Written by Emma Kavanagh


How to get ahead in a man’s world

As a police and military psychologist, author Emma Kavanagh was often the only woman in the room. And yet, she persisted…

Photo by Matthew Jones.

I’ve rarely spent time comparing my own worth as a woman to that of a man. I’m going to put that down to the phenomenal level of support I received from my parents.

When I announced I wanted to be an author at the age of five, they told me they loved my stories. When, aged 10, I said I wanted to be an astronaut, they said if anyone could do it, I could. When, at 13, I said I wanted to be a psychologist, they said that our family could probably use one, so go for it.

I never did get to be an astronaut. The psychology thing though, that was in my bones. And yet to do exactly what I wanted to do would require an enormous leap of faith.

What fascinated me was trauma and how people operate – both the successes and the failures – in life-threatening environments. What I wanted was to share what I knew about the secrets of the brain in danger with those whose lives could depend on that knowledge.

Unfortunately, no such job existed.

So, at the age of 25, having just graduated from my PhD in cognitive psychology, and, after a particularly rough time in a job that made me deeply unhappy, I turned to my – by now unflappable – parents, and told them I was going to create the job I wanted.

The absurdity of this should perhaps have given me pause. I was a young woman with little experience of the world and what I was proposing would involve entering into an industry heavily dominated by men, famous for their suspicion of anything smacking of the ‘touchy feelies’. Yet, for reasons I still cannot explain, these things seemed less like obstacles to me than challenges.

And so I sallied forth, trying to convince someone, anyone, in a firearms training department, to give me a chance, to let me come and simply tell them what I know about how the brain works when you are in a life and death situation, how that can change your behaviour, and what steps could be taken to counteract these effects.

After a number of false starts, an open-minded firearms inspector agreed to let me deliver my training to his teaching staff, all male, all terrifyingly huge. Walking into that room, seeing the doubtful looks, the crossed arms, was sobering to say the least. I knew, however, that what I had to impart could be useful to them. So I started talking. Within minutes, the faces began to lighten and I could see doubt turn to interest.

“Above and beyond what I brought to this world of men as a psychologist, my presence, as a woman and an outsider, also helped shift the discussion.”

It was the first step in a marathon, but a first step that made all the difference. The policing community is an extremely tight one, difficult to get into, but once you are in, word travels fast. Within a matter of months I had built a functioning business, providing training to specialist police officers and NATO personnel across Europe on the psychology of firearms, critical incidents, terrorism, body recovery and hostage negotiation.

It was pretty common for me to be the only woman in a room. The strangest thing if I look back on it now is how normal the whole thing seemed to me. Not once did I feel threatened or unequal.

You see, the thing is, there is a value in diversity, beyond the mere fact of its moral correctness, because when the room is full of similar people, all thinking in a similar way, that thinking becomes polarised. What might have begun as moderate views shift to the extreme as they are discussed with no resistance, only support.

And so, above and beyond what I brought to this world of men as a psychologist with a different skill set, my presence, as a woman and an outsider, also helped shift the discussion, encouraging those within the group to consider other viewpoints, to moderate their views.

I understood that I had value.

Six months ago, the political world shifted and, for the first time I began to question the value placed on me as a woman by society. I felt less than. I felt small.

Then hundreds of thousands of women marched and that sense of smallness rose up, changing into something else.

In spite of all, we persist. My parents were right. There is NOTHING we as women cannot do. The only way we guarantee failure is by failing to try.

So today, do something that you are afraid of. Speak out when someone belittles you. Tell your daughters they can do anything. Teach your sons that you have no limits. Stop telling yourself that the world beyond your door is not for you. If not for you, then who?

We can only be made small with our compliance. Do not give the world that. Persist. Because our role, as equals, as fighters, as inspirations, is critical to making this world the best place it can be.

Emma’s new novel, The Killer on the Wall, is released this month.


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Written by Emma Kavanagh