In September we launched a search to find an exceptional woman with a unique story to become our next Fold Woman. We received many fantastic entries highlighting the incredible achievements of women across the UK. Jane Marriott, nominated by her friend Clare Connell, was selected as the winner by The Fold’s brand founder Polly McMaster and Naomi Mdudu, editor or The Lifestyle Edit. As part of the competition prize, the winners enjoyed a joint photoshoot and the opportunity to be featured as a Fold Woman. We interviewed Jane to learn more about her role at The Foreign Office and her advice for women working in male-dominated environments. We hope you feel as inspired reading her feature as we did.
Tell us about your career background – how did you come to be in your current role of Middle East and North Africa Directorate at The Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
Although I studied history then international relations at university, I ended up working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) almost by accident (my mum thought a civil service job would be a nice and safe career so encouraged me to fill in the forms for the graduate recruitment scheme). I immediately realised that it was a great fit with what I wanted to try and achieve in life: to make a positive difference to the world but through a job that was always interesting and never dull. My first overseas job, actually with the Ministry of Defence, was in Iraq in 2003 and, since then, conflict areas and the Middle East have dominated my career. Most recently, I was the British Ambassador to Sana’a, Yemen, a poor country now in civil war, and then my expertise from postings in Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan gave me the experience to become the FCO’s director responsible for relations with the Gulf, Yemen and North Africa – all busy and sometimes controversial parts of the world.
Tell us more about your role, what does an average day look like?
Meetings! Too many meetings! There are so many different parts to our approach to the Gulf countries, trying to bring about a political solution to the conflict in Yemen and help alleviate the dire humanitarian situation there (21 million out of 27 million people don’t have access to basic services); increasing our focus on countering Daesh terrorists in Libya, trying to work with Libyan authorities on reducing the number of sub-Saharan migrants that pass through Libya and on to Europe, trying to support the new government of Libya to do its job in the first place; supporting Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring, to carry out political and economic reforms – as well as a host of other issues. There is also a strong duty of care component for our staff, who work in dangerous places and the practicalities of making sure we have everything we need to do our jobs wherever we are in the world. Accountability – making sure the public and Parliament understand what the Foreign office is doing – is very important but also time-consuming and I often have to oversee the Foreign Office’s parliamentary activity and public communication.
During your career you have been posted to countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Can you share what life is like living in a conflict zone?
It goes without saying that it can be dangerous. You can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and friends and colleagues have been killed in conflict zones. There have been a couple of occasions – including different occasions when mortars and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) were landing nearby – when I’ve been reminded of my own mortality. Although crossing New Kent Road every morning sometimes evokes a similar concern…
So you have to be aware of the risks and on top of your security game all the time. But you also have to keep going and work out when to let your hair down – whether a simple dinner with friends or the regular karaoke sessions we used to have at the Embassy in Yemen. The pace of work and life is much more intense in conflict zones than in many other places: you do have a greater sense of purpose; but you also have to realise when you’re running on empty, just on adrenaline (and chocolate in my case).
How has your gender shaped your career? Has being a woman in a male-dominated field created advantages or disadvantages?
Being a women in a male-dominated field can be both. The advantages are that there aren’t as many of you, so you are memorable and more likely to be invited to meetings, social or networking events because your hosts are curious. The down side is that you aren’t taken as seriously, initially – but if you prove your worth quickly, then you keep the door open; the constant #Everydaysexism can be draining and, especially in conflict zones, there is an increased risk of sexual assault.
In the Middle East, you have the best of both worlds: you are female, but your male hosts don’t expect you to behave like (the often impressive) local females. So you can flit between the male-dominated political worlds of the men and the equally important, behind the scenes work of the women in a way that your male colleagues can rarely do.
Jane wears The Arlington Dress in Navy Jacquard
What advice would you offer to women working in a male dominated environment?
I’d say three things:
- Stand up for women: Look out for and support your female co-workers: if one of them makes a good point e.g. in a meeting, speak out to back them. The same applies for promoting maternity leave and flexible working patterns, which many men would like to take up too.
- Stand up for men – #Heforshe: raise awareness, challenge assumptions and work with those men who appreciate that equality is not a threat.
