Inspirational Woman: Charlie Webster | Broadcaster, Sports Journalist & Woman’s Aid Ambassador

Charlie WebsterTell us a bit about yourself, your background, and your current role

That’s such a broad question to try and answer at the moment! I’m a broadcaster, journalist, and also a campaigner – I’ve had such a varied career so far.

At the moment I have various podcasts. I have one called ‘My Sporting Mind’, which is around mental health. I talk to sports stars about mental health to try and open up the conversation. It’s targeted at people who would usually find it hard to discuss mental health, or to have that conversation. I think sport is such a powerful tool with that, especially for men.

I’m working on two documentaries at the moment, which I’m not allowed to talk about! But I’m so proud of both of them. I think one of them will be the best thing I’ve ever achieved once that’s out on TV, so I’m really proud of that.

In terms of my background, I started in broadcast. As soon as I graduated from Newcastle University, I pushed really hard and got a job in live sport, in football, and then got into many different sports.

It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to go into sports broadcasting, it was more the fact I knew sport really well and had an interest in it. When I was going for different broadcasting jobs, I got the one that was involved in sport because I knew what I was talking about and I was really passionate about it.

I was the first woman in Asia to host football at 23 years old – I ended up hosting the main live Premier League show in Asia and stayed there for two years. I was working for ESPN and Star Sports which were the dominant networks at the time. Then I came back to England and I worked on Formula One, and then I worked at Sky.

I became the first woman in the world to host a heavyweight world title fight which is something I’m really proud of because I was actively told that the world isn’t ready for a woman to talk about boxing. It was something I wanted to do since I was a kid because I used to watch boxing a lot and trained in boxing when I was younger. So, it was like putting a red rag to a bull – I pushed and pushed to try and prove them wrong, and I ended up achieving that.

I’ve done lots of different sports challenges as well. I cycled 3000 miles from London to Rio four years ago. I also ran 250 miles to 40 different football clubs to raise money and awareness about domestic and sexual abuse. The reason I picked football was because I wanted to try and get men to talk about something which is predominantly called a women’s issue, and I think everybody needs to talk about it for it to be changed.

I also sit on a ministry of Justice Victims panel and I work with the Ministry of Justice on issues around sexual and domestic abuse, trauma, and criminalisation of victims, so I’ve been advising on the domestic abuse bill.

At the moment I’ve been really focusing on widening my portfolio. I still do stuff in sport, but I’m really focused on using storytelling and my platform to try and make change.

Did you ever sit down and plan out your career?

That is such a good question!

I have done it throughout stages of my life, but I didn’t initially. I’m the first person in my family to go into higher education. I knew I wanted to use my voice because when I was younger, I felt like I didn’t have a voice.

My mom had me as a teenager and I’m from a poorer background, so I was always told that my opportunities were limited, and so I think that was what really motivated me. I probably had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, to prove that there was something else out there for me.

So, it wasn’t necessarily like, ‘I’m going to be a broadcaster’. Actually, when I was a teenager, I wanted to be an athlete because I loved running, it made me feel good about myself and gave me confidence.

When I started to get into broadcasting, I did start to put some goals in place. I’m a very goal orientated person, and I do constantly look to the future and think about what I want to achieve next – which can be detrimental sometimes. So, in that sense, I have done bits of planning, but I think it’s changed so much due to different things that have happened in my life.

When I left Sky, I left for a reason, I wanted to diversify my career and go in a slightly broader direction. So, I do plan my career out and try and look at different ways to improve and learn. But I do think it’s also important to be adjustable and change based on things that come your way because I think if you plan too much, you can get so focused on following that plan when it doesn’t work out the way you expect, it can feel like you’re failing.

It’s important to have adjustable goals because we can’t control everything and sometimes if we try to control our path and stay on a straight line, we don’t see the incredible opportunities that come our way to help us develop and diversify.

I’ve often sat there and asked myself, ‘what is my role, not just in my career, but what is my role in my life?’ I don’t necessarily separate my career from who I am. It’s all intertwined and that’s how I want it to be. I ask myself, ‘what is it I’m here for? What am I meant to give and what am I adding value with?’ And that’s how I plan my career out, and I’m constantly reassessing it as well.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Yes! How long have you got?!

I have faced so many challenges, to even give you an answer would take us days and days!

From the moment I went to university I faced challenges. I could only go to university because I got a full-time job and worked so hard to pay for it. I got myself into massive debt to get a degree because I had zero financial support from anybody as an 18-year-old.

