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International Women’s Day Interview with Rachel McDonald

Beth Tolson

Posted by Beth Tolson

08 March 2022

Rachel McDonald is our Board Advisor at Reddico, having spent 20+ years in the media world, running one of the biggest agencies outside of London and was recently appointed Managing Director of Fearless Adventures, which invests in entrepreneurs and supports their growth. With the theme of this year's International Women's Day being #BreakTheBias, Beth Tolson talked to Rachel about boundaries, bias, and why companies need to listen to and support their team members.

Beth Tolson: The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. Have you encountered any bias during your career?

Rachel McDonald: I think it’s probably undoubted that I’ve encountered bias. I think, from the very beginning, there were always networks that men had that were impossible to break into. But I don’t think people were aware of unconscious bias – I started my career in London in 1997 and I don’t think anyone was aware of that terminology. I don’t think anyone was consciously creating bias, but it exists.

I suppose because of the sector I’m in, there were always some female leaders to look up to. Not as many as men, and the people in senior positions did tend to be men, but there were always women to aspire to. I think some tech roles really struggle, because you’re not seeing anyone above you who you can aspire to.

But [there was] definitely bias there, and I think the main thing is that network. It’s that time you spend, and that’s not just internally in an organisation. That’s externally. A lot of my clients would be men, marketing managers or marketing directors would be men, and there’d be golf days, there’d be trips to the football. Obviously, you could choose to play golf, but that wasn’t the route that I chose.

So I think there was lots of bias, and did I overcome that? I’m not sure I did, I just kept being me and doing what I was doing, and hoping for the best. I’ve been quite honest about this in other chats I’ve had with people about gender diversity. I didn’t really recognise the issue, and I don’t think I was a great supporter of women until later in my career, because it wasn’t something that was talked about.

Even now, I’m often the only woman in a room, and that doesn’t tend to bother me, but then it’s quite nice when there is another woman in the room. It’s quite empowering and inspiring when there’s someone else. And that’s when I notice it and it’s like, oh, I’ve not had that for a while.

BT: Have you ever addressed bias with a colleague? Do you have any examples of how to do it successfully without being perceived as confrontational?

RM: There’s definitely [been] incidents. I’m not saying there haven’t been comments made, comments that are probably very sexist about female colleagues. I guess if they were extreme, even in my youth I would have called it out and said, I don’t think that’s particularly fair. I probably would have done it in a more aggressive way and said something about them.

Whereas later on, I had a male colleague who I knew really cared about diversity and was actually a real champion of women, but I felt in meetings was often not hearing what women were saying. With this particular colleague, I checked in with another couple of female colleagues and said, are you feeling this? When I heard they were, I thought, right, I’m not being oversensitive, I’m not overthinking it. It’s the right time, right place approach.

And I didn’t think that was the time to be confrontational. So on that one, I thought, how would I want to hear that news? Because it’s not very nice news to hear. I knew it was going to be upsetting. How I’d want to hear that news is in a room, completely non-confrontational, not calling people out. I guess it’s about calling it out in the right way, isn’t it.

If it’s overtly aggressive sexism then you’ve got to stand up.

BT: It is interesting, isn’t it, because sometimes you second-guess yourself, and you think, oh, you know, is it just me? And then if you speak to others, you realise actually, we’re going through the same thing. It does make you feel a bit better, but also not better because it’s happening.

RM: Yeah, I think the thing I try to also remember is it’s not the male colleagues we’re working with today who’ve created this situation. They can feel quite uncomfortable. I know in the past when I’ve done talks for International Women’s Day, I’ve almost had more reactions from men. A lot of them talk to me about how impassioned they are about their wives and their daughters and how they want the world to change. This is a systemic problem. They want to be able to do the right thing and be an ally. You’ve got to get them on board in the right way.

BT: That makes sense. Last year we did an interview with women in the company, and I remember Nick [Redding, director] reading it and commenting that he had no idea we were going through this [experiencing sexism to the degree we do, especially at the start of our working lives], and how could he help.

What advice would you give to young women who are just starting their careers?

RM: I’ve been interviewing people for over 20 years, and I feel like young people are so much more articulate these days, almost more empowered. I think there’s more awareness around people feeling they can speak out, so I think they’re 10 times more confident and able than I was 25 years ago. So I don’t know if they’d need advice.

