Ground Floor

Barbara Wootton

A few years ago, when I was reviewing a book on Women in Social Work, I made a vow to myself that I would never again engage in discussion of ‘Women in’ any sphere. It seemed to me that the time had come to recognise that sex is as irrelevant in the professional activities of men or women as it is important in our private lives.

So long as this thesis remained unacceptable, and so long as many public and professional doors were closed to women, discrimination in favour of ‘women in’ this or that field was necessary to break these male monopolies. Here the first, but minimal, step forward was the convention that a ‘token’ or ‘statutory’ woman should be included in such hitherto masculine preserves as Government Committees or Royal Commissions, and in BBC discussion programmes – roles in which I have repeatedly figured myself. This advance, however, fell far short of establishing wide-open opportunity for both sexes to compete on equal terms for any job or public appointment, the successful candidate being the person who, regardless of sex, is apparently best-qualified to hold it. The BBC has even been heard to argue that, although women may not participate in programmes in numbers reflecting their share of the population (in which, of course, they constitute the majority), they do sufficiently represent the small proportion of their sex in public life.

Meanwhile, bravely pioneering women have long been battering their way into such unlikely professions as those of engineer or air-traffic controller; and today there are signs that, in their professional capacity, women are ceasing to be a distinct species. About the time that I forswore discussion of ‘Women in’, the Bill constituting the Occupational Pensions Board came before the House of Lords. As drafted, it provided for the Board to include representatives of such categories as employers and employed, whereupon one noble Lord proposed that this should be amended to reserve similar places for women. That, however, met with an emphatic negative from the women peers present in the House. Much as we would have liked to see some women on the Board, we were determined that they should serve in their appropriate professional categories, not just as women.

So why, in face of this admirable survey of women in top jobs, do I break my vow to lay off ‘Women in’? Answer: for two interconnected reasons. First, because even if women have broken down many professional doors, the stairs inside are still a formidable obstacle, and women tend to be left on or near the ground floor. ‘Women in ...’ is not the same as ‘Women at the top of ...’ Nor does this book (which follows a similar survey by the same authors 12 years earlier) suggest that upward movement is becoming easier: at least not in the four case-studies which they have reexamined in detail – namely, the Civil Service, the BBC, the architectural profession and two (unnamed) industrial companies. After much detailed research they conclude from these examples that, while ‘in broad terms the principle of equal opportunity has been won,’ its implementation during the 1970s has been ‘limited and slow’, and is likely so to remain ‘unless new and stronger pressures are brought to bear’.

All these employers have thus forsworn discrimination of the kind whereby a man might occasionally be promoted ahead of a woman with better qualifications. Equally, all are agreed that there should be no discrimination in the opposite sense, in order to keep up the ‘delicate balance’ between the sexes. Women should neither gain nor lose on account of their sex. Acceptance of this principle by both employers and employees does not, however, mean indifference to its results. Significantly, two Women’s Groups recently established to represent women in the higher and the lower levels of the Civil Service are united in their demand for ‘much more systematic information on, and general discussion of, women’s careers’. If we had genuinely reached the stage at which sex was wholly irrelevant to appointments or promotions, then those groups would never have been founded, and this book would never have been written, nor would there be any point in observing that, in spite of the splendid trail blazed by Evelyn Sharp, there is now no woman Permanent Secretary in the Civil Service.

However, it is idle to pretend that women do not have their drawbacks in employment; and these will continue, unless and until a time should come when genetic engineering has made it as easy to bear a child as it already is to get rid of one unborn, and when social change has also made it customary for the rearing of children to be equally shared by both parents. At the same time it must be admitted that the problems of women’s employment have sometimes been exaggerated: this book gives more than one example of cases where the ‘holes’ left by women retiring after a few years’ employment in order to have a child, are actually exceeded by cases of young men who move on, after about the same length of service, in search of roads that might lead more quickly to the top.

That brings me to my second excuse for breaking my vow. In some overwhelmingly masculine fields, which have not reached even the ‘statutory woman’ stage, surveys of ‘Women in ...’ are still as desirable as ever. Particularly is this relevant where the road to the summit even for men is uncharted, as in industry, where no specific qualifications comparable with those of lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects and other professionals are required for chairmen or directors of major companies. Not the least merit of this excellent book is the hunger that it provokes for comparable surveys of men in top jobs, particularly in industry.