Blog: Belonging in the Room
In a brand new entry to our blog series, in celebration of International Women’s Month, Director of Dundee Contemporary Arts Beth Bate writes about her recruitment process, power dynamics and giving up some of our seat at the table. DCA is celebrating 20 years this month! Keep up to date with all their events and news…
One of the running jokes about my recruitment as Director of Dundee Contemporary Arts was that I was appointed after one of the most disastrous interviews I’ve ever had. And, of course, the interview panel, who I now know very well, will tell me it really wasn’t that bad. But it was. Total horror show. I was asked a question about the operational side of the business that threw me and, although in my head and my heart I knew how to respond, the words wouldn’t come and I stumbled. “Take a few moments, have some water…” said a kindly panel member.
At this point, I considered getting my coat and just walking out: “Thanks but no thanks folks, I’m clearly not cut out for this.”
Then I remembered my coat was at the back of the room and to get it and make my way back to the door would involve turning around and facing all eight people on the panel, including the head hunter who’d first invited me to apply. Walk out of this and I could say goodbye to being asked to apply for anything at this level again, no matter how much I wanted it.
It was less ‘fight or flight’, more ‘sulk or slog’, and I chose slog, stumbling my way for another hour through that interview. I returned home to Newcastle, assuring friends and family that the Dundee dream was over and went out to drown my sorrows. It was with no small amount of surprise that I had an email the next morning, congratulating me on getting through what was “a very gruelling interview” and inviting me to the next stage – another interview. I had feedback from the head hunter – no special treatment, she gave feedback to each of the candidates – and what she said has remained with me ever since:
“You have every right to be in that room.”
With these nine words, probably unbeknownst to her, she unlocked something hugely important. She gave me permission to be there and, importantly, to be myself.
That second interview was actually fun. I had a good grilling again, and rightly so, but I knew I deserved to be there and that what I had to say was important. There were more tough questions but the ability to relax into the room and explain why I wasn’t sure about something, why it wasn’t a problem if I didn’t or who I would contact who would be able to support me and the organisation, meant there was no stumbling, no grasping for words, or water. I was at a table of equals.
Equality is the absolute necessity here and, in a situation like a job interview, where the power is dynamically displaced, in a world riddled with stacked odds and privileged positions, any sense of equality is too often way out of reach. We cannot always rely on a kind or attentive figure to give us permission so, as the late, great Nora Ephron said, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Sometimes you are the only person who can give yourself permission. Recognise that you belong, that you have value, you have something to offer and you have equality with those you find yourself alongside.
I recognise that I write this from a position of relative power and privilege. I am a woman who, like all women, has the weight of patriarchy breathing down our necks and who, like many others, has experienced shocking misogyny. But I am also white, cis and able-bodied, with the benefit of a good, free education, trained for a life in the public sphere. For all of us who are able to acknowledge such privilege, our role is then to support others, to ensure they are able to give themselves permission, to speak up when something is happening that we don’t agree with, and budge up a little – giving up some of our own power at the table if it means someone else gets a seat. We all have a right to be here.
by Beth Bate
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