Man-made: women and power

Women in the Boardroom and in other positions of power are still outnumbered by three or four to one. John Edmonds and Eva Tutchell argue in a new book that the next government needs to adopt a more radical and wide-ranging programme to achieve gender equality.

The coalition government has congratulated itself on having increased the proportion of women on company Boards to 23.5 per cent. But as the authors of Man-made, a new book about why so few women are in positions of power, we found it difficult to raise even half a cheer.

The government chose to focus on what is happening in our largest 100 companies, but the next 250 have even fewer women in senior positions.

When we started our research for Man-made we thought we might find a story of steady improvement. What we discovered was disappointing and shocking.

The figures are appalling, particularly in the Government’s own back yard. There are five male Tory MPs for every woman Tory MP. In the Lib Dem part of the coalition things are even worse: women MPs are outnumbered by a massive eight to one.

There is a similar pattern in the professions and in our great institutions. The twelve most powerful judges in Britain make up the Supreme Court; only one of these judges is a woman. Charities and the arts are often thought to be women-friendly, but men heavily outnumber women as chairs of trustees and as directors. Angela Eagle MP says that Britain is an 80/20 society – men have 80 per cent of the powerful jobs and women have only 20 per cent.

Making slow progress

Is it getting any better? If so, the progress is glacially slow. We interviewed Brenda Hale, that solitary woman on the Supreme Court, and she was not encouraging. “I am disappointed that in the ten years since I was appointed not one among the 13 subsequent appointments has been a woman.”

During our research, we interviewed over 100 successful women and they told us the fascinating stories of their careers. Almost all of them were very modest and told us how lucky they had been. But what we heard in those interviews demonstrated how far Britain has to travel before we can claim to be a fair and equal society.

We are taught from the cradle that men are the doers and the leaders and that the role of women is to help and support. Anyone who doubts that truism should try to buy a birthday card that shows a girl who is active and in control. Leaders are expected to be tough, decisive and dominant, like an army general. That image is out-dated and misleading but it retains a strong hold on our sub-conscious. We were told about one woman who did, “not have leadership qualities” because she “consulted too much.”

The burden of behaviour and image

Many men find it difficult to envisage a woman in a leadership position. We lost track of the times we were told of high-profile women who were mistaken for junior staff and were patronised accordingly. But if a woman started behaving like the archetypal alpha male, she was given no credit and was more likely to be condemned as a “hard bitch”.

It is catch 22. A woman who behaves like a dominant man may climb the career ladder but she will be intensely disliked. Or she can be as nice and helpful as women are expected to be and remain popular but never get promoted.

Almost every woman we interviewed talked about the importance of appearance and the burden this imposed. Many men still judge women more by how they look than by their ability. Indeed some women say that men do not even start listening until they have looked a woman over. Never appear sexy or you will be the subject of gossip but never appear drab because you will be pitied. As academic Carole Elliott told us, searching for the right style takes up an awful lot of brain space.

The baby question

One woman reminded us that “the baby question” has never been resolved. The normal career is expected to be unbroken with no space for maternity leave. Some women told us that the best time to have children is before a career takes off; others said that it is best to wait until a career is established. The truth is that there is no right time. Whenever a woman is absent, men are being promoted and leaving her behind.

Childbirth brings many problems. Mothers are paid less and promoted less. Childcare is a nightmare. Many women noticed that once they had children they were no longer regarded as reliable employees. Some said the best way to avoid unfair treatment was not to mention their children – in effect to make them “invisible.” The most devastating comment came from women who had chosen not to have children: that decision had helped their career.

Moving closer to equality within a single generation

People talk about the “glass ceiling” but TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady saw things differently. She told us: “Never mind the ceiling, the whole house needs to be rebuilt from the skirting boards to the roof.” So the last part of Man-made is about how we can move closer to equality, not in the 70 or 100 years that is the current prediction, but in a single generation. Our radical programme involves positive action, the effective enforcement of legislation and the requirement for organisations to be open and accountable for how they treat women.

Our big idea will make the world of work fairer to women and more congenial for men. Increased longevity means that our working lives will soon stretch to fifty and sixty years. The world of work will have to change and we believe that paid career breaks must be part of a new system. The breaks will allow for retraining, further and higher education, for periods of necessary rest and circumspection and the chance to change course.

Career breaks will be popular and productive. The particular advantage to women is that they should include adequate time for childbirth and childrearing, giving much greater flexibility for parents to plan their families without damage to their prospects at work.

Will any Government elected in the next few years have the determination and foresight to adopt our radical programme? Only, we conclude, if female activists put politicians under the sort of sustained pressure that we last saw 40 years ago.

And here is a dilemma. Women want equality but we found that many, including younger women, disliked being called feminists. The myths of bra-burning and man-hating still make women hesitate. So, at the end of Man-made, we speculate about whether the new generation of women campaigners can rehabilitate feminism and mobilise the power to change the outdated culture of Britain.

Success will bring many rewards, and not just to women. But if Governments take no effective action they had better apologise to our granddaughters and to our great granddaughters. Because those women and girls will pay the price of failure.
Man-made,  by Eva Tutchell & John Edmonds is published by Gower Publishing.
Read first chapter at http://bit.ly/1vGIHqX  and follow @Manmade_ETJE on twitter.