Meeting the real life “M” …. Dame Stella Rimington sharing her life story

Last week I attended a special women’s lunch hosted by Lady Val Corbett. It was a celebrated of her 13 years of hosting a professional women’s network. Val always finds extraordinary women who have made it to the top of their field and invites them along to share their insights and life story. In most cases, it is not just how clever or courageous they were in being successful or high achieving, it is about how they managed to break, or circumvent, the system. That system, the world of work created during, and before, the twentieth century was created by men for men. This event’s speaker was a superlative example of a woman who achieved the pinnacle of leadership in a highly male field .. spying!

Dame Stella Rimmington, ex head of the MI5 and the first head to hold such a secretive job and be named publicly.  Stella has gone on to be a successful author of spy novels (drawing on her own first had experience of course) following the publication of her auto biography. Life stories of high profile and successful women are irresistible and the room was pin drop silent as Stella shared how she become head of the UK’s spies  … or “M” as we came to know her when Judi Dench famously played the role in Daniel Craig’s Bond movies… even copying her hair style and jackets she noted!

I’ll share three insights that might interest you.

  1. Career Advice – make it up as you go along, just keep at it

Although there was never any career planning for Stella at least she decided she wanted one … and that presented its own difficulties in an era, the 1950s, when women were NOT supposed to have careers. After university she became an archivist and little did she know that the research she did there would later serve her in the Intelligence service. Once she was married it was difficult to countenance any kind of career but she ended up in Delhi as a Diplomat’s wife, simply expected to uphold several British social traditions of whist drives and jumble sales. Modern women looking back now from our vantage points in the twenty first century will feel appalled at the waste of intelligence and the frustration that must have been felt by women back then who were hungry for more than being just a wife.

Stella did not languish for long because, like a scene from a movie, someone whispered in her ear at a garden party about the spy service and she found herself recruited as a typist working for MI5 in 1967.  It did not seem to matter that she could not type .. in those days it was much more about WHO you were, rather than WHAT you could do! That was the beginning of her illustrious career where she would reach the very pinnacle. 

She was asked how she managed that career with marriage and motherhood. Well sadly, the marriage did not survive so she ended up a single mother and her advice for others navigating life and career was to “keep your feet on the path .. and struggle on”. Just keep at it!

  1. As a woman, just being you will probably mean you are called Uppity and Difficult

When Stella returned to the UK and and got another job with MI5 she really did enter a male dominated sphere where the men were out in the world as the spies and the women were relegated to a different grade of work providing the back-in-the-office research support. As the era of equality started in the early 1970s, women were doing their best to move upward and onward and Stella was one of the first to break through. Any woman who did stand out from all their colleagues, by simply not being a man, would often be seen as uppity.

Fast forward 40-50 years and not that much has changed. MP Kenneth Clark famously referred to Prime Minster Theresa May’s tenacious quality by calling her a “bloody difficult woman”. And the London Evening Standard newspaper this week highlights an interview in Tatler Magazine with actress Kate Beckinsale. Often referred to as a “Diva” she denied any special, attention-seeking behaviour and said, the stars who demanded special treatment or kept others waiting hours were invariably men. 

  1. It takes more energy to change the system than simply move up in a career

As one of the early female spy recruits, Stella told us that the training they were put through would often hilariously or dangerously backfire on women because everything was designed by men for men. Not only had the women be good to advance upwards but they had to push at the structure that expected them to be men and had difficulty adjusting to their gender.

One training task Stella shared was to go into a pub, sound out a target member of the public for information then have a colleague come in and out them as a spy, and then they would need to handle this revelation. Stella was sent to a back street, smokey dive of a pub full of men in raincoats drinking on their own where any conversation with a lone woman would be seen as seductive chatting up and the subsequent reveal simply ended up rescuing her from goodness knows what!  It became clear that the system would need to adapt to handle gender differences!

Most successful women who have climbed the ladder have stories where they are the only woman in the room or at the meeting where they have been expected to pour the coffee, or had to endure executive hospitality clearly designed for men, including an expectation of joining in visits to strip joints or tagging along at a boar hunt …. but times indeed have changed and these situations are decreasing. Certainly the #MeToo era has made so many distasteful experiences openly unacceptable. 

If you want to find out more about life as a female spy then Stella Rimmington’s ten spy novels utilise her career rich with fascinating stories that she would not be able to reveal in an autobiography. I got my copy of her first book “At Risk” signed by Stella. Her autobiography also reveals the path she took to her ground-breaking role as one of the top female leaders in the UK.

I led a workshop after the main speaker session about the value of Women’s Gatherings. You can read more about that here.

Lady Val will host another lunch with an interesting female speaker on Thursday February 28th, 2019 in London. These events always sell out and are an excellent networking opportunity for women.