Podcast: ‘Subversion, pragmatic feminism and why you should ditch the guilt’ with Kathryn Jacob, CEO of Pearl & Dean

Kathryn Jacob podcast Anna Melville James pragmatic feminism

And as such, ‘pragmatic feminism’ requires us to take charge in our own way. As co-author of The Glass Wall with Sue Unerman, Jacob uses a lifetime of working in male-dominated businesses –to talk frankly about finding success strategies and ways to flourish. Whether that’s ‘showing off at work’, ditching the ‘guilt’ of being a working mum or defining what success looks like to us she pulls no punches in this funny and fearless podcast. Listen in – and listen up!



Anna:               Hello, and welcome to the everywoman Podcast. I’m Anna, editor of everywoman, and, every month, we’ll be bringing you the stories, insights, and opinions of inspiring women in business on a wide range of topics, asking the questions you want the answers to and doubtless prompting some more in the process.

Anna:               Today, we’re talking about success and the strategies for it with CEO of Pearl & Dean and co-author of The Glass Wall, a guide to success strategies for women at work, Kathryn Jacob. 

Anna:               Welcome to the studio, Kathryn. 

Kathryn Jacob:      Good morning. 

Anna:               Thank you for coming in and talking to us about success. Let’s talk about it, namely how to get it and where women are missing out on perhaps how they can maximise their success. You are co-author of The Glass Wall, which was published in 2016 I think.

Kathryn Jacob:      It was.

Anna:               Talking about success strategies for women at work, and in it, you discussed how men and women can see each other through the divide, presuming this is the eponymous glass wall. But we don’t speak the same language or have the same expectations.

Anna:               And in an interview, I think I read, you said that the status quo has been left alone for too long and it’s time for a change. So I just wanted to start by asking you what does that change look like to you, and why?

Kathryn Jacob:      The change looks like more women leading companies, so at the moment if you’re a man called John you stand a better chance to run a FTSE 100 company than you do if you’re born with ovaries, which strikes me as ridiculous because John isn’t even that popular a name anymore. 

Anna:               No.

Kathryn Jacob:      And it’s also the fact, I mean the glass wall is because there are games going on, and subcultures that exist, that women don’t understand. And it works against them, and actually, it works against all sorts of people. So one of the premises of the book is that it’s not “Let the lovely women go through, men are bad, women lovely.” 

Kathryn Jacob:      It is the fact that it’s a toxic alpha male system that doesn’t work for all kinds of people, but predominantly women. And what I’d like to see is having a situation where I never again hear a woman go “Well it’s just me, that’s why I haven’t succeeded.” Actually, it isn’t just you, there are millions of women thinking “Oh well, it’s me, maybe I’m not good enough, or maybe I made the horrible mistake of studying until I was 25 to get a masters degree and then thinking I could do this.” And actually it’s the culture that’s working against them, and it’s a lack of understanding around the contribution that women make in the workplace.

Kathryn Jacob:      So there’s evidential proof from McKinsey and from all over the world about the fact that if you have a more diverse workforce, and you have a diverse board, you make better decisions and companies are more profitable.

Kathryn Jacob:      The other reason why we called it the Glass Wall actually is because the glass ceiling implies everyone’s just got this huge aspiration to have an office the size of a football pitch, and 43 assistants. And given the way that women run their lives, you’re a wife, you’re a mother, you’re a carer, you’ve got a dog, you want to run triathlons, or what have you. You might decide to take a sideways move in your career that gives you a richer work experience, but it’s not an upward trajectory, and the idea that success is only if you earn gazillions of pounds and travel around in your own private jet, actually success comes in all sorts of forms.

Anna:               So, I wanted to talk to you about the culture, because you talk about this, and it’s that idea that success is a linear thing, which seems to be quite a masculine paradigm from the past. And I think I was reading different reviews of the book, and it was quite controversial because in it you talk about pragmatic feminism, which I think I took to mean taking on the culture rather than internalising, as you say and saying “Well, why have I done it? Why aren’t I working?” It’s more about how you take what there is and you make it work for you. Is that correct, or have I misunderstood?

Kathryn Jacob:      It’s subversive actually …

Anna:               That’s a good word.

