Is your toilet signage discriminatory?

May 30th, 2016

There was an interesting and thought-provoking Employment Tribunal case last week – one which the CIPD called a “Landmark” judgement.

In short, a transgender woman, Erin Bisson, had contacted a ferry company by phone asking them which toilets she should use. An employee had suggested, “use a disabled loo”. The other toilets on the ferry were labelled “ladies” and “gents”.

Firstly, the ferry company was found guilty of direct discrimination for the suggestion that Erin should use the disabled toilet. I understand that, although can also understand how an uninformed person would suggest that in a non-malicious way in an attempt to be helpful.

Secondly, the company was found to have indirectly discriminated against Erin by having the worded signage on the toilets rather than pictorial representations as the worded signage was “limiting”.

Personally, I have never understood why all toilets are not gender-neutral – they are in people’s homes, they are on trains and planes. It reminds of rafting the Grand Canyon last year and there were no toilets for peeing in, and eventually some men and women were peeing next to each other in the Colorado; there were no issues. But that’s another blog …

On the same day as this judgement, LifeSiteNews reported that, “The New York City Human Rights Commission has released a list of 31 different terms of gender expression employers must use or face $250,000 fines … The fines go as high as $125,000 for misnaming a person’s gender intentionally, and $250,000 for doing so maliciously.” The University of California Berkeley provides a helpful glossary, together with a table for the “pronoun-curious”:

SubjectObjectPossessive AdjectivePossessive PronounReflexive
Gender NeutralZeHirHirHirsHirself

On the social media front, there are now more than 50 custom gender identifiers for a person to select from on Facebook – accessible through an autocomplete drop-down menu.

Returning to our UK ferry boat finding, one sentence that Erin stated either during the proceedings or after was, “Gender is down to identity, symbols is one way of dealing with this”. This has been picked up by the vast majority of reports.

This comment has also been picked up on a lot of internet discussion groups, the main discussion point being that people don’t understand it. Many firms of lawyers who have also reported on it for their clients give no explanation of what it means for their clients.

The only attempt by someone to explain it that I can find on the internet is ‘BG’ on a Google forum, where he/ she / ze states, “However, whilst the stylised symbols *mean* “ladies” and “gents” they are just outlines. So, someone who is actually a gent (tackle-wise), but looks like a lady, can argue that he/she should undisputedly use the lady’s loo.” A valiant attempt in two sentences.

From a practical implementation and workplace focussed perspective, whilst the UK Government’s published guidance is helpful, I am left with a number of thoughts (and more questions than answers):

  • It is great that society is doing all it can to be inclusive, and both recognise and support all differences within the Equality Act’s protected characteristics.
  • At what point does it become too complicated for your average Jo / Joe to comprehend, learn and apply in every situation?
  • What are the implications for organisations in terms of staff training (I’m delivering some Equality and Diversity sessions in a few weeks and, from previous experience, I can imagine the reactions if I introduce signage on toilets to the session. But perhaps I need to?).
  • Are we losing the balance? Recognising and celebrating diversity is more than protected characteristics. It is very important, but purely focussing on this makes it very two dimensional. We also need to recognise differences between individuals not based on protected characteristics (their motivations, their communications preferences, other innate preferences, etc.) – recognising and valuing both strands is what makes a workplace truly inclusive.

I would value your thoughts?


Clear Focus, New Heights – #6

May 22nd, 2016

People remember the way we make them feel …

January 20th, 2016

Last week David Bowie sadly passed away. There was much sadness expressed, and some people questioned the level of the impact his death had on others. I had a discussion with a colleague on Facebook as to the reasons why Bowie’s death impacted on people in the way it did.

It was a theoretical discussion. I had seen him in concert, possess many of his albums and have been fascinated by the way he seemed to re-invent himself every 5 years or so. I was immensely impressed by his ability to demonstrate such imagination and creativity. I was saddened but not distraught, as some people seemed to have been.

Then, earlier this week, I learned of the death of Glenn Frey of the Eagles. As such a key member of The Eagles, they can never be the Eagles again now, so they have died too.