But the advice I’d give my younger self is – don’t get me wrong, I was super ambitious and I worked really hard to get people to notice me, and I wanted people to know that I cared – but I sort of let my career happen to me. And I think squiggly careers, I know it’s a bit of a cheesy word, but they’re so much more possible these days. I just looked at my boss and thought, I want his or her job, I want to be a manager, and then I want to be an account director. I looked quite linear and took it quite straightforwardly.

I’m not saying I wasn’t ambitious, I’m just saying that I don’t know if I thought about it enough. I was passive about the direction. Which are the bits I love? Which are the bits I’m great at? Do I want to get better at that and focus over here? I don’t think I did much self-analysis, I just went along for the ride, happy to be in a business I loved. So that’d be it: really thinking about it. Because five years would go and I’d still be there.

So it’s that stepping back, taking a view, and not being afraid to do that. I think young people are better at that. There’s real hope there, and I see young people having really different careers these days. I see CVs where people have done three different jobs and it doesn’t put me off, it just intrigues me. So that’d be my advice.

BT: That’s really interesting how it’s changed. What does having more women in leadership mean to you?

RM: Just normalising it. I suppose what it means is that it just gives everyone more visibility on what can be achieved. I always did have a few strong role models in leadership roles, which helped me. I guess it means that I hope we’re on the right path to solving this issue, and inspires younger women to commit to careers long-term, and not see them as short-term until something else comes along. Being able to see that there is longevity in a career.

BT: Is that what you think workplaces could do to help women who are thinking of becoming a leader?

RM: I think the responsibility that companies have is to look at the problem.

It’s quite easy to say, we haven’t got a problem, we interview loads of people, but what is it that everyone is feeling inside your organisation? You’ve got to be responsible for your culture.

Usually there are three or four things women tend to struggle with slightly more than men, but men struggle too so they should be doing it for everybody.

It’s usually self-confidence, that ability to step outside of comfort zones. It’s that age-old thing where a man will apply for a job if he can do 60% of it and a woman will only apply if she can do 100%. Making sure that women, and men, have access to support in those areas that hold people back. For me, they tend to be opportunities for people to be mentored, opportunities to be involved in projects outside of their day-to-day roles with leadership teams.

And listening. You just said, Nick listened to what we said, and heard things he didn’t know. No one is going to be annoyed with someone for not knowing something, but not asking is probably slightly old-fashioned. So let’s say, everyone should ask lots of questions and properly listen, and recognise that lots of women and men are held back when it has nothing to do with ability or desire, but potentially some other areas that can be worked on with support.

BT: That makes sense. And that echoes something that I’ve noticed more recently as I’ve climbed the ranks, is that confidence. And you’re right, it’s not just women, it’s men as well. It’s a big barrier. 

What obstacles have you faced and overcome to succeed in a male-dominated environment? You mentioned that quite often you’re the only woman in the room.

RM: I think what I did was be myself. And I’m probably quite lucky that I am naturally fairly confident. But I also did a lot of acting when I was younger, so I’m fairly good at faking it as well. And I think faking it gives you huge amounts of confidence.

The first two or three months in any role or any time I’ve been promoted, I haven’t really enjoyed because there have been things that felt uncomfortable, or things that I’ve had to do that never done before, but I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know what I was doing.

So I think what I have been able to do is have self-belief, really, and it shakes all the time. Even getting into new roles, coming into working with Reddico, it’s the first time I’ve done the board advisor role, you know.

There are loads of points in your career where you’ve just got to go, I’m gonna do my best, I’m gonna believe in myself, I’m gonna go for it.

But I think it’s really important to have that self-belief and to spend a lot of time working on it.

I had a career coach last year to help me work out where to go next after having a really long career in one company. And I tell everyone that. Because I think some people think oh, Rachel doesn’t need a career coach because she’s always got promoted every couple of years, so it’s really important to share that everybody needs that at certain times.

