It was over ten years since Ditchley had last held a conference on issues primarily affecting women. That previous conference has not lingered in institutional memory as one of Ditchley’s particular successes. There is little doubt that the present conference will rank very differently.
We sought first to take stock of the position reached in various areas of economic and political life. In career civil services and similar roles the situation in most of Europe and in Canada offered encouragement - much distance still to travel, but notable advances made by comparison with earlier years. By late 1995, for example, there will be five women of Permanent Secretary rank in the UK, whereas in 1985 there were none; in Canada, eight (including the most senior post of all) out of twenty-six of Deputy Minister rank. France seemed something of an exception within Europe, and in the United States the career public service, less esteemed publicly and more thinly represented in higher posts, was anyway of less practical consequence; there had however been valuable improvement in the proportion of women politically appointed to senior responsibilities. We suspected that several factors about civil-service posts - such as the custom of recruitment by objective process, comparative openness of employment practices to public scrutiny, systematic methods of skill evaluation and the general culture of fairness - combined to put women at less disadvantage than in most other callings.
The position seemed uneven, both nationally and sectorally, in respect of other professions. In the law, both the U.S. (mostly) and Spain (with 38% of judges being women) were creditably placed; France again, with others, less well. In medicine overall representation looked strong numerically, but equity often faltered at the consultant level and in particular fields such as surgery. The academic sector tended to show a similar pattern, with parity or better at the undergraduate level but male predominance higher up, commercial pressures and “long-horns” culture often working to the detriment of women. The position remained disappointing too in many of the arts, with a clear case for more positive attention and support for women’s achievements. There remained problems also - perhaps rooted originally in school attitudes - in respect of engineering, and of professions based on mathematics and the non- biological sciences; in such fields notions, subconscious or otherwise, of “gender-appropriateness” had yet to be durably dispelled.
The area however that most generally worried us was still private-sector commerce and industry. Particularly in the higher reaches of large firms work cultures were not truly gender-neutral; whatever the reasons for the “glass ceiling” (and we were not sure how much golf and the luncheon-club really mattered) only one top post in about twenty was held, in the U.S., by a woman, and the proportion showed little sign there of rising .“Family responsibility” explanations for women leaving firms often masked perceptions of the ceiling. The picture was less bleak in smaller businesses, where women were indeed often the entrepreneurial leaders; against that, such businesses were (or thought themselves) often less able than their larger counterparts to afford the work-pattern flexibilities needed to optimise the contribution of women. Most of us were disposed to believe that the main route towards improving matters in the big-business world was less the demand for rights than persuasion of economic advantage. Business leaders, especially chief executive officers, needed to be convinced - as experience, for example in the Bank of Montreal, showed that they certainly could be - of the wisdom, in commercial self-interest, of using all the available talent. Strategies should be found for enlisting senior men as allies rather than threatened competitors.
The calling often at the bottom of the league, we heard, was that of elected politician. The position in the United Kingdom House of Commons remained deplorable, and that in the U.S. Senate scarcely better (though the House of Representatives was close to parity). Positive action to rectify matters was not easy, especially in single-member-constituency electoral systems, as current problems within the British Labour Party illustrated; but we were in no doubt that improvement by one method or another was badly needed and highly important (not least, so one participant urged, to help ease the widespread current alienation of political systems from their publics).
We considered what were the continuing general obstacles to equitable advancement. One set, we were sure, comprised obstinate myths - “women mostly want just pin money” or “wine in the cooler, not bread on the table”; “women don’t stay the course”; “women mostly cannot cope when the going gets tough”. Experience constantly and increasingly gave the lie to all this, but the task of debunking still needed regular attention. The media could help valuably towards changing stereotypes, even for example in soap operas.
