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An interview with Dame Pauline Neville-Jones

Interview by: Sarah Powell

Options:     PDF Version - An interview with Dame Pauline Neville-Jones Print view    |    PDF Version - An interview with Dame Pauline Neville-Jones PDF version

Dame Pauline Neville-JonesDame Pauline Neville-Jones is Chairman of QinetiQ Group plc, a defence, security and advanced commercial technology company with government customers in the UK and USA, and Chairman of the Information Assurance Advisory Council (IAAC), a partnership organization addressing the challenges of information infrastructure protection.

From 1998 to 2004 Dame Pauline was the International Governor of the BBC with responsibility for, among other things, external broadcasting and notably the BBC World Service (radio and online) and BBC World (television). Between 1995 and 2000 she worked in the City of London as a Managing Director of NatWest Markets and as Vice-Chairman of Hawkpoint Partners, a corporate advisory house.

From 1963 to1995 Pauline Neville-Jones was a career member of the British Diplomatic Service, serving in Britain’s posts in Singapore, Washington DC and Bonn, among other locations, and in Brussels in the European Commission as chef de cabinet to the then Budget Commissioner Christopher Tugendhat. She was a foreign affairs adviser to Prime Minister John Major and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in Whitehall (1991-1994). In 1995, as Political Director in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, she was leader of the British delegation to the Dayton peace conference on Bosnia. That same year Pauline Neville-Jones was made a Dame Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (DCMG). She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates by the Open University and University of London. She is a member of the governing body of Oxford University.


Speaking at a recent Women in Business Conference at the London Business School you emphasized the substantial improvement in opportunities for women in the UK today compared with the 1960s. From your own considerable experience in leadership positions in both public and private sectors, how much easier is it today for women to reach senior positions and to what extent did the establishment in 1975 of the Equal Opportunities Commission and coming into force of the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts contribute to this?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

At the beginning of my career I chose to enter the public sector because almost the only openings for women in the private sector were secretarial or in personnel – and personnel at that time, unlike HR today, was very much a back office function with little status. The major change in my career lifetime has been the tremendous widening of the scope of career opportunities available to women both in the public sector and much more dramatically in the private sector. While the public sector has long been accessible, the opening up of the top echelons of the private sector to women other than the very brave has only really occurred in the past 15 years or so.

There have been two major developments of interest to women. One is the significant expansion in the breadth and scope of activities that women can reasonably aspire to be engaged in. The second is the extent to which they can progress, whether by a ‘ladder’ or by continuous movement through a self-designed chain. The public sector is still career- and hierarchy-structured. Employees are assessed and, through recognition of intellectual merit and performance, can expect to progress through the ranks. Women perform well in such relatively stable environments. As a result their numbers at the top are sufficient to give rise to the expectation of seeing women in some of the top positions and it is time that this happened.

The Equal Opportunities legislation, which was initially greeted with considerable derision and some opposition, was nevertheless important in two respects. It signalled to women that they were entitled to equality and did not have to accept second best. It also told employers that it was not just unfair and wasteful of talent to discriminate on grounds of sex but actually illegal. People do not like to be on the wrong side of the law and major change in employment practice has resulted. The battleground has in good part shifted to getting equal pay for work of equal value at all levels of the workforce.

The private sector is different from the public sector and can pose a particular problem for women. It is not as structured as the public sector and is far more varied with thousands of employers of different kinds in different industries, some of which have cultures that are far less easy for women. Difficulty of progression is often combined with, although not necessarily correlated to, unenlightened bosses. Performance assessment is also frequently not taken seriously enough.

In the public sector, the culture is such that senior officials know that junior officials irrespective of gender must have a fair crack of the whip. It is against their own interests to appear to be unfair bosses. As far as I am aware, such a cultural ethic is not yet anything like as embedded in the private sector. However, I believe the situation is improving and it is certainly no longer a badge of honor for a man to be known as a male chauvinist pig.

