#ReadWomen: The Skills by Mishal Husain

Direct, persistent, purposeful. Or – uncertain, uneasy, doubtful. One set of words are those most often associated with the sort of work I do in broadcasting, involving live interviews and the pressure to generate new information and understanding. The other reflects what I will often be experiencing in reality. It is the gap between the two that led to me towards writing this book and the moment that probably illustrates it most clearly was five years ago, when I was asked if I might be interested in putting myself forward for one of the most coveted roles in my profession.

You might think the answer is obvious – of course I would be interested. Anyone would be, surely? In my case I had by that time spent 17 years in broadcast news, thirteen of them as a presenter. Why would I not want to throw my hat into the ring and be considered for the role of presenter on the Today programme on Radio 4? But all I could think of was how hard it would be – the pressure, the scrutiny, the working hours. I went home and told my husband it was a nice idea but I couldn’t imagine going for it. He looked incredulous. What would I say, he asked, if one of our children came out with ‘Great opportunity but it will be too hard’ in response to a prospective new challenge?

I knew the answer to that one. There was another gap

  • between how clear it would be to others that this was an opportunity to seize, and how it felt to me – overwhelmed by doubt. And for my first three years on Today, I fretted and agonized about almost every shift. I could not feel at ease in the role, I worried about everything that could and did go wrong. And then, in a way that only became clear to me later, there was a moment when it started to feel different. There was still an element of apprehension about each shift, but it was a sensation that started to feel less like abject fear and more like something I could channel. To any outsider it would have been clear what had happened
  • I had grown into a new role, gained new skills, and begun to feel more at To me, however, that outcome was never a given. I now look back and wonder – what if I had bailed out after a few months, or a year or two, and thought that my uncertainty was evidence that the job just wasn’t right for me? I would never have discovered what I now know – that  time,  perseverance  and  an increasing familiarity with every passing day made an immense difference.

I know that won’t be true for everyone who finds themselves out of their comfort zone and under novel professional pressures. But my own experience made me reflect on how often we look at people doing striking or difficult jobs and think that they were in some way born to them and that their performance is the result of innate ability. ‘You must never get nervous,’ is the comment I often receive, and I marvel each time at how far it is from the truth. We know of course that even the most experienced of actors can suffer from stage fright, we see how athletes psych themselves up as well as train hard physically, we are aware that even the most natural-appearing politicians will have been coached and been part of role-plays before big moments. And yet we can still fall in a trap of deciding that people achieve because they are in some way gifted rather than because they have developed their capabilities.

That in turn can be a barrier to seeking new horizons – precisely as I experienced. What was decisive for me was not only the simple fact of practice – each shift giving me more exposure to a variety of stories, interviewees, and types of on-air conversations – but also the broader lessons that come from the nature of my work. It is on public display, which means the low points as well as the high ones are subject to immediate and sometimes fevered comment. It is often intense, both because of unorthodox working hours – a regular 3 am alarm call – and the pressure that comes from having to absorb quantities of information in a short time frame. And the more I thought about what I consider some of the essential tools of my trade – speech, choice of words, use of knowledge, body language – the more I saw them as central to being effective in any line of work and any stage of life. They become even more important when short attention spans and the pace of working life make it ever harder to get a message across in the way you intend and in the time available.

And so the idea for ‘The Skills’ was born, out of a desire to pass on what I have learned, much of which I wish I had figured out earlier in life. It took me a long time to find my courage, despite coming from a family where I had parents who encouraged me and had high expectations. Both came to the UK from Pakistan – my father as a young doctor and my mother when she married him a few years later. There was never any question of me, as their daughter, being perceived differently from my brother – for both of us, the arrival of school reports sparked a gathering around the dining table where my father would read each entry aloud. As long as we appeared to be doing our best, he was satisfied: ‘Aim high’ he would say, ‘Because if you miss what you are aiming for, you’ll still end up in a good place.’

In both my parents’ families, mine would be the third generation in which women had had educational opportunities comparable to men: in the 1930s in what was then British India, my two grandmothers were enrolled on medical and nursing courses. For my own education, hard choices would be made – rather than send me to secondary school in Saudi Arabia when we were living there in the 1980s, my parents decided I would be better off in the UK, but that meant boarding school and long separations. Years later, my father told me that they weren’t only motivated by a desire for me to have a British education, but also a worry that remaining in Saudi Arabia, where I would have to wear an abaya or black cloak in public, might have fundamentally altered my perception of what I could achieve in life. I now know that without that decision, which in turn meant I stayed in the UK for university, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

With all of this support, why do I say my courage came later in life that it might have or it could have? Partly because when I think back to my university years, I know that I would have gained so more from them had I been more willing to ask questions, to take risks and to test out arguments in front of my lecturers and fellow students. I was simply too cautious, too conscious that I might have got the wrong end of the stick and appear silly or uninformed. That caution remained in the first part of my professional life – I was a producer at Bloomberg TV and then at the BBC before before getting into presenting at the age of 27 – when I would mull over running orders and scripts, in search of the ideal turn of phrase or link between one story and the next. I would approach new projects, such as working on the Olympics, almost like an exam – making extensive notes in preparation, trying to cover every base. Working on Today knocked that search for perfection out of me for the most basic of reasons: the shortage of time focused the mind like nothing I had previously experienced.

