November 8, 2013 6:25 pm

One hour that could launch a lifetime

‘Raising aspiration was part of what we were supposed to achieve that day for the girls we met but it raised mine too’
Illustration by James Ferguson of people around a round table©James Ferguson

I was recently asked for one hour of my time. But as we only have 168 hours a week, and some of that has to be spent sleeping, I am always hesitant to give one of them away. And saying no, in my opinion, is a genuine life skill.

But Miriam González Durántez, a prominent lawyer and the wife of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, is very persuasive, and when she asked me and eight other women to join her for an hour to do what she called career speed dating, no one made their excuses.

Instead, we turned up to meet a large group of 15-year-old girls from state schools in London, who were spread between 10 tables. We 10 women were each assigned a table to talk about what we did for a living, and answer questions, before a bell would ring and we moved to the next table. In the allotted 60 minutes each of us managed to engage with 60 or so of the 100-plus girls.

Giving an hour of my time is not the only thing I am hesitant about. I am also reluctant to mention my girlfriends by name, and to admit how inadequate I feel next to them. After I wrote recently of how nervous I had been about meeting Tamara Mellon when I hosted a lunch for her, a reader emailed to chastise me for my lack of self-confidence, pointing out that Tamara is only another human being and that I should stop putting myself down. The very same day I received another email from a reader. “Dear Mrs Moneypenny,” it said, “please can you contain your hubris?”

I found the career speed dating experience both humbling and exhilarating. Humbling because, yet again, all the other women were so much more accomplished than me. Raising aspiration was part of what we were supposed to achieve that day for the girls we met but it raised mine too. For a start, I was followed to each table by Carolyn McCall, the CEO of easyJet, so I always spent the last minutes of my time explaining, rather like John the Baptist, that I was merely paving the way for the real thing to follow. Not that I aspire to be the CEO of a publicly quoted airline – but I do aspire to be gutsy enough to take on a challenge of that magnitude.

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Mrs Moneypenny

Miriam’s goal was to alert all the girls to a wide range of careers, and we certainly did that. We also kicked off a campaign called Inspiring Women, which is aimed at getting women of all backgrounds volunteering to talk to girls at state schools so that the pupils meet many different role models and get ideas about different life paths and jobs and the routes into them.

I never have trouble talking about myself (there’s the hubris again) but I promise you, after a few rounds of the speed dating, I was exhausted. I noticed that my fellow speed dater Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, used the same word to describe the event on her blog. Athene is an incredibly accomplished woman in a field without many of them and her comments were especially thoughtful. “None of us, the mentors, will ever know if we said anything helpful to [the pupils] or not. That is, of course, a prevalent issue. You never know what the impact of your words can be.” How true. What really struck home with me, though, was this observation: “… when talking to those just setting out, perhaps the responsibility is all the greater.”

So now I aspire to greater awareness of the words I use when I am speaking to people who are at the threshold of work. There is no doubt I can be flippant sometimes and resort, perhaps too readily, to humour as a way of grabbing the attention of the young. Careful preparation will make sure that the hour I give counts. Inspiring Women is seeking 15,000 women from a wide range of occupations and levels, from the most junior to the most senior, to go into state schools to talk to 250,000 young women. Could you give up an hour of your time in 2014?

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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