Kathryn Jacob:      … Rather than making it work for you.

Anna:               Right.

Kathryn Jacob:      So it is the understanding that … Standing there and saying “This is all so unfair,” which is … How long have we had the equal pay act?

Anna:               A very long time.

Kathryn Jacob:      A very long time, 40 years?

Anna:               Yeah.

Kathryn Jacob:      Well, and then you’ve got people reporting on the gender pay gap, and it’s anything from 3% to 55%? ITN declared a bonus gap, gender pay gap, of 77%.

Anna:               Wow.

Kathryn Jacob:      Earlier this week.

Kathryn Jacob:      So all the legislation, it’s not fair, this is what we should be doing, actually what we need to do is unite as women and sympathetic men and call it out, and start playing the game back, because when feminism started, Dame Helena Kennedy talks about it in our foreword, they just wanted to be treated the same. And actually, what that meant was you never admitted you had children, you worked twice as hard for less money. Why is that acceptable? It isn’t acceptable, so the pragmatism around the feminism is it is what it is, but we can change it by very small acts of subversion.

Anna:               Subversion.

Kathryn Jacob:      And changing it, and that’s the way that we feel about it, which is that moaning about it hasn’t made any difference, and actually you can alienate people by being too … the Marxist theory, thesis antithesis synthesis, actually we’ve had thesis-antithesis, which is … We still haven’t got synthesis, you know?

Anna:               Let’s look at a few of those pragmatic feminists…

Kathryn Jacob:      I can’t believe it’s so early in the morning and I talked about the Marxist theory of history.

Anna:               I know, I was pretty impressed.

Kathryn Jacob:      Sorry about that.

Anna:               You’ve got chapter titles that include ambition, cutting through, resilience. So give me a little bit of an idea about how pragmatic feminism comes into play in those three buckets?

Kathryn Jacob:      It’s about addressing … So on ambition, ambition is a really nuanced word for women. So if you say to you a man are you ambitious, they go “Hell yeah, of course, I am.” If you say “are you ambitious to a woman”, they say “Well I am ambitious, but…”

Anna:               Mm-hmm (affirmative), the but.

Kathryn Jacob:      And it’s always the but. So what we say to women around the ambition piece is do not be afraid of showing off, actually, because girls grow up and they do … Currently, girls outperform boys at school, there are more girls going to university, we are programmed to do really really great work, and for people to go “Great work Anna. That’s really lovely.” 

Kathryn Jacob:      And then when you go to work you do your job, and that’s what they expect you to do, and no one goes “Great job Anna. Thank you, here’s a gold star.”

Anna:               Well done.

Kathryn Jacob:      Well done you.

Kathryn Jacob:      No one does that at work, so women do this incredible work and just think people will notice, and they don’t. And what you’ve got to do is find a strategy to show off, and it doesn’t have to be turning up and singing songs from the shows to which you’ve lauded your own achievements, it’s just an email that says “Today, I went and saw so and so,” or “I did a really great podcast,” or “I found someone really interesting for everywoman.” “Just thought you’d like to know so and so and so and so.”

Kathryn Jacob:      And it is just that, just the subtle building of the consideration that you get. And that’s pragmatic feminism. Rather than storming into someone’s office feeling dreadfully emotional and stabbing them because you feel you’ve been overseen for promotion three times in a row, it’s just that thing about turning the system.

Anna:               And taking action I presume?

Kathryn Jacob:      Yeah. And it doesn’t have to be unfeminine, it doesn’t have to be copying men and rocking up and showing off the whole time. It’s interesting, Sue and I gave a talk at one of the major accountancy firms, and one of the pieces of advice we gave was you need to show off. And one of the senior partners, a male senior partner, we always say at the end to the people who have sponsored the events, “What have you learnt?” Male senior partner stood up and said: “I’ve worked here for 20 years.” He said “I know the way that the promotion system works here is that you show off, so I’ve been showing off every day for 20 years. All day I’m surrounded by men showing off so hard that sometimes I can’t even hear my own showing off.” And he said, “It never occurred to me that women are uncomfortable with that.” He said “I just thought most of them were treading water.

Anna:               Wow, gosh.