It took me straight back to my childhood. I recalled how my mum bought my dad a radio for his car in the early 1970’s – a car radio was a rarity at the time and I can vividly recall the bright red light that awkwardly and unevenly lit the waveband. The radio was so dad could listen to music as he drove around East Anglia – and The Eagles were his band. He never really took to the often compared Fleetwood Mac – his only other band was the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), but not even they matched the Eagles. Still to this day he loves their music, he loves their sound and he loves their lyrics. When their most recent album was released – “Long Road out of Eden” – he was full of praise for the ‘poetry’ they created in their lyrics, and I bought him Don Henley’s new album “Cass County” for Christmas as it is very much rooted in the music of the Eagles.

I think I have been to four Eagles concerts with him, with roughly five years between each. The last one was in the Summer of 2014, when the picture at the top was taken. As dad was approaching 80 at the time, I thought he might not want or be able to get to another one, so I paid a ridiculous price (he still has no idea how much!) for tickets in the second row from the front. I never thought it would be his last Eagles concert due to one of the band passing away. It was a marvellous concert and he loved it. We both loved it.

The Eagles have been part of the fabric of my life, part of the fabric of my family’s life, from as early as I can remember … me sitting in shorts on the back seat of our Ford Cortina on those plastic type seats cars had then, watching that little red light – and listening to the Eagles. Right through to taking the train last year to Winslow, Arizona – not such a fine sight to see, I can assure you, as my photo might show – due to its connections with the band.

I am distraught. I am gutted. I feel like part of the foundation of my family and its history has been unexpectedly taken away from me.

That discussion I had with the colleague on Facebook? – now I could discuss it based on my feelings.  And that’s the difference between the deaths of Bowie and Frey for me personally.

For Bowie, I remembered what he had done. For Frey, I remembered the way he made me feel. All my memories are based on those feelings.

That is the way it is, and should be – people will always remember the way we have made them feel; happy or sad, angry or elated. Not necessarily what we have done.

We should never forget that.


It was a weird experience buying myself out of custody …

December 31st, 2015

The first indication that our Mexican driving experience would be different from others was when we collected the rental car. The welcome was friendly, yet business like, but very clear – any damage, however minor, and we would be charged. They went over this point in great detail and they (helpfully?) advised us to video the vehicle in its current state. I turned and saw another family who it appeared had been through this experience before; the whole family – two adults and two children – were checking each panel of the vehicle, one by one, and then photographing each one. It was a message we picked up throughout our travels – the majority of Mexicans don’t have very much, so they need to look after what they have.

Having left the airport, we soon encountered the three omnipresent hazards of which there was generally no warning – speed humps, holes in the road and dogs.

The Mexican speed humps (topes) come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from harsh to downright violent. There is little smoothness or finesse to them – they are semi-circular and often not dissimilar to a piece of rail track in shape or effect. Sometimes there is signpost indicating the driver’s imminent arrival, but often there is not. In addition to the fixed ones, locals also put thick rope across the road when they want you to slow down to buy their wares.

The speed humps are generally in and around towns, a little like the dogs. Packs of dogs are everywhere and presumably due to the heat they like to sleep during the day – on the road. What makes it particularly problematic is that – understandably – they like the shade which makes them difficult to see when there is sunlight all around the rest of the area.

The holes in the road, however, can be anywhere. These range from gaping holes across the whole of a motorway, as occurred a few hours before we were driving on it, and large holes which locals have placed crates in to ease one’s passage, through to roads that are peppered with all sorts of size holes across long distances. I was relieved I had opted for a Jeep on several occasions.

Whilst watching out for all these obstacles, being new to the country, we needed to map read our way around. Many signs weren’t signposted, GPS didn’t work in the more remote areas, many roads weren’t on the maps, and the maps were in Spanish when the places had their place names in Mayan – the names being completely different from the Spanish names.

At least the army and police checkpoints were well signposted. We must have been through about 30 or 40 of these. They are set up to monitor the alleged drug smuggling, arms smuggling and other criminal activity. Once we were identified as tourists, we were usually waved through without much ado, but larger vehicles in particular were usually given closer inspection.

The weather also had its say. Heavy rain and little or no drainage led to significant water on the road. In Merida, the area’s largest city and where the pictures were taken, the water had fallen for the previous 12 hours. It meant that in the Monday morning commute, driving was difficult particularly as all the holes in the road were hidden. The trick was to follow a local – and make the assumption that if they suddenly made a move to the left or right, they were avoiding an underwater obstacle. In a city where probably only 10% of the population had cars, it meant that people were trudging through water covered pavements and getting splashed by cars. They seemed both resigned and used to it.

