ITV's Carolyn McCall: 'The concept of having it all doesn't exist'

The ITV chief executive discussed work/life balance, changing culture and risk-taking at BloomFest.

BloomFest: McCall and Matthews (photo credit: Bex Wade)
BloomFest: McCall and Matthews (photo credit: Bex Wade)

Speaking at BloomFest, ITV chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall said: "I have never thought of [work and life] like that. The concept of having it all just does not exist. I've always liked my work, my family is really important to me and my friendships are really important to me."

McCall believes it’s limiting for women to focus on negative or problematic stereotypes and concepts because men aren't questioned or limited in the same way. She believes that both women and men should be focusing more on what makes a good boss rather than unhelpful stereotypes.

BloomFest is an annual event held by Bloom, the professional network for women in the communications industry. This year's event took place at Digitas London yesterday (Thursday). 

With three teenage children, McCall admitted that while it gets very stressful at times, she makes it work: "You find your equilibrium as an individual. I hope more women come back to work after their maternity leave – we loose loads of women in their mid-thirties."

In a wide-ranging and energetic conversation with Stephanie Matthews, campaign manager at Virgin and head of marketing at Bloom, McCall said: "I have experienced quite a lot of misogyny in my time. My way of dealing with it is to literally say fuck it and just do it." 

McCall urged the audience to work in a culture that lifts you rather than deflates you. She explained: "You can change lots of things as an individual, but you cannot change the culture of the organisation. If you feel it is not you – absolutely move."

She added: "A lot of women say: 'I'm going to wait until I have my first baby.' If the culture isn’t right when you haven’t had a child, it will amplify that once you have a child, because that is when you will need flexibility."

ITV’s diversity drive

McCall explained that, as soon as she got into any position of power in an organisation, she worked on the culture. Tackling the issue of on-screen and off-screen diversity at ITV, she said: "We are focused on on-screen [diversity] and we have had some progress with BAME [black and minority ethnic] talent, but we have more to do."

According to McCall, while it is important to tackle culture, it is equally vital to have structures in place to ensure you are measuring progress on issues such as the gender pay gap and BAME talent.

She added that it was important to her to see a "true range of women characters on screen". She pointed to Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect and Keeley Hawes in Bodyguard as great female characters: "I like to have a range of diversity in women lives; they aren’t always angst-ridden divorced women with problems who have hard jobs."

The myth of the difficult woman

Addressing the myth of the difficult woman in business, McCall said: "It is awful to talk about bitches in the boardroom and, as a woman, I don’t want to perpetuate that myth. Actually, what you want all leaders to do is to promote on merit and ensure the structure and culture is in place to do that."

For McCall, culture is less about amorphous values and more about tangible behaviours. Lifting the lid of "the worst day" of her working life, McCall shared how easyJet coped with the European Union referendum's result, which was devastating from a business perspective: "Our share price dropped 40% in eight hours. It was very difficult for people, regardless of political outlook. It was a really tough year, but I learned so much."

She urged the audience not to be frightened about taking risks or making mistakes. "It shouldn’t be about blame of humiliation," she explained. "If you make the same mistake twice, you aren’t learning. But if you make a mistake in good faith and you are trying – well, you should be allowed to make mistakes."

McCall is on the steering committee of the upcoming #WhatWomenWant campaign, an initiative to celebrate the brands that have empowered women through their marketing campaigns over the past 100 years.

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