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Female spies: 'Just ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs'

BBC One's The Night Manager and BBC Three's Killing Eve both featured women working at the top levels of espionage. But what's it actually like to work for MI5, GCHQ and MI6?

For the first time, five female spies from the UK's three intelligence agencies have come together to speak exclusively to BBC Radio 5 Live's Nihal Arthanayake about their work and their lives. We agreed not to use the spies real names.

Click here to hear Nihal's full interview with the spies.

(Photo:BBC/The Ink Factory/Des Willie)

Jo, a spy for MI5, says they were keen to speak about what they actually do: "This is a real first for us. We know people don't really know a lot about what we do."

It's everywhere the myths about our work, and it's really difficult because people get the wrong impression".

Ameesha says she hopes it helps to humanise spies, and wants to "show everyone that we are just ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs".

She works in analysis for MI5 and is incredibly proud of what she does: "I'll wake up in the morning and I'll be like 'oh my gosh, I actually work for MI5.' It's super cool, I'm fascinated by my work everyday."

Kate, who's been with MI6 for 10 years and now trains other people to work with agents, says there’s often a misconception that their work is all glamour and gadgets – just like a well-known on screen secret agent.

"For MI6 the best known person is James Bond, so we get that a lot. Obviously we like it a little bit as well because it's quite glamorous… We don't all get an Aston Martin or a speedboat or any other funky form of transport. You'll more often see us on a bus or a tube than anything like that," she says.

Did you always want to be one?

For Dia it was about giving something back - she'd initially wanted to be a doctor but says she doesn't think she was clever enough: "Not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a lawyer but that doesn't mean you can't give back to society and you can't help in protecting those that you love and those that you don't know."

When the newspaper opens and you see some success stories, certain things that have been stopped and you know that you've been been part of that effort - there really isn't an equivalent to that".

She's been with GCHQ for 10 years in a variety of roles and says the job satisfaction would be hard to find elsewhere.

"When the newspaper opens and you see some success stories, certain things that have been stopped and you know that you've been been part of that effort - there really isn't an equivalent to that."

Ameesha is still relatively new to the world of espionage - having joined MI5 two years ago. She studied law at university, and was working in the private sector when she saw an advert on the tube:

"It was for our graduate programme for intelligence officers and I went ahead and applied and, I guess, here I am.

"I used to watch programmes like Quantico and Homeland, that's always fascinated me... Priyanka Chopra who plays Alex Parish on Quanitco is definitely an inspiration."

Jo says she joined because she wanted to use languages: "I don't think I know anybody - apart from my child - who says 'I want to be a spy'… we've all just come to it kind of haphazard, and that's ok, that's what we encourage."

Was it hard to get in?

The recruitment process is tough, with candidates questioned for up to eight hours about their personal life as part of a six to nine month vetting process.

If you're one of these people that either love to talk about yourself a lot or put every detail of your life on social media, it's probably not the place for you".

All three agencies are keen to recruit more women, and people from ethnically and socially diverse backgrounds.

"We are making progress," says Jo who works in recruitment, "but we know we need to do more… there is no 'type' of person that can come and work with us.

"So if you're sitting there thinking 'they wouldn't have me' or 'I'm not that type' the only thing we can say is 'go ahead an apply and see how you get on."

She goes on to say: "If you're one of these people that either love to talk about yourself a lot or put every detail of your life on social media, it's probably not the place for you."

Explaining the vetting process as being 'extremely detailed and tough' she says: "It is intrusive, but we've got a really skilled group of vetting officers that make it easier for us as well."

Lilly has worked in research and engineering at GCHQ for seven years.

"It is a very odd process the first time round… the vetting officer turns up and you have to talk about your personal life in great detail. But they really do put you at ease, now it's a regular check and when I do it, it's not a big thing at all. You just get through it."

Ameesha said she found it therapeutic: "I quickly realised that they're not trying to catch you out."

(Photo: Sid Gentle films)

Jo described some of the more unusual questions she’s been asked by potential new recruits. "I've had somebody say 'do I have to wear my own clothes to work? Do I wear a disguise to work? I think probably my favourite one was when somebody said 'Do I have to dump my girlfriend to work here? Because if I do. I will'."

I've had somebody say 'Do I have to wear my own clothes to work? Do I wear a disguise to work?"

Jo says drug use is one of the more common questions from potential recruits: "That doesn't bar you… having smoked drugs when you were 16 at a party doesn't necessarily bar you from joining the organisation but obviously when you apply you can't take drugs."

How do you talk to your friends and family about what you do?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jo says they never really have to tell anyone they're a spy - because they can't: "Because we don't tell people what we do or who we work for, it's not something we would ever say out loud. So it's really strange saying it out loud."

Mummy that's fine because you don't do anything interesting so you don't need to come in [to school]". And I remember thinking 'If only you knew".

"I think you've got to own it," says Kate. "We deal with secrets, that's our trade, that's what we do. Not many people know where I work."

Dia says you quickly learn to deal with the 'What are you doing?' question when it comes to friends and extended family: "[I was] trained in this right from an early age in terms of Asian weddings, right, because you always get asked unwelcome questions. So you quickly learn how to deflect that so you don't end up answering that question at all."

Ameesha says her parents just keep it quite vague: "I think with both of them they're happy enough saying that I work for the government, I work for the civil service, and they leave it there, and you know what? Most people switch off at that point."

"One of my little kids came home and said 'we've got this thing on at school when you can take your parent to school if they do something really interesting'," says Jo, "And they went 'but mummy that's fine because you don't do anything interesting so you don't need to come in', and I remember thinking 'If only you knew…'"

Within the secret service, there is a growing emphasis on pastoral care. Special technology allows parents to contact their children's school or nursery while at work - without revealing the location. Some spies are also allowed to video call their family when on dangerous overseas missions.

Kate says: "We actually got to speak to our parents, they set up a video conference so they could see me and my colleagues, so they could see it looked normal."

How do you feel when bad things happen?

Dia says at GCHQ there's a lot of anger when something happens: "People channel that, they get together and they put all their efforts into trying to address what's happened and… trying to solve and actually go after those who've done it."

We wouldn't be human if individually we didn't think 'what else could we have done here".

Jo says when an attack does happen, it's 'truly awful'.

"We're devastated when something like that happens, and you get real awful sinking feeling... We wouldn't be human if individually we didn't think 'what else could we have done here'."

"We know that we will not stop every attack from happening. We know that's the case, as much as we try, we know that the reality is that we cannot stop everything from happening."

Kate says they take it extremely seriously: “The power of it is that we get to go to work the next day or sooner, and try and work out how to never let that happen again, and to find out about the people that did it and catch them.”

How do you let off steam?

Working in the intelligence services can be a stressful job, and it's absolutely forbidden to discuss details of your work with people 'on the outside'. But there are ways to unwind.

Ameesha teaches Bollywood classes to her colleagues. All three agencies have a hotly-contested annual 'Bake Off'. Dia says it's a "big thing" and MI6 has a "hilarious" annual pantomime, as well as a bar at its central London base.

Lilly also revealed that staff at GCHQ celebrated a "big operational success" by playing mini-golf in the garden at the heart of their high-tech headquarters, the so-called 'doughnut' in Cheltenham.