10 Questions: Katie Mathison

Katie Mathison has been a senior manager across several agencies – both public and private sector. She is currently General Manager, Membership Services, at the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners and is midway through her term as President of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ), the membership body for New Zealand's public relations practitioners. The Ministry for Women recently caught up with Katie at the recent PRINZ conference in Christchurch to hear about her journey to the top of her profession.

1. Where did your career begin?

It was 1986. I had just finished my biochemistry degree, and was all set to apply to do a PhD in toxicology at St Barts Hospital, London where I had interned the previous year. But first I had to find work over the summer, and one of my Mum’s friends gave me a contract job checking facts for the Consumers’ Association’s Which? magazine. After a few weeks, going back to student poverty seemed a poor second to the lure of paid consumer journalism, and I wasn’t comfortable with animal testing anyway, so I never did apply to do the PhD, much to my mum’s disgust (she was a university science lecturer). I stayed at Which?, for five years, loving life in central London, writing, researching, and learning what tickled audiences, and that started me on the path I’m on today. In recalling what some of my early assignments were at Which?, I am shamefaced to say that the ones I remember most seemed to have involved alcohol: drinking successive whiskies in a London pub to test hand-held breathalysers, and on another occasion visiting 20 pubs, buying a glass of wine under cover and sneaking to the loo to decant it into a measuring cylinder to see whether the serves were under or over the advertised volume. I think I’ve probably moved onto more worthy material now.

2. What's helped you get to where you are today?

Doing an executive MBA at Massey University, and APR (Accreditation in Public Relations) with PRINZ definitely helped me get where I am today. The MBA cost a lot in money and sanity, but the leaps I made in salary and position afterwards paid it back in spades. The APR helped establish the body of knowledge that I needed to have as a mid-level PR professional. Changing paths also helped: not all my jobs were in PR, and not all of them were in government; in fact I regularly ducked in and out of government and quasi-government organisations, and collected operational experience for several years in a non-PR position, which I think strengthened the overall package I could offer to PR.

3. What do you think is the biggest challenge specifically for women working in public relations?

The biggest challenge for women in PR is that we are mostly women. A feminised industry carries the risk that salaries are on average lower than men’s, and the risk that we are less likely to get positions at the top table. That’s of course not something that sits at all well with me – or I hope with anyone else. I have deliberately left organisations that wouldn’t put PR (or women) on the top table, and sought out others that would – which at times has meant leaving organisations that I would have preferred to stay at. That’s not to say you can’t have influence from outside the C-suite: you can. I just personally prefer to be at the table if I can.

4. Have things changed for women in public relations since you started out?

I do think women in general have grown a stronger voice since I started out, but that’s not unique to PR. Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark broke the duck of female Prime Ministers, more women have taken the helm of government departments, and it is now common to see female PR experts and journalists leading the charge. We’re absolutely not there yet – just look at how few women are on boards, so where is our voice? I do call myself a feminist, and I have never considered myself second rate to a man in anything. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that drive you mad: when I sought my first mortgage in New Zealand, I was horrified to find that the banks automatically put the man’s name first on the mortgage document (“it’s just how our systems are”), and so I rang round and gave my mortgage to the first one that agreed to put mine first  - and this was in the early 1990s: not really so long ago.

5. What did your journey to PRINZ President involve?

My journey to PRINZ President has been completely unintentional on my part. I joined PRINZ for the professional development and networking, and was voluntold for the local committee, which I ended up chairing for longer than I wanted to because nobody else stepped up. I’m not sure what happened after that – I guess I went to things that interested me, I cared about what people thought about PR, and was willing to stand up and call it PR, not pussyfoot around it. I took on roles to develop the profession more, like organising the accreditation exams, and mentoring. PRINZ awarded me a Fellowship to recognise my contribution, and I had no expectations of anything else, but somehow here I am, mid-way through the two-year term as President. Every now and then I still do that thing many women do – I say that my path has been all luck or happenstance, and I fear that people are going to find out that I’m not really competent or deserving. We shouldn’t really think that way, because you can bet yourself that men don’t.

6. What do you do when things don’t go to plan at work?

When things don’t go to plan at work I take a little break, look at photos of people and things I love (husband, sailing, dolphins), stroke my dog and cats, go for a walk in the bush and remember how beautiful the world is and how small I am in it, sit and look at the sea, or pedal furiously home up the hill (it’s a big hill), by the top of which I’ve forgotten why it seemed important at the time. My mum once said to me when I was getting upset at stuff, ‘Imagine yourself 24 hours from now – imagine what you will be doing and thinking”. That’s been a huge help in getting out of a stressful moment, and putting it all into perspective. At the end of the day things not going to plan at work doesn’t really matter: what matters is outside work. A good question to ask yourself is, ‘Is this the ditch I want to die in?’ (and I might have learned that the hard way just a few times).

7. What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self not to worry so much what other people are thinking about you, and not to take anonymous negative feedback so much to heart. If people can’t say it to your face, then they’ve got agendas that aren’t anything to do with you, but are everything to do with themselves. I have shed tears over terrible anonymous criticism that was not remotely constructive – it was downright nasty and very personal. I think in recent years social media has shown us that some people get kicks from being mean when they don’t have to put their names to the words. I do sometimes wonder whether women get more vicious feedback than men do, but I don’t know that this is true.

8. What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of being in a good space, and being a happy and resourceful person. I live in a beautiful country of friendly people, have always had great jobs and good health, and am fortunate enough to be able to choose to do the things that I love doing, in the company of people I enjoy being with. The ability to take pleasure in life is precious, and I always remind myself that some people don’t have that ability for one reason or another: they may have had it taken away from them by circumstance, situation, bias, inequities, mental or physical health, life’s experiences, job, relationships, or simply their way of looking at things. I am lucky to be happy pretty much all of the time, and even when I’m not happy, it doesn’t get really dark for me.

9. Who is a woman you admire - and why?

I admire Joan of Arc. She lived in the 1400s when women had zero equality, and life was probably quite appalling compared to today, yet she went to battle wearing armour as a man, and through her actions and influence became an icon of history. I’m not particularly on side with the whole spiritual visions and prophecy side of the story (nor with the burning at the stake at 19 bit, but like all good stories some memorable drama helps), yet her unique bravery and determination count as a lesson women today can relate to – we can do it; we just need to find a way, and the bravery and conviction to do it.

10. How do you want to be remembered?

I honestly don’t think I would like to be remembered. I’m not sure what the point would be, and it’s certainly not what I’m setting out to do. I think I would rather people didn’t remember me, because my inner imposter whispers that it wouldn’t be for anything good!