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Tuesday 16th December 2014

The brave Knight

Meet Angela Knight CBE – the woman who’s taken on some of the UK’s most challenging jobs

Angela Knight isn’t one to shy away from a challenge.

After running a heavy engineering company in Yorkshire, serving as a Tory MP under John Major, leading the British Bankers’ Association through the financial crisis and heading up a trade association of energy companies, Knight’s probably had even more skirmishes than Roy Keane.

Regarding the Energy UK role, Knight told one interviewer she was defending a ‘bunch of the most hated people on earth’. Vince Cable recently called her a ‘sucker for punishment’.

But what makes someone so able to take the blows, especially when – given the marked gender imbalances in her chosen industries – she’s a woman?

Knight was speaking at the Hoggett Bowers HR Directors’ Dinner at Lincoln’s Inn in London, in the sumptuous Old Hall. (‘This place is just like Harry Potter,’ gasped one impressed attendee, gazing at the oak paneling and the portraits of royalty.)

Hoggett Bowers’ Chief Executive, Karen Wilson, introduced Knight. ‘When we hear the type of challenges Angela experienced as a woman in her early career, it shows how far we’ve come,’ Wilson said. ‘Although clearly there is still some way to go.’

Knight began by illustrating of how her gender has been a career issue since the very beginning. ‘When I was sixteen, the junior gym mistress or some such was deputed to talk to us girls about careers. I wanted to read science and go into industry.’ The school had a fit, she says, and so did her father.

Both tried to put her back on the ‘right track’. ‘I was given a series of career books to read which would probably now be banned by the Equal Opportunities Commission,’ she said. ‘Norah Becomes a Nurse, Susan Becomes A Secretary, that kind of thing.’

Pick up your heels

Knight offered four lessons about how women can get to, and stay at, the top of their professions.

‘Lesson one is to go for it. Take a chance, don’t wait, get in early, give it a try.’ On the subject of the glass ceiling, she said assertively, ‘Sometimes you just have to pick up your heel and smash it.’

Angela Knight’s after a new crusade. Image: Energy UK

Lesson two is about how one dresses. Don’t mute your style to melt into the male milieu, she says. ‘Why wear black and grey when red and green will do nicely? Be noticed. Be there.’

Lesson three is about preparation, particularly for job interviews. ‘Do your homework. Read the notes and the papers. If you do, there’ll be a seventy-thirty chance you’ll be better informed than the blokes.

‘We love them dearly, but they’re as bad at doing their homework in adult life as they were when they were ten years old.’

Finally, lesson four is to be resilient. ‘There will be times when you feel ignored, put to one side, when you’re sure they have gone for the bloke simply because he is a bloke,’ she said.

‘I have the best cure for when this happens. I go home, have two glasses of red wine and walk into the garden and shout, ‘Bugger the lot of them’ at the top of my voice. Then I go to bed, sleep, and the following morning I just get on with it.’

‘Blokes grow up late’

After her speech, Knight answered questions for a good half-hour. ‘Diversity is good for trading and for customer relationships,’ she said in response to one question, suggesting that belief in it is essentially good business sense.

Does she consider herself a role model for women? ‘Being a woman in a position of strength can encourage other women to try, simply because you’re there.’

She also says that women are now taking the best university places. ‘Blokes grow up late and end up at second-rate universities,’ she says – and this shift will eventually repair many current imbalances

Knight leaves the Chief Executive role at Energy UK this Christmas. To do what? ‘There’s time for one last roll of the dice,’ she smiles, enigmatically.

That night, forty or so miles away in Rochester, a by-election is coming to a close that is not good news for the party she served back in the 1990s. Might a return to the political fray be that next, last roll? One wouldn’t bet against it.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.