If you want a really daunting job, interview an interviewer. The morning before I sit down with broadcaster Mishal Husain, I hear her putting a studio guest through their paces. Polite, measured, cool, necessarily relentless. She doesn’t lose it, she doesn’t waffle, she doesn’t aggressively labour her point like certain of her co-presenters I could mention. Scroll forward 24 hours and she’s sat across the table from me. Like most journalists and interviewers, she doesn’t much like it. “I guess I feel how people feel before they’re waiting to come on the Today programme or immediately after,” she confesses. “For all I know, most of them are thinking, ‘I wish I’d got that in,’ or ‘I wish I’d said that.’ It’s the opposite end of the experience I have most of the time.”
Husain is pleasantly candid – once you get past the armour-plated art of deflection she’s clearly learned from some of her interviewees – and endlessly self-effacing; something I can’t help thinking would be unlikely if one of her co-presenters was sat across from me instead. Whether it’s a girl thing or a her thing, I’m not sure. A little bit of both, maybe.
If I hadn’t just read her book, The Skills, which starts by announcing that, while she may look unruffled, there’s a very big difference between how she appears on the outside and how she is feeling on the inside, I’d be more than a little intimidated.
Indisputably a nice, middle-class girl, Husain is the super-smart daughter of a doctor father and producer mother who, in keeping with the time, gave up work when she married (only resuming after her children were grown). Husain was brought up in Saudi Arabia until her father sent her to school in the UK because he was worried that if she stayed in Saudi and had to wear an Abaya in public, it might fundamentally alter her belief about what she could achieve in life. She never left.
Husain is no overnight success. She worked her way up in broadcasting, starting behind the camera at Bloomberg before moving to the BBC newsroom, where she eventually transferred to front of camera, presenting business news. She was Washington correspondent during the Iraq war, but it was anchoring the London Olympics in 2012 that changed everything, proving her such a pro that she has been on the news-presenting roster ever since.
Husain found herself flung into the public eye when she was was given the job of presenting the Today programme back in 2013. At the time, she was the second woman on the team, the first-ever Muslim presenter and the first person of colour, as well as being one of the youngest. She also had three children aged between six and eight. (Not, of course, something that would have been worthy of mention for a male presenter.) Either way, that’s a lot of banners to have to carry.
We owe so much to the pioneers who break the glass ceiling and all that, but it’s an ongoing mission. It’s not a case of we’ve ticked enough boxes on our board and we’re on to something else
“There was all this ‘a second woman has joined the programme’. It certainly gave me a different consciousness about being a woman in journalism. It suddenly felt like one of the most important things about why I was doing that job and I’d never really thought about that before.
“I think it was really good for me, though. Before, I was such a perfectionist. I would agonise over my scripts and try to make them perfect – although, if you’d asked me at the time, I would have said I was just trying to make them as good as I possibly can. But, with hindsight, it was an unhealthy search for perfection. Now, when you have two hours to read your briefs and write your scripts, you can’t operate like that. It’s produced a much healthier attitude to work than I had before.”
That more relaxed attitude to things she couldn’t affect stood her in good stead when there was a seismic social shift during the course of her writing The Skills.
Firstly, the BBC pay gap report was published and, subsequently, the BBC women support group formed; Husain was at the heart of the movement from day one. This was swiftly followed by reports from other companies nationwide. Then #MeToo. Then Time’s Up. What started as a bit of a manual (“These are the things that have helped me and maybe they’ll be useful for other people”), with an underpinning of memoir, soon became something deeper – she couldn’t keep her inner journalist’s nose out. “The more I thought about women in the workplace, the more I thought you can’t really have this conversation without addressing the biases women come up against.”
The result is a fascinating look at the climate and structure within which women are expected to operate, backed up by “the skills” that have helped Husain get where she is.
Husain isn’t really the railing type, but she does feel the injustice keenly. When we talk about the tendency of self-help books – and careers manuals, in particular – to “gaslight” women into taking responsibility for changing their behaviour by pushing all of the onus on to them, ignoring the structural landscape in which we are forced to operate, she lights up: “It would be so easy to fall into the trap of saying, ‘Women shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘Women shouldn’t say that,” and I really didn’t want to go down that route. There are lots of structural things that are a massive issue for women in the workplace and they certainly can’t be ignored. That’s why I talk about things like the long-term effect of working part-time because, even when you go back to full-time, there’s a lot of data that says how women’s pay is affected in the long run.”
It’s the structural issues that bring us back to the notion of the second woman and why the second woman – and the third and the fourth – are so important.
“We owe so much to the pioneers who break the glass ceiling and all that, but it’s an ongoing mission. It’s not a case of we’ve ticked enough boxes on our board and we’re on to something else. Because the structural issues are too great. There are loads of issues with the perception of women in the workplace and unconscious bias, particularly the more senior you get, and that’s not going to change unless we think really hard about it.” She pauses, looking steely, and for a second I see the expression that flusters politicians every morning. “When people say, ‘Everything’s going to be fine for my daughter’s generation,’ I think, well, I thought it was going to be fine in the 1990s and it turned out not to be, so who’s to say that’s not going to happen again?”
Check back every morning this week for #thedailyskill from Mishal Husain. Listen to the first episode here