Kathryn Jacob:      And you just think, not really sure I would have said that to my women’s network.

Anna:               No. But interesting the perception, it’s not necessarily a nefarious process of keeping people down, it’s just they’re speaking different languages, as you said.

Kathryn Jacob:      Yeah, precisely.

Anna:               So the language of showing off.

Anna:               I just want to quickly actually pick up on this idea of feminine and masculine, and you said unfeminine in inverted commas, but there is that … Or is that? I was going to say there is that feeling, but I suppose there is, because we don’t naturally go towards showing off, I think, as women. Not in the same way maybe?

Kathryn Jacob:      No, we don’t.

Anna:               Or we have assumptions, expectations. I mean how do our expectations differ? Do we expect people are going to see, as you say, what we do and appreciate it?

Kathryn Jacob:      I think there’s an element of that, and I also think as well, when we’re little, boys play games where you get knocked down and you stand up again. So you play Nerf guns or something like that. And what they do is they learn that if you get knocked down, you just stand up again and play the next round of the game because it doesn’t matter. What we do as girls is we say “Anna we’re going to play schools,” or “We’re going to play shops.” And then what happens is I’m the shopkeeper and then after a while, I go “Oh, Anna, it’s your turn to be the shopkeeper and I’m going to be the person who comes into the shop.”

Kathryn Jacob:      And girls do that whole kind of thing. And then when you go to work, and someone comes up to you and shoots you, in inverted commas, “Shoot you,” hang on a minute, that’s not the way we play, we all work together. And I say to you “Oh Anna, shall I help you with that, and then you can help me with this because I’m not very good.” No one does that at work, or the workplace.

Anna:               No one offers to let you be the shopkeeper.

Kathryn Jacob:      Precisely, which is fundamentally where we’re all going horribly wrong, that we don’t play shops enough at work. 

Kathryn Jacob:      And so I think the issue is about we are … some of our gender stereotyping is, you know, play nicely, work hard. And then when you get to work it’s don’t be … I mean one of the worst thing that people say is “She’s very emotional.”

Anna:               Yeah.

Kathryn Jacob:      You go well, of course, we’re emotional because when we come to work we bring our whole selves, and naturally, emotion is key because it’s all about empathy and building cultures. But it’s seen as this really dreadful thing, “She’s very emotional.” What does that mean? No, I am actually devoid of all human emotion.

Anna:               I’m a cyborg.

Kathryn Jacob:      And I am a cyborg, and please replace me with a robot because I’ll be ruthlessly efficient …

Anna:               Be careful what you wish for.

Kathryn Jacob:      … Well, I probably will be. 

Anna:               But I mean it’s interesting like you say, the bringing the whole self to work and we perhaps lean more towards collaborative ways of being. These aren’t negative things as you’ve just said.

Kathryn Jacob:      No they’re not.

Anna:               So is it a case of bringing them to the workplace, but also knowing that we are playing still within perhaps a very male structure still, and we just have to realise that there are different codes as well that we have to bring?

Kathryn Jacob:      Well I think there’s also the thing about the realisation that you did actually get your job because you are rather good at what you do. They didn’t do it just to save you from a daytime consisting of sitting in elasticated waist trousers and watching Jeremy Kyle. It’s just really, really bizarre that we get “I’m so …” No man has ever said to me “I was so lucky to get the job here.” They go “I tell you what, I was the best person for the job and they recognised it.” “I’m so lucky to work here,” no you’re not. You don’t win it, they didn’t give it to you as an act of charity, they gave it to you because you can do your job.

Kathryn Jacob:      And then we get to work there is a tendency for women to be really tentative, so if you’ve got a really long table, if you look at the women in the room, unless they’re like me, older and not really caring, women will go and sit at the very edge of the table and push their chairs back a bit like they shouldn’t be there.

Anna:               Not in the middle of the table.

Kathryn Jacob:      Not in the middle of the table, not doing the “Right, Anna’s running this meeting, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to make sure I’m in her eye line. And I’m going to speak up early,” and I won’t sit there doing the archetypally female thing which is thinking of the perfect thing to say and then wait for the perfect moment.

Anna:               And then miss is sometimes.

