Obituary: Gillian Steel

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The Independent Culture
IT IS only recently that it has been made easier for women to combine high achievement in the administrative Civil Service with bringing up a family. Gillian Steel accomplished this, though in her case, at the cost of taking a long break - 15 years - in the middle of her career.

She always enjoyed her civil service work, far more for the satisfaction it gave her, than for its material rewards. But faced with the woman's familiar dilemma of how to reconcile work with maternity she put responsibilities to her children first.

Gillian Wannan, as she then was, had joined the Board of Trade in 1954, one of a number of clever young women in the Fifties who quickly made their mark in the Civil Service She had gone up to Girton College, Cambridge, from Surbiton Girls' High School and, after obtaining a first in Economics at Cambridge, spent a year at Radcliffe, Massachusetts, where she took a further degree in Economics.

As an Assistant Principal at the Board of Trade she served on UK delegations handling negotiations on tariff reductions under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt), then in the Treasury Economic Section and subsequently as private secretary to the board's Permanent Secretary. She was promoted to Principal around the time of the UK's first attempt, with Edward Heath as chief negotiator, to join the European Economic Community. Gillian Steel worked on this and when it proved abortive was then involved in the formation of the European Free Trade Area (Efta).

In 1962 she had married a fellow civil servant, David Steel, and on the birth of their first child, James, in 1968 Gillian determined to devote herself to full-time motherhood and resigned from the service. This she enjoyed rather more than she expected and she devoted all her enthusiasm and abilities to the task of bringing up her son.

It wasn't long, however, before she was persuaded to do some occasional work for the Civil Service Selection Board, at first from home, marking examination papers and assessing and commenting on candidates. She then became part of the interviewing panel which met for three days about six times a year. Thus she was one of the people setting the pattern of who joined the Civil Service during the 1970s, and influenced the composition of its present-day administrators.

Her second child, Catherine, was born in 1973 and it wasn't until 1984, soon after the service had introduced a system of flexible working, largely to encourage the return of married women with family responsibilities who had experience at the Principal grade, that Gillian Steel returned part-time. While her first spell in the service had largely been spent working on overseas commercial relations, in the second half of her career her duties were concerned with domestic issues.

After working once more at the Board of Trade she moved to the Cabinet Office, where she was involved with new legislation about the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman).

In 1988 she returned to full-time work and was promoted to the rank of Assistant Secretary. She joined the staff of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, where she was team leader on a number of tricky inquiries, including those into newspaper distribution, David Sullivan's wish to buy and control the Bristol Evening Post, petrol distribution and the supply of motor cars.

Encouraged to work on beyond the normal retirement age of 60, she stayed at work until 1996, when she looked forward to spending more time gardening, travelling - she was a keen walker - and studying French Literature. But it wasn't long before she learnt of the onset of cancer. This she fought vigorously, going into hospital just a few days before her death.

Her son is now an economist at the Treasury, while her daughter is shortly to become a junior lecturer in Classics at Glasgow University.

Gillian Diana Jean Wannan, civil servant: born Hove, East Sussex 30 September 1931; married 1962 David Steel (one son, one daughter); died London 18 October 1998.