Hello and welcome to Working It.

The only good news is that Claudia Goldin has won the Nobel Prize for economics. The Harvard professor has devoted her career to examining women’s outcomes in the labour market. As the FT puts it: “One of her most counterintuitive findings was that women’s participation in paid employment did not increase steadily over time, or in line with economic growth, but formed a U-shaped curve.”

If you are a management consultant, lawyer or banker, I recommend reading this interview with the FT’s Sarah O’Connor on what Claudia calls “greedy jobs” 🍔. It may not make you feel better about your “long-hours” work culture, but you’ll see how it has difficult choices baked into it, especially for those with family commitments.

Read on for a deeper dive into women’s experience in the workplace — including why microaggressions are not “micro” at all — and in Office Therapy we advise a manager whose staff “phone it in”.

Please send all thoughts, rants — and even ideas for improving greedy work — to isabel.berwick@ft.com💡

How flexible work has turbocharged women’s career ambitions 🚀

Flexible working has helped to unleash a huge wave of ambition among women. Ambition is ranked the highest it’s ever been, with a new survey showing that almost every woman asked (96 per cent) says their career is a top priority. Forget the viral trends for lazy girl jobs and quiet quitting 🥱. Women’s ambition is actually way up since the pandemic started. We want more, more, more (cue my favourite Bananarama video 🍌).

All this comes from the latest McKinsey women in the workplace report. I ploughed through the entire report (52 pages) so you don’t have to and it makes — drum roll 🥁 — for not totally depressing reading.

McKinsey runs this survey in partnership with LeanIn.org. (Remember Sheryl Sandberg’s global movement to advance women at work? It has moved on from its early days around 2015, when the “leaning in” we did at the FT was physical, including the then-subversive act of . . . taking a seat at the table with the senior men.) The two organisations surveyed more than 27,000 employees and 270 senior HR staff in the US and Canada, and found that young women are especially ambitious — three in four aspire to senior leadership positions.

When I talked to Alexis Krivkovich, senior partner at McKinsey and co-founder of the women in the workplace report, I asked why senior corporate leaders are enforcing strict return to office orders when it’s clear that a post-pandemic “flex” style of work is, well, working wonders for women?

“This isn’t just a women thing,” she clarifies. “This is men and women now putting flexibility as a top three benefit on a par with their health benefits. I think there is no going back from that 🏆.”

As Alexis points out, senior leaders are overwhelmingly older white men, a “demographic segment whose personal historic experience in the physical workplace just isn’t the same as the diversity of their talent base. So some of the things their employees value most about what flex gives them — including some of the microaggressions they experience day to day — these leaders have never felt.”

And it’s workplace microaggressions that form the second stand-out strand of the report’s findings. As well as a definition of the term*, we learn that “years of data show that women experience microaggressions at rates significantly higher than men: they are twice as likely to be interrupted and hear comments on their emotional state.”

The effect of microaggressions is, over time, anything but micro. And for Black and Latina women, those who are disabled or identify as LGBTQ+, Alexis says the rate they experience microaggressions is far higher. “And what it all leads to is a third of women who don’t speak up to share an opinion 🤐 because they don’t want to appear disagreeable.”

One tip? We can all play a small part by “amplifying” colleagues who are talked over or ignored in meetings. “It doesn’t take a lot to raise your voice and say ‘hold on, I think X wasn’t finished yet’,” says Alexis 🙋🏽.

* “The term microaggression was coined in 1970 by researchers to refer to the prejudiced and exclusionary acts that may be more subtle than overt discrimination, but nonetheless have a big impact on well-being.”

This week on the Working It podcast

We all get things wrong, even if we don’t like to admit it. But do you know the difference between a mistake and a failure? And when can failure actually be “intelligent” — and something we can learn from? My guest on this week’s Working It podcast is Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and a rock star in the world of management 🎸 for her work identifying “psychological safety” in teams — and how it can help us co-operate better.

Amy’s new book, Right Kind of Wrong, is about learning to fail better — and learn from it — as a vital human activity. I talk to her about how to make the most of our errors. Then I chew over the worst professional mistakes we’ve made with my (pleasingly frank) FT colleague Brooke Masters. Enjoy! 😳

Office Therapy

The problem: We have an issue with “dead wood”. I oversee several teams and each team leader is dealing with at least one very longstanding staff member who is “phoning it in”. They won’t apply for new jobs in the organisation, nor will they leave (it’s a great place to work). The pipeline is blocked. How can I get more people to take on a new challenge? We’ve tried one-on-one coaching, offering secondments . . . nothing works 🤷🏽‍♂️.

