The press likened her to Cruella De Vil and entrepreneur Michelle Mone told her that she “gives businesswomen a bad name”. Francesca Gillett, Exeposé Online Features editor, meets controversial ex-Apprentice candidate Katie Hopkins.
She first hit our screens as the fearless, sharp-tongued candidate on the third series of The Apprentice, but since then Katie Hopkins has been busy. Busy carving out her media persona through appearances on shows from Question Time to I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, busy working as a journalist-cum-businesswoman and more recently, busy as she attempts a career in politics. In ambition she is clearly not lacking, and neither in opinions. But whatever your view on the outspoken Hopkins – whose Marmite effect has led to her being hailed as both a feminist and anti-feminist – her beginnings were closer to home than you might think. A University of Exeter graduate in Economics, she says that the university today is very different to the “small, provincial and country” one she remembers, but cites “fond” memories of her time here.
And it is back at Exeter University where Exeposé Features now meets her, speaking on the panel for Exeter Debating Society’s motion that ‘This House Believes Feminism Has Gone Too Far’. Perhaps most well-known for her forceful businesswoman personality on The Apprentice, Hopkins is often asked to speak about feminism and women in the corporate world. At points throughout the debate she both captivates and riles the audience into shuffles of boos, but always remains entertaining. It is only afterwards, when the lecture theatre has mellowed and we meet for our interview, that she comes across more personably, and less like the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ as she was dubbed by the press.
Hopkins – who manages to look well-groomed despite the 20-hour working days she says has become part and parcel of her life now – is clear that she would not call herself a feminist. “No. I think I’m sort of the strong face of women in the workplace. That to me is a sort of modern feminism, but it’s not the feminism that I hear about here.” She is strongly against quotas, positive discrimination and victims, which she cites as “probably the result of too much time in a classroom setting and not enough time in real life”. Interesting then, what she thinks about both maternity legislation and last October’s amendment to the Equal Pay Act, meaning aggrieved employees now have six years to make equal pay claims. “This is the point where women start to legislate themselves out of the game. [The Equal Pay Act] has made things much more difficult for employers because if they’re concerned in the slightest that they may have differential pay grades between a man and a woman, six years later they can still come back and get you for it. And that’s where employers start to go, ‘well shall I employ the woman or not?’ And that’s where we start to make trouble for ourselves, we start to make ourselves less employable and that breaks my heart.”
Her opinion on all-female shortlists is equally disapproving. “I think all female shortlists have got to be wrong. Because as soon as you enter a job where you’ve been selected off of a positive action shortlist then the men instantly know that that’s where you’ve come from, you haven’t gone through the same tough regime to get there that they have and you’re instantly a peg or two below where they’ve got to, and I think that’s the problem for us.”
Instead of relying on special allowances, Hopkins maintains that women must just be “prepared to fight” and that only a more competitive spirit will lead to more women in the boardroom. But is she underestimating the problems facing working women? According to previous EU surveys, the UK has one of the highest pay gaps between men and women and a recent study of nearly 3,000 managers found that 73 % of women agreed that the glass ceiling still exists. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project which seeks to expose the sexism that pervades in every life, told the BBC this week that almost “every single woman I spoke to” have recounted first-hand stories of sexist behaviour. So is it unfair to say that the problem lies solely with women themselves?
“The workplace is a tough and competitive place to be. If we take the example of pay rises, men are very good at asking for a pay rise, they will go into a room with their boss and say ‘I would like £20 000 pounds extra this year please, thank you’. A woman will go in and say ‘Ooh I don’t mind actually, oh thanks, oh I don’t mind’. We’re more diplomatic, we’re more cautious, we’re more reserved, and in a way we just need to be a bit bolder with the way that we are.”
Perhaps Hopkins has a point. Often there is a sense that ambition is considered a rather negative trait in women, whereas men can afford to be more ruthless in their drive for success. Does she agree? “Yes, absolutely.” She cites some the attitudes towards her perceived ruthlessness on The Apprentice. “Certainly some of the traits and things I had levelled at me – that I’m an evil woman because I’m so thrusting whereas a male would just be seen to be competitive. That I am overly vocal about a certain issue, but a male would just be seen to be putting his point across. And we are perceived in those ways but we just have to keep thrusting ourselves through.”
So how can women learn these valuable skills of thrusting? Hopkins’ answer is education, and starting early. Just this week mother-of-three Hopkins wrote in The Daily Mail of the importance of parents’ role in their children’s early academic success. “I’d love to get into my child’s primary school and give them some sort of commercial nous,” she says enthusiastically. “And certainly in secondary schools. I think girls could really do with help in understanding how to put themselves forward, how to compete because I think that’s where we fall behind.” Her twitter page, almost 4,000 followers strong, also speaks of her disapproval at the messages society is sending to our children: “Pair of books by Scholastic out today. Girls book, pink cover ‘How to be Gorgeous’. Boys book, blue cover, ‘How to be clever’. Dear god.”
After speaking with Hopkins, you are left with a sense of her frank passion and gusto, urging both strong women – and men – to strive for success in the workplace. Her message is ultimately an optimistic one which encourages both self-belief and determination, arguably imperative for any Exeter graduate who will soon find themselves in the bleak job market. “By the time you guys are out there it will be an easier road,” she says, her piercing blue eyes hopeful, “but at the moment we still need to fight our way through”.bookmark me