I remember going into my lectures in a tracksuit because I was teaching classes and doing personal training at the gym in between lectures, which was a great learning curve for me. But the fact that there was never a financial safety net and it all relied on me was difficult.

This is something I’m really passionate about – when we talk about diversity, we need to talk about socioeconomic diversity as well, because I think it often gets missed and it can be one of the biggest barriers preventing individuals from reaching their potential, not just because of the money, but because of the belief you’re installed with.

That was another challenge I faced, I constantly questioned whether I was good enough. When I first entered my career, I had so many challenges in respect of attitudes towards me in two ways, as a woman, but also as a woman that had an accent, a Yorkshire accent. My job is also about my voice, and I think it’s really encouraged now to have an accent, but when I first started it was definitely something that was a barrier to me, believe it or not.

There was a lot of sexism I faced along the way, which would take all day to tell you about! Some of that really, really did affect me because it fuelled my own doubts a lot of the time. So, I had to really work out how to deal with that and try and get to know myself better, to be able to build my own beliefs. I’ve even been in jobs in networks where my background has been used against me to put me in my place!

Also, I waived my anonymity about being sexually abused when I was a teenager, and I found that really, really difficult because I felt like would I be judged on that. I was worried it would affect my employment because I think in employment, people sometimes want the safe person that won’t say anything. I’ve spoken out really passionately for people that don’t have a voice or are underrepresented, and I’ve experienced backlash from that a few times.

Then the other major challenge I faced was when I fell physically ill four years ago. I cycled 3000 miles from Rio to London and I completed the challenge – which is a challenge in itself because that was really hard! But then when I arrived, I was meant to work on the Olympic Games, but I fell critically ill.

I just thought I had a bug or something, but I ended up in a coma on life support – I had to fight for my life. But the biggest challenge was the aftermath of that because I lost all my work, so I then had to figure out where my career was going. I had to show that I was able to work again. I had to relearn how to walk again and I also had hemorrhaging, so I had to work with specialists on that. I also have post-traumatic stress disorder, so my mental health became a big challenge.

I’ve overcome so many different challenges in my life – I could keep you a week talking about them! But the main point is that no matter how many challenges you face, you will get through it!

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

That’s a hard question as well because there’s so many achievements in different things!

In my broadcast career, one of the biggest achievements was working at the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, just because when I was a kid, I used to watch the Olympics and I wanted to compete in it. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but to be able to work on it, contribute and be a voice was just incredible, and a dream that my younger self would have never believed, in a million trillion years!

That was also why I think what happened to me in the Rio Olympics was such a big blow because it wasn’t just the health aspect. My mom jokes because when I was in the coma, she kept saying to the doctors, ‘oh my God, if she wakes up and she knows she’s missed the Olympics, she’s going to go mad!’.

And one of the first things I said to my mom when I did start to speak again was ‘have I missed the Olympics?’ – that just shows my personality and shows how much my work means to me!

I’m also really proud of my podcast, Undiscussable, which gathered lots of different voices talking about domestic abuse. I was so proud of that because it actually helped me a lot, even though I found it very hard to make and quite triggering, when I released it, it was amazing to hear that it actually made a difference and helped people. It made me feel like I could use what’s happened to me in the past as a positive thing.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

100% my mindset! I feel like I had to work so hard to even get to the same playing field as a lot of people, especially in my industry.

I think it is changing, it’s definitely more diverse, but when I first started in my industry, I was one of the very few people that came from a poorer background with less opportunities. Mindset is everything and I attribute that to my success because without it I would have just given up.

There were so many times I could have given up and so many times I got knocked back because people didn’t believe in me. But I always backed myself and kept going – I have a really headstrong mindset. My friends and my mom would say it was also my stubbornness, but I wouldn’t say stubborn in a negative way, it was stubbornness like ‘no I am absolutely not going to let you stand in my way and I’m going to try so hard to achieve it’.

So, I accredit where I am now to my mindset, and I think people who have come across a lot of hurdles in their life will relate to that.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think mentoring is amazing and I think it’s something we need to get better at in this country.

There’s some places, like America, that mentor people really well. I’ve got an amazing group of American friends that are all incredibly successful and leaders in their own right, from all different backgrounds. We all kind of mentor each other, and I find them really inspiring. But they talk so much about different people they mentor or that they are mentees of, which I think we have less of in the UK.