Kathryn Jacob:      No, no, no, and then someone else says what you were going to say and you think “No.”

Kathryn Jacob:      So I’m also a big fan of what they used to do in the Obama White House which is women looking after each other as well. So I go to a meeting and you say something, and then someone talks over you and it’s a really great point. And you stop and go “Can I just say, I think Emma said something really great. I didn’t quite catch it, could you say it again?” That whole kind of … And men do it as well. It’s a joyous thing to me that I am surrounded by pragmatic feminists who actually have testicles at Pearl & Dean. So I’m surrounded by lots of men who really really want women to do well.

Anna:               Male allies.

Kathryn Jacob:      Male allies, absolutely. And also that other thing as well, which is the toxic male alpha culture doesn’t work for lots of men because they don’t want to play that game of hideous showing off, and they’ve got another life.

Anna:               So, expectations then, it’s all about what we’re expecting and how we step up practically to kind of understand the two languages that are going on.

Anna:               Let’s talk about resilience, I mean you talked about really practical things, sitting in the middle of the table, and showing off, and doing those things. What can we do in terms of what does the pragmatic feminist do for resilience?

Kathryn Jacob:      Have a playbook, and have an alternative to work. And the resilience piece is … I’ve lost count of the times women have said to me “I had a really bad meeting with my boss, and I think I’m going to have to leave. And he hates me now.” You just think well A, you don’t know the state of mind he was in, and B, it doesn’t mean your relationship is over. So you just pretend it never happened, just crack on.

Kathryn Jacob:      Nothing is ever the end of your career unless of course you go in and playshops endlessly and you’re not meant to do that. But it is that thing about not in your head playing through the whole thing about “Oh, so he said this, and I said that. And then he said that and so what that means is …” 

Kathryn Jacob:      And it’s an interesting scenario, it’s like when you’re younger and someone sends you a text and says “I’ll see you later,” when you’re a teenage girl, and you and your friends then spend …

Anna:               Did they put a kiss, did they not?

Kathryn Jacob:      Did they not? Does that mean I’ll see you later, or does it mean “see you later”? Can I tell you, I know, I have a teenage son, he just typed in a somewhat linear, one track thing, “See you later,” because he does expect to see you later. He didn’t think mm-hmm, “see you later” or … You know?

Anna:               Yeah.

Kathryn Jacob:      It’s just the thing.

Anna:               No nuance.

Kathryn Jacob:      There is no nuance whatsoever. And so this whole thing around just keep buggering on actually and have something that is your let out, be it Zumba or what have you, where you don’t think about work and don’t endlessly game those situations. Because resilience is the key because you’ve got to be somewhat Tigger like, because people like being around with people that go “All right then, well that’s that, crack on.”

Anna:               Onwards.

Kathryn Jacob:      Onwards, next.

Anna:               Get up after the Nerf gun.

Kathryn Jacob:      Precisely, yeah. Rather than doing the “Well he said this and I said that, so this means this.” And so and so. And “I’m going to go in tomorrow, and he’s going to say this.” And you immediately turn up thinking all these things, and they might just be in a bad mood. They might be under pressure. You’ve got no idea, so the resilience piece around not thinking this I’m now going to go and live in a hut and raise goats. Just crack on.

Anna:               Let’s talk, obviously you’ve mentioned your son, I know you’re a mother of two I think.

Kathryn Jacob:      I am.

Anna:               And one of the areas in which, you know, many women struggle to find success strategies is this whole balance between work and family life. I mean that is …

Kathryn Jacob:      It isn’t a balance.

Anna:               It’s not a balance, is it?

Kathryn Jacob:      It’s a blend.

Anna:               An integration is a way … Do businesses need to help you solve that, or how can you as a pragmatic feminist, how can you … you can tell me, because I need to work this out, what are the key things that you need to keep in mind in terms of bridging that [crosstalk 00:18:12] gap?

Kathryn Jacob:      Firstly, ditch the guilt.

Anna:               Right, guilt pointless.

