In a collection of interviews to mark International Women’s Day 2022, we shine a light on some of the brilliant women at the heart of The Independent.
This time, it’s the turn of Helen Coffey, who talks about grabbing opportunities, making time to listen and the importance of empathy.
Describe your job
Overseeing all of The Independent’s travel content, from colour features on the hottest destinations to up-to-the-minute news stories on the latest travel rules. It’s a nice balance of commissioning, editing and writing, as well as looking at the bigger picture of how we want the section to evolve and helping shape our strategy going forward.
How did you get into your profession?
Like with most people, a combination of luck and grabbing opportunities when they came up. I retrained as a journalist in my mid-twenties by taking an NCTJ qualification part-time while working full-time. After qualifying, I took the first job I could – editing a B2B magazine for entrepreneurs. It wasn’t my area of interest or expertise, but I gained valuable skills in editing and commissioning, as well as learning how editorial and advertising work alongside each other. Next I saw a job come up for a junior sub-editor at a skiing magazine. A little research revealed the publication was being bought by The Telegraph, so I realised it would be a way to join a national paper through the back door (plus I love skiing – win-win!). I worked my way up to online editor of The Telegraph’s ski section and decided I’d like to transition to broader travel writing, so took a post as an online travel reporter at the Express. That gave me the experience I needed to get the job as deputy travel editor at The Independent in 2017, and last year I was promoted to travel editor.
Who and what has helped you break the bias?
Early on in my career, when I had just started at The Telegraph, Emma Barnett – now a major political broadcaster at the BBC and presenter of Woman’s Hour – was the editor of the Women’s section. As a nervous 26-year-old I approached her and asked if I could pitch and write some pieces for her. As an editor now myself, I realise just how busy she must have been – but she always made time to listen to my ideas, helped shape them and encouraged me, acting as a kind of unofficial mentor. Getting that support from a more senior woman really helped, as well as having a role model who managed to balance being incredibly competent and confident and holding her own in a male-dominated newsroom, with the more typically “feminine” traits of being warm, patient and encouraging.
Which women do you admire?
Some of the women I admire most are my closest friends, who have stellar careers and are incredibly hardworking – but they often doubt themselves and think they aren’t good enough. These women are NHS consultants, head of comms, lecturers, bookings directors, alongside raising families and being the main breadwinner in many cases – but they still suffer from imposter syndrome. We all act as cheerleaders for each other, and it actually helps to realise that even the most accomplished women need building up.
What are your hopes for the future in terms of breaking the bias?
My hope is that our idea of what leadership looks like continues to grow, so that women can succeed and rise to positions of power without necessarily needing to display more typically “masculine” traits in order to get ahead. Being empathetic, encouraging, good at listening to all members of a team and empowering others to do good work should be qualities that are just as highly valued in our leaders.
What one bit of career advice would you give to others?
Your career path might not end up looking the way you expected – and that’s OK. One opportunity leads to another, to another, to another – everything you do is a valuable stepping stone towards getting the job you want. While it’s good to have long-term goals, I firmly believe it doesn’t serve you to get too hung-up on one particular thing – “I MUST have achieved xyz by the time I’m 30” – and that it’s better to follow your instincts and take chances as they’re presented to you.