Joan MacNaughton on dealing with male prejudice

06 March 2020

  • Joan MacNaughton powered to high level civil serivce and board positions
  • An influential figure in energy industry Joan has overcome barriers to women
  • She now helps lead the Powerful Women campaigning group
  • Joan calls on women to take risks and push themselves to be heard

When Joan MacNaughton returned to work after her honeymoon in 1979 her boss in the civil service called her into his office with a worried look on his face.

“Now that I was married, he asked me if I would be able to carry on working in my role, which was a demanding one,” says Joan. "He’d worked during the time when the rules required women to resign when they got married. I told him I had been living with my husband for three years so I didn’t think it would make much difference!”

Fortunately, things have improved for women in the workplace since the 1970s, but barriers and prejudice, whether conscious or not, are still apparent.

After spending a large part of her career in the energy sector Joan is a founding board member of Powerful Women, a campaigning group that aims to boost the number of female board positions in the top 100 energy companies in the UK.

“It is improving, but at glacial pace,” says Joan. “We started five years ago and females made up just nine per cent of the boards of the top 100 energy companies. That is now up to 13 per cent and most of those positions are non-executives, which are easier to fill.

“A similar campaign for FTSE 100 companies reached its target of 25 per cent by 2020 ahead of time, so upped it to 33%  - and has achieved it, so the energy sector is a long way behind.

“We have brought together the top bosses of the leading companies and they are working on improving the pipeline of women getting to board positions in their companies. They then plan to galvanise their peers to do likewise.”

Joan spent 35 years working in the civil service before moving into the energy business with Alstom Power. She found an environment where she worked in the French multinational that really encouraged women to thrive.

“The person at the top sets the tone,” says Joan. “The CEO at Alstom Power was incredibly supportive of women, he really valued women’s contributions. But those are the very best leaders who can bring out the best in people, regardless of gender and he was very good at that.

“It was my first time working in industry with a global company and it was a great experience.”

It was a relief for Joan after working with the energy sector from within the UK Government; compared to other sectors, she says, it was like stepping back in time for women.

“I took the energy role in the Department of Trade and Industry in 2002,” says Joan. “I did physics as an undergraduate at Warwick and I was of only three women out of 100, so I was used to being surrounded by men. But going back to such an environment made me realise how much subliminal typecasting and prejudice there is.

“In many ways the civil service was ahead of other employers at senior level, but there was still a long way to go. I remember the steering committee on the Government’s review of energy strategy jointly chaired by MPs Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Beckett and I was the lead official. At one of the breaks the three of us went to the loo and we started chatting in there, then Patricia suddenly said ‘this is what the men do all the time’  it really struck me.”

Campaigners have worked hard not only to get gender equality onto the agenda but to change attitudes and start to unpick the barriers, both structurally and culturally, that women face.

And Joan believes after years of the prejudice and injustices leading to under-representation of women at senior level it is high time the issue has been pushed to the forefront of business and society in general.

“It is a lot better culturally in the civil service now, but in the private sector it is still very patchy,” says Joan. “When I joined one board, we heard a presentation and the Chair then turned to the two men in the room and said to them by name ‘I would be very interested to hear your views’ and didn’t mention my name. Even the other two men looked aghast.”

Joan says women have to push themselves harder to be heard and should not be afraid to take risks to move up the career ladder.

“When sitting on panels I usually have to be quite pushy to get equal air time with the men,” says Joan. “Never go to a meeting without saying one thing, it has to be worth listening to, but make sure you get a chance to speak, even if you are only developing a point somebody else has made.

“When you have got something to add and you think you are not getting a hearing then push and use your body language to interrupt. I will start to talk knowing I won’t get the floor sometimes, but you have to persist three or four times and then they will give in. Have confidence in your contribution. But of course don’t just try to be the dominant speaker around the table!

“Women looking to move up in their career need to get themselves a mentor - that is really important. Several people have approached me and I try to help where I can. You also need to have a career plan, which will change, but you always need to be thinking about where you want to end up and what does my next career step need to be?

"Do I need a different skill or area of expertise to add to my CV? And go for jobs even if you don’t perfectly fit the bill – it shows you’re keen and the feedback will help in your planning.

“And of course you need to develop your IT skills  that is so important now in every sector.”

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