So, I think mentoring is incredibly important and it can be the difference between somebody fulfilling their potential and not.

I have been mentored but I haven’t had a direct mentor. I take a lot from different people – I like to learn, I’m a sponge. To be successful (and it depends on how you define success) you have to be a sponge. No matter what age you are, even when you’re in your 40s or 50s, it’s still important to be a sponge and to take information in. Sometimes we think ‘I know what I’m doing, why do I need to learn more?’, but we can always learn from people.

I’ve been a mentor for a lot of different people. I worked with a group of teenagers and I met them twice a week to take them running. All of the teenagers had struggles in their home lives and lived in a poorer area that involved gangs. Taking them running made such a big difference because it showed that somebody was interested in them and they were worth it.

Running also gave us the opportunity to talk about things that are harder face to face – it broke down those barriers. I’m really proud of them and the things we did, all of them are doing really well.

I’ve also mentored young people coming into the industry, especially young girls. And I have helped victims of trauma, domestic abuse, and sexual abuse, which is really, really important to me.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

This is probably unrealistic, but one thing I would change in the world is unconscious bias towards women. If we can change the initial attitudes, then everything else could change, because I think a lot of the time it’s unconscious bias that creates barriers in terms of gender equality.

But I think if it was a tangible goal, it would be to close the educational attainment gap. Nearly half a billion women and girls age 15 years and over are illiterate. So, it would be to make sure that all women are educated, especially in areas of poverty in the world, because if we can change that, then there will be increased women in the labour force and in leadership positions.

I think it’s really important that we have women in political leadership roles, which is changing. But again, we still have that real disparity, especially in the UK. We’re only going to change that if we get all women and girls into education.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

To back myself!

We all doubt ourselves. I still have that niggling voice sometimes that comes into my head. But I think the one thing I would tell myself is that I am good enough, I am worth it, and I am worthy – that’s something I battled with so much and wasted so much energy on in my life. I wish I could just cut that part out, but my younger self wouldn’t have believed it!

I almost think I’ve had to learn and go through experiences to get that self-belief. I’m not talking about confidence; I’m talking about actual belief that I am worthy and that there’s only one of me. From a young age, I always came across confident, but deep inside I was constantly questioning myself, whether I was good enough and whether I was worth it.

So, I’d say to myself, ‘you are absolutely good enough, I’m so sorry for the times I’ve told you that you’re not!’ You can achieve everything if you know that you’re worth it.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I’m working on a really powerful and impactful documentary that means a lot to me, but I can’t say what it’s about or where it’s going to air because we’re in preproduction at the moment, and it hasn’t been publicly announced yet but I’m really excited!

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, from a career and personal perspective, and I finally got the opportunity to! But it’s going to be hard because of the nature of the topic and because it means so much to me, I want to put everything into it to do the whole thing justice – I’m also a bit of a perfectionist.

In the future I want to make more documentaries that make change, and I want to continue to grow my career – I’m constantly learning. I’ve done a lot of writing, speaking, and producing, and I want to continue to improve those elements. I’m interested in learning more about directing so I’ve been doing some work around that, which I think will be really interesting. There’s not many female directors still, in terms of factual documentaries.

How have you been coping with lockdown and what advice would you give to others who are struggling in these unprecedented times?

I’ve just been running all the time, which is something that I do anyway, and it’s been really helping with my mental health. Even though I’m working, being in the same environment and not seeing anyone because I live on my own has been quite difficult.

This morning I didn’t want to go for a run. I couldn’t be bothered; I was tired, and I’ve got quite a long day. But I made myself and getting out just made me feel so much better. So, running plays a huge part in my life and continues to during this lockdown period.

I think the best advice I would give people in terms of mental health is that we’re currently in a really difficult situation, so remember that. I think that’s really important because we definitely internalise a lot and think we should be doing better, and we tend to put pressure on ourselves and criticise ourselves for feeling down or anxious, but these are normal responses to a really difficult situation.

I mean never in a million years did we think we’d be in a lockdown situation where we’re not allowed to see family and friends. So, I say this to myself and my friends, ‘remember the situation we’re in, it’s normal to feel like this’.

It’s important to be positive, but at the same time, if you’re not feeling great, you’re not feeling great – you don’t have to try and convince yourself to be positive. The best thing you can do is actually acknowledge how you’re feeling. It’s really important to acknowledge emotions rather than being like, ‘oh well, let’s just find a positive spin in this’ because sometimes there isn’t one!

