INTERVIEW: Shannon Skinner interviews Frances Cairncross, Rector, Exeter College, Oxford University

It is not often one gets the opportunity to interview a woman who runs a 700 year-old institution. That is what Frances Cairncross does as Rector of Exeter College, Oxford University — the first university in the English-speaking world.

Frances Cairncross, an award-winning journalist and author of The Company of the Future and The Death of Distance, has cracked the proverbial glass ceiling with a stellar career in traditionally male-dominated fields. Prior to her role at Exeter College, she was the Management Editor at The Economist. Prior to that, she was at The Guardian, The Times, The Banker and The Observer. She has chaired the Economic and Social Research Council and was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy, UCLA and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA).

Shannon Skinner interviews Frances Cairncross, Rector, Exeter College, Oxford University

photo credit: Frances Cairncross, Rector, Exeter College, Oxford University

Frances was once a student at Oxford (St. Anne’s College, where she read Modern History) and holds an MA in Economics from Brown University, Rhode Island. She also holds honorary degrees from Trinity College Dublin and many other universities. She is a non-executive director of Stramongate Ltd, and a regular presenter of BBC Radio Four’s Analysis programme. She even once held the honorary post of High Sheriff of Greater London.

Now that’s achievement.

I recently met Frances in New York at a reception for Exeter College alumni, which was held during the annual North American Oxford University alumni reunion. I had the privilege of attending Exeter College at Oxford in 2007, when I took the Creative Writing summer programme. It was one of the most inspiring times creatively for me; to be surrounded by the intellectual energy of some of the greatest minds on Earth who have – past or present — studied or lectured there.

When I discovered that Frances was going to be in New York for the Oxford reunion, I thought it would be inspiring to interview her. After all, I wanted to know what it takes — as a woman — to successfully run a 700 year-old institution. And so, I traveled from Toronto to New York to meet this highly accomplished woman who I felt held some wisdom that I could tap into and learn from.

Find out what insights Frances Cairncross provides in this interview below. Enjoy!

What or who inspired you to become a journalist and author?

I had finished university, wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a career, and thought that journalism would allow me time to look around. I looked around for over 30 years!

Why is it so important for women to get a higher education?

Because it gives them self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. It also (on average) makes them happier, more employable and significantly raises their life-time earnings, compared to not having higher education.

What has been your greatest challenge to-date as a career woman?

To spend enough time with good friends and older family members.

Exeter College will soon celebrate its 700 year anniversary – what is it like as a woman, in particular, to run an institution that is so old and rich in history?

It’s a huge privilege. I look at the portraits of my male predecessors, which line the walls of our 1618 dining hall, and wonder what they would think if they knew.

Where do you find your greatest support to keep going?

From my husband, the journalist Hamish McRae, and from my two wonderful daughters.

Why should students consider attending Exeter College?

Because we will give them more personal attention, more intellectual stimulation and more interest than any other academic experience in the world.

What does “success” mean to you – how do you define it?

Success means doing what needs to be done without having to tread on too many toes or ruffle feathers unnecessarily.

How do you handle the pressures of your job?

By talking to my family, doing as much exercise as I can and finding opportunities to laugh.

Self-esteem, or lack of it, is an issue that affects many young women. What did you do to believe in yourself so that you could get beyond any self-doubts and reach the career heights that you have?

I was lucky enough to have loving parents – and especially a father who believed in the advancement of women. My parents argued plenty, but stayed together and enjoyed each other’s company more as the years went by.

One of the difficulties career women seem to experience is juggling “it all.” How do you balance work-personal life? Is it even possible to have balance and still achieve career success?

While your children are growing up, you can have two out of three of the following: work, family, friends. You can’t have all three.

Is there anything you haven’t yet done in your life – business and/or personal – that you wish to do?

Be a grandmother. But don’t tell my daughters in case they feel pressured.

Are you working on any new books or other projects that you would like people to know about?

I am working on a book about the College’s first 700 years, called Portrait of a College. We are taking advance orders now, so that’s quite a deadline!

Do you have hobbies?

I love swimming out of doors, all year round.

If you had one message to young women, what is it?

Remember that finding the right husband and raising a family ultimately may matter more to you than having a good job.

What is your top success tip?

When in doubt, ask yourself, “What would a man do?” – and then do it, but with more grace.


Shannon Skinner is the author of The Whispering Heart: Your Inner Guide to Creativity and host of Extraordinary Women TV with Shannon Skinner. She attended Exeter College at the University of Oxford (creative writing programme) in the summer of 2007.

copyright © Shannon Skinner 2012