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

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

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

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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