No more funny handshakes

December 15, 2000

In new research for the Hansard Society, Karen Ross argues that the biggest hurdletoequality is a lack of will.

A report setting out the extent of women's involvement in the decision-making tier of British society was published yesterday, providing a timely corrective to the fantasy that women have never had it so good.

In 1989, the Hansard Society, which works to encourage a more informed and participative democracy, set up a commission to investigate the "formidable" barriers that prohibit women's wider involvement in public and political life. Ten years later, the society commissioned Coventry University to determine women's progress over the past decade.

In some ways, the "verdict" depends on whether one is a "half-full" or "half-empty" kind of person. To the former, the 200 per cent increase in the number of female permanent secretaries in the civil service is a great achievement.

To the "half-empty", the fact that this means a rise from one to three (out of 16) is a rather poor performance indicator, given that the service has had a programme to encourage women into senior positions since 1984.

Similarly, although it is heartening that the number of female MPs at Westminster has tripled from 41 in 1987 to 120 in 2000, why are more than four-fifths of our MPs men? If countries are judged on the proportion of female MPs, our Parliament comes in 31st in a league table of 176, below nations not usually regarded as exemplars of pro-female policies - such as Cuba, Argentina and China.

Elsewhere across the public sector, a similar "two steps forward, one step back" story emerges. Despite the earnest rhetoric of the lord chancellor and the fact that nearly equal numbers of women and men are now called to the Bar, only 9 per cent of High Court judges are women, just one sits as a lord justice and a woman has yet to become a law lord. In higher education, where all institutions proudly display their equal opportunities credentials, almost 80 per cent of senior lecturers and researchers are men and fewer than one in 10 professors is a woman.

To an ever-so-slightly conspiracy theorist like myself, researching and writing this report for the Hansard Society reconfirms all my other work in the "equalities" domain, the yawning chasm that divides the rhetoric of equality and the reality of women's life experiences and career trajectories can be explained principally by a deep lack of will.

Tony Blair's modernising agenda includes a clear commitment to equal opportunities across all aspects of government, national and local, in Parliament, hospitals, civil service and on school boards of governors. But, as we know from too many other failed visions, top-down imperatives look good on paper but can fail at the first spoiling attempt by those responsible for their implementation.

Many equal opportunity initiatives are floundering in the murky waters of the "merit" problem. It goes something like this. Women are under-represented in, say, senior management positions or engineering professors, so targets for improving their position are developed.

But then the whispering hint of lower standards slips into the discussion: will targets affect quality? This is a smoke-screen, designed to curtail any positive action, because the issue is not about giving women easier grounds on which to compete but allowing equally able women to get to the starting line in the first place.

In the end, what our report shows is that some women are making significant strides along the deep-pile executive carpet. But the starting point in 1990 was extremely low. In any case, when women's career paths, salaries, terms and conditions are compared with those of similarly qualified and experienced men, they still lag way behind.

The fundamental question that this research raises is this: why do we continue to squander and undervalue the talents of more than half the population? We do not need any more legislation. What we need is a genuine commitment to recruit and promote the best person for the job instead of always going for the one who knows the funny handshake or dresses to the left.

Karen Ross is director of the Centre for Communication Culture and Media Studies at Coventry University.

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