I think maybe one thing that might be an interesting anecdote is I think I was feeling a bit shaky when I was in my first pregnancy – what would I come back to? What would happen? I was terrified about leaving my main account; it was like my baby, that account. I don’t think I was very nice to the guy who came in to cover my maternity leave, and I have said sorry since. But I was out for lunch with a colleague of mine, who was a good friend of mine as well, and I said, what if I’m just not there, and my brain’s not as fast, everyone’s moved on while I’ve been away; I was pregnant so my hormones were raging. And he said to me, I know that they’d rather have 50% of you than 100% of someone who’s not as talented as you. It was a bit of a woah [moment]. It’s back to believing in yourself. It doesn’t mean it [self belief] doesn’t wobble, it still wobbles, but I was helped along.

It’s recognition of your achievements as well. It’s dead easy to think, well, what have I done, but we’ve all been to school, sat some exams or got some qualifications, or done something, whatever your route in, it’s remembering how impressive they are. I used to go back and read an email from a client that said, that was a brilliant session, I loved it, you’ve moved us on – those things, they’re really important. That really powers my self belief.

BT: What have been the most significant changes that you'd note in terms of workplace attitudes and behaviours since you started your career?

RM: The word I was thinking of was ‘presenteeism’, people just being there. I’m not sure that’s the definition when you Google it, but that’s what I think of it as. I think the shift from that to flexible working is huge. I can’t even imagine a world 25 years ago where people worked from home. Maybe people would occasionally have a day off because their boiler was broken, and people would be like, they’re not doing anything! I can’t even describe that shift of how in my first job, how important it was to never leave the office until your boss was leaving, and then you could say, is there anything I can do for you? I didn’t mind because I loved it, but it wasn’t right [laughs]. I think that shift is huge.

Companies, especially in our industry, used to have the attitude of ‘you’re very lucky to have a job’, and now it’s ‘we’re so lucky to have you work for us.’

Is it driven by the fact that in our sector people struggle with [finding] talent? There’s a massive talent shortage, especially in digital. I do loads of work in the north about how we can power up the digital agenda, because we can’t recruit. Ultimately, in our world, as you know, it’s people. It’s the brilliance, talent, experience and innovative thinking.

One other shift, we’re definitely not there yet, but certainly when I went into advertising, it was the lowest paid career of any of the ones my friends at uni went into, and it was that way because it was [staffed by] people whose parents could fund them living in London or Manchester or wherever. It was driven by people with a background in money. Social mobility is one of the things that we worked hard on and I’m not saying we’ve cracked it, but apprenticeships are really helping in that area, different ways of entering into the industry are so important.

A move towards social mobility, in the right direction, is the thing I really want to be next and that I think we should push forward on.

BT: That was going to be my next question! It’s really interesting that you say that [about presenteeism and flexible working], because even when I left university [and started working], if we even started shutting our computers down before 6pm, we would get told off. Whereas now, I think the pandemic has really given people a jolt with flexibility, because no one had a choice [if they worked a desk job]. They’ve realised that it can be done and it can work.

RM: I’ve always wanted people to care. I don’t mind if you’re not in till half nine, as long as when we all need to pull together, we all work on it.

It’s never about the hours you’re at your desk, it’s about caring enough to do it.

I’m not sure we’ve cracked it yet, it’s weird, I think we’re struggling to build that culture, in that home working environment. So you’ve got to find that balance as well.

BT: We’ve found that hard. We used to have breakout rooms in our [weekly] all-agency meeting, then they stopped for a little while, and we brought them back because it’s just so much easier for everyone to get to know each other and have a conversation. I don’t work with everybody – no one does – and it’s a nice chance to talk to people you wouldn’t normally interact with on a day-to-day basis. I think that’s helping.

How do you balance your personal goals with your career goals? Do you have any advice on how to do this?

RM: I’m really lucky that my career goals sort of align with my personal goals. My career was really important to me and remains really important to me – it’s one of my important personal goals.

If the question relates to how do you make time for non-work goals, then I think it’s fair to say there were years in my career where work was everything. I worked long hours and worked really hard and jumped on every pitch and put my hand up for every bit of extra work. But in the year I was getting married, I was like, you know what, I need to go and taste cakes, and at lunchtimes, I wasn’t working through, I was ordering bridesmaid dresses and looking at different shoes.

Life is a bit about ebbs and flows, isn’t it. I can look back now and see some ebbs and flows. My career is important to me, my husband always understood that, and we went into having children together knowing that.

