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Interview with Dame Jil Matheson

First Woman Jil MathesonIn 2011, over 200 years since its inception, Statistician Dame Jil Matheson became the first woman to have ever run the decennial population census. Jil joined the Office for Population and Surveys in 1975 and was appointed as Deputy Director in the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 1998. In 2008 she was appointed

Director General for Statistics Delivery. Here, Jil shares with First Women UK ten things she has learnt on the way…

Make sure you have your own bank account

My parents were my inspiration – but it’s only with hindsight that I’ve realised how much. My father was an engineer and took me to see engines being built and maintained (I still love them!) He also took me to my first football match (I still go).

Only when I got a little older did I realise that there weren’t too many other girls doing those things at that time… It was my mother who always told me to make sure I had a career so I had my own bank account – and a choice in whether and who to marry!

A sporty child, I was also inspired by the Australian Olympic swimming champion, Dawn Fraser. Not only was she a great sprinter but was also a rather rebellious team member. It turned out later that she had some very dubious views, but at the time I admired her athletic prowess and her fearlessness in the face of authority.

Challenged? Take a breath, work hard and give it your best shot

Rather than feeling nervous, I get a sense of satisfaction of giving something a good go. Deep breath, hard work, and remembering that nothing terrible is going to happen seems to do the trick

Don’t fear saying ‘no’ – it means something else can happen

I ‘retired’ 5 years ago. A friend sent me a postcard with a single message: ‘Resist the Work Ethic’. I have it on my desk as a great – and necessary – reminder that it is possible to say, ’no’ when asked to do something. It allows space for new interests to emerge.

Statistics help us understand everyday lives

People sometimes tell me that statistics is boring. Quite the opposite – it provides a set of tools to help us understand what’s happening in people’s lives. No group’s experiences should be hidden from history. Decisions about what to measure, as well as how to measure, analyse and interpret data benefit from a variety of perspectives. The current focus on the gender pay gap is a good example. The professional body for statisticians, the Royal Statistical Society, has always been open to women. Florence Nightingale was its first female fellow in 1858. This year (2020) is the bicentenary of her birth and will be marked by various events, which can be a useful signal to girls and young women that there are some great careers to be had.

Change is inevitable

The trick to shaping the change into what you want it to be is to be clear about what matters, who can help and who will be affected. And timing. Opportunism is important, and that means impatience has to be reined in at times

Saying, ‘I don’t know’ is not a weakness

Acknowledging that you don’t know something doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of things you do know, so focus on those and go for it. Generalisations can be dangerous but I know that at work, collaboration and team-work can often produce the best results. That can involve saying you don’t know or don’t understand something. That is not a weakness.

Sometimes the greatest satisfaction can come from working through things that have gone wrong

You can end up building something constructive It can be difficult to be open about mistakes,but investing in relationships with colleagues and critics is essential. (And having a glass of wine with them has helped on occasion too.)

Keep your eye on what really matters when the pressure is on

For me, friends and family help at times of pressure, along with a sense of what really matters. If I was feeling pressure then I was aware that others in the team probably were too, so I had a role in supporting them.

Simply knowing what you want can be as good as a career plan

I never had a career plan, just a desire to do interesting and important work, to work with great people, and challenge things when they didn’t seem quite right. Following opportunities to find out what you can do – including opportunities outside your comfort zone – can be satisfying and help you find out what really matters to you. Enjoying what you do will often help through challenging and difficult times.

I am proud to be a First Woman –  but also slightly bemused

I have worked for some great women (and men) but I just happened to be the first woman in the role of National Statistician at the time of the huge and best known statistical exercise that is the decennial population Census. A matter of timing. But proud too of course.

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