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Scottish MP, Jo Swinson, is Deputy Leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, Shadow Foreign Secretary and former Business Minister. Jo arrived in Parliament in 2005, full of anticipation, the youngest MP at the age of 25. She recently returned from maternity leave with her second child, making history as the first woman to bring her baby to a House of Commons debate.
Jo’s book Equal Power, published last year, ‘holds a mirror up to society, showing the stark extent of gender inequality while making the case that everyone has the power to create change’. Inspirational reading, it outlines the steps we can all take, small and large, to make our society truly gender equal.
To mark International Women’s Day on March 8th and its theme, Better the Balance, Better the World, I spoke to Jo about her own inspiration, confidence and what it’s really like being a high-flying politician whilst balancing the commitments of a young family.
Was there something in your childhood that inspired and motivated you to become a successful female leader, or do you think it is innate?
I was definitely shaped by experiences, although I also had some key personality traits; I quite enjoyed having an argument, but my parents always encouraged me to ask questions and challenge the status quo. As a teacher and public civil servant, they both had a strong sense of public service. I had the good fortune of a childhood that gave me security, good self-esteem, and a chance to get involved in debating at school.
Politics was my hobby. My grandfather always said I’d be a politician, but I thought I’d be in business. When I was a child I’d go into The Body Shop. I loved all the campaigning and signing petitions at the till. Anita Roddick was one of my early role models. I was on the school council and wrote to my local MP on a number of occasions. That was the foundation for my life in politics.
My first job (as a Marketing Executive in my early twenties for a top radio station) was fun – organising pop concerts, pub crawls and events – but I didn’t feel that I was changing the world. I was actively looking for an organisation with a sense of purpose and values that matched my own. Then came the chance to get into politics; it was an opportunity to make change happen. And one thing led to another.
Do you ever get scared?
My motto is ‘do one scary thing at a time.’ I was very nervous in my maiden speech in The House of Commons, but by tradition everyone listens. You can prepare in advance and you can even read out your speech. What really terrified me was my first Prime Minister’s Questions in December 2005. It was about six months after I was elected. I was 25 years old and Tony Blair was Prime Minister. He had been in post for eight years, since before I was old enough to vote. He was incredibly good at oratory. I remember my heart thumping in my chest and my hands sweating, just being incredibly nervous. Fortunately for me, it doesn’t show; I don’t go bright red and my voice is not affected. I was relieved to see afterwards that you couldn’t really tell and having done it once, it gave me confidence to do it again.
For those of us in leadership positions it is important to remind people that it is entirely natural and normal to feel scared in situations like this. And this isn’t just women; plenty of men feel like that too. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be human. Feeling nervous is not a good enough reason not to push yourself and stand up and speak up for what you believe.
How have you felt coming back from maternity leave second time around?
After my first son was born I was a government minister. Managing the workload whilst sleep deprived was tough. But as a minister you have a department of hundreds of civil servants. Your time is very well used and you have a lot of support. The department had a real commitment to diversity and a work culture to support that. There were a lot of men and women working flexibly and everyone was committed to making it work for me and for others in a similar position.
Returning after my second baby, people are still very supportive, but I’m in opposition so there is far less resource. This presents a different type of stress and challenge. Like many other working parents I sometimes feel I’m doing everything badly. Politics is very full on – it could be 24/7 if you allowed it. I sometimes have to make hard choices. I’m constantly aware of missing out and that balancing act and the unpredictability of events can be stressful.
Have you ever battled with ‘imposter syndrome’?
All the time! There was one time that really helped me and I write about it in my book. As a minister you have the chance to get to know your brief, and once there was a male MP asserting very confidently something that I knew for a fact was absolute rubbish. Just because people say things with conviction doesn’t mean they’re right. So now I feel a bit better able to knock the ‘imposter’ aside and remember that if I know what I’m talking about and I sound confident I’ll be fine!
What advice would you give to women who need a confidence boost to progress to the next stage in their career?
First of all, there’s the advice my dad gave me. I had it written on my wall: “Eat the elephant in chunks.” You don’t need to achieve everything all at once. Break it down into smaller parts and take just one bite at a time. If you’re scared about presenting at work, find an opportunity to talk in front of an audience in a non-work setting. If you have to speak on national TV, do some local radio first. Do things in stages. Work out small action steps and take them one by one.
The other strategy is to set little targets for yourself. I remember going to events and wishing that I had the guts to ask a question. I’d have an internal debate about whether I should or shouldn’t and wondering what I would ask and by the time I’d got the courage up the opportunity had passed. So, after a while I tried to set myself targets – maybe to ask one question at an event, or talk to one particular person at another. Then the next time it feels a little less scary.
So when faced with a challenge remember Jo and remember the elephant. One scary thing, one small bite at a time.
March 8, 2019 at 06:14AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs