Alexis Bowater – A Time for Change
Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Pip Andersen
As the face of Westcountry TV for thirteen years, the co-founder of the two biggest women in business networking groups in the SouthWest of England and a regional partner for the Venus Awards, Alexis Bowater has her heart firmly placed in the championing of women.
And heart is the key word here. Maybe that’s her journalistic background, maybe it’s pure curiosity, but one thing is for certain; Alexis Bowater cares. She deeply, truly, cares about those who cross her path and is a reminder of just why I held her in so much esteem as a young woman starting out on my own journey.
Alexis thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today; I’m so pleased to be here with you. Alexis, you’ve had an incredible career; one which started in the offices of the Express & Echo, moved quickly into television and now finds you at the helm of your PR company; Bowater Communications. You’ve inspired so many women along your way; myself included, so let’s jump straight in today, with your most profound career moment to date.
Thank you, Tracey. Something that has always been with me is the moment when, as a teenager, I spoke to my careers advisor and confided in him my lifelong dream; that I wanted to be a journalist. He asked me, “What do you want to do? Do you want to write articles in women magazines?” obviously the implication being that I wanted to write about knitting and sewing and all that kind of stuff. I said, “No I want to be a reporter; I want to be in a newspaper newsroom” and he said to me, “You can’t do that, it’s a boys job”.
Now, this was in the mid-1980’s; a time, as you know, when Aretha Franklin was in the charts with ‘Sisters Are Doing it for themselves’, Madonna was making it really, really big and there was a new gender conversation starting to happen. But it was also a time when women were having to wear suits with big shoulder pads. If they wanted to go into the office, they had to look like men; they had to have short hair and you very much had to be a boy to be a girl.
So I now give talks to many different people about this and it’s particularly shocking & difficult for students who are now 15, as I was then, to understand; they simply can’t grasp or understand the thinking back then.
In retrospect, it was a very seminal moment in my life; one that dictated plenty of what I’ve subsequently done. I don’t think it was calculated enough that I determined to be a journalist to prove him wrong, but I did think, “Ok, well I’m going to have to have some strategies here if I’m going to get to where I want to be”. I never let go of my dream to work in journalism.
So it meant that I went on; I did my A Levels and then I did a Bachelor’s Degree. I traveled the world, I had adventures and then I did a Masters Degree in International Politics, Economics and Social Policy at Bristol University, at which point I thought I’m probably as clever as the boys now.
So I’d completed my Masters six weeks early and found myself with a window of opportunity to see whether I could follow my dream or not; the same dream I’d not actually told anyone about because my careers master was so discouraging.
In those days we didn’t have mobile phones and we didn’t have internet, so I wrote to every single news editor in the country who had a circulation of more than 30,000 and I asked them all for a job or some work experience.
And how did that go?
I got a whole lot of rejections; I can’t remember how many but I do remember the two letters that said, “we can’t give you anything but don’t give up hope” and another from the Head of Northcliffe Newspapers which said, “it’s almost impossible to get into newspapers nowadays, and I don’t hold out much hope for you, but if you happen to be in London, why don’t you pop in for a cup of tea”.
So I’m guessing you found yourself in London pretty quickly?
Absolutely! The very next afternoon, I happened to be in London giving him a call from a red phone box just around the corner from his office. What were the chances!
Wow, that’s incredible! Did it happen to be lunch time too?
It was just before tea time; remarkable hey! And he was free for tea. So I went to see him and long story short, I clearly impressed him with my ability to shove a size five foot into a door that had only been opened a tiny crack and I found myself on the Northcliffe training scheme and very quickly ensconced in the Express and Echo offices in Exeter being trained up as a journalist. I completed all my exams in 18 months and I was away.
And so we’re almost 35 years down the line, what advice would you give a young woman stepping into a very different world now?
There are two things. First of all, if you’re following your dream, you need to take baby steps and have your dream as a goal. You have to start at the bottom of the mountain and remember that you don’t climb a mountain in a straight line; I think that’s something that people find hard to grasp. Things won’t happen overnight; it takes a long, long time and a lot of hard work to be an overnight sensation. When you get to the point of external success, or credibility, you will have put in the groundwork, day and night, relentlessly. That’s one of the things that people need to be ready to grasp; you do start on the bottom rung of the ladder but that it’s enormously enjoyable as well. Find good mentors who are going to hold your hand through thick and thin, through all the mistakes that you’re going to make as part of the learning process.