All of the obstacles and challenges I have identified so far could be managed, avoided or negotiated without too much trouble. There was one challenge though that was more problematic – the dishonest police officer.

We were in the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto, a hundred miles or so south of Cancun. As we pulled up outside the tourist office, a police officer on a motor cycle drew level with us and demanded my driving licence. I handed it over (apparently, if I had been Mexican-savvy I would have taken a photocopy with me and handed that over), he put in the carrier on his motor cycle and he told us to follow him. He stopped about half a mile away at a spot where there were few other people and explained that I had been driving above the speed limit (which I hadn’t).  He offered me “no ticket” and the opportunity to pay him 4,000 Mexican Pesos (M$) – “no ticket” was the only English he could speak, he used a small notebook to communicate the cash required. I asked for a ticket, but that apparently wasn’t available. I said I wanted to go to the police station to deal with the matter, but he wasn’t having it – the only way I could have my licence back was to pay him M$4,000. There was a stand-off. I knew not to get angry – my reading had told me that in this situation that is the number 1 rule – but I also knew from a police acquaintance that recent intelligence indicated that sometimes travellers were taken hostage or suffered physical abuse – such as losing fingers – in such encounters with the officers purporting to be from the police or army. Eventually – about 5 minutes later – he crossed out the “M$4,000” in his small notebook and wrote “M$2,000”. Having in the back of my mind the potential worst case consequences of failing to reach a settlement, I offered M$1,000 and he accepted. He took it, I got my licence back and he told us to get out of town. He wouldn’t tell us his name – perhaps he realised it wasn’t through a desire to be friends on Facebook.

A good bit of work for him – the equivalent of a week’s pay in about 10 minutes. We were easy pickings with Thrifty Car Hire having their logo on our licence plates. For us, a scary, uncomfortable and disturbing encounter, and one which left a bad taste for the rest of the holiday. It was a great holiday – Mexico is a wonderful country to visit – but as we left the hire car centre to return to the airport I sighed. In some ways I was pleased and relieved to have handed back the car (in the condition we received it) and to have concluded the driving.

This incident occurred several months ago. I wrote to both the Mexican authorities and the British Embassy in Mexico at the time and I did not receive a response from either. It seems that my encounter with the officer is accepted practice – indeed the officer’s approach in the middle of a town indicates that he sees it as acceptable practice. And that is what, at the time, was most unacceptable about it all.

Perhaps the independent traveller has to accept this when visiting developing countries. Perhaps I should be pleased with the negotiations I undertook bearing in mind the possible consequences. On reflection, perhaps I need to accept the different culture and not try and overlay mine on theirs. Sometimes we just have to accept what appears on the face of it to be unacceptable. Perhaps I should be pleased I didn’t lose a finger or get kidnapped …


Clear Focus, New Heights – #5

December 29th, 2015

Go on, be Digitally Disruptive!

November 29th, 2015

I was struck by this photograph when I saw it on LinkedIn a few weeks ago. It made me think, “Have the opportunities for creativity, innovation and business ideas ever been as accessible to people with ideas”

The opportunity to bring an idea to fruition exists for us all if we have access to the internet, belief in our idea, self-motivation … and a great idea. If you have the great idea, others will provide your content.

On the same day as seeing this photo, a friend sent me a link to a website that his 14 year old son, Josh, has created. We were with Josh about 18 months ago and he had allowed us to see a poem he had written. My wife, Peta, was really impressed with the poem – he was proud of it and Peta hoped he would find a way to share it with others … he has obviously done some thinking in the meantime, considered how others might be in the same position to him, and put together a website where he and others can share their creative writings – abookinu. He has also created a short YouTube video explaining the concept.

Perhaps he could be creating the next line to this list on the photograph? Or perhaps it could be you? Or perhaps you have a book in you?

Go on, be disruptive!


When my memory deserted me …

October 11th, 2015

I don’t think I have ever reached inside myself with such intensity. I didn’t know where I was, why I was wherever I was, or the year. I had apparently been asking the same few questions over and over again for around 45 minutes, and it was just at this point that some of the information was starting to stick. My first recollection as I started to regain my memory was understanding that we were in Fazana, Croatia. This is a place I know well – it is close to the Croatian Police Training Centre and a place I regularly visited between 1999 and 2004 delivering training courses.