- Stand up for yourself. The actress Jennifer Lawrence is right: we’re still expected to do that in a ‘nice’ and non-threatening way. For me, if one can be nice, that’s surely a better way to go and is my default setting 95% of the time. But it’s not the only setting. A (male) colleague said to me the other day “Ah yes, I hear you were upset at that meeting.” To which I replied: “If I’d been a man, would you have used the word ‘angry’? I was definitely angry.” It’s okay to fight for what you believe in. Also: fake confidence until you feel it for real; and constantly put yourself outside your comfort zone until doing that feels natural.
Tell us about your friendship with Clare – how did you meet and how have you supported one another throughout your friendship?
Clare and I met at university: we both read history at Durham University and were in the same college. Clare was in the year below and we both ended up as Secretary, then President of the History Society and were involved in the student paper, Palatinate, which I edited. We both moved to London and many a Saturday night was spent with Clare in a bar! She’s an incredibly hard-working, impressive woman and a considerate friend: she once drove me from a party to see a friend of mine who had been admitted to hospital. I remember her flying out to LA and Las Vegas to meet me when I was travelling around the world. I had been in Iraq and Afghanistan for three years and forgotten how to walk in heels. Clare would be wearing skyscrapers and chatting to bouncers, who then magically let us in, whereas I’d be at the back going “I think the queue’s over here!”.
You must have a varied working wardrobe to observe different cultural dress codes. What are the essential pieces in your wardrobe?
Trouser suits have been essential for working in the Middle East. In Iran, you had to wear a ‘manteau’ or long coat over your trousers, which got really hot in the summer. I think it is why I default to dresses and skirts when back in London and remind myself that I do have a pair of legs! In Iran, lots of North Tehran women would hide skimpy party outfits under their chadors – myself included. In some Middle Eastern countries, one has to wear headscarves. In Yemen, I decided that, as Ambassador, I could get away with not wearing a headscarf and, from the fact that the newspapers would put me on the front page when they got a ‘hair down’ shot, I think the Yemenis were okay with that too… and it enabled me a better platform to get out messages to the Yemeni people about support for the peace process and the important humanitarian work we do there.
How do you unwind outside of work? Is it possible to switch off when posted in a conflict zone?
When in conflict zones, DVD box sets become a good way of relaxing before bed: I’ll forever associate ‘24’ with my time in Iraq (and, oddly, debating period dramas with US military colleagues – they particularly liked the original BBC Pride and Prejudice and were split between fancying Jane or Lizzie Bennett); reruns of the rebooted ‘Battlestar Galactica’ for Iran and ‘Homeland’ and ‘House of Cards’ with Yemen. Back in the UK, I’m currently working my way through the impressive ‘Madam Secretary’, which is good escapism about a female US Secretary of State (i.e. for foreign policy). In Yemen, the Embassy paused its work every day at 5pm for an hour for ‘Insanity’ bootcamp and karaoke Thursdays. And I’ll travel as much as possible, either by myself or with my boyfriend, Paul: I had a great holiday in Burma with my sister and two weeks by myself in Lombok, Indonesia – trekking, diving, reading, exploring, writing – after I finished in Yemen.
What are your career goals in 2016 – what is next to achieve?
I was promoted after I left Yemen, into my current role, so my goal in 2016 is to consolidate the more strategic skills needed. I should also move away from Middle East work at some point to broaden my career anchors away from conflict zones and the Islamic world – but both are fascinating areas in which to work. I’d like to get a non-exec role (unpaid of course, as a government employee!) outside the civil service to keep challenging myself and build up my skill sets and devote more time to coaching and mentoring. My next career step, in a couple of years, will hopefully be as a more senior Ambassador, perhaps in Asia or Africa.
And finally, which pieces did you choose for the Fold photo shoot and why?
I chose the Belgravia dress in burgundy and the Arlington in Navy: both are an absolute pleasure to wear: stylish, sexy and comfortable. When I have receptions or dinners after work I’ll often choose this kind of piece so I can move seamlessly from the office to these functions, although I will swap heels for flats when moving between the two!
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