That’s not to say there’s no longer a structure to the way I work – quite the opposite, because when you’re short of time it is vital to have figured out the techniques that suit you and stick to them. For interviewing, a lot of my own method goes back to what I learned from studying the law: having the evidence to back up any assertions, knowing the arguments on the other side and being able to compare situations and ask if what happened in one case might apply elsewhere. I try to keep the focus on what I do know and how I can use it, because focusing on what is lacking can take you perilously close to losing your nerve.

For this book, I wanted to gather together approaches and ideas that have helped me, and the views of others on what works for them. And I wanted to write from my perspective as a woman, because we’re at a point in time

when it is clear we need some better ideas about how more women can advance to comparable levels with men. In some countries girls and women face reduced educational and employment opportunities, but even in the most progressive, too many companies and workplaces can be gender-mapped into a pyramid shape: women and men present in equal numbers at entry level and then the women disappearing the more senior the role.1 At the beginning of 2018 there were just seven women leading FTSE 100 companies – the largest listed on the London Stock Exchange – fewer than the number of men called David, or John.2 A century after the first woman was elected to parliament at Westminster, two thirds of British MPs are men.3 The pattern is the same for partners in law firms in England and Wales, where only a third are women.4 And there are imbalances on the airwaves too. On the UK’s main broadcast news programmes, a 2016 study found that around three male experts appear for every woman, and that male reporters and presenters outnumber women by two to one.5 It makes you wonder: if news programmes are a window on the world, how accurate can the view from that window be if the voices describing and interpreting it are so overwhelmingly male? Early in my career as a journalist I learned about the power you can have from the way you ask a question. Going out to record ‘voxpops’ – short clips recording the opinions of people in the street – you have to be eternally mindful of posing the question in a neutral way and avoid- ing anything that might lead the respondent in a particular direction. And so I know that the concerted effort now underway at many BBC programmes, where producers are actively aiming for a 50-50 gender balance among contributors, where possible, is a valuable one. By asking for the casting of a particular discussion to involve both women and men, you open the search wider than it might other- wise be and get a different answer – moving beyond those contributors already regularly booked and finding new expert voices.

I still find myself in settings that remind me how overwhelmingly male the higher echelons of many professions can be. All-male panels – or ‘manels’ – remain common- place at some conferences, and despite its efforts at a better gender balance, journalists and staff members make up a significant proportion of female attendees at the high-pro- file annual World Economic Forum in Davos. One year I looked around the room during an off-the-record session for journalists to hear from the Iranian President and realised I was one of around ten women in a gathering of well over a hundred people. As the President’s speech ended and the questions began, I mulled over what I might ask. And then it struck me that given the tiny number of women in the room, there was a strong chance that the session might end without a woman’s voice being heard at all. Suddenly, the principle of participation seemed far more important than the individual question. I stuck up my hand and spoke.

Even where women are prominent, uncomfortable truths can emerge – why was Claire Foy, who took the lead role of Queen Elizabeth in the hit television series ‘The Crown’, paid less for her work than Matt Smith, who played her consort Prince Philip? In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the actor Emma Thompson was one of the first to say that the shocking details emerging were part of a deeper malaise. ‘In our systems there are not nearly enough women, particularly in Hollywood, in positions of power. There aren’t enough women at the top of the tree in the studios – who could perhaps balance everything out. There aren’t enough women on This is part of our difficulty,’ she said. ‘This is a gender dysfunction.’

And so when I hear people say everything’s going in the right direction, that their daughters won’t experience the same barriers – and even that women hold all the cards these days – I am not convinced. Of course it’s true that my generation has had opportunities that most of our mothers did not but we’ve also come up against barriers that many of us probably expected would be gone by now. Those are both practical – arising from the structure of employment and continuing expectations that women will do the bulk of childcare and housework – and about perception of our capabilities and our value. I know that when I close my eyes and conjure up an image of someone at the top of my own chosen profession – imagining a main presenter or a prominent interviewer – I see a man. I see a white man, as it happens. It reflects the reality of the world that surrounds me, but the permutations of that subconscious image are far-reaching. It will seep into the judgements I form about people performing that role – do they fit the picture I have in my head? If not, perhaps I will perceive them as having less of a right to be there. If I was in a management position – how might that image affect decision about who I hired and what I was prepared to pay them? And what about its effect on my own sense of self – how I see my own potential and chances of progression?

 

 

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