The BBC’s business correspondent recalls being told: ‘I didn’t realise people like you were clever’ and explains why blagging it is a good idea
I am a young woman, with a regional accent, from a working class family, who has had a pretty standard education. So far, so ordinary. But in the places I’ve worked, one or more of these things would put me in the minority.
When I was 18 I joined Black & Decker as part of a pre-university ‘year in industry’ scheme. At that time it was a business full of men who had been there for years. When I turned up with my youthful enthusiasm and stilettos I was a novelty. Some tried to chat me up; most ignored me. I’d gone from being top dog in school to underdog in the workplace, so I made it my mission to show them that I was useful.
That, along with some cheeky banter, eventually won them over. The team accepted me as one of their own and the success of my work there lead to me winning the ‘Young Engineer for Britain’ award. After that I got interviewed a lot by the media. I was a journalist’s dream case study; a gobby girl with an accent who was good at engineering.
Through my media appearances, I managed to wangle a part-time job in the BBC current affairs department, which I did whilst studying for my science degree. Being a woman wasn’t a novelty to my BBC bosses — lots of women work in the media – this time I stood out because I had a northern accent.
I remember once at the end of a BBC job interview the manager said to me: “I didn’t realise people like you were clever.” I don’t think he was being intentionally nasty. At that time in the BBC he was surrounded by clones of himself, give or take some facial hair and glasses. He had never worked with anyone ‘like me’ before and so thought he was taking a risk by employing me. Later I found out that he’d also told the rest of my team that ‘someone very different was joining who would stir things up a bit’. Fundamentally though, I’m not any different, I just talk differently.
The problem in business isn’t that women are overlooked because they are women, it’s that most people subconsciously look to employ a mini-me. It’s not a gender issue, it’s about diversification full stop. It’s hard to change that mindset and it hits women particularly hard because men historically have always been the recruiters.
Recently I was involved in a debate at Macquarie Bank looking at how businesses can make their employee pool more diverse. One of the panellists was Noreen Doyle, a senior executive with over 40 years experience as a business leader. She suggested that for women to do well they need to take on a more male mindset and ‘blag it’. She added: “There’s a 80:20 rule. A job opens and women who feels she meets 80% of the criteria, applies. A man will say, ‘I have 20% of the criteria – I’ll learn the rest on the job.’ “
When I joined BBC Breakfast I was surprised by the number of viewers who felt that the BBC was doing something radical by putting me on national news to talk about business. I wasn’t what they deemed a typical BBC reporter. There was a misconception that I was there to fill some type of BBC northern quota. Yet I had been working for the national news for 10 years and been involved in making lots of our most high profile programmes. If I were a stick of rock I’d have ‘BBC’ written right through me.
This is why quotas for women in business can be dangerous, because they can undermine the credibility of the women who get top jobs. It’s a view that I’ve found is shared with other women at the top of their game. Eithne Wallis told me that in her role as the founding director general of the National Probation Service, she didn’t support quotas but said that without diversity targets the status quo would prevail: “The achievement of diversity in the workplace is critical to its effectiveness as well as being an ethical issue.” But, she added: “Positive discrimination was absolutely not allowed. It was instead, about creating the culture, end to end systems, and level playing fields to ensure that appropriate access and advancement was made available to all.”
There is an assumption that if you’re in the minority in the workplace then you’ll have a harder life than most. Personally I have had a wonderful career so far, but what has been vital is having champions; people in the business who mentor you, but also sing your praises to others. Mine have fought battles for me in work and taught me that if you know what you’re talking about and you work hard then you don’t need to fit a preconceived mould. Your genetic makeup and upbringing is irrelevant, it’s how you use your ability that counts.
Stephanie McGovern is business correspondent for BBC Breakfast
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