Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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“No Need for Geniuses”. A rather surprising book about history and science.

I interviewed Steve Jones at the Write on Kew literary festival on Sunday. He is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and from the evidence of his books a very curious author.  

He’s written extensively on evolution and genetics – how did we come to be who we are? – and this book No Need For Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine  – sweeps through a series of fantastic stories about an extraordinary moment in history, a time and a place, revolutionary France, when a host of academic explorers made tremendous strides – across scientific fields from biology, chemistry and physics to astronomy, meteorology, and ologies I didn’t know existed (like metrology, which has literally changed our world).

When we think about Paris we often think about the arts. That is literally only half the story. As Jones put it, “The scientific landscape of the French capital is, without doubt, the richest in the world”. Continue reading


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Walking the talk on #Diversity at Work

“Walk the talk”. “Turn the dial”. “We need to hardwire diversity”.

 

And – “You can’t improve on what you can’t measure”. “People can’t shy away from the data”.

 

These are some of my takeaways from the BBC Diversity and Inclusion in Media event I hosted on 15th September in the stately venue of the Old Broadcasting House council chamber. Essential ingredients : some inspiring talkers, audience interaction, and a networking session with cream tea laid on.

 

Anne Bulford Deputy Director General said she was committed to “a truly open BBC at all levels”. By 2020, she said, “if we get this right, we will have a workforce at least as diverse as any in the industry”.  Managers must “visibly lead by example”.

 

“Diversity” for our speakers was about gender, about disability, about ethnicity and about LGBT inclusion too. A question from the audience about enabling people who are economically disadvantaged also prompted quite a few nods. (I commented that “class still matters” but I don’t think that was the PC term for me to use.)

 

Toby Mildon, Diversity Lead for the BBC Design and Engineering division, gave us the tag line “Diversity includes everyone”. Later in the session Frances Duffy of Capgemini said that has to include the white middle aged man as well.  Toby strongly underlined one of the session’s key points for me: there’s a lot of talk about D&I (i.e. Diversity and Inclusion) but one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. It’s a warning I’ve also heard brilliantly made by the writer and corporate activist Margaret Heffernan. But I’m not sure it is taken to heart by managers who appoint staff – you need to pull together a diverse workforce as step one – And ALSO make individuals feel valued and encouraged to speak out, to collaborate, and to strive to raise the game of the workforce.

 

Toby said it’s sometimes overlooked that the BBC is a technical organisation – it needs to reach out to remind potential recruits in design and engineering and tech just how big an employer it is. He talked about BBC experimentation with blind skills recruiting. He said it gets results. Candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds are three times as likely to be shortlisted. And he revealed that tweaking the wording in job descriptions has led to more women applying.

 

A good number of the panellists and organisations represented in the room are already signed up to the Ten Steps programme of WISE – Women in Science and Engineering. Suzy Firkin described it as “sort of a pledge programme but more – we give you the tools and techniques to make a difference”. More than 150 organisations are now signed up and subscribing to WISE. Suzy revealed their feedback on the easiest and toughest steps to take. The hardest, once again this year, is “educate leaders”.

 

One of the companies in the room that’s already an enthusiastic supporter of WISE is Virgin Media. Jo Dutton is now director of Strategy, Insight and Data for the Customer Division. She talked about new efforts to recruit and to retain diverse talent. Among those, getting genuinely diverse interview panels. Was there resistance to that shift, I asked her? No – she’s been overwhelmed with volunteers.

 

Rachel Higham is MD, CIO, BT group – working in what’s traditionally an overwhelmingly male environment. She has a great PowerPoint on her TechWomen initiative – what’s been done and what still needs doing. The women in the programme have four points of help – a buddy, a mentor, a coach AND a sponsor. These are all different roles. But it’s a two way street: the programme requires that you “Drive Your Development”.  She says they are aiming for 30% women executives by 2020. Too many are still “stuck in middle management treacle”!  She advocates a “full life cycle” approach – all the way up to getting frank feedback in departure interviews, and aiming to make those who leave into either advocates or rejoiners.

