Pressing for Progress
By Alice Lester, Head of Planning at London Borough of Brent
As part of IWD I reflected on a few experiences from my working life. Progess? Yes…..but. I started work in the late 1980s. There was no equalities training at my Council. No HR guidance to speak. An elderly, male, white colleague used to ask, when interviewing young women, ‘what does your husband do?’ Definitely progress here, in my world this just would not happen now. But is that universal? I don’t think so. A recent YouGov survey, for the Equalities and Human Rights Council, reported that of 1,106 senior decision-makers, a third of those working for private companies thought it was reasonable to ask, in the recruitment process, about a woman’s plans to have children in the future. 59% said she should have to disclose if she is pregnant and 46% said it was reasonable to ask a woman if she had small children. Which all implies that this would form part of their decision making process on whether to offer a woman a job. 44% of employers believed women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children – can you believe that? All a bit Handmaid’s Tale with employers wanting to exert control over our bodies and fertility. When pregnant with my first child I asked to come back on a job share basis. My boss, and the Council, saw it as a good thing, not a liberty, not a nuisance, but good working practice. I know I was fortunate enough to have an economic choice. I was able to reduce my salary by 2/5ths, not everyone can. My Job Share partner and I both worked 3 days a week (so there was a small cost). We did our job share for 10 years – an arrangement which enabled us to spend more time at home whilst continuing our career and of course our pension contributions (another area where women are affected more than men). Not only continue our careers, but progress in them too. We applied, as one, for a promotion to be Head of a Service at another Council, a position we got. But it was an interesting experience. Between us we could ace that job; we had complementary skills, and together were a powerful combination. But we were very much seen not as one, but as two. Although the two of us would be doing one job, we had to both cover all the PS requirements – they weren’t looking at whether together we could do the job, but whether we could individually do the job. So we had to come first and second in the scoring. We did. But it doesn’t make it easy for a partnership like that to thrive and develop – would this approach give the impression that you can’t easily progress your career in a job share? Perhaps. In terms of working in planning as a profession, I don’t think men and women have different attitudes or approaches. Planning tends to attract people with quite a caring and positive, want to negotiate, mindset. My male and female colleagues don’t approach their work differently. Some people might think that negotiation and compromise are more female than male traits, but I don’t see any evidence of that. In terms of representation, there seem to be more male than female planners – including here – but we are closer to parity than in other built environment professions (38% of the chartered members of the RTPI are female). Although RIBA and RICS have both had female presidents recently, women are far less well represented in those professions. But that’s not to say that male and female planners have the same experiences. Local authority planners have to tell architects/agents that there is a problem with their scheme. We have to be assertive and confident. Some female colleagues report being patronised, and perhaps on the end of more bullying tactics or conversations than perhaps our male counterparts do? For me, personally, two #metoo moments spring to mind. Both around 5-8 years. I had a phone conference when I was working at home on a sunny day. The phone call (3 of us, one an immediate colleague and one an older, started with, of course, a chat about the weather. When I said I was working at home he said ‘I’m imagining you in your garden in a bikini’. He thought it was just friendly chitter chatter, but is was so not, so completely inappropriate. The other instance was an industry awards event, at a London hotel, wine was flowing. This different older, male asked me if I wanted to get a room upstairs. I didn’t. I subsequently found out he had propositioned quite a few women. Earlier I referred to the interview question. No one called the man out on it. And neither did I in my metoo moments, and it is a source of shame and regret that I didn’t. Neither of these men were my boss, they couldn’t immediately make me lose my income. But I’m a reasonably successful, confident, woman, and didn’t feel able to pull these men up. There are so many other women who are (or feel) intimidated in work. But I also know of women who have taken cases up and lived to regret it because the consequences have been severe. Progress? Well maybe the #MeToo movement is a step change. I hope so. Two years ago on IWD I was at a conference hosted by the Planning Inspectorate. The outgoing, male, Chief Exec said in opening the conference that he was delighted to announce, on IWD, that the new, incoming CEx was a woman. Great. But there was not one woman speaker or panel member scheduled that day. I tweeted about the irony of this on IWD (not that it would have been right on any day), and lo, that afternoon, there was a female panel member. She didn’t have a name plate of course because she was a last minute after-thought. Women’s visibility, and opportunities to speak are important. If we aren’t visible on speaking platforms we will perpetuate the idea that women are few and far between, and have nothing worth saying. It shows the younger generation that we are here and have opinions. There has been some progress here, women are represented as speakers at Planning conferences (although still underrepresented, the next National Planning Summit has 34 speakers/ panel members, 11 are women). And Women in Planning are doing great work increasing the visibility of women planners. But some women pay a high price for speaking out (generally). They can be shot down, in horribly abusive ways. For daring to suggest that there might be a woman on the £10 note, for being a clever academic on Question Time who has long hair and doesn’t wear make up, or being outspoken about Parliament’s right to vote on Brexit. And the language often used to describe women who speak publicly – shrill, we shriek, whine and whinge. Well doesn’t that trivialise what we have to say? Those words are never used against males. They are authoritative, passionate. Even Boris Johnson’s most laughable performances are bumbling. Compare that to the treatment that Diane Abbott gets over a bad interview. So whether it is at a planning conference, Question Time or a comedy panel show, women need to have fair representation. We are present, we have things to say, and we will be heard.