Harriet Minter Talks Women in Business

6 July 2016

Harriet Minter is head of The Guardian Professional's Women in Leadership initiative; she is an expert on the future of work and how organisations are changing. She is also an entrepreneur and took a start-up from launch to £13m, and speaks extensively about the necessity for diversity in business.

We caught up with Harriet Minter, ahead of her speaking at Network Under the Stars event. The event is a combination of networking, mentoring, inspirational speakers , cocktail classes, and yoga. It is an all-female affair which aims to meet an ambitious target of raising more than £6,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support and Breast Cancer Now.

We talked about women in business , unconscious sexisms, why she controversially admires Arianna Huffington and how she is comparable to a Magpie!

Q: You speak about women needing to make their own gameplan, and not play by men’s rules to succeed in business, for both women starting out in business who are new to the politics of the corporate world, how would you suggest they do this?

Harriet: I think the most important thing is to know who you are and to be authentic to that. We don’t spend enough time teaching people to know their own values.  It is so important to know what makes yourself happy, when you know that you know what makes you happy, it is so much easier to find your place in the world, and in turn you can start to look for workplaces that suit these goals, workplaces where you will thrive and support the type of leadership  you what.

In this day and age, we just don’t give enough credence to the idea of the happy employee. A happy employee will be better at their job. We tend to separate the idea of work and life, but really we have moved past the idea of work-life balance, and now we have a work-life blend. Work is part of your life. So, for women making their gameplan, it needs to be a case of thinking what makes them happy, what will they want to get out of bed for? When you start to work this out, you can start to create a career plan that reflects this. Taking the time out and getting to know yourself is really one of the most beneficial things you can do in your career.

One happy employee

Q: Do you feel like you have succeeded in that personally?

Harriet: For me, it is an ongoing lesson, really you keep having to constantly check and assess yourself. I get really excited by projects, and really want to get involved in them, but then I have to think long-term, is this definitely what I want? I’m like a Magpie, I get distracted by shiny things. I constantly have to bring myself back to the thought of – is this going to drive me to where I want to go? So I think it is something I am still learning, it is an ongoing life-lesson.

Q: Definitely, if anyone could say they had it nailed, they would know the secret to life! So, which common workplace sexisms still exist and how can women work together to combat them?

Harriet: Nowadays in most forward thinking progressive industries the problem we have is unconscious sexisms. We all have unconscious bias, which are ingrained beliefs in our heads. We created these in prehistoric times, they are shortcuts in our heads. We instantly assume people who are like us, are going to be people that we like, one of the simplest forms of this is gender. Men are going to instantly gravitate towards men and women to women. This is a problem we are fighting.

One shortcut that we have created is when we say think of a leader, we are thinking of a man. Therefore, we are looking for male leaders, this shows us that the instinctive response shouldn’t always be the best response. That is the big one that women fight.

Another one is that the workplace is designed for the aggressive alpha male, and this is not how most people want to work, but luckily we are getting to the stage where we are having greater voices challenging this. So, women can support women by listening to the way people want to work and helping each other achieving this. Once we breakdown the traditional workplace ideal, we can start to think – is this person just working in the same way everybody else works or are they working well? If the answer is the latter, then we need to start rewarding them on this.

We are absorbed in a culture that is based on presentism, but we need to be moving to a culture of productivity. If a worker has delivered on their tasks in two hours, then the fact they have done their work should be the main thing - not how they have done it. We need to stop rewarding for the amount of hours a staff member has shown their face. We are rewarding for inefficiency. An efficient person that is not always in the office, they probably have a life outside of work which makes them more balanced, and more likely to bring new ideas into the company. I am all for promoting part-time workers, they work harder, they get more done. We should be paying people more money to get less work done!

Q: We like that idea! Given the current climate, what do you think the future holds for women in the male-dominated sphere of politics after Brexit?

Harriet: It is interesting, we could in a few months time, have all the major political  parties being run by women. This is really exciting, but on the other hand, there is a trend in politics that women seem to get promoted in times of crisis.

If there is a really big job is going, that is hard and has a high chance of failure, men look at the job and think ‘there is going to be another chance for me to have this job, I could take this job, and through no fault of my own not succeed in it, and currently that poses too much risk.’  Whereas women are thinking ‘this could be my only chance of getting the job, this opportunity might not come around again,’ so they take it. So potentially a lot of women end up leading in one of the most difficult times in recent history, then, if and when they fail, we blame their gender.

I think there is going to be no good outcome of Brexit, no one will come out of it a winner. If the people leading at that time are women, people will sadly say that failure is a result of their gender.

Britain leaving the EU, means a turbulent time for women.

Q: Speaking of women in high-powered positions, which women in business do you greatly admire and why?

Harriet: I really admire Arianna Huffington, a controversial thing for a journalist to say! In terms of the media industry she is a visionary, she has understood how to build a successful media business, which is great.

I also really like Helena Morrissey, she is really admirable and probably one of the most charming people I’ve ever met. I have learnt a lot from her handling men in situations, and how she manages to get them on side, I think she is excellent.

Q: What makes you feel empowered and motivated in your life, and why?

Harriet:  I think what gets me out of bed is feeling that I’ve made somebody’s life better, it is a strange thing but I really need it. I need to feel like I have helped someone else in some way, I would say I am a kind of ‘encourage-able meddler.’ I am really Interested in change and reactions to this, how we behave around change, and how we solve difficult problems. For me, it doesn’t matter what the problem is, I just like the process of challenging the mind, and unpicking a layered problem, in order to find a better answer.

Thanks Harriet, that was really enlightening and interesting!

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