 

“We want to mainstream diversity” said Nina Bhagwat, Off Screen Diversity Executive for Channel Four. She talked about the creative AND business case for doing so. Following the channel’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympics, this year she said “two thirds of our presenting team is disabled”. Offscreen targets include 50% apprenticeships and 30% work placements.

 

Aleya Karim talked about the significant changes made at McKinsey, as part of the 30% club aimed at getting a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards. She noted the importance of gender diversity targets being included in board updates. Aleya’s presentation also followed up on Nina’s point about efficacy: “Diverse leadership teams perform better financially.”

 

Our final panellist Frances Duffy works for tech consultants Capgemini as VP and Regional HR director, North and West Europe and UK Country Director. She talked frankly about how hard it is to shift the dial. She said the message has to be – to the middle aged white guy too – one of “active inclusion”. Capgemini started its new programme to that end only six months ago. But already in a diversity survey of the entire company population, she said there was 50% response and a lot of suggestions for change.

 

Hayley Sudbury then brought us a demo – of her new Werkin smartphone app designed to gather data, talent and enthusiasm within an organization to trouble-shoot all sorts of challenges – large and small.

 

She talked about using your “sparks” better – HR speak that’s new to me – and that’s my final takeaway from a session with a lot of fresh thinking to offer.

 


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Why Jo Cox was the best kind of politician.

I will remember Jo on her boat with a baby and a smile.

We’d been introduced by a mutual friend who used to work in the White House. When I headed back to London after four years living in the States, he said “there’s this fantastic woman you just have to meet”. And so in October 2011 we did – on her lovely vintage houseboat on the Thames. We talked about babies and boats and travelling the world, about being working parents, and about what professional women could do to help others coming up behind them – as she did.

I first reported on politics for the BBC in Westminster back in 1990, and have spoken to dozens and dozens of politicians since in the UK, the US and beyond. I’m always fascinated with what drives them.

With Jo, this was very clear. She was in politics not for what she could be, but for what she could do. She was smart, strategic, lovable – yes, she could have been a cabinet minister or a party leader. But she really was driven to make the world a better place. And to make us behave more decently.

She was passionate but positive. Something else to hold onto in an age of politicians “full of sound and fury”.

“Let’s have a cuppa sometime” she tweeted me last month. Oh if only


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America Revisited: the case for Gun Rights

As Americans in the west woke up to the awful news from Florida, I was on my way to the Ben Avery shooting range in the desert north of Phoenix Arizona, to meet three gun enthusiasts – Carol Ruh, president of the Arizona Ladies Shooting Association, her husband Pete Ruh, and the group’s Treasurer Debbie Arnold.  I’m recording a documentary for BBC Radio to air this September. The brief is, “what do Americans really think?”  Continue reading


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America Revisited : What happens in Vegas

I  was waiting for an Uber on the Vegas Strip last night, looking up wide-eyed at some of the crazy crowded exuberant neon skyline. From the casinos of Caesar’s Palace to The Mirage to Treasure Island. Next , perfectly framed in the top of a palm tree against a purple sky, was the shining golden name “Trump”, set on top of his shining golden tower. Continue reading


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America Revisited : Leaving LA

Eight years ago, black Americans were talking about pride and history – Barack Obama in the White House. In the last two days, I’ve been hearing stories of frustration and disappointment. Not with him – the people I’ve been talking to in Los Angeles have mostly been his liberal supporters. But with what they think his elevation unleashed in some of their fellow Americans. Continue reading


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America Revisited road trip : LA

When the dawn comes, I’ll be able to see palm trees. That’s jet lag in Los Angeles for you. I’ve surfaced in an eccentric little house in somebody’s back yard – built purely I reckon for the AirBNB economy – eager for daylight and a bike ride down to Venice beach.

The last time I blogged, it was with the confident expectation that Donald Trump would by now be a footnote in American political history. Ha! Now it’s California primary day. Continue reading