focus of women’s career challenges is framed as their role of care giver either to children or to elderly relatives. There has been no attention to the experience of women immigrants, especially women of colour, even when it is a widely known fact the trailing spouses are overwhelmingly women. In my view, the scope of this book and its impact is global not just limited to the UK, where generous visa laws allow spouses to work (who may face other challenges including racism hence my earlier comment re intersectionality). This gap was notable in my view.

I know dozens of women, whose careers were thwarted by overt and covert -isms in London – and elsewhere – at the same time as Ms Morrissey became CEO at Newton Asset Management. The American H4 visa is restrictive to say the least, while American women especially women of colour have experienced the rough end of “processes” for “aliens” in many European countries. One friend of mine, with a double doctorate and a Harvard Master’s had to prove to the Swiss authorities her doctorate was equal to a Swiss Master’s, for instance. Many such women are often forced to become independent consultants and entrepreneurs. Many I know have now been outside the corporate mainstream for almost two decades. They bring rich experience and value to boards but because they do not work for BigCo, a well-meaning organisation such as the 30% Club does not allow them membership or support. This is not a small number of people as evident from the burgeoning ranks of potential apprentices in the Board Apprentice Programme*, which now also has a joint offering with the 30% Club. The scope of the change we need is societal and wholesale, not just in BigCo.

In Chapter 10, however, the proposed Women’s Progress Pyramid goes some way to addressing that by proposing a vision that addresses some of these challenges.

Notwithstanding the limitations as perceived by me, I have already recommended the book to my 40yo sister who is a mid-senior level executive in a multinational, my 23yo niece just 2.5y into her career, and a friend-of-over-30-years who is a founder-CEO and a dad to a really smart 10yo daughter. The book has wide appeal to all those who are thinking about their own careers, their workplaces, their relationships, and their contribution to shaping the world around them through their choices and their advocacy.

It’s a good time to be a girl. And a good time to be a boy.

Because the tide of change in our workplaces and our society may finally allow girls and boys and non-binary persons to express their full humanity, without their potential being thwarted.

It still needs us all to work. If you are short on ideas, this book is for you.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 

Usefulness note: Everyone who works in any capacity, inside or outside the home, in a small or big company, male or female or non-binary, would benefit from the approach proposed in the book.

*The Board Apprentice programme surfaced me to the board of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust (LSE: JUSC) where I am now a non-executive director. Needless to say it took a combination of a woke BigCo and an exceptional chairwoman to make it possible. The programme bridges the gap between BigCo and the tribe of accidental entrepreneurs and other unusual talented people, but it needs more host boards to change their minds on the issue of inclusion.

The Myth Gap

A few years ago, while teaching undergraduates in India, I noticed that I had to temper my inclination to use Hindoo mythology to make certain points. The need to temper arose from discovering that almost nobody in the classroom was familiar with those myths. Not that I fared better with using contemporary cinema references! It turned out my students did not often see the films as they came out, and if they did watch a film — usually assigned as course material — they seemed to have watched an entirely different film from the one I saw. That was my experience of “the myth gap”.

I bought Alex Evans’s The Myth Gap when it came out in early 2017, and read it in short snatches of time while waiting or on the tube in one day. This weekend of August 12-13, 2017, with the backdrop of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville VA, which, at the time of writing, had already claimed the lives of a young woman and two cops, I re-read this book in one sitting. Even including 11 pages of references, the book comes in at under 150 pages and is a three hour read.

The book is divided into four sections and the fourth section starts with this quote from Karen Armstrong:

“A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.”

These myths are what this book is about — shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. While the author focuses on climate change as a narrative hook, the framework could apply to almost anything – repairing post-Brexit schisms in the UK, returning India to a place of precarious but reliable communal harmony, making America a welcoming place for all again.

In the first section “The front line”, the author makes the case for myths; in the second “Myths for a new century” he talks about the characteristics of the stories we need; in the third section “The everlasting covenant” he uses Biblical stories to illustrate the idea of a covenant and consequences of breaking it; and in the final section “And we all lived happily ever after”, he outlines the praxis of using stories to build an alternative future.

Through the story of how climate change activism on the verge of winning some essential victories was hamstrung by the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Evans shows how for a political idea to gain steam, it is important to build a movement, build it around small groups and have a terrific story to tell. He also shines a light on the problem with “enemy narratives”, which divide us instead of uniting for personal transformation as well as demanding more of our political leaders. Stories, not policy statements and evidence based arguments, provide what we need except we don’t have any — the myth gap of the title. Consumer brand marketing has stepped into this gap — the myth being “we are what we buy” — but that has been destructive especially in the context of climate change, driving collective over-consumption, waste, and environmental degradation. Timothy Snyder, whose book “On Tyranny” I have read and reviewed, and recommend highly, has written about how history teachers us the fear of resource scarcity. This is the danger — collapsitarianism — which has been successfully used to incite panic and exploited by many through history. This collapsitarian thinking has its ritual too, he writes — “prepping” — evident in Silicon Valley billionaires seeking other citizenships or buying bunkers.

