Recently voted as one of the top ten most influential black people in Britain, Ofcom head Sharon White’s career has gone from strength to strength over recent years.
She speaks to ROK about her move from the civil service to the broadcasting regulator, the pros and cons of being a black woman in industry and why there aren’t one set of challenges facing all BAME young people.
What does your role as head of Ofcom entail on a day-to-day basis? What do you enjoy most about your role?
I spend a lot of time in meetings – either with my team discussing new ideas or with the organisations we regulate – the BBC or BT, for example – understanding how our rules affect them. What I most enjoy is being able to make a difference, whether that is getting people a better broadband service or ensuring children watching TV can feel safe.
How did you get into your current role? Why did you choose to move away from working within government?
I got my role in part because I have a lot of experience of ‘policy’ i.e. ways to improve things for the public at large, and partly because I am an economist and there is a lot of economics in the decisions we make.
I moved away from Government because I had done it for a long time – 25 years. I had loved it but wanted a new challenge and one which had more involvement with the private sector.
Last month, Ofcom called on broadcasters to improve the diversity of their employees. What specifically do you think needs to be done to increase the number of ethnic minorities in the broadcasting industry, particularly in more senior roles?
The key to unlocking this issue is for those running broadcast companies to make it a personal priority and really drive it from the top.
You’ve held a number of high profile roles. Do you think that the fact that you’re a black woman has had any impact on your career progress?
I think there have been advantages and disadvantages to being a black woman. On the one hand, you are more visible and people remember you (for good or bad!). On the other hand, you can feel separate from the natural networks that help people get on at work.
What do you think are the main challenge facing young people from ethnic minorities wanting to progress to the top of their respective fields, and what can be done to tackle this?
I think it is hard to generalise when ‘ethnic minorities’ comprise so many distinct groups. What I would say is that there is a particular challenge for black boys from a Caribbean heritage. The wider world’s expectations of what they can achieve are set low. This starts at school and continues through the workplace. An important way to tackle this is through support networks; those who have done well buddying up with those who are just starting out.
What’s the best piece of careers advice you’ve ever been given?
Have fun and don’t sweat the small stuff.
If you hadn’t gone down your current career path, what do you think you would be doing?
When I was younger, I had idealist visions of being a refugee worker. I did spend some time working in international development and actually I have found that I prefer working on issues that concern the UK.