I guess the other thing I probably have is soft lines and hard lines. I like to pick up [the children from school] a couple of times a week, if I can, I drop off as well. That for me is a soft line – if some weeks it’s two times and some weeks it’s four times, I can live with that. Whereas I’ll have a hard line - it’s my youngest son’s last harvest festival in October, and there’s just no way [I’ll miss it], as that’ll be my last child in junior school. You don’t get them in senior school, so there won’t be anything going in my diary that day.

That comes back to confidence as well, having hard lines, and that’s what I ask other women to do. I think sometimes people think I talk a lot about my family, but I’m sort of doing it on purpose. I’m the boss of 700, 800 people, and I’m going, oh, the school’s calling, I’m taking it, he’s not very well, I’m going to ring my husband, he’s not around, I’m going to have to go. I feel a sense of responsibility and I do over talk about it, because I want everyone to know it’s absolutely okay.

In the moment, maybe everyone’s thinking that it's annoying Rachel has to leave, but in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t. I’ve found modelling that behaviour is important and I’ve had a lot of feedback that other people have found that quite empowering.

One of the things I did that changed the dial the most was I had a man in my team who went [down to working] four days a week, and then I employed another guy on four days, as his wife was doing [a qualification] beyond a masters, a really high-level course, and he wanted to support her. Those two men doing that had an impact on everybody.

Every opportunity to talk about success for people who aren’t doing the usual 9-to-5 presenteeism is really important.

BT: I completely agree. It comes back to flexibility as well, I think – you modelling behaviour and letting people know it’s okay, but also people knowing that it’s okay to be flexible with their time. 

The next question is linked to this: the term ‘having it all’ often gets used when discussing how women balance their professional lives and parenthood. How do you feel about those words?

RM: Having it all is so individual. I know stay-at-home mums who say they’ve got it all, I know women without children who say they’ve got it all. I’m not sure if any of my male friends have said that to me, I’ve probably never asked! I’m sure lots of them think they have.

So I’m not sure what it means. The words terrify me, because I think they are linked to Instagram lives that look perfect, and I don’t think that’s real. What we want people to know is that it’s okay to want lots of things. Everyone’s route to getting there is going to be really different. If having it all means having a family and having a good career, I know you can do that, because I do it.

But I’m not sure that is everyone’s “having it all”. And the words scare me because I think they’re about perfectionism, which is totally unachievable. If we’re going to be really honest, there are probably bits of my career that I’ve sacrificed or delayed for having children, and there’s probably a couple of plays I’ve missed at school for work. But in the grand scheme of things, am I present enough for my children? Am I present enough for my career? For me, I am present enough for both at this time, but it is something I have to work on. It’s very easy to get pulled in one direction or the other. I think about it and take time over it, and put strategies in place when I’m particularly busy. One thing I miss about the drive home is that I used to disconnect from work.

I think it’s about working out what having it all means to you, and then working out how you get there. And not having anybody else’s version of what that looks like.

BT: I really like that answer. Have you heard the quote “comparison is the thief of joy”? It brought that to mind.

RM: Absolutely.

BT: I think it’s personal for everyone. So, last question! Something we take very seriously at Reddico is work-life balance. What do you do to switch off?

RM: I do yoga, and dog-walking, and believe me, nothing switches your brain off more than English grammar homework because I cannot do it. I cook quite a lot with a glass of wine, that’s one of my switch-offs, but I think I’m lucky in that mostly I’m able to do that, I’m able to switch off.

Everyone has times [where they struggle to switch off] – I can think of a time a couple of years ago when I was really struggling with something, a massive contract that hadn’t been signed and was taking over – and in those times I have to almost physically force myself into doing something, like play something awful on my phone like Gardenscapes. Something mind-numbing. Read really bad fiction – trash!

Self-analysis is the route to it all, recognising that this feels different, I’m not just a little bit busy, I actually can’t stop thinking about it and that doesn’t make me feel good, so I need to intervene here. Trashy TV works for me too.

BT: Yes! That’s my favourite switch-off.

RM: Thank God for Selling Sunset in lockdown one.

BT: I watched it twice through in the end, and I watched the fourth season as soon as it came out, and I cannot wait for the fifth one [laughs].

RM: Absolutely! Love it.