What is now beginning to happen in certain areas, when it is demonstrated that a woman can ‘hack it’, is that she becomes a powerful role model. Such a role model operates both on the successive generation of employees and also on employers who cannot ignore the lesson that women can ‘hack it’. The role model is thus important not only in fostering greater ambition among women, but also to reassure employers who doubt the business argument for promoting women. Employers who believe there is a premium to pay for employing women will never do so wholeheartedly; they must be reassured that it is in their business interests to do so.

Women meanwhile must bear in mind the need to prove their worth to their employers, which means that they must make intelligent accommodations about the things that they want in life. The child-bearing function requires considerable and intelligent management both by the parents and the employer. At senior management level this is being understood. However, further down the ‘pecking order’ in the private sector attitudes are sometimes less enlightened and women still suffer penalties as a result of maternity. There is no uniform picture. Also, we must not confuse the success in business of some qualified women with the difficulties and inequalities experienced by women in occupations for which qualification is less important. The statistics clearly bear this out. The earnings of women overall still remain significantly lower than those of men, so we cannot yet talk about total ‘trickle down’ of equality of opportunity. As I mentioned, this remains a major area of work for the Equal Opportunities Commission.

What do you see as the major impediments to women reaching top level positions and do these differ between the public and private sectors?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

Family obligations are frequently an impediment, creating complications and reducing mobility. However, I have noted a real generational change among those under the age of about 40. Couples are increasingly making accommodations to each other’s ambitions and careers. If a married woman has ambition and a marriage is to remain stable there must be partnership and that does mean accommodation.

Another problem is that there is frequently less attention paid by married women to their career management and development. Women must be willing to assume that responsibility themselves. In the past the public sector would organize your career for you. It does this less now, while the private sector has never done it to anything like the same extent. So women need not only to manage their families and private lives but also to manage their careers. They also need to develop a high degree of self-reliance which is a very important feature of any career today. A major change in the job market today is competition for jobs. In the past in the Civil Service, for example, decisions on promotions were taken by superiors. Today you must apply and compete and therefore make choices – which is far more difficult if more satisfying.

On the one hand, as you note, women have more career choices than ever before, on the other, workplaces are increasingly competitive and pressurized. Does this not suggest ever more difficult questions of work-life balance, notably for women with families?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

Yes, that’s absolutely right. More opportunities mean more choice and more potential for mistakes. Making choices demands more self-management and for women that brings them up against the biological clock. These are all tough choices. As you suggest, the very nature of the challenge has changed. Previously the challenge was to gain recognition of one’s worth and merit in order to be promoted to a job with responsibilities appropriate to one’s capabilities, and there was the ever-present risk of being held back by a ‘glass ceiling’ or walls. There may still not be entirely ‘level pegging’ right at the top, but an important challenge is: how do I manage to achieve a work-life balance that suits me, enables me to manage the pressures in my life and provides satisfaction to my employer?

How significant do you consider mentoring, coaching and other forms of support to be for women managers aspiring to leadership positions?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

I consider mentoring especially valuable. Taking a particular interest in people who are following a similar path as you have done, in whom you can take a friendly interest and whom you can advise and encourage means the lessons drawn from your own successes and mistakes can help them to take advantage of opportunities and avoid traps.

Mentoring is nothing new. Men have long done this for one other, but I see it as being particularly useful and valuable in supporting and inspiring women’s confidence. Mentoring encourages women who have ambition to feel that this is a perfectly legitimate aspiration – important because even today some people apparently feel that being ambitious is not really appropriate for a women.

Both men and women can be valuable mentors for women but women mentors are sometimes better placed to spot what may be worrying another woman. That said, some of the most successful mentoring can occur when the senior man recognizes a talented woman and resolves to help her make her way up the organization. That indicates an organization values its employees irrespective of sex.

There is considerable scope for employers to adopt such supportive practices for anyone, although it is probably particularly helpful for women. Women may well be under-represented in an organization and are possibly more reserved about their prospects. Mentoring helps counteract women’s tendency to ‘self-limit’ their own talent. There is still a frequent and damaging tendency for women to think: I don’t believe I can do this, i.e. that’s something for other people.

