Why more and more women choose self-employment

This week’s Blog is written by Vicki Marinker, whom I have known for several years since running a training programme at the recruitment firm where she was working.  

Lifestyle Maven profile photo

Vicki is a partner in Comms Leaders, specialists in corporate communications recruitment.  She also writes a lifestyle blog at www.lifestylemaven.co.uk, where she shares her passion for, amongst other things, food, beauty, fashion and personal development.  

She stepped into the self employed world comparatively recently, so this article comes from the heart.  

She is in dispair and isolation

Self-employed people, they’re everywhere. Opening up boutiques, or industriously working on laptops in coffee shops, or beavering away in their home offices. Of course, they had always been there, but I’d been safely tucked away in my office, busily not noticing them.

Each new chapter in our lives opens our eyes to behaviours that were always there, but went unnoticed.

Little did I realise how many 40-something women are self-employed until I left corporate life myself. I estimate that half of the working mums in my sons’ classes at school are either self-employed, or have their own businesses and employ staff.

At the beginning of 2016, the self-employed accounted for 15% of the UK population, That’s 4.6million people.

There are many successful, happy, fulfilled women among them who aren’t interested in climbing the greasy corporate pole anymore.

I am singling out women here, because the majority of the self-employed people I happen to know are women. But it is a growing phenomenon.

Why is that? What is it that happens to women in their 30s and 40s that makes them leave the fertile land of employment and plough their own furrow?

It is true that the change often comes after women have children, but childcare isn’t the main motivation for women leaving their jobs. I didn’t leave my last company until my eldest son was eight. Many of my friends returned to work straight after their maternity leave, like me, determined to slot right back into corporate life, just as ambitious to succeed as before.

After a couple of years, that desire to reach the boardroom dwindled – it just didn’t seem like such an attractive option anymore. It wasn’t about work/life balance, it was more a case of wanting to be more authentic, make my own decisions and be in control of my own destiny.

Corporate culture vs authenticity

Men and women are wired differently. We have a different approach to communicating and making decisions. Studies show that women have a higher EQ – emotional intelligence, take fewer risks and place higher emphasis on communication skills than men. These characteristics are under-valued in large organisations, even by those run by women. Michael talks about this in a guest blog on my website here.

Appraisals and personal development plans are ultimately about achieving the next level in the hierarchy. And in order to reach that goal, one has to demonstrate, among other things, better ‘leadership’ skills.

That just doesn’t feel authentic to many women. I once won an award for being ‘most inspiring mentor’ – that’s where I felt I had strength, in encouraging people – not in managing large teams or dictating strategy. But that wasn’t really part of the company’s grand plan.

I began to find the structure within which I worked stifling. Rather than beating a path to the boardroom door, I started to retreat from it, asking for less responsibility and fewer people to manage.

Women do have a choice – they can either learn more ‘masculine’ skills to compete for the top jobs; be content where they are, using the skills they have; or they can make a leap of faith into a new way of working, that allows them to be authentic and make their own choices.

The pay and opportunity gap

Two executives – one male, one female – started their jobs with the same company at around the same time. They were given the same opportunities and responsibilities for several years and both thrived. Until the woman announced she was pregnant. At that point the woman was taken off the leadership development programme because, she was told she was ‘going on sabbatical and effectively leaving the business for a while’. That happened. The CEO who made that decision was a woman.

Some bosses beat the ambition out of us.

Family commitments change our priorities

According to The Guardian, women are, in the main, responsible for the majority of the childcare and household chores despite our best efforts to achieve parity.

After a long day at the office, sometimes followed by an evening of networking, I’d come home to make dinner, put on the washing, spend some time with the kids. The hubster does his fair share too, don’t get me wrong, but I can guarantee he has never woken up in the middle of the night in a panic to put the drying machine on.

I know several women who work for international companies who expect them to dial into conference calls with their counterparts in Melbourne and New York at 11pm, and turn up to work bright and breezy at 8am the next day. That timetable isn’t sustainable when one child is teething and the other is waking with night terrors.

Never did my family commitments interfere with my corporate job. I worked four days a week and was the top biller in the company. But there was this constant nagging feeling that I wasn’t giving 100% to either work or family. The move towards equality (because we’re not there yet) means that we have a lot on our plates and not enough time.

Now I’m very disciplined with my time – there is clear separation. I don’t do household chores during working hours, but because I don’t commute anymore, I can do those things while the kids are eating their breakfast or dinner. I have several hours available to me that weren’t before.