Anxiety is usually caused by worrying about the future. I know a lot of people have anxiety at the moment because there’s a lot of uncertainty, worry, and ‘what ifs’ all the time. Bringing yourself back into the moment and trying to find things that you can control in your day really helps. There’s always something you can control, for me it was whether I got up this morning and went for a run before I started work – that was in my control. What I make myself for dinner, whether I choose to put half an hour for myself in my diary or just continue meetings all the time – those are things that are in my control.

At the moment, it’s just about getting through this and surviving, and that’s okay.

In light of the shocking abuse statistics during the lockdown periods, how important is it to keep the conversation going surrounding domestic abuse?

It’s so important that we talk about domestic abuse.

Number one because not talking about it is the abusers’ best friend. It means it can just go on in silence, right under our noses. This is not something that’s happening far away, this is something that’s happening next door to me, next door to you – it’s happening in our communities.

The thing about lockdown is it creates isolation, as we know because we’re all feeling isolated in some way, shape, or form. But that isolation has made it even harder for victims to get help and get out of the situation. At the heart of domestic abuse is power and control, and lockdown has given the abuser more power and control.

There were spikes during lockdown, but it’s also important to remember that lockdown doesn’t cause domestic abuse, domestic abuse is in our society whether we have COVID-19 or not. So, it’s essential we keep talking about it to keep it visible, so victims know how and where to get help.

The sad thing is some of those domestic abuse victims are children. These children are suffering in homes at the moment where they wake up every day in fear.

You created the podcast ‘Undiscussable’ – why is it important to give victims/survivors a voice?

It’s so important that survivors and victims of either domestic or sexual abuse have a voice because when you are abused your voice gets taken away.

Also, your experience is often devalued by society and by the system. It’s not just what the abuser does to you, it’s the fact that we still have victim shaming, which is just horrific. Imagine being abused and then getting doubly victimised by culture and by society’s attitudes.

By giving survivors a voice, it means that other victims and survivors know they’re not alone because abuse is very lonely. I think we still have this perception that it’s very much a physical act, whether it’s domestic or sexual abuse. But actually, the physical abuse is just one part of it. There’s also the manipulation that can make you feel like you’re not worth anything, you’re not good enough, there’s something wrong with you. You feel shame and like it’s your burden to bear, and it’s those feelings and those thoughts that stay in your head and create long-term damage.

So, for me, giving victims and survivors a voice helps other people understand that it’s not just them. One of the best things I did was become part of a survivor group for about two years which included lots of people from different kinds of family trauma or sexual abuse. I remember thinking, ‘oh my gosh, it’s like I’m listening to myself!’ Even though we all have our own individual experiences which are unique, there’s a collective of us and we’re not on our own and we often experience the same feelings.

It’s so important to use people’s voices and powerful stories to help other people and to show others that they’re not alone in their own experiences or traumas. That’s why podcasts are great because they almost give you an element of anonymity. Also, you can listen to them in your own time, in private, through your earphones – that’s why I choose to use this medium.

What part does sport, particularly football, play in the conversation around mental health?

Firstly, actually playing sport helps mental health. For me, it’s a massive savior, it’s been a crutch. It’s like therapy, it’s my meditation – I’d really struggle mentally if I didn’t do physical activity and sport.

So, on an individual level it’s so important, but then on a community level, it gives people hope and friendship, it’s like a safe place. For young people, it can give you a sense of identity, a sense of achievement. It can help you break down boundaries to realise and fulfill potential.

Focusing on football, I’ve been to so many football matches and I’ve probably had nothing much in common with the person behind me or next to me, but I’ve got football in common with them and they support the same team as me, and with that, you can start a conversation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s somebody my age, a 16-year-old, or an 85-year-old – you can see the way it puts a smile on people’s faces.

You can use sport to create a conversation that might be quite difficult to normally have. As a woman, I feel it’s difficult to talk about mental health sometimes, but I know that for men, due to gender stereotyping, it can be even harder. I have three younger brothers and it’s so important that you use certain things to have that conversation about mental health, and that’s where sport comes in. You can use it to break down barriers, talk about mental health, and get rid of the stigma.

Charlie Webster is available to book via Champions Speakers alongside an abundance of other leading female speakers.

WeAreTheCity has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Cherie Blair, Paula Radcliffe MBE, Caprice Bourret, Anna Williamson and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here

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