But if I was delivering courses, why was Peta, my wife, there? “What year is it?” I asked her. The reply was, “2015”. That threw me into complete disorientation. As I write this 4 weeks after the event, I can recall the way I looked around the hotel room desperately trying to make sense of the situation, as if it was only an hour ago. My intense concentration was directed in particular to the TV (they didn’t have TVs in the rooms at the training centre so what was this very modern looking one doing here?), the suitcase (I didn’t recognise it, it wasn’t mine as far as I was concerned) and the key in the door (I have absolutely no idea why my attention was drawn to this!).  My eyes must have looked like lasers as I tried to make sense of the situation.

The glorious Fazana

What had happened, I learned later, was that I had got out of bed, passed out, dropped to the wooden floor, hit the back of my head on the floor and knocked myself out. I was unconscious for a short period of time, so I am told, and then as I came round announced, “I know I’m Paul and you’re Peta, but I’m not sure about anything else”.

One of the sentences I used on several occasions was, Peta tells me, “Ok, let’s put a line in the sand … what time is it now, and we will see that I remember everything after this time”. This occurred at least a dozen times in the 45 minutes, and of which I have no recollection. Groundhog Day had become a reality during this short space of time.

I can recall, as my memory started returning, being confident all was back to normal. I declared this confidently. The next question changed all that. “How did we get here yesterday”, Peta asked. I just looked at the suitcase and realised I had no idea. Absolutely no idea. And internally I couldn’t accept that I had no idea.

After an hour, I felt as though I was fully recovered. I went for a check-up at Pula hospital which confirmed this and, incidentally, received excellent care – I saw three different doctors, saw a neurosurgeon, had an ECG and had a head x-ray all in the space of 3 hours, and it was a Sunday morning. The total cost was £4.80, and I got a free CD containing my x-rays (as you can see from the photos).

More seriously, however, for Peta the 45 minutes were “bewildering and scary” (Peta’s exact words), as she didn’t know what was happening nor how long it was going to last. It was mildly less worrying for her than it might had been for others as she has seen so many people fall off horses and some of the falls having had similar consequences for the riders.

For me, it was just hugely interesting and such a learning experience. In particular the point at which my memory was returning – around the time I realised that I couldn’t remember how we had got to Fazana.

Sunset at Fazana, Croatia

My ‘affective domain’ learning relates to gaining a very small, but significant, insight into how it can be for people suffering with memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other similar ailments.

My experience of not being able to recall facts and having to concentrate so much to try and recall information was so difficult to accept. What must it be like if the memory never returns? What must it be like to constantly get confused about where you are, when it is and who you are with?

This weekend has seen World Mental Health Day. According to its site, “One in four adults and one in ten children are likely to have a mental health problem in any given year.”  The more we understand, the more compassion we can give, and this in turn will help such people live with dignity.

The next time I encounter a person with a mental health issue, I will approach the situation with this experience at the forefront of my mind.


Clear Focus, New Heights – #4

August 23rd, 2015

Breathe’s YouTube channel goes live!

August 11th, 2015

Very excited to launch our YouTube channel! I have had so much (yes, so much!) fun in creating my first half a dozen vlogs, and learned so much too. The first few are spoilt slightly due to the sound quality (the Colorado River caused the problem), but I am learning – and have purchased an additional microphone! Two vlogs available at the moment, the others to be released gradually and two more currently in production – one using Lego which has been particularly fun! If you choose to watch any – thank you – and any feedback welcome to help me in

Kansas City – no grey areas

August 5th, 2015

I first became aware of Kansas City through my love of the Beatles’ music – I used to listen to Paul McCartney’s upbeat lyrical rendition of the Leiber and Stoller original on my vinyl version of the ‘Beatles for Sale’ album.  Consequently, Kansas is one of those places that has a musical meaning for me – like Winslow, Albuquerque and Wichita – that have featured along my train journey across the US on the South West Chief (the old Santa Fe Railroad route).

So much so, and due to the City’s influence on American music – and jazz in particular – I decided to stop off there for a day. Its 101-year old Union Station is a cathedral of the railroad, as so many US stations are, and has been beautifully renovated. It welcomes the arriving traveller with dedications to two of its most significant contributions to the history of the country – music and baseball.