Kathryn Jacob:      So guilt is pointless. And there will always be another mother at school who has baked 48 perfect cupcakes with the Pudsey iced face on, complete with bandana, for Red Nose Day. Crack on. I think even if I stayed at home for the rest of my life I would never be able to. So, shout out to your sister, each to your own. There is no Trip Advisor for parents, your children do not go to school and go “My mother’s a bit rubbish at Pudsey iced cakes. What can I say? If I was born again, I wouldn’t have chosen her.”

Kathryn Jacob:      They don’t care, they have no comparative apart from bedtimes and how many sweets you’re allowed to eat.

Anna:               Yeah, that’s it.

Kathryn Jacob:      That’s it. So ditch the guilt, and also the other thing as well is if you work in a culture that you do school drop off and you have a regular meeting at 9:30, and they decide to move it to 8:30, just put your hand up and go “I can’t do that.” Rather than go “Oh my God, I’ve now got to import my mother down from Yorkshire to …” Just go “No, it’s not going to work for me.” Because actually, most people will go it’s insane to be at work at 8:30, but everyone else is “You’ve got the valid reason not to do it.” 

Kathryn Jacob:      And there’s probably loads of men who’ve been out on the beer or what have you who go “Thank God for that, I don’t have to get in at 8:30.”

Kathryn Jacob:      So, yeah.

Anna:               So again it’s about that proactive thing, it’s about speaking up basically and saying “This is what I want, this is what I’d like, this is what I can do, and this is who I am.”

Kathryn Jacob:      And also my contracted hours are not 8:30 till 5:30. They’re 9:30 till 5:30, so why would I come in an hour earlier?

Anna:               I mean on that note, negotiation, so we differ in the way we negotiate our work lives as women and men?

Kathryn Jacob:      Oh we vary hugely in negotiation.

Anna:               What do we need to do better?

Kathryn Jacob:      Rehearse, and know what your asks are.

Anna:               Right, okay.

Kathryn Jacob:      So the number of times I’ve had women come and go “Sorry, I’d just like to talk about my pay. You’re probably really busy now, aren’t you? Okay, well I’d just like to have a pay rise. Thanks. Think about that, bye.”

Kathryn Jacob:      And then you run out of the office because it’s really embarrassing. And what you need to do is show off, so have a constructive path to going and asking for more money, and then don’t give up because … Sue’s got a great story about there were two people who asked for a promotion and a pay rise. She said you need to go and work on this. Three months later the man came back and said: “I’m still working on it, what are you doing about my pay rise?” The woman didn’t come back for a year.

Kathryn Jacob:      In the end, Sue, her bad, as she says, went to the woman and said: “Why haven’t you come back?” She said, “I still haven’t really reached the level I want to reach in the things you gave me to work on.” 

Kathryn Jacob:      So she’s been not earning as much money as she could have, it’s back to the old “I’m so lucky to be here.” Just ask, I mean obviously don’t be unreasonable and say “Can I have the wages of a Premiership footballer per week?” But know your value, and don’t get to the situation where most women, where women have a tendency to say they’re going to leave to get a pay rise, because then you look like you hold a gun to their head. 

Kathryn Jacob:      Just say “Okay, I know you can’t give me 10 grand now, but actually if you move me up in increments over the next year, that’s just fine.”

Anna:               Do you think, obviously … You said don’t ask for Premiership footballer wages, but do you think there’s a tendency for women to under ask? And do you think it’s worth possibly over asking just a bit for everything that you ask for so that even if you do get beaten down, you kind of get what you wanted anyway?

Kathryn Jacob:      Yeah.

Anna:               Is that pragmatic?

Kathryn Jacob:      Oh yeah. I was talking to someone the other day at a dinner who’s a headhunter, and he said: “If I go and approach a chap and say the salary’s £100,000.” Men will turn around and say “There’s no point in talking to me then because I won’t move for less than £125,000.” Women will go “Really? Thank you.”

Kathryn Jacob:      They never come back with a counteroffer that says actually I’ll accept 100 now, but you need to guarantee that at this stage I’m going to get whatever. He said it happens all the time with women.

Anna:               So basically how do they change that? They just have to remember not to say yes to the first thing that’s offered?

Kathryn Jacob:      Precisely.

Anna:               Just then come back with a counteroffer.