Utter collapse however is also a chance for renewal and innovation, Evans argues, and I was reminded of the exact sentiment found in Bhagwadgita, a Hindoo religious tome, or a myth you could say I am familiar with.

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।

अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।

धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥

This is Krishna speaking to Arjun who is expressing his doubt about the war against his elders and his cousins and clan: “O Bharat, whenever Dharma (a complex construct implying righteousness, duty, religiosity) declines, I manifest myself. To protect the sages, to destroy the evildoers, and to re-establish Dharma, I return again and again through the ages.”

The myths we need require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a better purposeful vision of our future together. Citing Michael Ventura’s The Age of Endarkenment, about adolescence and need for purpose, the author says that to create a sustainable future, we need to grow up, become adults as a species. In the interim there is the existential grief, that James Hillman has written about, arising from what we are doing to our planet. This grief may be repressed, as we often do, which causes more harm. Or it may be projected, say through enemy narratives. There is a need to acknowledge this cycle and to “atone”, Evans writes, which would encompass not just repentance but also reparation and restorative justice.

Oddly for a book about stories, I found the third section, where Evans actually uses biblical stories to make his point, too long drawn, although Margaret Baker’s turning upside down of the Ark of the Covenant story is fascinating. My reaction however illustrates his argument for the need to find myths that resonate with us personally and then for all of us to find agreement and put together “a quilt of compatible myths”.

The message is clear. Even though what we see as evil is as much personal as it is structural, what we say and do in our daily lives can have global implications. To that extent, dialogue is essential and Evans writes that dialogue with active listening on both sides is often better conducted in relatively small groups. Even as many of us reject religion and politics as bases for joining collectives, our need for belonging remains, and the emerging collectives, with their shared identity, interests and projects, can drive meaningful change.

While all too brief, the chapter titled “Technology and the future of myth” interested me greatly as it discussed how the advent of AR/ VR/ MR technologies can change how we tell and participate in the myths in the future. The book finishes on an idealistic, optimistic note on the Eden 2.0 we can yet choose to create.

On re-reading, I found the book much more dense and richer than I recall from the first reading. It is an exhortation to change, to drive that change meaningfully, to build a sustainable future together. It is a book written with expertise, empathy, exploration at its core as well as optimism for the future. It is thought provoking and could serve as a great personal manifesto for driving meaningful change.

Star rating: 4.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: While fires burn around us, we have to make two simultaneous choices — to douse the fire, and to plan to rebuild a structure that is fire-proof to the best of our abilities. This weekend was tough for optimism but it also is the reason why all of us, who want a different future from the one unfolding in front of us, should read it.

How Women Decide

How Women Decide, by Therese Huston, is provocatively titled and an easy read, backed by substantial research, listed in the 53 page of references.

The book has six chapters each dealing with themes that surface when women’s decision-making is discussed, namely women’s intuition, decisiveness, attitudes to risk, confidence, decisions under stress, and unusually, watching others make poor decisions. Each chapter has a summary of take-aways at the end which is handy. Huston tells stories often from the public domain to make her points. She also patiently untangles science from socialisation while making her argument.

If I had to recommend one chapter, I would be hard-pressed to pick between “Hello, risk taker” and “Stress makes her focused, not fragile”. Biases regarding their risk taking behaviour and their ability to cope under stress follow women around. Yet as Huston demonstrates in the chapter on the former, risk-taking is not a personality trait, but a skill which can be learnt although men take more risks during the process of learning than women do. The differences in risk taking disappear later with experience. She also shows that women actually takes more risks e.g. speaking up in hostile environments where they are in the minority than men do. She specifically points out the challenges of precarious manhood and the “white male effect” on how something may appear risk free to a white male but not to many others. In the chapter on stress, she demonstrates how women and men behave differently under stress vis-a-vis the risks they take, and their approaches i.e. fight-or-flight in men and tend-and-befriend in women. She also highlights how social judgment is harsher on women than on men in stressed situations and how the genders express emotion in socially sanctioned ways.

The chapter on watching others make poor decisions had personal appeal for me. I am simply unable to watch a poor decision being made, and it can often cause friction with friends and family.

If I could make it compulsory for senior executives, board directors and people managers to read this book, I would. Of course, the most open-minded would benefit the most and in turn their organisations would too.

Like many non-fiction books, this book too could be shorter by a quarter without losing substance. But it is an easy read so the length does not weigh down on the reader.