We debated whether there was a distinctive female contribution to be made in leadership by way of a style characteristically different from that of men. The evidence was rarely more than impressionistic and anecdotal, and most of us were rather wary of the concept, not least because of the risk it carried of reinforcing the compartmentalisation of women in management (for example into human-resource, public-relations or government-liaison roles). But we did recognise the possibility that trends currently visible anyway in management doctrines generally - away from the authoritarian mode, towards the participative and team-based - might be of a kind that most women found congenial.
Economic advance, we observed, worked generally and in the long run in favour of equality for women at work. But in the near term the economic context in many developed countries - especially with pressures on male employment during rapid technological change - was contributing substantially to the backlash now evident (notably though not only in the U.S.) against the equal-opportunities drive. The Angry White Male syndrome - though apt damagingly and divisively to seize the banner of family-values, women-at-home, look-after- the-children - was largely based on fear and resentment about jobs. The backlash could not however be simply ignored or scorned; it had to be coped with realistically and rationally.
Our survey of developments in the design and organisation of work, including its hours, noted that considerable headway had been made in providing more flexible options for women (as indeed for other groups for whom rigid “standard” patterns were awkward). Again, though, progress was uneven and more yet remained to be done, perhaps particularly in respect of help with childcare. It had moreover to be recognised candidly, both by individual women and by society, that though boundaries could be eased and sharp either / ors softened, there was often no full escape from hard choices between home responsibilities and career advancement; and young women might need timely advice and warning about this.
The capability which modem technology provided for office-type working at home could contribute much to widening possibilities for continuing careers upward, and women should see such technology accordingly as basically liberating, especially if firms partnered it by suitable keep- in-touch arrangements during breaks imposed, for family or other reasons, upon orthodox commuting. But the option was not without its dangers - the effect could be isolating if the home-working pattern became the predominant one in an individual’s career; and such predominance could impair credibility for higher management roles.
More broadly, the “knowledge-based” economy which information technology presaged ought in principle to favour opportunity for women. At the same time, however, the prospect underscored the importance of equal access to training in appropriate work-skills, particularly for those women now in mid-life whose initial education had been given in a less even-handed school culture; and we heard that many businesses still provided training for advancement mostly in modes (like away-residence) awkward for many women. We were reminded also that attitudes within schools - crucial at formative stages - still often hampered women in the full exploitation of their talent. Besides the frequent bias against guiding girls to such subjects as the “hard” sciences, teachers of both genders often failed to inculcate parity of career aspiration, despite the strength of girls in comparative academic performance at school level.
We had much discussion of the role and character of legislation in buttressing equality of advancement. The concept of imposed quotas found no friends, and there was little general sense that extensive new special legislation would be helpful (though a regular custom of “gender-proofing” general legislation, by conscious scrutiny for possible effects not gender-neutral, might well be salutary). We noted indeed that some laws ostensibly protective of women might in practice operate to exclude them, or to make their employment less attractive to business. We observed also that, though in some respects Europe-wide laws served to correct inadequacies in national statutes, “positive action” remained vulnerable to judicial disallowance, even perhaps in the European Court of Justice. The most cogent need, we suspected, was for greater practical readiness to invoke the existing law case by case against malpractice - the declaratory presence of law on the statute book was not in itself adequate safeguard without sanctions being both available and actually used. Mechanisms like Britain’s Equal Opportunities Commission - state-funded yet fully prepared to act if necessary against the state as employer - could contribute valuably. We recognised that neither statutes nor supporting mechanisms like this could guarantee the selection of individual women for particular promotions; but they could compel proper procedures (such as advertising of posts) and so make it harder to overlook merit.
Transparency and good information were in fact among the most important and powerful tools - it was suggested indeed that if there was a role for fresh legislation, it might well lie here. Businesses of all kinds should be urged to monitor and measure achievement in advancing women to senior positions, and to make the information readily available; women’s organisations (and others concerned with the issue) should for their part take trouble to collect and disseminate it generally. There would be advantage also in assembling more systematic data on notable success stories, individual or group, about women in leadership roles.