Encouragement of girls in schools is crucially important. Girls are now outdoing boys academically which helps them to feel that they can ‘hack it’ in the world of work. Schools are far more encouraging in this respect today and girls’ schools tend to be particularly ambitious for their pupils. In the past schools tended to focus on the results of public examinations but did not necessarily encourage girls to focus on careers. Today they are encouraging girls to go out and succeed. This is very important to attitude of mind and self-esteem.

Where else do you perceive increased opportunities for women?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

A particularly interesting new, and very welcome, phenomenon is the emergence of the female entrepreneur – the grassroots entrepreneur. This phenomenon has been promoted by access to finance which was not previously available to women in their own right. Such access fosters self-confidence among those with certain personality traits. The statistics on recent small business entrepreneurs are interesting because they do indicate a really significant proportion of women. Is this because for some women being an employee fails to offer them scope or makes them choose between family and career? We don’t really know the answer to these questions. But it is interesting that women now feel they have a choice between being an employee or being an entrepreneur.

It is often said that women have specific ‘soft’ skills such as empathy, good communication, teamworking, ability to promote unity of purpose etc., which are valuable leadership traits. This being the case, why are there not more women ‘at the top’?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

This is partly tied up with the value put upon these various skills. Until relatively recently the value put upon team membership was lower than that put upon first impression thrusting personal ambition which ‘gets you places’. There has been something of a change in management philosophy with the recognition that, though leadership skills are important, these involve leading a team. The question is: will women emerge not only as team members but also as team leaders? To date we have insufficient evidence to gauge whether perhaps there is something about the psychology of women which leads them not to aspire to position No. 1, but to be happier in position No. 2, or No. X. I’m inclined to think that there is absolutely no reason why a woman can’t be an excellent No. 1. I believe it is down to time, critical mass, experience, and so on. The recognition of different skills is an important part of this.

"In the public sector, the culture is such that senior officials know that junior officials irrespective of gender must have a fair crack of the whip. It is against their own interests to appear to be unfair bosses. As far as I am aware, such a cultural ethic is not yet anything like as embedded in the private sector."

Another question to ask is: are women perhaps not very good at real ‘rough and tumble stuff’? Personally, I don’t believe women thrive in extremely macho cultures. Of course, as in any dispersion, you will get ‘outliers’, some women who are really ‘naturals’ in such cultures – but I’m not at all sure that it’s a comfortable habitat for the generality of women – or indeed all men. But men in such cultures are in a majority and there has been clear evidence of cases of ‘beating up on’ women. However, I don’t draw any profound conclusions from all of that except to say that I am certainly pretty clear that macho cultures are particularly tough.

What do you consider the qualities of a successful leader, whether male or female, and do you perceive any gender-related talents that might make women particularly effective leaders?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

The qualities of successful leaders will include vision, willingness to lead and to bear responsibility, and a capacity for hard work. The leader will be expected to be both self-confident and appreciative of the efforts of others, and not prone to distinguish themselves by belittling others and by putting distance between them; these days a democratic style is increasingly valued, as is inclusiveness. The ideal leader is a light that shines and illuminates but doesn’t burn. I believe women’s natural social training gives them great strength in many of these areas. Inclusiveness, for example, is a real female talent.

Do you consider charisma a positive or a negative characteristic in a leader?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

I’m all in favour of charisma but not as a substitute for everything else. If you add charisma on top of the other necessary characteristics of a leader, then you’re a winner, so for me it’s charisma plus, not charisma as the be-all-and-end-all. There is something rather uplifting about a personality that attracts and makes people feel good and makes them aspire to do things that hadn’t otherwise occurred to them, that makes them feel ‘part of the act’. That is a real talent of leadership. But charisma provides no substitute for knowing where you are going, taking responsibility and getting it right.

Several of your roles have been high profile in international terms. Have you found that national cultural values affect perceptions of and attitudes to women in prominent positions?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

Yes I have and I could cite two examples. First, parts of the world are really not suitable for a woman and I never had a posting in the Islamic and Arabic world. Second, at a middle stage in my career in the 1980s I did some serious negotiating in Japan and the Japanese clearly didn’t find it easy or comfortable dealing with a woman. That may have changed now but it certainly was true then. So cultural perceptions undoubtedly make a difference to whether you are regarded as a serious, worthy and indeed, in some cultures, possible interlocutor. And despite progress over the years, barriers still exist. I do not, however, believe that the fact that there are places where it is less easy to work should ever stop anybody going into a foreign service for a western country.

