Political Editor at POLITICO Europe, leading European elections coverage
June 17th, 2019, 15 min read
Interview by Sarah Wagner
This week's featured interview is with Ryan Heath, one of Brussels's best-known journalists, former Commission spokesperson and public advocate of diversity.
In our conversation, we talk about how it feels growing up as a gay man in Australia, what feminism could learn from the LGBQ movement and what men can do to empower women.
Thanks so much for being here with me today, Ryan. Let me start with a blunt question. What does feminism mean to you?
It is a pleasure. For me, feminism means women being able to choose the life that they want to lead. If you consider yourself a feminist as a man then you support women to do that and you are not here to tell women what to do or what to think. You try to ensure that everyone gets some kind of equal voice. It is about making sure that everybody has the support they need to go out and live the life they want.
"Feminism means women being able to choose the life that they want to lead."
It is not enough just to have equal opportunities and equal rights under the law. You need to take active efforts to make sure that the law means something in practice. It is also not fair to try and define equal outcomes. I'm trying not to sound ideological here. I think some people would say what matters is equal opportunity. Other people would say what matters is equal outcomes. And I'm saying that what you need is something in the middle of that. Where and what it is should really be driven by women. It's not up to men to decide what that is.
"It is not enough just to have equal opportunities and equal rights under the law. You need to take active efforts to make sure that the law means something in practice."
So, men should not be involved in the debate on feminism?
When I was younger and I was involved in student politics there were some feminists who were ok with men having a voice in this. You know, it's womens-only spaces. It's womens-only debates when it comes to feminism. And I understand that. And I went along with it at the time and then I definitely came of the view that if men are the problem, mostly, you need them to be involved in the solution but you need to set some limits on their participation. You can't just let men decide what the debate on feminism is. If it happens completely separately from men then it's not really going to get to where you want it to get.
"You can't just let men decide what the debate on feminism is."
What can and should men concretely do?
Well, think about your own workplace. You can make some conscious decisions about how you interact with people. Here is one really good example: One day, there was a group of guys here in the office, who all went out to lunch and it was noticed by some of the women. It turns out they weren't really thinking about it but it was a group of people who all worked at the same level and they thought they were just going to have a lunch amongst their peers and it turns out they happen to be men. And it looked like a bunch of guys going out to do a boys club thing that the women weren't welcome to join. The men didn't realize that that was how they were being perceived because it wasn't something they planned. It was just like “oh yeah let's go grab lunch”. It's a quiet day. And then the women felt it quite intensely that they weren't invited to this. And if you didn't have a discussion about it or you didn't stop to think like “hey, why is it only men in this room?” then you can end up in a situation where you don't do something that's good for your organization or for your colleagues. So, I think you should always be aware if this is a meeting, a lunch or a panel with all men. In the end, it is about thinking about what's going on around you and being considerate of other people.
"It is also about choosing the environment you want to operate in."
Discrimination is often very subtle. For instance, I often feel that older male professionals approach me with this “little blond girl” attitude. It just feels wrong, while they may not even act like this on purpose. How can we create more awareness among men about their behaviour?
Some of that is really ingrained and almost generational. I would say, that is where sometimes you really do need a big rupture like the #MeToo campaign and revelations and movements to make some change happen because these are people who have been taught that they can look at women any way they want and they can just think of you in a lesser way. And they've been surrounded by people like that their entire careers and no one has ever really challenged them. So, it's really hard as an individual to challenge back.
Then, I would say, it is also about choosing the environment you want to operate in. If you're involved in some organization that makes you uncomfortable then maybe you're in the wrong organization. And also, think of it carefully when you're applying for jobs and in interviews. Do ask around to see what sort of environment it is like. So, if you choose to be in an environment that is more modern, then organizations are going to get the message because they have never been attracted any of the smart people and any women and they are going to eventually have to ask themselves why that is the case.
"I think sometimes the feminist movement gets too angry (...). I think the more you can be positive in explaining the world what you want the more likely people are to react positively to you."
Do you think it is always a generational issue, though? Recently, I was speaking to a man of my age, inquiring about the role of women in his workplace. He could not give me a clear answer, arguing he had never been forced to pay attention to this issue. How can we make sure white cisgendered men are more aware of their privileges?
