Rachel Johnson: Being a woman in a man’s world

Rachel Johnson is a newspaper columnist, television pundit and novelist. Here she reveals some lessons she’s learnt along the way

People 24 Jun 2018

Rachel Johnson

The other day I presented an award at a black-tie dinner to honour Asian Women of Achievement. A parade of glorious, glamorous, inspiring women processed on stage at the lavishly carpeted and much-chandeliered Park Lane Hilton in fullest fig, from traditional bejewelled embellished saris to daring gold lamé minidresses, all women who had notched up successes even more stunning than their outfits. Cancer surgeons, charity chiefs, business bosses, captains of industry and finance, Muslim female MPs.

Each, almost without exception, said the same two things as they accepted an award for which, in a sense, they had been working for their whole lives. They had ‘imposter syndrome,’ they admitted. They felt humble. The others on the shortlist were just as deserving. If not more.

As the evening wore on – and my poor bum, in borrowed clinging red sari, was on that seat for four hours straight – I felt huge admiration for these women, who had overcome gender gaps, racism and sexism to be on that podium that evening. As I watched and listened, some spoke of individual struggles and battles with health or against hostile regimes or The Man or prejudice.

I realised I could never claim any sort of similar “kampf” for myself. I feel I’ve lucked in on so many levels: I was paid to go to University, paid to do the only thing I can do (string sentences together) and I’ve had peak everything in my career: from publishing and newspapers to property. I’ve had peak Europe and Alpine sports (given the patchy snowfall of many recent seasons, I’ve even had peak peaks).

So, I wondered why such eminently deserving, hardworking women still continued to be so slow and hesitant to claim credit for their own successes. And chose to be demure instead.

“The #metoo movement has placed a full stop on the 2,000-year sentence of assumed male supremacy. Time’s Up.”

And beyond that, why women in general allow – even enable – men not just to “mansplain” but to “hepeat” (ie repeat women’s ideas back to them as if they had them). Why women self-deprecate. It’s almost as if women have been handed a terrible script that they can’t unfollow. It’s still the convention for women only to accept a prize or an award or a pay rise or a promotion with a grimace, as if it’s a terrible accident (and I continue to believe that it was a mistake that I got into Oxford, in case you’re wondering).

I think there are probably sound evolutionary reasons for women to act modest and humble (remember the hoo-ha over the titling of the Little Miss v Mr Men Roger Hargreaves books?). They’re to do with massaging the fragile male ego on the one hand, and attracting a powerful male hunter-gatherer mate on the other. But still, in my lifetime the boot has shifted somewhat to the other foot. The #metoo movement has placed a full stop on the 2,000-year sentence of assumed male supremacy. Time’s Up.

Given that background, here are my dos and don’ts after 30 years of being a woman in a man’s world, which is now becoming at last more feminised.

1 -Don’t worry about your appearance so much. Trust me on this – you look fantastic. Right now you look better than you will ever look again. I look back at photos taken only about 18 months ago and groan out loud – you’re much hotter and much less fat than you think you are.

2 -Don’t ever feel shy or unworthy when asking for more money if you are underpaid and you feel you deserve more. If you don’t, you are merely subsidising the pay rises of lesser men who are far worse than you at their jobs and perpetuating the gender pay gap. Remember when you ask for more money from your boss he or she is not spending their own children’s inheritance. That’s just what they want you to feel like. Guilty as hell.

3 -Never, ever worry or feel shame about being sacked. It’s a badge of honour, a scar on your back. It’s very rarely personal – though it feels like you’re being dumped by your company – it’s almost always business, and it always leads to something better… eventually.

4 – Don’t worry about when to have children, just have as many as you can. Your house and budget may be limited but love is infinite.

5 – Spend as much time with your parents as you can so when they die you don’t regret time not spent with them.

6 – Read to your children. Nobody lay on their deathbed regretting the time they read Goodnight Moon for the 5,698th time.

7 – Take lots of holidays and travel. Accumulating experiences is more fun and important than buying stuff from the Conran Shop.

8 – The biggest decision you make in your life is who to marry or partner up with. You will be running an SME together till death do you part, so choose wisely.

9 – Don’t be a talker, be a listener. Be on receive more than transmit.

10 – Choose happiness.

I should end by saying I haven’t managed all of the above, and definitely not 1 (am terribly vain and frightened of being fat and old), and 2 (I haven’t asked for a pay rise for six years, silly me), and I definitely can’t claim 9 (I never shut up), but I think the rest hold good.

Anyway, thanks for reading this. I feel truly humbled.

 Rachel Johnson is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday, a panellist on The Pledge on Sky News, a TV pundit and author of several fiction and non-fiction books, including Notting Hell and A Diary of The Lady, My first Year and a Half