The themes of mutual support and continued vigilance recurred throughout our discussions. Networking among successful women and help to those on the way up were everywhere important; critical mass mattered, and the “loner” could rarely be the right model. Leaders needed to encourage younger women to accept risks, and to recognise the necessary conditions of hard work and sometimes sacrifice to underpin achievement.
It was necessary also to correct any assumption - often seemingly made by the newer generation - that the central battle was won and that most playing-fields were safely level. There had indeed been much cumulative advance, especially in the formal and statutory sense, and the composition of our conference was itself a symbol and celebration of the gains made. But much was in practice still unsatisfactory, and alongside this a new risk arose that, with state provision and law apparently in good order, support might be less active for the women’s organisations whose pressures had contributed to the gains and continued to be necessary to extend them. Finally, we reminded ourselves that across most of the developing world conditions for women’s advancement remained far worse than almost any we had reviewed.
This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
Chair: The Lady Howe of Aberavon
Chair: Opportunity 2000 Target Team, Business in the Community; Broadcasting Standards Council; BOC Foundation for the Environment and Community
LIST OF PARTICIPANTS
Dame Margaret Anstee DCMG
Lecturer, writer and consultant; Adviser to the President and Government of Bolivia
Ms Liz Bargh
Director, Opportunity 2000
Mrs Ann Bowtell CB
Deputy Secretary. Department of Social Security
Deputy Chairwoman, Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and Chair of the Legal Committee
Dr Eurfron Gwynne Jones
Visiting Professor, Institute of Education, University of London
Ms Sheila Hancock OBE
Actress and director; Director, The Actors Centre
Mr John Howe OBE
Deputy Under-Secretary of State (Civilian Management), Ministry of Defence (MoD); joined MoD (1967)
Dr Nancy Lane OBE
Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge
Author and journalist; columnist, The Times
Dr Bridget Ogilvie
Director, Wellcome Trust
Mrs Maureen Rooney
Engineering and National Women’s Officer, Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union
Ms Janet Rubin
Group HR Director. The Littlewoods Organisation pic, Liverpool
Mr Martin Williams
Sex Equality Branch, Department of Employment, London.
Dr Monique Jérôme-Forget
President, Institute for Research on Public Policy
Ms Deanna Rosenswig
Executive Vice-President, International Markets, Financial Institutions and Governments, Bank of Montreal
Ms Sheelagh Whittaker
President and Chief Executive Officer, EDS Canada (provider of business and information technology services)
Madame Michelle Coquillat
Inspectrice Générale, Ministry of Industry, Paris
Frau Monica Jaeckel
Senior Researcher, Gender and Family Studies, German Youth Institute, Munich.
Ms Urszula Nowakowska
Founder and a director, Women’s Rights Center (non-profit NGO)
Señora Inés Argüelles
Deputy General Manager, Banco Central Hispano, Madrid
Mrs Wilhelmina Cole Holladay
Chairman, Board of Directors, The National Museum of Women in the Arts
Ms Mary L Kramer
Vice President, Crain Communications Inc
The Hon Joyce D Miller
Associate Member, Wage Appeals Board, US Department of Labor
Dr Francine Moccio
Director, Institute for Women and Work, School of Industrial-Labor Relations, Cornell University
Mr Edward W Pitt
Senior Research Associate and Director, Male Involvement Project, Families and Work Institute, New York City
Ms Patricia Blau Reuss
Senior policy analyst: NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, Washington, D.C.; Chair, National Task Force on Violence Against Women
Ms Sheila M Wellington
President, Catalyst, New York (not-for-profit research and advisory organization on women’s private sector leadership)
The Hon Anne Wexler
Chairman and CEO: The Wexler Group, consultants in Washington, D.C.,
Ms Jia Zhao
Partner, international law firm, Baker & McKenzie, Chicago
Ms Anne B Zill
Consultant, Women’s Environment and Development Organization, Washington, D.C