I meet Sengul Mustafa for our Women’s History Month at the News UK building in London on a Monday night, she waits for me at the reception while amiably chatting with the security guard. She works as the Production Manager at the Times Radio show, and we pass the windowed recording studio where John Pienaar is live on air, as she leads me to our meeting room. She wears a classic long black dress and her long dark hair falls around her in chic waves.
As she shows me around The Times Radio Newsroom floor, there’s no denying this is a high-pressure, fast-paced environment. The sound of the news broadcast displayed on TVs spread out across the room drones on in the background and mixes in with the muted sounds of conversation from Pienaar’s live Drive radio show. There’s always sound and movement.
As soon as we’re seated in our meeting room, Sengul wastes no time launching into our interview and asking me what questions I have for her. I ask if she can tell me about her experience pursuing a career in Broadcast media. She explains that she first started at eighteen:
“I went straight to the BBC from school as an accounts clerk, because I didn’t know what career I wanted. Everyone loved and respected the BBC. The good thing about it is that you can move around. You might go in there initially as an accounts clerk, but I probably had about 15 different jobs within the BBC, and every time I moved up.” These varied employment positions and experiences have allowed Sengul to be the qualified and versatile person she is today, “So basically, I’ve moved around, and built my career up that way.”
She describes her time working long hours at the BBC, then moving to work under a privatised company covering world-renowned Television Outside Broadcast events like the 2012 Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee. Until finally “[she] decided to go back to the BBC and work in News when the firm closed down. I’ve always loved news anyway.”
While her responsibilities and tasks might have varied from job to job, the one thing that stayed the same was the pressure. She says of work in the news that “you need to be thinking on your feet. You need to adapt to the situation, and it’s pressurised, lots of shouting going on, lots of things happening. […] I was working in Newsgathering and on Newsnight when it was the Grenfell tower fire, when it was the London Bridge attacks, the Manchester arena bombings, and various big major breaking news events. When live events happen like that you have to react quickly because it’s a news organisation, you need to get the camera crew together, you need to get the accommodation sorted, you need to get satellite trucks, you need to set up a whole studio environment outside, very quickly, and you need to know how to do that, who to contact, and not to take no for an answer.”
I ask her about the pressure of a job like that and how separating your job from your life is possible in such a position. “It’s not a nine-to-five job. It’s a 24/7, 365-day-a-year job. It doesn’t stop because it’s Christmas, it doesn’t stop because it’s your birthday. You’ve got to be flexible.”
“I was managing people and all that sort of stuff, I would be on the phone at midnight, or we were on holiday and I was hiding in the bathroom in Las Vegas on a conference call. I’d be on leave and I’d be on the phone, sending emails, there was no end to it. There was never a time where you could say ‘ok, I’ve finished’ because you were never finished, there was always something to do. So, the quality of your life isn’t great because you’ve got a lot of demands.”
When the topic of her daughter then comes up, Sengul explains she had to make a choice to put her career on the back burner: “my daughter’s going to be starting secondary school, so I thought, I won’t start another high-pressure job. So, I went back to the BBC, for less than half of what I was earning before. I won’t put figures on it but it’s a big drop in salary. And the job that I went into, deliberately was a nine-to-five job, you walked in at nine, you walked out at five. Purely because I thought, I’ve done the big career stuff, it’s not sustainable to actually have that work-life balance and actually keep spinning plates. So, I deliberately went back to the BBC for a lower-paid job so I could walk in and walk out, with the proviso that when my daughter was old enough to actually be self-sufficient, I would rebuild my career.”
Six years later, her daughter headed off to university: “We couldn’t predict the pandemic at all, could we? I thought 'ok then, I’m ready to move on'. But the career opportunities in the BBC to actually move on were quite limited. I saw the job for Times Radio, and I thought that’s quite interesting, I need something that’s new and different.”
Starting her new job mid-pandemic was not the easiest task, “The big thing is the imposter syndrome, isn’t it? You think you are clever until you go into an environment you’ve never been in before. And you think what if you get there and they say ‘Oh, well she’s not as smart as she said she was.’ And also, I think people don’t have an expectation that an older woman, in her late fifties, is actually going to do a full career change.”
I ask her more about it, my mum also considered a change in careers, but the ubiquitous feeling that after a certain age that change is difficult has slowed those plans. “I was in my late fifties, and people expect you to retire or, ‘you’re not going to have another job after this one’, or ‘you’re just a part of the furniture’. But I thought ‘Nah, I’m off’ and I never regretted it.”
That seems like a scary choice to make, I say. “It pushes your boundaries. Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to take risks. Doing more of the same is not going to stretch you mentally or develop you in any way.”
“It is a very competitive industry, but I think when it comes down to it, journalism in particular, you need sharp elbows. It is a dog-eat-dog kind of environment because everyone’s your competition.” But Sengul says at Times Radio things are different. There’s a friendship thing going on, where people make friends and help each other out and share contacts.”
Even with some spaces in this industry being friendly, would you still say it’s harder to get into journalism as a woman? I ask.
“Not now. But what happened in the past was, if people come in and they have got young children they were already on the back foot, compared to others who are unencumbered. Men more so now do childcare, but generally speaking, when it’s a woman trying to progress their career, you try to adjust. It’s a lot better now, and in fact, I think we employ more women than we do men in senior positions. So, in that respect, it’s evolved.”
Do you have any advice for women who want to pursue a career in journalism?
“You’ve got to find your passion.”
Does a career in journalism require more sacrifice than some other career choices?
“Definitely. You have to put your career first. If you start putting restrictions on your availability or cherry-pick shifts, people lose interest quite quickly in booking you.”
Finally, to close off our interview, I ask Sengul what her favourite moment in her career has been so far.
“My favourite moment is yet to come, I suppose. In fact, you need to look to the future. You always need to be optimistic. If you say ‘well, I’ve had my favourite moment’ what are you going to aspire to? I like to think to myself ‘what will I do next? What’s the next big adventure for me?’ I don’t think to myself ‘Oh, I’m sick of working’, I’m still vibrant, I’m still engaged, I’m still learning, I don’t think you ever stop learning.”