Why is male the default setting?

I have a pretty unusual name. It isn’t that unusual in Wales, actually, but it certainly causes a lot of confusion in day-to-day life. Think booking a restaurant table over the phone and trying to explain to the person the other end that yes, you are sure that your own name begins with two ‘Fs’.

The other sphere in which my name causes some confusion is in the world of business. In our line of work, we frequently have to engineer conversations and meetings with international organisations. This means that, more often than not, the people with whom I am engaging have never before encountered a ‘Ffion’. So what does this have to do with being a woman?

Nine times out of ten, the replies that I receive to my e-mails will be addressed to ‘Mr Rolph’. Since my Father is retired and has certainly never worked for this company, it is clear that most respondents have made the assumption that I am male. A quick Google search would tell them that ‘Ffion’ is in fact a “popular Welsh female name” (thanks, Wikipedia). Instead, most people (women included) tend to make the assumption that a person working in the world of business and technological innovation, is a man. It begs the question; why is ‘male’ the default setting?

The gender pay gap and lack of women in C-Suite positions is not news but it is still surprising that, in 2015, the pace of change seems painfully slow. Roughly 14% of the top jobs in S&P 500 Index companies are occupied by women, with no real increase in this figure over the last 4 years. This is despite the fact that Fortune 500 companies with high female representation on their boards significantly outperformed those companies with no female directors.

It is often the case that women adopt a different approach and possess a different set of professional tools versus male counterparts. The more diverse your workforce and leadership, the more diverse the pool of skills from which you can draw.

While there is plenty of talk about the need for change and examples of emerging initiatives such as the 30% club (which seeks to achieve 30% female board members in FTSE-100 companies by the end of 2015), the fact is that day-to-day perception and expectation is slow to change. When most people hear ‘CEO’, they immediately picture a man. I too am sometimes guilty of this.

In the same way that attention is being drawn to the importance of encouraging girls to participate in STEM subjects, we also need to make sure that girls are being encouraged to pursue positions of leadership and authority.

A great instance of leading-by-example is one of RIG’s client companies. Led by two women in their mid-twenties who formed a business from a technology developed while at school, the company today has 2 patented solutions which solve significant hearing and industrial noise challenges respectively. The company is already revenue generative and is today engaged in conversations with several multi-billion dollar organisations which are interested in pursuing the testing and, ultimately, licensing of their technology.

I sincerely hope that we continue to see a shift towards equality over the coming years. More women in business, technology, and leadership does not just benefit the women themselves; it benefits everyone around them.

Consultancy: An education process

Having enjoyed teaching in South Korea in 2013, a career as a teacher seemed an attractive prospect. Yet I had spent the last 16 years in education and thought entering the world of business after university would provide a new challenge. The opportunity to work with entrepreneurs seeking to address significant global issues using innovative technologies was enough to persuade me to apply to RIG.

So, the summer before last I was sat in the RIG meeting room giving a presentation to four partners of the company on anti-counterfeiting technologies in the high-end luxury goods market. This was my final round interview for a job starting in September 2014. The presentation was full of interesting debate and some fiery objections. But it was the final question which particularly stumped me: “Do you have any other plans or offers?”

Earlier that week I had been offered a place as a volunteer teacher in Sri Lanka for 6 months, luring me back to the seemingly contrasting world of education. I explained my situation to the partners and was told “we will get back to you in a few days.”

If my interview at RIG was successful and they offered me a job, I would have a difficult decision to make. Would I be spending the coming year trying to convince my friends that an engine utilising shape memory alloys and low grade waste heat to generate electricity is, in fact, extremely interesting? Or would I be marking test papers on a beach in the tropics?

The fact I am writing this blog will probably lead you to assume that I got the job at RIG, decided to stay in London and have been working here for a year. Well, not quite. My seemingly tricky decision was made easier by the conditions of my offer. I was offered employment here but also advised to take up the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka to teach and return to RIG the following year. My experience teaching abroad, I was told, would add value to my career at RIG.

To meet the demands of working here I wasn’t wrong in thinking I’d need to adapt my skill set significantly. Nevertheless my experience teaching has certainly provided a useful set of transferable skills.

My first two months here have been the start of an exciting education process. The feedback from all members of the team means I am continually learning, engaging in intelligent thought processes, and adapting to a RIG mentality. Not only am I learning, the processes and skills I developed while teaching are proving valuable. In Colombo I often had to create lesson plans to describe to students an alien idea or concept. I find myself doing much the same thing here in London; complex and technical ideas must be conveyed simply, while presentations must be engaging. So far my work here has been fast-paced, challenging and most importantly, fun.

Of course, teaching and consultancy are not identical careers. But the skills they both demand and the behaviour one must exhibit in the classroom and the meeting room makes the connection between these two worlds abundantly clear.


Know thyself

The ancient Greeks had it right, no doubt on a number of things, but surely none more fundamentally than as encompassed in the Delphic maxim – ‘know thyself’.

While at a RIG strategy meeting recently, we analysed in some gory detail our myriad individual strengths and weaknesses. I was told  (very generously I thought) by Mr. Shields Russell, RIG’s illustrious leader, that my strengths were strong enough that I should give myself the headspace to ensure I could bring these to bear, and to look to those around me to make up deficiencies. I’ve since come to the realisation that in fact the master social engineer was inviting me to look more closely at the team around me, for there lyeth all of the experience, character traits, and perspectives that if utilised intelligently could more than make up for my own personal inadequacies.

RIG is made up of a diverse bunch that, as well as getting along fairly well with each other some of the time, are all the friends a lonely technology entrepreneur could need or want. Despite being an outfit built by design around commercialising technology, none of us on our own has all the skills. If and when you come to the realisation that you are a jack of a particular trade, for the sake of everyone around you, get the hell out of the way and call for the support of a master – no-one will thank you for doing anything else. In any case complex, multi-faceted industrialisation requires more traits than any one ancient Greek or modern CEO could possibly hope to personify.

The advice of course was as sage as the Greeks themselves, and I firmly believe that had they had the forethought to dream up management speak, the aphorism would surely have read know thy team.