Men must move over

    We’re on the edge of a general election in which, for the first
    time in history, we are led to believe that a Labour prime minister
    knows he must show some rapport with women. That was the story last
    year when chancellor Gordon Brown, in an unprecedented commitment
    to women, made child care an election priority.

    But this year, in the run-up to a possible May election, the prime
    minister has been reaching out to Middle England, prioritising
    defence, law and order and the kind of cultural counter-revolution
    that the Daily Mail likes: “no political correctness.”

    Given this disposition, how does his government propose to square
    up the bad news from the Equal Opportunities Commission about women
    at the top, the kind of women the government likes to like? The EOC
    report Sex and Power: Room at the Top shows slow progress and in
    some cases no progress.

    A clue to the government’s inclinations comes from the Women and
    Equality Unit at the Department of Trade and Industry: its Key
    Indicators of Women’s Position in Britain 2005 ignores the EOC’s
    unsettling findings and boasts that the gender earnings gap has
    narrowed considerably in the past 30 years. That would not be
    difficult – between 1975 and 2005 we have had the implementation of
    equality legislation, the consolidation of women’s presence in the
    labour market, the lifting of bans and proscriptions from the
    professions, and the global acknowledgement, at the level of
    international institutions, that the era of patriachy is losing its
    legitimacy.

    What Key Indicators doesn’t show is that the earnings gap has been
    growing since the 1970s. The Thatcher years put a stop to the
    advances of that decade by de-regulation of the economy and by
    resisting European equality directives that were deemed a burden on
    employers. But the shock is that since the election of a Labour
    government in 1997, the differential between men and women in some
    sectors has actually been getting worse. Key Indicators is a piece
    of propaganda, designed to induce a soporific sense that progress
    is progress, things go on getting better and better.

    But they don’t. Key Indicators was either prepared before the
    publication of the Equal Opportunities Commission’s report Sex and
    Power: Who Runs Britain at the End of 2004, or it was produced as a
    response to it. This is the EOC’s first comprehensive collection of
    data on women’s representation at the top echelons of power in
    politics, the law, business and public service.

    Women’s presence at director and assistant director level in the
    public sector has actually declined. Although most of the local
    authority labour force is made up of women – 71 per cent – they
    constitute only 13 per cent of chief executives (yet the proportion
    of female chief executives in the voluntary sector is 45 per
    cent.)

    The EOC also catalogues the institutional barriers in women’s pay:
    the long-hours culture that is prohibitive for women who typically
    take care of themselves, their jobs, but also their loved ones; and
    the recruitment and selection processes that filter out women. This
    is the nice way of saying that the paucity of women at the top is
    down to discrimination.

    There won’t be a woman of a certain age in local authority
    management who has not made it to a directorship, only to find
    herself re-organised out of the way once a new boss arrives with
    his team, a posse of blokes. And there won’t be a woman who has not
    been through a women-in-management programme, only to watch the sea
    close over her generation when normal life resumes.

    We are into the third decade after the implementation of the
    equality legislation and in each of these decades women have been
    having a go. Women have been so busy surviving sexism that they
    never acquire critical mass nor generate a secure cultural shift in
    attitudes. That means there is no guarantee of transmission of
    progress from one generation to the next.

    The prime minister is part of the problem: he traduces the
    movements associated with equality and the reform of our
    institutions with the slur of political correctness, as if the
    problem were the movements rather than what that they
    challenge.

    When women move into the men’s rooms their survival is dependent
    either on the loyalty of another lonely woman at the top, or a
    patron. When their cause is not championed by political leaders
    women’s presence continues to depend on patronage. Their impact
    becomes no more than a blip.

    Beatrix Campbell is a journalist and writer

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