I’m really pleased to introduce you to Bridget Harris. Bridget has recently been in the eye of a storm; she was one of the brave band of women who spoke out about the sexual harassment of women in the UK parliament. Fact enough for her to earn my admiration, but there is much more to her than that as we will see.
Bridget was an advisor to Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, and has been at the sharp end of political life in the UK for some time. She is passionate about democracy in politics and encouraging more diversity into the political arena. To that end she is on the board of *Uprising, an organisation to encourage more youth participation in community life. She is also the CEO of a technology start up, SoftlySoftware.com which builds modern scheduling tools for the web.
Jane: Bridget, thanks so much for giving up your time today, I really appreciate it. I’ve outlined above a few of your current roles but I’m sure I’ve missed something. How do you describe yourself?
Bridget: Hi Jane, thanks very much for inviting me, I’m very flattered!
I’m sure my friends would say I’ve got an opinion on everything and very driven to do the things I care about. I am a pretty strategic person – I like knowing what the big picture is and the end goal.
What was your first paid job? Do you remember how much you were paid? Did you learn anything from those first jobs which you’ve gone on to use in later life?
Depends how you define it, my first job making money as a teenager (after paper rounds and babysitting) was actually as a busker on the London underground, playing folk tunes on my fiddle. But my first employed job was for the convenience store, Circle K. I was paid £2.49 an hour as a shop assistant.
You studied ancient history, classics and archaeology at university. It seems a big step from there to technology which is one of your passions today? Where did that spring from?
The short answer is because my husband is a software developer and we’ve been working on tech projects together for years. Our business started to really take off a couple of years ago and so I decided to switch what I was doing to run the business full time.
I love history and understanding why things work the way they do. At university I specialised in ancient history and Athenian democracy, and later did an MSc where I focussed on democratic theory. I worked in politics for a long time because I wanted to understand how the political model works as a way distributing and sharing power.
Technology is a different way to do that- its interesting because you can give huge numbers of people access to information and knowledge which gives them power to do things in the way traditional models (like Westminster) don’t.
How do you think we could encourage more women into tech roles?
Really good question! I think it starts in schools – we have to re-double efforts to understand why girls in coeducational schools tend to do
fewer subjects in maths and science. I’m very proud of my sister who has a PhD in Physics – but she went to an all girls school.
I think if more girls were encouraged to do maths and computer science at A Level we could encourage them to go onto university or learn a programming language. But the culture has unfortunately been influenced by a parallel ‘entrepreneurial fever’ in the tech world which can be pretty juvenile and off-putting for people who aren’t attracted to that scene.
What first sparked your interest in politics? You’ve had some high profile roles across lots of different areas, eg Deputy Advisor to First minister of Wales? How did you get your first break into political work?
I wrote to and chased my local MP asking for any intern / work experience and was lucky enough to be on the top of the pile one day when his head of office needed to find someone. I worked unpaid for about 3 months in his office until I was offered a small salary.
I was very lucky from then on to be invited to apply for different roles working for the Liberal Democrats in Westminster, Wales and Local Government. I’ve also worked quite a bit in cross-party roles particularly around political leadership in Local Government.
Do you think we need quotas for women in on short lists? The number of women in parliament is still lamentably low and it’s pretty easy to see why. I don’t see any of the main parties doing anything really useful to encourage more women in (remembering Blair’s Babes and that awful smugness, and Cameron’s ‘calm down dear’). Is there one thing we could do with the UK parliament which would encourage more women into politics?
I don’t believe all-women shortlists would make a huge difference, but that’s largely because I have no faith in the ‘local party selection’ model anyway. My view is actually elected representatives only serve a very limited purpose, and we have too high an expectation on what we want them to do.
If we want more women in politics we need to develop more models around random selection and changing what jobs we want people to do (for example make things more local). I think Westminster is a failed model to deliver change or effective governance, and worrying about shortlists is too much like tinkering around the edges.
May we talk generally about harassment issues in politics although I know you can’t say too much about what happened. You were extraordinarily brave to do what you did; it’s such a difficult thing to do which is why so much goes unreported. There is currently a sea change in some quarters in relation to abuse of women with the police and Crown prosecution service pursuing historical cases. I’m pleased to see it as it clearly gives a very powerful message to everyone that such behaviour is unacceptable. When you spoke up first what reaction or response was you expecting, or hoping for?
Thank you – I don’t feel particularly brave, more compelled to speak about this because it is the right thing to do.
I hope, as you say, there is going to be a culture change so young people understand much better what the limits and signals are about social interaction in the workplace. The fundamental point is when you are in a position of power over someone you don’t take advantage of that.
What advice would you give to a woman who finds herself in a similar situation?
The first priority has to be personal safety, of course. I think the ‘public slapping’ brigade miss the point when they think any woman, who is potentially already vulnerable, should make it worse by physically assaulting someone. And in any case its advice that looks even more absurd if it was an older female boss making an advance on a young male worker – would you say to the man to having a swipe at his boss? I don’t think so.
But once you know you are not in any physical danger, I think you need to then consider carefully who you need to speak to to get advice about reporting it – what your company’s procedures are, what potential outcomes there could be. It depends on what’s happened. You need to know how much power this person has over your career, and crucially, your ability to report it. But this is only half the story – organisations themselves need to make sure it is their responsibility to treat harassment complaints seriously, and not inadvertently suppress them through weak procedures.
Who has the most influence on your career to date?
My husband Keith – we have worked together for years – me on his tech projects, him on my political projects. Keith’s the most likely to tell me to ‘go for it’ for whatever crazy plan I’ve got next – you need someone like that!
Which person in the public eye do you most admire and why?
Nelson Mandela- for staying true to his values and leadership he gave Africa.
What is the best piece of advice/wisdom/ you’ve been given?
Everything is washable.
What advice would you give to any woman interested in a political career?
You need to know why you want to go into politics. Many people end up there because they were asked, flattered or cajoled into it. Find the role that suits you – what it is that you love and want to do (which isn’t necessarily being a candidate). Understand how your network works – how important it is to have mentors, allies, supporters who understand where you’re coming from.
Don’t waste time hoping someone will notice you – you have to make the opportunities happen yourself. Above all, a career in politics has to make sense to you – don’t expect thanks from anyone else for the sacrifices you will be making – you need to do it on your terms, no-one else’s.
Bridget, thanks so much for taking the time out to talk with us. I wish you well in this new phase of your life; your courage in speaking about sexual harassment will have helped and inspired many women to refuse to be a victim of it any longer.
*UpRising. “UpRising is a UK-wide youth leadership development organisation with a mission is to open pathways to power and opportunities for a diverse range of talented young people. We equip them with the knowledge, networks, skills, and confidence to reach their potential and transform their communities for the better.”
You can read more about Bridget on her website Bridget Harris.org If you’ve enjoyed this you might also like to read my interviews with the following women in politics: Siobhan Benita, Jackie Ballard or Nathalie Bennett,
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Posted on April 28th, 2014 by Jane