Extra kudos to the author, for acknowledging that her husband’s willingness to cover the family’s financial needs for several years gave her the chance to try her luck as a full-time writer! As Ann Bauer wrote a few years ago, this is the sponsorship that doesn’t get discussed honestly or openly, as much as it should be. Not all writers have wealthy philanthropist patrons. Sometimes the truth for creative people is that their own family is giving up a lot to support their dreams and for being honest about that Ms Huston deserves a gold star.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 (could have been a shorter book!)

Usefulness note: I would nudge those, who manage people or otherwise work with people to read this book. It is not a dry read and gently challenges unconscious biases held against one half of humanity.

Small Data

Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends attracted my attention for several reasons. One, I am interested in understanding the world better, so other people’s ways of seeing, ways of making sense of things interest me. Two, I read anything that can be vaguely filed under “decision making”. Three, that the title appears to rail provocatively against the tide of “big data” drowning us these days.

Martin Lindstrom, the author, is a Danish consultant to brands. As a 12-year old he was once confined to hospital where, to entertain himself, he started keenly observing others in his ward and the various nurses and doctors who came to visit, and making hypotheses and testing them. As a keen Lego maker as a child, he notes in passing an encounter with Lego’s lawyers and then how later he was able to help the brand remain on course even as the company feared it was losing its market as kids became more engrossed in online games and communities.

The book is full of stories from Lindstrom’s assignments for various brands in many different countries. His insight often benefits from his outsider status in the cultures he studies whether as a middle-aged man observing teenage girls’ fashion behaviours, or as a Danish man trying to disentangle the Indian Mother-in-law-daughter-in-law dynamic in joint families. He also shares a story of when he had to go off Pepsi in his personal life to become a more-or-less dispassionate observer in order to help the brand.

In telling his stories, Lindstrom goes off on tangents sometimes, but also links back to experiences described in other chapters. This quirk has personal appeal for me because in conversations, I am quite prone to telling side stories and going off on tangents to enrich a thread but unlike many others, I also have the ability to always come back to the main narrative.

In the last chapter, Lindstrom shares his 7Cs framework of observing and making sense of small data. That framework, alas, is the weakest link in this book. I can see why it might have been compelling to abstract his “magic” into a framework others could use. But when I put my business person and sometime teacher and trainer hat on, I know that people missing the obvious and not being keen observers is quite common. That ability to observe aside, being able to link things, and to reject or persist with various hypotheses is Lindstrom’s real USP. The framework would go nowhere with those whose ability to see is not as keen as the author’s.

The references and the index are helpful but if you seek academic research type references, this is not a book for you. Read it definitely but read a lot more besides.

The stories are good and amusingly regaled, even if sometimes correlation-causation-explanation-inquiry get muddled, and some hypotheses or conclusions seem a bit too far fetched. As a way of seeing and explaining the world, the book would easily nudge “big data” obsessed business decision makers into questioning and reflecting.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A good light read, which I would heartily recommend, but not for those seeking robust academic style frameworks and concepts.

Mother Pious Lady

Link: You can vote for this review now appearing on Amazon-US here, or on Amazon-UK here.

Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India* is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation – my generation – of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money (“the Dhania factor”), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain (“in praise of the unannounced visit”), the need to save and let save face (“the meaning of the slap”), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience (“Indian traffic as metaphor”) and ingenuity in problem-solving (“the power of the imperfect solution”).

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai’s. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit (“terms of endearment”), the redefining of masculinity (“Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage”), the emergence of the new Indian woman (“in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas” and “the woman, exteriorized”), the phenomenon of celebrity (“of genuine fakes and fake genuines”), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters (“the joint stock family”), continued hyper-competitiveness (“the paranoid parent”) and the negotiation with the old (“retrieving space slyly”).

This section reminded me of something I see in my work with British businesses. Few of those seeking to do business in India realise the daily difficulties that an Indian overcomes to deliver results. Work provides a space to be creative, to be free, to be responsible and to be focused. No concession need be made, of course, but recognising the barriers overcome gives one new respect for what Indians achieve rather than criticism of what they do not.

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur’s tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn’t Mr Desai’s intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my “bourgeoisie credentials”.

If non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai’s strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation – Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.

Since no discussion on India and the Indians is complete without the obligatory mention of China and the Chinese, I have to say that a book like this is unlikely ever to emerge from China. For the simple reason that unlike the Indians, the Chinese do not explain themselves, do not debate issues, and definitely do not introspect in public view. But it is, I believe, immensely better to go in with a range of truths than a single official version. Whether you are interested in India for pleasure or for business, reading the book may prepare you much better than you imagine.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Indians of my generation will find the book part amusing, part cringe-inducing but very insightful and perhaps a tad nostalgic for simpler times. But those, who seek to do business in India in the present times, where people of my generation are at the helm of most companies that matter, will probably gain the most from reading a book that explains why we are the way we are.