With a nod to stereotypes, might the absence of women in top management positions partly reflect different values, aspirations and motivation, e.g. money and status perhaps being proportionately more important to proportionately more men and job satisfaction to more women (many of whom may also have spouses to support them)?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

I don’t know the answer to this question. It is, however, a very good and perceptive one. Anecdotal evidence from women who have admitted to changing jobs or careers because their original occupation failed to give any satisfaction poses a number of questions. Did they do so, despite having opportunities where they worked, because they sought more freedom or job satisfaction? Or had they detected, rightly or wrongly, that they had few prospects where they were and that this was a constructive form of evasive action? If the latter, to what extent did they analyze their situation to determine why they were doing what they were doing? Or was it simply instinctive behaviour? I do believe that sometimes such decisions are based on something found wanting in the workplace or an apparent lack of prospects. But that, of course, could also be down to a lack of suitability for the role, or a failure by employers to match opportunities to the skills of the individual. We can’t know the answer to all these questions yet, and such situations are unlikely to occur evenly through all forms of all occupations. I don’t rule out a possible difference from men in women’s aspirations and motivation though these days I doubt the idea that many reject advancement and the effort it may involve because ‘hubby’ is there to keep them.

In UK universities today the ratio of young women to men in the traditionally male-dominated disciplines of medicine and law is increasingly high. It has been suggested that such feminization may exert a negative impact on the perceived status of these professions. What is your reaction to such a suggestion?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

As a commentary on today’s labour market I think that’s sheer nonsense but it could be argued that this is what happened in Russia in medicine, which traditionally was dominated by women, and was regarded as a low prestige, low quality, low value profession. We need to ask: was this because women dominated the profession or because it never was prestigious, which is why women were able to enter it?

Returning to the UK, it is inconceivable that greater numbers of women getting into law, which is highly competitive and prestigious, is somehow going to result in a decline in the quality of the profession. There is no reason to suggest that in any profession the advent of women reduces quality. For example, while there is criticism about the quality of primary health care in Britain, no one to my knowledge has ever suggested that this is the result of the growing numbers of female doctors. Likewise in teaching, the problems in secondary education have not been laid at the feet of female teachers, while primary education, in which women have a big role, is now seen as doing quite well. In all these cases the evidence just doesn’t support the assertion – which probably stems from a line of reasoning that holds that the only world that is valued is a man’s world. I would like to see a good mix of the sexes in virtually all activities and at all levels.

Looking back at your own career, what roles have proved the most challenging (in either a positive or a negative sense), and which have been most important for your career progression?

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones:

These two aspects run together. My most challenging roles have also been those that were most important to career progression. These have been where I have been very near the top of an organization and where there were numerous factors to take into account in making a proposal or taking a decision. The task of balancing these was complex and sometimes decisions to be taken were fateful. In at least two cases what I was doing would have affected people’s lives in the sense that a wrong decision would put people at risk, or greater risk. In one instance the right decision would have ensured that the armed forces were better placed. When you know that people’s lives hang on what you do, it makes you very careful in decision-making. It is hardly surprising that some of the best examples of leadership are in the armed forces.

Anyone who reaches the top of an organization has to cope with risk, whether this be national risk, reputational risk or the very fundamental risk of life or death. Risk assessment in decision-making is a major challenge and distinguishes the people who can make it to and at the top. Women must recognize that dealing with risk is an integral part of a top job. Do all women take this in their stride? I don’t know – although those who become entrepreneurs certainly do. It may be asked whether as a generality,women are more risk-averse than men. Possibly. I certainly think women in general are more careful and painstaking than men often are. Are these characteristics related to the child-bearing, child-caring function and, if so, are they in the genes or are they an expression of social accommodation? I don’t know but I suspect that any differences of attitude to risk may be related to both roles – the social role and nature – and this is certainly an issue deserving further research. But such differences, if they exist, are not disqualifications from leadership.

Interview republished from Emerald Now, March 2005.


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