The internet entrepreneur

The internet has brought so many new opportunities for all sorts of one-woman businesses. A whole category of enterprises only exist because of the internet – such as web designers, bloggers, virtual assistants; while others are able to expand their businesses through web-based marketing and sales. Start-ups don’t need a huge investment to get going. In the case of our recruitment business, we already owned laptops, had a well-established network to tap into and just needed to buy a software package and mobile phones.

There are so many reasons, and opportunities, for leaving corporate life, it’s no surprise there are so many self-employed women in the UK.

My fifth decade(eek!) has brought with it a confidence to make scary decisions. I wish I had made the move away from employment in my 30s but I wasn’t mentally ready for it then. The self-employed women I know are confident. They are leaders. They just don’t want to lead in the confines of a corporate hierarchy.

Self-employment allows women to be authentic, take back some time and freedom and create a life that includes work, rather than trying to fit a life around work.



Posted in Life Skills, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Use your ears. Otherwise IT NEVER ENDS.

As a business skills trainer I’m constantly on the lookout for new tools and different perspectives on the  topics I work on, so that it stays fresh and relevant.  I’m also looking for reassurance that what I am advocating in the training room is best practice and can be successfully applied in the real world.

Last week I bumped into a video on YouTube which was a shot in the arm for the work I do in conflict handling.  It stopped me in my tracks, and I wanted to share it with you today.

Amaryllis Fox Crop 2Amaryllis Fox is a writer and peace activist who worked under cover for 10 years in the CIA.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, she talks about her perspective on how the West is dealing with ISIS.

She makes a simple point which I am relieved to find completely endorses the approach I advocate in conflict handling and leadership workshops:


In order to resolve conflict you have to understand the other person and their perspective.  The best way to do this is to use your ears more than your mouth.  I then summarise this principle using the words of Stephen Covey:


Amaryllis makes the same points:

“The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to him.”  When you do that “you discover that you might have made the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.”

She then makes a point which really knocked me sideways:

“As long as your enemy is a subhuman psycopath who is going to attack you no matter what you do, THIS NEVER ENDS.”

When you consider this logically, it makes total sense.  If we see things from the perspective of the other person, we realise they may see us as just as much of a threat as we do them.  Their behaviour is just as logical and justifiable to them as ours is to us.

The trouble is, we don’t deal with conflict logically, particularly when lives are being lost and our way of life is being threatened.  As Amaryllis says, we have oversimplified the situation:  “they” are all crazy killers who are out to get us, and we have done nothing wrong.

As I suggest in my conflict workshops, at the root of aggressive or passive behaviour is Faulty Thinking.  Faulty Thinking is where we either exaggerate, assume or apply faulty logic.  As is no doubt the case in our thinking about the threat from ISIS.

Have a look at the video if you’ve not seen it before.  Notice how you respond to it, and see how difficult you find it to listen to the message.

Maybe there is someone you find hard to listen to, where you find yourself in a relationship which is at best unproductive.  Could your next step be to find a way to really find out how they see things, and use that as a starting point for a conversation about how you can collaborate better?

It’s a choice.  Carry on as you are (prognosis – it will get worse, and may never end).  Try this new approach (prognosis – could work, might not, if it doesn’t at least you don’t have to beat yourself up for not trying).

Best of luck.


Posted in Conflict, Life Skills | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Want to know who’s going to win the election? Easy: check out their jaw jut.

We are all doomed.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  The utter irrationality of human decision making is currently making itself felt in the election process in the USA, as it has done in elections worldwide for years.  This is not opinion, and this is not a political article:  it’s a fact.  Supposedly.

Candidates who APPEAR to be more competent than others win elections 68% of the time.

Robert sapolskyIn a fascinating article for the Los Angeles Times, primatologist Robert Sapolsky explains that it’s not just confined to elections.

It seems there’s a link between whether criminals get parole or not  and when the judge last had a meal.  He goes on to list numerous other examples of subconscious influences on our decision making.

“In one well-studied phenomenon, when voters consider two candidates with identical positions, they tend to choose the one independently rated to be better looking. For male candidates this means tall, symmetrical features, high forehead, prominent brow ridges, jutting jaw. It’s part of a larger pattern — people judged to be attractive are typically rated as having better personalities, higher moral standards, as kinder and more honest. When job applicants present the same resume, the better looking is more likely to be hired. If miscreants are convicted of the same crime, the better looking tends to serve less time.”