And the second thing I’d say about that, and I give this from my position of having had some life experiences, is that I don’t think we’re encouraged to grasp failure. I think that we’re encouraged to be scared of failure and I think that’s completely wrong.
I completely agree; our school system doesn’t allow children the luxury of getting it wrong. Instead, there’s a constant pressure to get things right. Then, when they do step out into the world, we find them living with an ingrained fear of getting it wrong; which by default puts enormous unnecessary pressure on them and only adds fuel to the fire of our current mental health crisis.
I think that we certainly need to free our children, and ourselves, from this fear that if things go wrong, we’ll never be able to recover; failure is a really important learning experience. It’s part of our lifelong learning; without making mistakes, you won’t find out what’s right and where your strengths lie. There has to be a Yin and Yang in life; success and failure. It balances you out as a human being and actually pushes you through to more success and core strength. Learning is about growth and all growth is about success and failure; you can’t have one without the other.
And one of the things is recognising when you’re in a pickle; when you’ve been thrown out of the boat. You need to be able to ask somebody to chuck you a life jacket. But so many people don’t do that. They’re like, “I’m in the water, I’m cold, but I’ll just pretend I’m not. Maybe I’ll just try and swim 50 miles to shore, through shark-infested waters, even though there’s a boatload of people over there. If I keep really quiet, maybe they won’t notice that I’m in a pickle”. But of course they can all see and they’re going, “hey can I help? Is there anything I can do?”
And you’re, “No. No. No. I’m not in the water”.
So I think that’s one of the things that’s really liberating to learn; when you fall flat on your face, there are always helpers. Always look for the helpers.
Ok so with that in mind, let’s move onto role models. I’ve spoken publicly, many times, acknowledging that you were indeed one of my own role models as a young woman.
I think it’s difficult, because I’m always surprised at thinking of myself as a role model, but I shouldn’t be surprised because I’m just me. I’ve just tried to be diligent and determined and kind and truthful and to keep pottering along my own precarious path in what I think is the right direction with a strong sense of humanity and integrity. I don’t buy into the ruthless thing; I don’t buy into backstabbing jealousy. Neither of those things is healthy, constructive or creative.
I believe in teams. I think that big teams work in business, in families, and in communities; I think that we’re better and stronger together than when we are trying to go it alone. It’s the sharing, acknowledging information, kindness & caring that makes us amazing.
But part of that honest conversation is about breaking through people’s personal insecurities; encouraging them, giving them the courage to be vulnerable and actually saying it’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to be a human being and it’s ok to admit that we’re all flawed and frail because good grief we’re all human!
I completely agree Alexis and this is probably a good point, then, at which to touch on the ‘gender agenda’; an area I know you’re incredibly passionate about, as are we all. How do you see things improving?
We need to have healthy conversations about women in business, women in society and our place in it; conversations with our mothers and grandmothers, with our sons and daughters, with our husbands and our lovers; conversations with men and women. Yes we’re still battling the past, but we’re fighting for the future and we have to do that as a team. This isn’t about dissatisfaction and disapproval of gender, but of people who are behaving very badly indeed.
And we need to take a holistic, multi-generational approach. What’s truly wonderful is that people have recognised that we need to change the leaves on the tree and that we’re having the conversations and debating in a reasonable way. There’s no right or wrong way to make the changes; we’re all feeling our way in the dark here.
The facts are that in our society 1 in 5 women will be stalked at some point in their lives. 1 in 4 will be raped or sexually assaulted at some point in their life. 1 in 4 women will be the victim of domestic violence. Half of women are saying that they are being sexually harassed in the workplace and 2 women a week in this country are being murdered by their partners or ex-partners.
Look at the women in your lives and know, know, just how many of them will be in serious trouble at some point in their lives, simply because of their gender.
These are the conversations we need to be having, those are the statistics we need to be thinking about. That is the evidence base we need to work off. We don’t need to work off opinion or conjecture or anything else. We need to work off facts and figures which stand up to intellectual scrutiny and give us a proper idea of where policy needs to be changed. If we have a quarter of all women in society who are going to be hurt or who are expecting to be hurt because of their gender, then we need to address what’s going on.
And we need to do that now. Not tomorrow, but now.
Exactly. So let’s have that conversation and let’s have it together. It’s not a battle; this needs to be a battalion, of everyone, against things that are going wrong.
Alexis thank you so very much. You have moved me beyond words today & I’m so very grateful for all you are doing to move us forward. Thank you.
Follow Alexis @BowaterComms or reach her at www.bowatercommunications.co.uk