Isabel’s advice: This is one of the perennial issues in workplaces, especially those with a strong culture and a “caring” ethos. It’s just too comfortable. And you can’t push people, unless you can prove incompetence. A voluntary redundancy scheme might appeal to some — it’s worth exploring with HR and leadership if you haven’t already — but it sounds like many of these people would not take the payoff anyway.

I asked Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, and someone very familiar with managers’ frustrations, for her take on this. “The idea of ‘dead wood’ usually starts with a lack of thoughtful, intentional talent management,” she says. You have limited options now, but Ann suggests you ask your organisation’s leadership to set out the clear expectation in future that staff move roles every two to five years — both for their own development and to free up the pipeline.

Making sure mediocre performance is not overlooked is also key, says Ann: “This is hard work, but turning a blind eye to weak performance is part of the reason why people who are “dialling it in” tend to stay in their roles.”

Finally, don’t neglect the staff whose careers are being blocked: “Speak to your peers and try to find them challenging roles. Great bosses don’t hoard talented people, but rather encourage them to seize opportunities elsewhere in the organisation. This is sponsorship 🌟.”

Got a question, problem, or dilemma for Office Therapy? Think you have better advice for our readers? Send it to me: isabel.berwick@ft.com or via a voice note. We anonymise everything. Your boss, colleagues or underlings will never know.

Five top stories from the world of work

  1. Sarah de Lagarde fell onto the tube tracks. Nobody helped. Why? I had heard about Sarah’s accident through friends who know her. It brought home the fact that “it could happen to any of us”. The FT’s Madison Marriage talks to her — and reveals some terrifyingly lacklustre safety measures in place on London’s tube system.

  2. Work watch: egg freezing as a benefit for staff. Emma Jacobs’ new workplace trend column kicks off with egg freezing, which has gone from niche to mainstream in just a few years, along with other fertility benefits.

  3. You’re competing with the commute’: how businesses are rethinking offices. From moving right out of towns to offering shared workspaces, many companies are pushing through big changes to accommodate a permanent hybrid work world. Janina Conboye visits some inspiring examples.

  4. How Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX failed. As workplace dramas go, the collapse of FTX is a big one, and in this fascinating essay, Brooke Masters examines four books talking about Bankman-Fried himself and the crypto world more generally.

  5. The cult of the gifted amateur lives on. Britain has always celebrated people with zero specialist experience but who see a first-class degree from Oxford as a “qualification for anything”, as the ex-politician Rory Stewart puts it. Pilita Clark examines the phenomenon — and its shortcomings.

One more thing . . . 

I have been writing a book 📕 and somehow this has brought my usually voracious reading habit to a total halt. The solution is to listen to a lot of audiobooks, and the standout so far is Richard Osman’s latest Thursday Murder Club mystery, The Last Devil to Die.

Richard’s books are beautifully written and don’t get nearly enough critical attention from, dare I say it, snooty broadsheet reviewers. Fiona Shaw reads this fourth instalment of the series, and the 70-something sleuths of Coopers Chase retirement village are in sparkling form. I also cried and cried — it’s very moving. These stories are a balm in a stormy world🕵🏻‍♀️.

A word from the Working It community

Last week’s newsletter on praising staff (and why it should be far more common in workplaces) drew some affirming comments from leaders who do this — and find it effective. Here’s Jori Ringman on the right kind of praise:

“What I believe is working is making sure people are ‘seen and understood’: most of the time I believe this is as simple as checking in with a colleague to know what their situation is in their respective work areas, review their goals and to know they have the resources they need. It can include a word of praise for the milestones achieved, but confirming their work is important and supported is, in my view, the most effective praise I can think of.

“I do take up the challenge of making it more concrete and adding in my praise [about] why their work has been helpful; this is a great idea to avoid ‘cheap’ praise.”

And finally . . . 

If you didn’t catch Norwich City football club’s powerful video for World Mental Health Day on social media this week, can I suggest you give it two minutes of your time?