I’ve written before on the link between effective leadership and the aysmmetry or not of peoples’ earlobes (and wrist width and finger length), featuring research mentioned in Harvard Business Review.  In summary, unless we look the part we are not going to going to win on the basis of our compelling argument or the quality of our campaign.  We just need to look right.  How scary is that?

There has to be good money to be made in defining what “competent” looks like, and then of course offering plastic surgery or something to help us to get closer to that definition.

Meanwhile of course we need to predict the outcome of the American Presidential election, which will simply be a matter of how Hilary and Donald look.  Here’s my totally independent and apolitical assessment.  I am using my new Candidate Assessment Tool specially devised for this exercise:  maximum 10 points for overall height, ear lobe size (aysmmetrical is good), jaw jut, forehead height and prominence of brow ridges. 50 points maximum in total.

Height 10 Ear lobes 9 Forehead height 8 Jaw Jut 9 Eyebrow prominence 7

Height 10
Ear lobe symmetry 9
Forehead height 8
Jaw Jut 9
Eyebrow prominence 7



Donald, 45 marks.

Good work on height and jaw, they are hard to beat.




Height 6 (sorry) Ear lobes 10 (wonderfully aysmmetrical) Forehead height 8 Jaw jut 8 Eyebrow prominence 8

Height 6 (sorry)
Ear lobes 10 (wonderfully aysmmetrical)
Forehead height 8
Jaw jut 8
Eyebrow prominence 8

Sorry Hilary, it’s a slam dunk from Don.  He beat you by a full 10 points – an outright majority verdict.

I’m being flippant, of course, (politics tends to bring out the worst in me).

There is a serious point to make.  Some people have natural features which work either for or against them when it comes to convincing others of our competence and leadership ability.  There’s not much you can do about your height or your wrist width.  I guess you just learn to compensate in other ways.

Margaret Thatcher famously had voice coaching to lower her vocal tone, presumably to make her sound more “manly” in the male-dominated corridors of power.  There is plenty you can do with your eyes to improve your appearance of competence:  don’t look at the floor when you’re making your point, for instance. Hold eye contact with one person in the audience for a moment so that you are genuinely connecting with them.  And much else besides

But just be aware that when you’ve done all that, the people you are trying to convince are about as rational as my dog is when he sees a squirrel on our bird feeder.  Just because your argument makes sense, doesn’t mean we are going to get your message.

Footnote:  my apologies to any of you who received a previosuly published Blog in your Inbox recently.  My subscriber database tool has developed a mind of its own, it seems, and is now publishing without my permission.  Do that one more time and you’ll be fired, mister!


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Why you can’t beat personal experience. No matter how bad it was.

Last week I had one of those moments which make my job as a coach and trainer so completely satisfying.

sunbeam  There are plenty of them anyway, but this one was like a beam of light shining through a cloudy sky.  It really knocked me out.

I was coaching someone for the first time.  Priscilla is a mature student studying mental health at University, and she wants to apply her knowledge and personal experience when she graduates by running workshops in mental health in the workplace.  These will be designed to help people to recognise symptoms of mental disorder at work, so that support can be provided earlier.

At the start of our coaching session she was quite nervous, and we spent some time talking about the content for the workshop, how people learn and one or two other relevant topics, with me on my feet showing how I go about handling questions and so on.  But in the back of my mind I knew that at some point I needed to pass the ball to Priscilla and observe her style and approach so we could work out how she can improve.

We swapped seats:  she became the trainer and I the participant in an imaginary room of 10 people.  I turned on the video camera so she could see for herself how she came across and work out the areas she wants to work on.  I gave her no input into how to structure her personal introduction:  this came from the heart, from someone who was very nervous and had never run a training session before.

There were two things she said which knocked me sideways.  I can still remember them (that’s how powerful it was) one week later.

“I came to the UK 10 years ago to develop myself and to be able to support my daughter who is 15 and still lives in South Africa, so that she can have the education I did not have myself.” 

Read that one again if you will, and pause to reflect on the courage and commitment this modest and self effacing lady has demonstrated.

I already had a lump in my thoat, but then she went on:

“I’m interested in mental health because of the issues I experienced myself when I was in Africa.  I was not supported, and at one time was taken to a traditional healer, which stressed me further and made things far worse……Seeing my colleagues struggling with the stigma of mental health and lack of support has motivated me to help people at work to be more aware of mental health issues.”

