My experience of being the 'token female' still haunts me
Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30
Isn't it great to see more women being advanced in politics? Good to see Joan Burton take up leadership reins in Ireland, and in London, to note that David Cameron has promoted more women into cabinet positions. And the Church of England has now agreed to appoint women bishops - leading to quips about breaking the stained-glass ceiling. Hooray. I'm all for it.
Yet, my own experience of being promoted because of being a woman is wretched. It led to the unhappiest year of my life, when I nearly went off the rails completely.
This was back in the 1970s, when the editor of the 'London Evening Standard' decided it was time to have a female executive among his ranks. Although there had been female reporters and columnists in the corporation - then called Beaverbrook Newspapers - since the 1920s, there had never been a female executive, or head of department.
His gimlet eye alighted on me: I was to be made features editor of the London paper, basically because Charles Wintour (father of the now more famous Anna Wintour, the head honcho of American 'Vogue' magazine) believed it was time to promote a woman among the ranks.
He thought - rightly - that it was essential to have a woman at the daily editorial conference, which in those days in London was bristlingly macho. (Among some newspapers, it is still said to be so.) At a daily editorial conference, ideas are tested and sometimes shot down; heads of department could be bawled out and ritually humiliated. If there was an error in the paper, the executive responsible would be treated to an icy and sarcastic reprimand.
Women were considered too sensitive for this ambiance - God! They might burst into tears, which no man can stand - and thus excluded. But female input was needed. Charles once said that national budgets always brought out headlines about the price of beer, but seldom the price of bread. That was because there weren't enough women at the helm.
You should always say yes to a challenge, shouldn't you? If someone invites you to do something difficult - say yes. And so I said yes to a job that was beyond my capabilities and training. It wasn't the macho editorial conferences that fazed me, it was the wide range of responsibilities, ranging from budget sheets to arguments over the bridge column.
The well-liked cookery writer was beginning to suffer from senility (omitting crucial ingredients from a recipe) so she had to be fired - a horrible job, firing anyone - and there were tears and lamentations. There was endless detail, personnel management, future planning and the discipline of four editions a day to cope with.
I wasn't up to the job; I didn't know enough; I didn't have the experience or skills. As it became evident to those around me, and the editor was merely protecting me because I was his choice, I lost authority and respect. This was the point where I had the worst possible response: I began drinking heavily. I'd been a prolific boozer since about the age of 20, but now, at 29, the habit took a dark turn: I drank to mask my problems and boost my non-existent confidence - morning, noon and night. I also threw myself into some disastrous relationships.
And the more I drank, the worse I performed at the job and the more of an eye-rolling response there was from everyone around. My deputy carried the daily responsibilities - those pesky budget sheets! - and it was common knowledge around the office that he had been unfairly passed over because he was a man, and the editor wanted to appoint a woman. I can barely think of that year without feeling a wave of misery. Finally, I asked to step down, and did so. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Yes, in the long run, you learn a great deal from your mistakes, though not while you are making them. I learned about power and leadership and even management. Probably, or possibly, 20 years later I might have done that job better. But 20 years later, I wouldn't have taken it on, because I came to understand that power and politics (office politics are also politics) don't interest me sufficiently.
Drawing on this experience I say, yes, promote women IF - and this is an essential condition - the women themselves are up to the job. That goes for anyone, indeed. I've seen it happen in situations of nepotism: where a family member is appointed to a leadership role for which they just don't have what it takes. And I'm glad to say that the newspaper business now has many women executives who are there because they have the ability, not just because of their chromosomes.
In the final analysis, people must be promoted on merit, because they've fought to get the job. Because if they can't cut it, they'll be miserable, themselves, and all around will be a shambles.
There was an Education Secretary at Westminster, under the Blair administration, called Estelle Morris. She came over as a decent and conscientious person. But she didn't have the leadership skills to steward a vital government department (the Education portfolio, anywhere, is always arduous - teachers are a handful!). So she voluntarily resigned, admitting that she "didn't feel up to the job".
Ex-ministers seldom starve, and the British often reward failed politicians with a seat in the House of Lords. A consolation, yes, but there's still a humiliation in resigning because you're just not good enough.
Trust me, tokenism of any kind is the road to ruefulness for all concerned.