There’s a school of thought that says those of us who are longer in the tooth don’t understand sexism or racism (especially if we are male and white British) and we may even have condoned such practices in the past – knowingly or otherwise.
In my case, nothing could be further from the truth and I have seen sexism and racism across the years and made every effort to nip them in the bud.
Nowhere was it more obvious than in 1984 – yes, 34 years ago, ironically the first Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) year – when I was Assistant Editor then Editor and Managing Editor of such fantastic magazines as Production Engineer, Numerical Engineering and Computerised Manufacturing.
To quote a little from my LinkedIn profile, Production Engineer was the official journal of the Institution of Production Engineers (IProdE). Its reputation in the sector had been established by the editor John Dunn who took me on as Assistant Editor. When John left for The Engineer I took over, making me the UK’s (possibly the world’s) youngest ever editor of a trade and technical magazine.
I also took over as Editor of Numerical Engineering, the journal of the Numerical Engineering Society and, along with the irrepressible David Houchin and later the team I appointed – Anne Powell and Maureen Brown (the first ever black woman on an engineering magazine) – I helped to turn this little society journal into a well respected and well read commercial magazine.
I made Anne Editor of NE (almost certainly the world’s first ever female Editor of an engineering magazine) when I took over the helm at Computerised Manufacturing. This was the UK’s first engineering publication to focus exclusively on the use of computing and IT in the manufacturing sector. Many followed in its wake. I’m proud of the fact that I broke the mould by creating the first all-female editorial team (other than myself) in the intensely male world of engineering publications. Together we produced this high quality and ground-breaking magazine from scratch while causing serious irritation to sexist and racist PR agency heads!
I remember it very well – I had attended a press do and the agency boss came over to me and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. I asked him what he meant and he said: “Not only did you send a woman to my press do last week but you sent a black woman!! My clients are really not impressed and they are regular advertisers in your magazine.” When I returned to the office I obviously told Maureen what had been said and offered her a choice – we could either boycott every press event that agency organised or we could stick it to them and she would attend every do (but stop should she ever feel uncomfortable). She chose to stick it to them and it gave me immense pleasure to pass every subsequent invitation from that agency on to Maureen. We didn’t really expect their attitudes to change but we didn’t want to give in to them either and on many occasions the agency actually expressed delight at what great pieces Maureen had written about their clients.
I’m not making any grand claim that I single-handedly paved the way for female journalists everywhere – my previous two editors had been women on major construction and medical publications – but we were definitely the first to challenge the status quo in the engineering world and it is now, of course, commonplace for women to be editors of trade and technical magazines. It is even more commonplace for women to be PR agency heads, which was another glass ceiling back in the ‘80s.
As I said earlier, the sexism and racism then was extremely blatant and so in a way it was easier to tackle but it is the subtle bigotry that is harder to perceive, challenge and – ultimately – eradicate. That these are still issues 34 years on is probably the most distressing thought of all.