Gulp.  I was almost speechless.  I could find nothing to say to Priscilla by way of suggested improvement.  She could have run a workshop there and then as far as I was concerned.  She had said enough to convince me of the relevance of her personal experience and the motivation she had for running the workshop.  I cannot think how anyone could have said anything more convincing and compelling, and she had engaged me in a way I have rarely seen others achieve.

In this world where there are hoards of pseudo-trainers who get their “experiences” and their content second hand from books, the internet, and other trainers, and who run a course by being ahead of their participants by one page (that’s all you need), Priscilla is already standing head and shoulders above the bulk of them.  She has something which is very hard to replicate:  authenticity and empathy which comes from having been through it herself.

It reminded me more widely of why some people are so powerful when they communicate.  When they are speaking from personal experience, you can tell.  It somehow leaks.  This is why we pay good money to after dinner speakers who have proven they have experience, whether as explorers, athletes or as business leaders.  It’s also, conversely, why we don’t buy so much of what our politicians tell us:  many of them have little or no real world experiece to draw on, and it comes across as fake or disingenuous.

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those coaching relationships where the coach learns as much as the coachee (awful word, I know).  I’ve always thought that you don’t have to be an expert to coach someone, or indeed to train others in it.  But it sure helps when you have had that personal experience to draw on, particularly in something as complex and profound as mental health.

I can’t wait to see the finished workshop, not only to see Priscilla achieving her full potential as a facilitator, but also because the topic seems so relevant to today’s increasingly dysfunctional and stressful workplace.  I think it has potential to make a real difference.

Speaking for myself, it already has.

Posted in Coaching Skills, Communication, Life Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Conflict at work? Probably best to avoid it.

Here’s a tricky question for you.  Please take one of my metaphorical honesty tablets before you answer it.  If you can’t give an honest answer there’s not much point reading this article.  Here goes.

Is your organisation like so many others, where the preferred way of handling conflict is to avoid it?

If so, the chances are that you have picked this up from other people, and it has become your preferred conflict handling style, even though this may be very different to the style you use outside of work.

avoidAccording to Ralph Kilmann, co-author of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument,  conflict avoidance (a style of conflict handling which is low on both assertiveness and co-operativeness) is in the top 25% of raw scores in many organisations which use the instrument.

Those same people will score avoidance in the bottom 25% of their responses outside of work.

I can completely relate to this.  Conflict avoidance has been the prevalent style in the majority of the organisations/departments I worked with in my 30 years of working for an employer.  I first became exposed to it in a vivid way in my first illustrious job after university, working as a warehouse supervisor for a large drinks distributor.

drinksAll employees in the company were entitled to a take home allowance every month of 3 trays of cans of beer.  Lucky us.  One day an employee whom I shall call Ken Munro asked me if it was ok to collect his ration, and went off to collect it.  Five minutes later I spotted him from the other side of the warehouse wheeling out not 3 trays but 4 trays.  Shock horror!

I, the ever -keen and watchful young supervisor, was in no doubt that this needed to be confronted.  It appeared to be out and out theft in broad daylight, and it offended me at every level.  With my heart pounding with both fear and excitement, I immediately ran over to the warehouse manager’s office and told him what I’d seen, looking for his backup whilst I went and asked Mr Munro to explain himself.

Sadly this was not to be.  I was told in no uncertain terms that it would cause more problems than it was worth.  All sorts of excuses were thrown at me:  we might have to involve the police, could I really be sure, the men might go on strike (this was the early 1980’s), did it really matter as the depot was closing in two months’ time and Ken was going to be laid off anyway.

When I challenged this we conferred with the Office Manager for a second opinion, and I got outvoted.  End of discussion.  Feeling about one inch tall and as demotivated as you can get, I went back to work.  For a while I felt that the men could all help themselves to the beer as far as I was concerned.

I learnt a lot from that experience, not necessarily in a positive way.  I learnt that you can usually find a good excuse not to do the right thing, that keeping your head down is important, that you can’t assume that people you think of as leaders will always display leadership, and much else.  Looking back I think it shaped many of my early professional decisions, and held me back in many ways.

I use the TKI tool extensively on my training workshops, and can say with certainty that I see avoidance as a strong preference in businesses of all shapes and sizes.  Sometimes it takes a while for people to admit it, and they imagine themselves initially to be naturally Collaborative since this is what they assume is the correct way to be.  I have a few exercises which expose their true avoidance style, and we can then explore the implications for them and the business.

