8th June 2015: ‘Women in Leadership: An Interview with Harriet Minter’

I was delighted to be granted the opportunity to interview Harriet Minter, the creator and editor of The Guardian’s Women in Leadership section. Scroll to the bottom for the full text.

To read the descriptive interview, in which we discuss everything from politics to Caitlin Moran, check it out here or read below.

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When I watch Harriet Minter’s TED Talk, ‘Proceed until apprehended’, I find myself grinning half-way through. ‘Proceed until apprehended!’ she tells me and the cheering audience. It’s her personal mantra, and one that led to her setting up The Guardian’spopular Women in Leadership section. Women, Minter says, are bad at just doing stuff. We need to learn that we don’t need permission. Proceed until apprehended. 

During our interview, I mention the TED Talk to Minter. ‘I loved your comment that women are still being told to be ‘sugar and spice’,’ I say, comparing Minter’s statement to the spoken word poem ‘Pretty’ by Katie Makkai. However, Minter is clear that women in leadership don’t have to forsake their femininity. “We are on the cusp on a movement where women can appreciate that authenticity is a strong skill, and it gets them further than merely emulating the men around them,” says Minter. 

Sheryl Sandberg, Author of ‘Lean In’. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Minter argues that traditional leadership qualities are also traditionally ‘male qualities. “Strength, determination… those ‘leading-from-the-front’ qualities we normally see as very male traits,” says Minter. “What’s difficult is that when we think of our ideal leader, we do think of a man”. However, Minter goes on to state that views on leadership are shifting. “What we’re actually beginning to realise and use is that stronger leadership is focused around collaboration and communication,” she says, “and those are more feminine skills”. 

I mention Minter’s TED Talk again, referring to Minter’s statement that once women set up a business, they are generally more successful than their male counterparts. Given her previous statement, will Minter go a step further to say that women actually make better leaders than men? 

“I’m not sure I’d go that far,” she says, “as I don’t want to replace the notion of men being leaders with women being leaders, that’s not helpful. Some women are brilliant leaders and some women aren’t, some men are brilliant leaders and some men aren’t. That’s just human nature. However, it’s important we don’t rule people out because of their gender. We need to actually assess them beyond appearances, and that does require controlling a lot of our inner instincts.”

Minter also states that gender stereotypes, whilst annoying, can be used to one’s advantage. “Women are allowed to ask more questions, we’re allowed to sit down with someone and say: ‘Tell me what’s going on with you? How are you?’ This kind of nurturing behaviour is seen as natural for women, whilst a man would be seen as trying to get insider information.”

Image: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

I mention the recent, unprecedented situation Britain found itself in after a series of political resignations following the general electionwhen all of the major political parties (excluding the Conservatives) were led by women. I ask Minter for her thoughts on women in British politics. 

“I think it’s hugely important to have more women in politics,’ she tells me, ‘but we’re not going to get them until we reform the political system. Politics is still all about competition; it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong as long as you win. Politicians don’t really care what their electorate say until they need them, and then they’ll go back to them. That to me is really old fashioned.” Minter thinks that if you want to get more women in politics, we’ve got to ask yourselves why women want to work in that kind of environment in the first place. She compares politics to the business world. “If you look at business, it’s really aware that you need collaboration and communication with customers. It’s forward-thinking. You’re able to try and fail and try something new again.”

It’s a view of the business world that links closely to Minter’s earlier assertion that‘feminine’ characteristics, like communication, are now coming to the fore of leadershipand innovation in the workplace. Minter is clearly inspired by women who take initiative in the business world. As Editor for the Women in Leadership, Minter interviews high profile women leaders as part of the section’s ‘Inspiring Leaders’ series. “Everyone that I interview I get something incredible from,” says Minter. “Everyone has a story, and the best part of being a journalist is being able to get that story from them.” She cites Arianna Huffington as one of her favourite interviews. “I’m completely in awe of how she started up her business, how she stays ahead of everything… I think she’s a real visionary.”

Image: http://www.wewomen.com

I speak to Karen O’Donnell, Exeter PhD student and organiser of ‘The Feminine Voice’about Harriet’s involvement in the workshop. She tells me that ‘Harriet has a reputation as a leading voice in the issue of gender diversity in the workplaceShe has a wideunderstanding of the issues women face in the workplace’. touch on these ‘issues’ in my interview with Minter, mentioning a talk I recently attended by former BBC correspondent Lara Pawson. In the talk, Pawson told an anecdote from her career in media, about a former boss who told her she’d look better in a red silk dress. Pawson also said she regretted telling colleagues at the BBC about getting married. I ask Minter if she thinks sexism is still as prevalent in the media workplace today. 

“As recently as five to eight years ago, there was definitely an old guard of… shall we say…less-than enlightened men,” says Minter. “And I’ve definitely walked into a meeting and felt that everyone there had already had the meeting, because they’ve all been down the pub two days before as mates”. Minter says that she’s never experienced outright sexism, but states that the biggest problem comes when a woman reaches her thirties, when ‘she either gets married or has children’. Minter believes that it’s at this stage that workplaces begin to make assumptions, “generally without consulting you first”. 

“It’s such a difficult topic,” she says. “People don’t want to say the wrong thing so they don’t say anything, they just jump to conclusion. I think as a society as a whole we need to get better at having those conversations”. 

Minter stresses the power of the daily unconscious assumptions we make. I tell her how, when the man introducing Minter’s TED Talk made a joke, I barely registered it, but that whenever Minter made a particularly good quip during the talk, I caught myself in the act of really noticing it. Why is it, I ask, that it’s only recently that funny women,like Kristen Wiig and Lena Dunham, have received mainstream media attention?

“I think, if we’re being honest, it comes down to the fact that if a man’s funny, that’s a sexy characteristic, and generally if a woman was being funny it was only because she was [perceived as] a bit bitter. ‘Oh yeah, she’s very funny, but she’s a very sad person underneath.’ No one says that about male comics,’ says Minter. ‘So I think women were taught not to be funny, we were taught that was not our role, that’s what the guys do. Our job was to sit there and look pretty.”

Minter goes on to state that she was lucky coming up behind a host of famous funny women like Caitlin Moran. “I thought: if she’s funny, that’s allowed, I can be funny! Some people are very anti-quota, but I think the fact that we have a quota on the number of women in comedy talk shows is the best thing. Why haven’t we had it before?”

Minter concludes that there’s currently strong women-in-media movement. “There’s a big push around women supporting other women, on making sure our voices are being heard, on calling out bias and the media’s treatment of women,” she says. “We’re in a really strong place; we just have to keep that [momentum] going.”

In other words, proceed until apprehended.

Flora Carr

Harriet Minter is one of the guest speakers for the upcoming workshop ‘The Feminine Voice: Authority and Femininity in the Academy’.

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