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Women’s careers - highways or winding roads

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The following was published in The Huffington Post

Despite the advances at work that women have gained in recent years for far too many their experience is akin to a winding road whilst they see male colleagues roaring along a highway.  This is as true in the public sector as it is in industry and the business world.

Over a number of years a lot happened regarding gender equality in the public sector; yet recent facts suggest we are beginning to slip back. An illustration comes from changes in the machinery of government - where we used to emphasis equality of opportunity there is now a downsized Equalities Office.  Where we had action on diversity, led by senior figures across Whitehall, which was successful in bringing women into higher grades across the civil service, little now appears to be happening. 

October 2012 statistics from the ONS show that 37.4% of the Senior Civil Service were women.  The target set for the next year was 39% - not ambitious and certainly not challenging.  However the October 2013 ONS statistics show a figure of 36% women - 3% short of the target and down on the previous year. There are 10 women Permanent Secretaries 27%.  Yet the workforce comprises over 50% women.

In a Civil Service Reform document published in April 2013 diversity was mentioned in one paragraph and read “The Civil Service is committed to diversity and equality and is keen to attract and support talented people to grow and progress, regardless of background.”   This equality statement fails to mainstream diversity, and did not address the need for culture change to build a truly representative workforce. 

In public life we appear to be going backwards in some important areas. In 2012 for public bodies as a whole, the percentage of women appointed was 35%.  In the Judiciary, a not unimportant part of society, the figure was 24% - with only 8% of Supreme Court judges being women. In the armed forces only 12.6% of officers are women; in the NHS 32% of consultants; in the police 18% of women are ranked at Chief Inspector or higher.

Since 1918 only 369 women have been elected to Parliament, only 8% over that period, 61% of whom have been Labour members.  In 1997 the number of women in the Commons almost doubled to 120 101 of them Labour, the others spread across all the other parties.

Currently 23% of MPs are women 23% of the House of Lords only 18% of the Cabinet. As we have seen there have been a number of times in the Commons when the government front bench has been devoid of women. Overall only 26% of Ministers overall are women prior to 2010 that figure was 30%.

Of course we had Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, unfortunately she was known for holding women back from ministerial promotion rather than the reverse.

Women ministers have traditionally been placed in ‘safe’ departments for example there has never been a woman Secretary of State for Defence. It was not really until the 1990s that women made the top table

        1992 Betty Boothroyd became Speaker of the House of Commons,

        1997 Ann Taylor the first Leader of the House of Commons,

        2006 Margaret Becket the first Foreign Secretary,

        2007 Jacqui Smith the first Home Secretary.


For local councillors a 2010 survey by the Local Government Association found that 31% were women; 21% Leaders or deputy Leaders.  The percentage of women councillors in London was highest at 36%; in metropolitan authority’s 33% and in the shires 25%.

In nursery and primary education women are in a clear majority at 86%, with 61% in secondary education. However with head teachers those figures reduce to 71% for nurseries and primaries, with for secondary schools a huge drop to 37%.

In higher education for 2011/12 we had 21% of professors being female; 35% of senior lecturers and researchers; and, a Times survey in 2011 indicated that just 17% of Vice Chancellors were women.  More worryingly is that in 2011 the London Mathematical Society reported that only 6% of mathematics professors were women, and only 17% of engineering and technology professors.

These statistics illustrate that there is an issue with women’s career choices. I do not believe for a minute that there is an issue with their ability.  It is an issue which boils down to what is classed as ‘men’s’ work and what is classed as ‘women’s’ work.

From an early age boys have toys to build things with, we give girls dolls. We limit their imagination from the moment they are born. Children learn early just what a ‘woman’s’ job and a ‘man’s’ job are, and make their choices accordingly.  I was struck by a comment from one young woman when I was editing a publication about women in science, engineering and technology. She said “How can you dream of being an engineer if you don’t know what one is?”

If you have never seen, never heard, a women inventing something, fixing something, will girls dream about doing that job when older?   For engineer you can read politician, professor, judge, army officer, business leader. Once set on a particular educational path it can be hard to change and complete a new set of appropriate subjects.

The recent ‘Women in Leadership’ Report, published by Women in Management and the Chartered Management Institute, supports this. Liz Jackson, the CEO of Great Guns Marketing, identified a lack of knowledge among young women about the workplace.  She found that “Most girls just don’t know what is out there.  There is a massive detachment between education and the workplace, where they don’t know about these great jobs that exist”.

So what can we do? We need to be positive and focus on the possibilities we can help create. For instance we should be doing more to promote positive role models at work to highlight the success of women. We can encourage young women to think out of the box, to raise their sights and think about what they are capable of achieving not just think about traditional roles? 

Challenging sexist remarks when you hear them can feel pretty ineffectual. But by changing attitudes about what is acceptable we help change society.

Nothing less than a concerted and persistent approach will be sufficient to achieve the transformation that is required.  It could harness the skills and talent of girls and women, who would never dream of taking up certain careers, never dream they could become leaders.

Britain is a different place to the one I grew up in we have made progress we cannot allow the foot to be taken off the accelerator. We have to keep up the pressure or forever the road for women will be the winding one.  

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