Kathryn Jacob:      Work out what you want, and then when you’re starting the conversation, just say “Look, I’m really flattered, I’d really like to work with you, but for this to work for me this is the salary band I’m looking for.” Obviously not Premiership footballer, well unless you are of course a female Premiership footballer.

Anna:               Good point.

Kathryn Jacob:      And have some feeling about your value in the marketplace. And it may just be phoning up a headhunter, or looking on a jobs website for jobs that are like yours, and realising what the rate is.

Anna:               Just to finish that point off, do you think that we perceive it as a risk to almost disrupt the status quo? So if somebody says “Have this job for £100,000,” you go “Thanks.” It’s risky to ask for more?

Kathryn Jacob:      Oh, it might be, all they’re going to do is say no, and then you make a decision. They’re not going to come around and burn your house down, are they? 

Anna:               Catastrophizing it.

Kathryn Jacob:      We’ve got to get off it. So if you think actually the commute’s longer, and this is how much it’s going to be, and life disruption. You know, be … was it open realistically and move modestly is the stance. So if you’re currently earning 40 grand don’t go “I’m looking for at least £100,000 for this move,” because that’s insane.

Kathryn Jacob:      But similarly, unless it’s something that is going to really rock your world, you should try and move your salary up if you move. 

Anna:               However that happens?

Kathryn Jacob:      However that happens.

Anna:               In terms of with your children, what sort of tactics do you tell them? You have a daughter as well, don’t you?

Kathryn Jacob:      I do have a daughter as well.

Anna:               And presumably you tell them the same thing or different things?

Kathryn Jacob:      I tell them exactly the same things, yeah, because why wouldn’t I?

Anna:               No, absolutely. 

Kathryn Jacob:      And the interesting thing is I see the behaviours that I talk about, my daughter’s much more collaborative, has the worlds widest circle of friends. My son is a bit more monosyllabic, mind you I think that’s because he’s doing his A Levels, but more monosyllabic. 

Kathryn Jacob:      But I tell them exactly the same thing, and the interesting thing is, going back to the parenthood piece, when I said to my son, I said: “Do you think you lost out because I worked.” And he went “No because you’d have driven us insane if you’d been at home. Thank God you go out and bother other people all day with your relentless nattering on.”

Anna:               You were talking about earlier the man who said that he just didn’t even realise that the women wouldn’t be showing off, he thought they’d be treading water. Is it important then for us all to move forward that both sides of the conversation appreciate that there’s just a language barrier, and we need to be starting to speak each other’s language?

Kathryn Jacob:      Yeah.

Anna:               And be aware of that.

Kathryn Jacob:      Not even if you’re speaking the same language, just share the fact that there are different barriers facing you, and have an understanding for that. I mean it’s similar with men who want to take shared parental leave or leave early on a regular basis to do pickup from nursery or school. Women should be shouting out to that, and going “Good on you.”

Anna:               Yep.

Anna:               Finally, three take aways. If somebody listened to this podcast that they could put in place today, to eject a little bit of pragmatic feminism into their day, what would you say?

Kathryn Jacob:      Believe in yourself. Don’t take no for an answer, and keep buggering on.

Anna:               Not sure we can say that?

Kathryn Jacob:      Well you can, I mean Winston Churchill says that. I think you’re allowed to say anything aren’t you if Winston Churchill said it. Anything Winston Churchill said.

Kathryn Jacob:      But it is that thing about .. you know, for any woman that is sitting in an organisation who thinks I don’t like it here and I’m not progressing, just leave, and go somewhere where they’ll appreciate you.

Kathryn Jacob:      The other takeaway is buy the book, obviously, because they will never forgive me if I don’t say that. Yeah.

Anna:               The Glass Wall, it’s an absolutely great read, and I thoroughly recommend it for anyone who wants to put some strategies for success into their life. 

Anna:               So thank you so much for joining us today Kathryn.

Kathryn Jacob:      It was great to talk to you, thank you.

Anna:               And thank you all for joining us as well on this everywoman Podcast, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with you next time. Don’t forget in the meantime there’s a wealth of information, interest, and further talking points on the everywomanNetwork, and the App if you want to access on the move. So, until we meet again, have a great day, and keep on living your best life.


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