I walked to my hotel in the Downtown area to check in. “Okay, you are from England. What brings you to Kansas City?” was the Receptionist’s question once she had ascertained who I was. I have recognised that this question – or versions of it –is generally included in the conversation when I arrive at locations that are not generally visited by English people.  It’s almost as if the staff think that they might have missed something that’s taking place, escaped their radar. I can recall similar such interjections in Natchez, Mississippi, and Tallahassee, Florida.

Having satisfied the Receptionist that I knew where I was and there wasn’t a convention that she didn’t know about, I asked if there was any tourist information material. She kindly offered me a couple of maps, and gave me details of the rejuvenated shopping centre area (a couple of miles away). She was also keen to inform me of the fact that Kansas City has the second most fountains of any city in the world. It is second behind Paris, apparently.

My limited research on the city had not elicited either of these pieces of information. My research had recommended to me the town centre, Science City and Union Station, how Bar-B-Q meat was the local treat, and also how the American Museum of Jazz, the Blue Room jazz venue and the Museum of Negro League Baseball were all to be found in the city.

The Museums were in the “18th and Vine” district, so off I trotted. The area was about 15 blocks from Downtown and the map indicated that they were located together. About 8 – 10 consecutive blocks of my journey contained little if any housing; the majority of the buildings were industrial, some in use and some ‘between occupants’.

On my way, I checked for “the corner of Twelfth Street and Vine” as is mentioned in the original lyrics to Kansas City, to see if there was, “a Kansas City baby and my bottle of Kansas City wine”. Sadly, the junction didn’t even exist – perhaps that’s why the lyrics were dropped from the Beatles’ version?

At the Negro League Baseball Museum, I learned how influential and successful the Kansas City Monarchs had been in the days of segregated leagues, thus giving justification to the location of the Museum geographically within the US. I also learned how Presidents, First Ladies and rock stars had been to visit (and I guess the shopping area hasn’t had a similar level of dignitaries). Finally, I learned that the Blue Room had live music that evening.

I did already know that “18th and Vine” is a predominantly ethnically black area. I had also seen conflicting advice on various websites as to how safe or dangerous it was to visit the area. Whilst being aware of this, having some knowledge of recent and significant racial tensions in Missouri (the vast majority and all major buildings in the city being in Missouri, not the State of Kansas), I decided to wander back in the evening to check out the Blue Room.

Between times, I learned that that there had been an appalling massacre a few hours earlier at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The TV news channels were devoting most of their time to the unfolding story. A lone gunman had killed 9 members of the congregation, it appeared to be racially motivated and emotions were understandably running high.  Should I change my plans for the evening? I decided not to.

Prior to going to the music venue, and because it was pretty much en route, I decided to also visit Gates Bar-B-Q for a Kansas signature feast – the place had been recommended to me by the ticket teller in Flagstaff (well over a 1,000 miles away).

As I made my way to Gates, and then to the Blues Room, it was obvious that this was an area where black Americans lived. Where games were being played, all the ball players were black. All the meetings on street corners were between black people. There was also a different feel to when I had been there in the morning. There were a lot more people and it was also a lot noisier. But at no point did I fell threatened. But at no point did I feel welcome. It was the same when I left the Blue Room.

Only two people proactively made an effort to speak to me whilst I spent my hour or so walking in the area – a man who had left his car to pop into a shop and a man working on a streetlight. They were also the only two white Americans I saw whilst I was there. It reminded me of how away supporters at a sports who have never met before are more likely to engage with each other than home supporters in a similar situation. It also left me feeling uncomfortable.

And there were no fountains in this part of the city.

When I arrived back in Downtown Kansas City, it was later in the evening and the place was buzzing. Lots of young people, a couple of large concerts taking place and several smaller venues with live music. The vast majority of those out and about (excluding those at work) were white Americans.

It had a very different feel from 18th and Vine. No better, no worse, just different. Absolutely nobody spoke to me here, black or white.

The Negro League Baseball Museum had been all about segregation – black players not being able to play with white players. This had finally been eradicated in 1960 – but I have to say it felt like it was still evident in the city itself.

But is it any different in certain areas of Britain? Is it just more apparent in the US because of the ready access to firearms and the incidents this creates?

Whatever the realities in either country, this is not a model for diverse integration. Some people may be comfortable living like this, but it will always engender hatred in a minority of people through ignorance and a lack of understanding.

A small step in the right direction could be a few fountains in 18th and Vine – which could be a start to it feeling more like one City – and the City might also overtake Paris then.