South Hampstead High School: TV presenter Mishal Husain meets the pupils

Mishal Husain speaks to pupils at South Hampstead High School
Mishal Husain speaking to teachers, pupils and parents at South Hampstead High School

Fresh from interviewing the Prime Minister at the Conservative Conference, Mishal took to the stage at South Hampstead High School. And in a reversal of roles, this time she was questioned by the school’s pupils.

Mishal attended an all-girls boarding school in rural Kent, then studied law at Cambridge University before beginning her journalism career. Over the past 20 years, her work has taken her from Davos to Rohinga refugee camps, from interviewing Malala to royalty. “My parents, first generation immigrants from Pakistan, really wanted me to be a doctor. I pretty much had to appear on the national news before they realised I could make a decent career out of journalism,” she joked.

In 2013, she became the second woman on Radio 4’s Today – the programme’s first-ever Muslim presenter, as well as one of the youngest. Husain spoke candidly of the many times she’s found herself in overwhelmingly male environments and has had say to herself: “I have a right to be here too.” Against a backdrop of this year’s suffrage centenary and continuing revelations of pay inequality at the BBC and in Hollywood, she realised she had her own role to play in pressing for progress – hence the recent publication of her first book.

‘The Skills: From First Job to Dream Job’ is a culmination of what Husain has learnt over her life and career, offering advice on the perils of perfectionism, tips on how to make a positive impression and the importance of speaking up and speaking out – in particular with regard to equality.

Throughout the evening, Husain shared numerous examples of the under-representation of women she encountered when researching the book – from MPs to law partners – including in broadcast journalism, where the most prominent faces remain white and male. Within the media in particular, she reflected on what impact that domination has had on our lens to the world. “Even in Mulan, the male dragon gets more lines than the female protagonist!”

When asked about her toughest moments, she spoke of the intense, sleep-deprived period of her 30s when, with three boys under the age of two, she was worried she’d have limited time to succeed, especially in an industry that favours the young. She also asserted her belief that, as a society, we’ve not progressed far enough in terms of flexible patterns for modern, working families. Husain also observed how male leaders are often described as ‘brilliant, esteemed, distinguished or big-hitters’… whereas female qualities are more frequently defined in terms of their personal attributes, highlighting the magnitude of what still needs to be achieved with regard to perceptions of women in the workplace.

On a more optimistic note, Husain spoke of the positive influence of role models – “Personally, I was inspired by ethnic minorities presenting on TV – they made me feel that anything was possible” – and the empowering potential of an all-girls’ education these days.

Recalling the time when she was lambasted by the Daily Mail following an interview with Boris Johnson in 2017, Husain explained how she’s established her own process for dealing with criticism: “I’ve learnt to develop a thicker skin – to reflect on what’s been said and then just look to the future.”

Perhaps more importantly, she also discussed the importance of (girls in particular) learning to accept praise. As she states in her book: “When complimented on an interview, my default response used to be to question or undermine the praise (“Do you think so? I’m not sure about that last question”) or say that I had got lucky. I started to realise how questioning positive feedback might appear… Now, I try to make a simple “Thank you” my default response to a positive comment.”

Another of Husain’s key messages was what it means to be confident, especially when faced with the inevitable nerves of ‘big moments’. She explained how so many occasions in life can’t be scripted nor predicted – and that being ready is key. Drawing on her experiences of being the anchor for the 2012 Olympics (with no previous experience of sports reporting) and being hand-picked to interview Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement (with less than 24 hours’ notice), she emphasised the importance of being prepared: “My aim is not perfection, but to be in a state of readiness.”

When considering what advice to give to her younger self, she said that she would tell herself to be braver. “I’d tell myself not to waste time worrying. It’s important to push yourself, challenge yourself.” Over the course of the evening, Husain fielded an array of typically incisive questions, including many from some of our very youngest pupils – the long queue of those patiently waiting to get their books signed after the talk was clearly testament to her tremendous impact on the girls.

Reflecting on the experience, interviewer for the evening and Deputy Head Girl, Ella, said: “Mishal imparted so much wisdom with an impressive array of stories and advice. She is really such an inspiration. If there’s one thing I’ll take from the interview, it’s her message to speak up and speak out.”

The Speaker Series is one of the many initiatives taking place at South Hampstead High School. Each term the school invites pupils, parents, staff and alumnae to hear from and quiz an array of distinguished guests with a myriad of different perspectives on the world. To date, South Hampstead High School has hosted a range of talks from experts in their fields: feminist science writer Angela Saini, Olympic Gold medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, the first female MI5 Director General Dame Stella Rimington MBE, Citibank’s Chief Global Political Analyst Tina Fordham and the Rt Hon Michael Gove.