The former security minister talks about the difficulties of having been a woman in the ultra-macho defense world – but says things are now changing. “Service should be colour-blind, and gender-blind,” she says.
Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones always chooses her words with care. It is a trait of hers, and one that became a hallmark in a career that has taken her to the highest levels of the diplomatic service, overseeing MI5 and MI6, and as a security minister in government.
Looking back on this time in the highest echelons of Whitehall, she can speak a little more bluntly than perhaps she used to about the hurdles she faced as a woman making her way in what was – and to a certain extent remains – a man’s world.
“We were second-class citizens, really,” she says. “There were quite a lot of things that women were considered unsuitable for.”
Neville-Jones is referring specifically to her early days in the Foreign Office and the rules, both institutional and otherwise, that were designed to make life difficult for women seeking a career as a diplomat. She can laugh about them now, but at the time … “There was the bar on marriage. That lasted until the mid-1970s. The situation was that you had to resign if you got engaged, if you were a woman that is.”
She recalls that official uniforms, or rather the lack of them, was another divisive issue.
“Women diplomats didn’t have them. This was said to raise serious problems in certain countries with monarchies because it was thought that women couldn’t possibly go to formal ceremonies without one. The men had them, though they were not often worn, but not the women.
“There was some talk about creating an official evening dress with oak leaves. That came to nothing, luckily. It was a sign of the times, part of a forgotten world. Some heads of ministry wouldn’t even have women on their staff.”
That era has passed, though Neville-Jones may be reliving some of these moments this week, when she appears as one of the main speakers at a conference starting tomorrow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.
The two-day event is the first of its kind to bring together women from across the world who have forged careers in defense and security; sharing the platform will be an admiral from the US Navy, a brigadier from the Israeli Defense Force, and the secretary general of the Spanish Intelligence Agency.
In all, more than 30 women will discuss the jobs they do, the difficulties they have had to overcome, and offer advice to others embarking on similar journeys. Neville-Jones may have come further than any of them during her 50-year career.
A grammar-school girl from Leeds, she read history at Oxford University before deciding to test the thickness of the glass ceiling within the civil service.
It was 1961, and it had been impenetrable. “There were two women in my year out of a class of 20, but in other years there were none at all. So we were in a minority, there were very few of us around.”
For obvious reasons, it seems. The decade may have been swinging for some women, but the winds of change hadn’t blown very far into Whitehall when Neville-Jones started. Was there sexism in the service at the time?
“I do think that, yes. I think that climbing the tree was harder. Women were examined and criticised for things that men were not criticised for. The women certainly believed that to make average progress, they had to be rather better than average.
“I think some women believed that they would not be able to overcome this. They underrated their potential, and if you do that, then the system will underrate you too.”
Some decisions appear to grate even now. “I had been in Singapore for a period and wanted to know if I could learn Chinese. I got a very short note saying ‘no’. I was convinced this was because I was a woman. I think they thought there was no point putting in that investment, particularly with languages. The attitude was, ‘We are not going to train women who are going to leave.’ And they would never think of putting a woman in the Middle East.”
A thick skin has been one of the secrets of her longevity, and it is something she believes all women have to develop if they are to challenge the status quo.
“I am sure that there were [incidents of sexism]. But I am not one to dwell on difficulties or be thrown by slights. I can recall swallowing hard sometimes. One thing I do remember is the way some men would stand in front of you, and be talking to each other about you, as if you weren’t there.”
The Equal Opportunities Act in 1976, she says, “changed the game”, and she believes she was fortunate with the jobs she was appointed to. She also excelled in them.
They included a senior post at the British embassy in Washington, and then a move to Brussels where she was Chef de Cabinet to the Budget Commissioner, Christopher Tugendhat.
This was obviously a nightmare of a job; it was during the period when Mrs Thatcher was handbagging other European leaders, thumping tables and demanding her money back. Neville-Jones was caught in the middle – for five long years. “That was quite hard to navigate,” she says. “We were constantly under pressure.”
Understatement may be her preferred way of describing events, but there are certain issues about which she is more robust. One is that she never used gender as a weapon to get her own way, nor did she turn alpha male to survive.
“I was certainly never conscious of ‘playing the woman’. I would not have approved of that. It is not a winning tactic. I operated in the world as I found it, and it was a man’s world.”
That world increasingly included working with the armed forces, and then the intelligence services – she was chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 1993 and 1994.