I think this is where numbers help. Some facts are that we haven't had a European Commission president who's a woman We've never had a gender equal college of commissioners. We don't see equal leadership in boardrooms and things like that. So, however much the white guy might complain about his seventeen hundred euros a month there's still a truth that he's part of a group of people that does rise to the top more easily.
I hope people listening don't resent this but if I compare the success of the LGBT movement, change has been achieved much quicker than the “stop-start - two steps forward - one step back” journey of feminists and women's rights movements. The gay movement has always had positive optimistic messages. And it was always focused on inclusion. Or it was something like pride parades, i.e. fun things. There were things to celebrate and ways to show off all the things that you might like about the gay and lesbian community. And I think sometimes the feminist movement gets too angry. I don't want to say it like that but I think the more you can be positive in explaining the world what you want the more likely people are to react positively to you.
That is an interesting observation. In fact, I have been contacted by several men telling me I was “anti-men” since I started Here She Is. When I was talking to them, I had the impression their attitude was essentially linked to an inherent “fear of loss”. How can we make sure that men realize inclusion pays off for all?
I think it's about saying “I'm not trying to take something away from you”. It's about saying “I want what you want. We want the same thing”. So they can identify with what they want and like about their experience. And if you're saying “Hey, but I want that too. I want to feel like my voice is included. I want to feel like it's okay to ask for a pay rise” and stuff like that then you're not taking something away from them. And also you can just say “Hey, listen to me here. You know I'm not asking you to agree with everything straight away but I am asking you to take me seriously”.
"You've also got to go out and do some organizing and make some effort. You can't just go and complain at women or gay people for wanting some kind of equal opportunity.(...) "If all you do is present an image of victimhood it's not a popular way to achieve change."
Do you think there are only advantages to being a white man? I am referring in particular to societal expectations towards masculinity. Some men reached out to me, demanding “equal rights for men” e.g. men should also be able to show emotions, something usually associated with women.
I feel sympathy but I don't feel sorry for men who express that to you. If there are straight men who feel that way you know it might be difficult for them to create a straight white man movement. I'm not saying it's that simple. But you've also got to go out and do some organizing and make some effort. You can't just go and complain at women or gay people for wanting some kind of equal opportunity.
And this is taking me back to my point about the LGBT movement. If we just representing ourselves as victims of everything then we wouldn't be very popular. If all you do is present an image of victimhood it's not a popular way to achieve change. So I'd say that to the straight men, too, I would say go and try and talk to your mates, find people who are struggling like you are and try and develop some support networks there. And if you've got some specific demands, go and make them but don't act like you the victims of the world because you're straight men.
"The masculinity that did exist where I was growing up, we would now call a pretty toxic masculinity. There were only one or two ways to be a man and they weren't anything like how I felt."
Have you ever encountered - as a homosexual man - any sort of toxic masculinity? To what extent has your experience as a gay man influenced your perspective on inclusiveness?
I probably didn't call it toxic masculinity at the time. If you grew up in a city like Sydney you probably were able to literally see other gay people and be surrounded in a more diverse and supportive environment. But in the small town I grew up in, I honestly can't say that I knowingly met a gay person until I was 17 years old. So, I didn't really have any role models. The masculinity that did exist, where I was growing up, we would now call a pretty toxic masculinity. There were only one or two ways to be a man and they weren't anything like how I felt. So yeah, for sure I've experienced that. I definitely felt it when I worked for a little while as a speechwriter for President Jose Manuel Barroso eight years ago and I wouldn't have called it toxic. There was no particular thing that they did but it was definitely a male-dominated environment. These were sort of Christian Democrat centre right men. And I was, I guess, a more left-wing younger gay guy who wasn't married. I just didn't fit into that world. No one told me I was not welcome but it wasn't a very welcoming environment at the same time.
Then how did you deal with the situation?
I got fired about five months into it. So, it kind of never came to a head in any particular way. But I definitely felt like there was absolutely no click and there was no effort to make it click, basically. And then it just ended up with me doing a different job, working for a woman who was completely fine with me being gay. She even met one of my boyfriends, which is a kind of unusual thing for a boss to do to make you feel included. It takes us back a bit to that you should choose the environment where you want to be in.
It's 50/50 inside Politico. And I think most of the time we both had 50/50 in the top leadership, too. So that's really unusual but it's not a perfect spread. Quite a few teams are all women or all men. I've definitely had plenty of conversations where we think “We don't have enough senior female reporters now, next time we're recruiting for senior reporters”. We've got to make sure we make an effort to look for women.
