Thursday 28 July 2011

Applied imagination

Brainstorming, whether via a formal group or with thoughts collated electronically, is one of the valid methods to problem solving. It does however require an environment that encourages unusual ideas and one that (crucially) reserves criticism; it’s to be expected that the majority will be dismissed. New and successful ideas will only be created in a setting where common assumptions can be freely challenged, even when those assumptions usually turn out to be correct.

Where it is less successful therefore, is in the public domain; when, for example, you’re Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s strategy director. That’s not to say it’s any less valid an approach, more that you’re unlikely to find a mature audience (you’ll certainly not find a grown-up press or opposition party) willing to hold back criticism until the later stage of the process. Perhaps that’s the way it should be, we are a democracy, though the danger will be evaluation apprehension, which is to nobody’s benefit.

Steve Hilton’s offence was to address a perceived problem - that maternity leave hurts women by discouraging employers from hiring them - by suggesting the scrapping of such leave. It’s not even close to being government policy, nor will it ever be, it’s the “challenge common assumption” role; Hilton challenged, the group dismissed, everything worked as it should. What’s depressing - or should that be predictable - is the response when this iteration of the process was made public.

I’ve read several comments inferring he devalued women (he didn’t) and/or pointing out the valuable contribution women have made and continue to make; well, you don’t say. The problem with such statements is they brush over the problem at hand; they don’t even trouble themselves by addressing whether there is a problem, though the long list of female achievements that usually follows implies there is.

Let’s assume as much; some employers are dissuaded from hiring women. What then is the answer? Clearly not scrapping maternity leave, but then constant references to an untapped ‘pool of female talent’ haven’t appeared to work either. Put simply, we have an employer choosing between prospective employee A and prospective employee B; if employee B has more rights (or is more likely to exercise those rights) than employee A, and the employer identifies the exercise of those rights as carrying an administrative cost, it doesn’t take much to figure out what might happen next.

One suggestion is to ensure not only equal rights, but the real possibility of those rights being used equally. A shared paternity allowance available to either partner would make discrimination on the basis of sex, patently pointless. Of course I’m only brainstorming, this hasn’t been thought through and anyway... it’s only an idea.


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