Mishal Husain, acclaimed journalist and presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme, shared her experiences of forging a successful career in a world where inequality remains endemic.
Fresh from interviewing the Prime Minister at the Conservative Conference, Husain took to the stage at South Hampstead High School , North West London, as part of their Speaker Series, an initiative pioneered by Headmistress Mrs Bingham in 2017 to help open doors, hearts and minds.
In a reversal of roles, Husain was questioned by a panel of sixth formers, as well as a number of pupils in the audience.
The Real World of Work
Statistics taken from the last British census published in 2011, and Creative Skillset’s 2012 Employment Census, clearly show that black, Asian and other non-white minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are highly underrepresented in the media. Although the UK was 14% non-white and London’s population was over 40% BAME, BAME representation across the creative industries had fallen to just 5.4%.
Plus, it was only this year that the BBC was outed for its deep-rooted gender and race pay gap. Indeed, though Husain is the second woman on Radio 4’s Today and the programme’s first-ever Muslim presenter, it was revealed that John Humphrys, her opposite number, was paid around three times what she earned.
During the event, Husain spoke candidly of the many times she’s found herself in overwhelmingly male environments and has had say to herself: ‘I have a right to be here too.’
Against a backdrop of this year’s suffrage centenary and continuing revelations of pay inequality at the BBC as well as in Hollywood, she realised she had her own role to play in pressing for progress – hence the recent publication of her first book.
A Life’s Lessons
The Skills: From First Job to Dream Job is a culmination of what Husain has learnt over her life and career, offering advice on the perils of perfectionism, tips on how to make a positive impression and the importance of speaking up and speaking out – in particular with regard to equality.
Throughout the evening, Husain shared numerous examples of the under-representation of women she encountered when researching the book – from MPs to law partners – including in broadcast journalism, where the most prominent faces remain white and male.
Within the media in particular, she reflected on what impact that domination has had on our lens to the world: ‘Even in Mulan, the male dragon gets more lines than the female protagonist!’
When asked about her toughest moments, she spoke of the intense, sleep-deprived period of her 30s when, with three boys under the age of two, she was worried she’d have limited time to succeed, especially in an industry that favours the young. She also asserted her belief that, as a society, we’ve not progressed far enough in terms of flexible patterns for modern, working families.
Recalling the time when she was lambasted by the Daily Mail following an interview with Boris Johnson in 2017, Husain explained how she’s established her own process for dealing with criticism:
‘I’ve learnt to develop a thicker skin – to reflect on what’s been said and then just look to the future.’
Perhaps more importantly, she also discussed the importance of (girls in particular) learning to accept praise. As she states in her book:
‘When complimented on an interview, my default response used to be to question or undermine the praise (‘Do you think so? I’m not sure about that last question’) or say that I had got lucky. I started to realise how questioning positive feedback might appear… Now, I try to make a simple ‘Thank you’ my default response to a positive comment.’
Another of Husain’s key messages was what it means to be confident, especially when faced with the inevitable nerves of ‘big moments’. She explained how so many occasions in life can’t be scripted nor predicted – and that being ready is key.
Drawing on her experiences of being the anchor for the 2012 Olympics (with no previous experience of sports reporting) and being hand-picked to interview Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement (with less than 24 hours’ notice), she emphasised the importance of being prepared:
‘My aim is not perfection, but to be in a state of readiness.’ When considering what advice to give to her younger self, she said that she would tell herself to be braver. ‘I’d tell myself not to waste time worrying. It’s important to push yourself, challenge yourself.’
Over the course of the evening, Husain fielded an array of typically incisive questions, including many from some of the school’s youngest pupils. The long queue of those patiently waiting to get their books signed after the talk was clearly testament to her tremendous impact on the girls.
Reflecting on the experience, interviewer for the evening and Deputy Head Girl, Ella, said: ‘If there’s one thing I’ll take from the interview, it’s her message to speak up and speak out.’