"I've always thought of an interview as a two-way process where you interview the organization as well. I really would encourage you to interrupt and ask questions, make it a conversation (...). It's like a relationship. It's better to find out early that you don't want to live with the person."
That's a good point. We recently had interviews at my employer, with four men sitting in the interview panel. So I said to my boss that if I had been the interviewee I would no longer be interested in the position.
I've always thought of an interview as a two-way process where you interview the organization as well. I would encourage you to interrupt and ask questions during the interview. I really would encourage you to make it a conversation basically because by demonstrating that you can direct a bit of the conversation and you've got ideas that push back a little bit. I think, in general, you come across as a smarter more value-adding person. If you have got an all-male interview panel you should be like “How did that happen?”. You know “Was this just an accident or did you not think to bring a woman in here or what are the numbers overall?”. And if they don't have good answers then that shouldn't make them feel uncomfortable. It's better to learn it at the beginning. It's like a relationship. It's better to find out early that you don't want to live with the person.
"I think leaders should be confident. Being a good leader means you have to have confidence and having confidence means that you just have real interactions with people around you."
You interviewed many impressive men and women over the years. What makes a woman a real executive power for you? Is there a difference between a woman leader and a man leader?
I try not to think of it in gender terms. What impresses me in general about people is when they're willing to just give you honest answers to questions - that's the journalist coming out in me. You can really tell the difference when someone actually wants to answer your question or just enjoys having a conversation. And I think leaders should be confident. Being a good leader means you have to have confidence and having confidence means that you just have real interactions with people around you and maybe some people will call that authenticity. I don't mean it's just an uncensored version of yourself, though. I think that you should know if you get really frustrated and angry and you are rude to the people around you and realize what you need to work on.
At the same time, people who are too rehearsed and too perfect about things, trying to project this image of being strong and in control and knowing everything I don't find that impressive. People don't know everything. The older I get and the more different jobs I do the more I realize I don't know much about the world and that the world is so complex and so crazy. I had all of these ideas about how it worked when I was 20 or 25 or even 30. You know those are nice theories and they don't always match up to reality.
"I think you should dress the way that makes you feel comfortable. I don't dress for other people for sure. (...) If women are dressing to fit in or doing too much to fit in, you won't come across as happy and confident."
So, there are no specific characteristics that make a woman impressive?
I think you should dress the way that makes you feel comfortable. I don't dress for other people for sure. And I know that that's a trap a lot of women have felt stuck in for a long time. I used to wear a suit and tie and have a more conservative haircut because I thought that's what you had to do to be treated seriously in the Commission. I realize now that while I wasn't deeply unhappy about it's just not the way I like to dress. As long as you have a basic level of respect, you should not wear flip flops and swimming shorts to the office. That's obviously silly. So, I will wear a special tie for a special occasion but I will not wear a tie to the office. That is not who I am. And I think if women are dressing to fit in or doing too much to fit in, you won't come across as happy and confident. People feel when you are not in your own shoes. When you're really inhabiting your personality and your body, people can sense that you give off a vibe that you want to be around this person.
"Heels were invented to punish women a lot of the time. And I don't want to be trapped in Brussel's cobblestones."
My former boss told me that about 20 years ago women were wearing high heels and suits every day in Brussels.
I love wearing high heels to a dress up at a party, that's fun, but I cannot imagine wearing high heels every day as a woman. Wear heels because it makes you feel confident or great or you know it's good for a photo or something like that. But heels were invented to punish women a lot of the time. And I don’t want to be trapped in Brussels’s cobblestones.
The second part of the interview is available here, shedding light on diversity in Brussels and how the outcome of the European elections will affect gender equality in the institutions.
Ryan is a political editor at POLITICO Europe, with particular responsibility for shaping POLITICO’s 2019 European elections coverage. Ryan served for three years as the original author of our Brussels Playbook column.
He began writing for national newspapers in his native Australia in 1999, and is the author of two books including the cult classic “Please Just F* Off, It’s Our Turn Now,” an account of how the Baby Boomers / 68er generation are viewed by the Millenial generation. After working as a speechwriter for the British civil service, he joined the European Commission working for President Jose Manuel Barroso and Vice President Neelie Kroes as a spokesperson. Ryan is regular policy commentator on outlets such as BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and Deutsche Welle. He has reported from major events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, G7 summits and US political conventions.