Dame Stella Rimington was head of MI5 at the time, the first woman to head the security service, and the two got on well.
And she didn’t find the generals as difficult as she might. “The thing about the military,” she says, “is that they are always very courteous.”
Neville-Jones has remained friends with Rimington, though they never had a chance to share their experiences properly back then.
She also knows Eliza Manningham–Buller, who became the second woman to run MI5. All three were pioneers in their own way, but Neville-Jones accepts that their success has, perhaps, masked the difficulties other women have had underneath them.
She believes the latest generation of women entering Whitehall are “pretty level pegging” with the men, but in the intermediate generation some women are struggling to push through. “It will happen. The process is under way but because of the nature of these things, it will not change overnight.”
Women, she says, have to learn some of the tricks that have given men such an advantage. “We are not the greatest networkers, and particular networks begin at school. Women tend to break the network of friends they make, but it is a habit that men have learned. It is an approach to life that involves planning almost without thinking about it. And men sustain this. I came from a northern grammar school. I had a good education, but I didn’t have a good network.”
Careers where there are formal systems of assessment also help women, she believes. That is why, for all the difficulties she encountered, Neville-Jones says the public sector is now a better bet than the private sector for the ambitious.
“When I first left university, I thought about going into the private sector. But I discovered when I went to interview that I could only have a career in the back office, or doing HR. The attitude was, “My dear lady, you cannot possibly think about going on the board.”
“I believe women profit from merit and performance assessments which exist in the public sector. But this culture is much less strong in the commercial world. I think there is a huge waste of talent in the private sector.”
Inevitably, there have been sacrifices along the way. Neville-Jones doesn’t speak with rancour or bitterness about any of her experiences, but there is, I sense, just a hint of regret when she talks about her private life.
She says she never made a conscious decision not to marry, it just happened that way. She admits there were circumstances in which she would have liked to have someone alongside her, if only to have helped out at the merry-go-round of drinks and dinner parties she hosted on her own.
“Some people say that I didn’t make it easy on myself. There are prices one pays, but I was not going to give up something that I enjoyed doing. I suppose that official entertaining was harder without a partner to shoulder the burden. As a man, it would have been easier for me to get married. But I had demanding jobs. I undoubtedly made it difficult for myself.”
She adds: “And I hope I have never held back other women. I hope I have not been guilty of that because I have always tried to protect them. I was aware of their situations. I know some women did manage to pull off the very difficult trick of having a successful career and a family. It can be done.”
Neville-Jones doesn’t like to generalize, but she believes women have innate skills that make them good at the kind of intelligence jobs she has done well in. “I do think that women are good at detail. The average woman is better than the average man in this respect, and detail is important in security – it is primordial.
“You cannot do it properly unless you are capable of recognising everything that is relevant. You have to get right down in there. “Women are better at getting in among the weeds, maybe partly because women accept that weeds are part of life. Men try to get away from them.”
And her advice to women starting out? Learn to deal with the mess, work hard, and come up with the occasional big idea. “Do what you want to do. Follow your instincts. Even if you have difficulties, don’t accept second best. Ever.”
‘I denied my female traits’: life in the US Navy in the 1970s
Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger hesitates before telling a story about her rise through the US Navy. In 1977, she was one of the first women selected for sea duty. This involved joining the crew of the USS Yosemite for deployment in the Mediterranean. She had prepared for the reaction of the other sailors, but not of their families, some of whom took a dim view of the women’s presence on board.
That unhappiness became all too clear when the crew returned to port months later to see banners: “Welcome Home Yosemite – Men.”
Pottenger has been pushing back the boundaries ever since, and is now one of the US Navy’s senior officers, who has served in Iraq and won the distinguished service medal.
Pottenger says the US Navy has come a long way since the days when women were only assigned to ships “that were welded to port or in decay”.
She admits that during most of her early career, she “was careful to … deny my female traits“. “This was the way to prosper in a male-dominated organisation. You don’t want to stand out, you don’t want to be someone who brings tension to the mission. You want to adapt, to fit in smoothly.”
Now, she feels she can be more herself. “Being a woman is part of who you are. I might have denied that early on, but now I have the confidence not to care whether this is an issue.”
Pottenger now mentors other women. “It is really important for women to look up and see other women being successful. When I was in that position, all I wanted to do was blend in and be one of the guys.”
Pauline Neville-Jones: ‘I hope I have never held back other women’ Photograph: Andrew Parsons/ZUMAPRESS.com