Interestingly it seems less prevalent in new hires, and is most pronounced at middle management level.  Only the other day I was coaching a Director who told me that in the survey he had completed he had portrayed himself as the hard-nosed outspoken leader he feels he is expected to be, rather than the sensitive, empathetic introvert he in fact is, because he feels he has to.  He is conforming to a stereotype, and as a result is not authentic or true to himself.  He is Avoiding and Accommodating:  letting other people have what they want at his own expense.

I find all this a little sad.  If we feel we have to conform, avoid the difficult conversations, and be someone other than who we really are the minute we walk through the door at work, it makes for a less fruitful work experience for ourselves, and means we carry on encountering the same old business problems which never get truly tackled.  It’s inefficient, stressful and demotivating.

No wonder that according to Gallup only 13% of workers worldwide are actively engaged in the business they work in.

No wonder stress levels are so high and productivity so low.

No wonder we all spend so much time moaning about “having” to do things we know are a waste of time.

No wonder our meetings are so unproductive, going over old ground, thinking we had consensus when we didn’t.

What can we do about it?  Are we all doomed?  No: there are ways to encourage people not to Avoid:

  • Make it OK for them to talk about things
  • Give them time to think in advance of talking about it (Avoiders are often Introverted)
  • Point out the consequences of not talking about it
  • Highlight the benefits of talking about it.

To thine own self be true.”  Thank you Shakespeare.  Easy to say, not so easy to do.

What’s your experience of this?




Posted in Conflict | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why Project Managers should invite conflict and relish frustration

This week’s article is written by my good friend and Project Management expert Spencer Holmes.  Spencer and I work together wherever we can, and are enjoying building a training video business together.

conflict 5I have just come away from another workshop, with another group of clever and hard working project people, in another “fast paced” global firm.

Wherever I go I try to get the same simple message across:


Despite Aesop and countless other story tellers before and since, we seem increasingly immune to this mantra.

The thing is, we appear to be adhering to one or both of two things:

  • We love the excitement and energy of the early beginnings.  The courting and honeymoon are after all the more viscerally stimulating parts of the marriage – right?
  • We prefer to dodge the “inconvenient truths” that abound in the formative days of a project, such as:

Why are we doing it? How big are the benefits? How hairy the risks? Do we have any idea what’s really involved? Do we have a time-machine and endless cash / resources?

To some, sadly often those “in charge”, these are annoying details to be combatted by people “lower down” who frequently lack the authority and influence to do much about them.

Naturally I am not completely refuting the requirement for raw ambition, nor am I suggesting we should paralyse innovation with analysis. What I do think would be helpful though is to adjust the timing of the difficult discussions that inevitably arise when we take on something new in complex and increasingly diverse organisations.

Let’s have the conflict, and let’s make sure we have it at the start. Simply dodging the inconvenient truths early on means they manifest later in proceedings when money has already been spent, expectations set, reputations require protecting and the ability and appetite to creatively problem solve are waning.

There are myriad tools to help project managers light the fuse of debate early on, whether it be to question the validity of the business case or lay out the true complexity of the work to be done. These have existed for years.

TKI_Table_smallWhat I think helps is a better understanding of the nature of “conflict” and a way of constructively dealing with it. To this end I have found the Thomas-Kilmann “conflict mode instrument” useful to help people get their heads around 3 key things:

  • Well-managed conflict is good, in fact necessary in innovation
  • There are different ways of dealing with it to harness the optimum outcome
  • We all have different preferences for how we deal with conflict.

Here are two resources that may provoke further thought on this. First, this great talk on the benefits of conflict and frustration by Tim Harford:

And finally, one of our own offerings in the HowNOT2 video range. Here we play out a conflict scenario in which insufficient assertiveness leads to a poor outcome for both parties.

Ralph Kilmann, The co-author of the conflict model has this to say about what we have done:

“It’s a pleasure for me to watch Michael Brown present the TKI Conflict Model in a very concise and effective manner. He provides a great overview in a short period of time. The several video scenarios that follow make it easy for people to see a variety of conflict modes in action and then enable people to reflect on why those particular approaches to conflict did not result in those actors getting their most important needs met. Discussing these scenarios in a group will help people better understand their own TKI results and how to then improve their own conflict-handling behavior.”

Ralph H. Kilmann, co-author of the TKI assessment and CEO of Kilmann Diagnostics

For the full video showing four different conflict scenes, please come to our How NOT 2 website

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