Abigail Townsend: Women, don't draw attention to yourselves

Want to make it on your own merit? Then stop talking about gender
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The Independent Online

I've been thinking about girls recently. First there was the Fortune 2006 ranking of the 50 most powerful women in business: Patricia Russo, who is taking over at the soon-to-be-merged telecoms group Alcatel Lucent, took the top spot. The magazine concluded that, with seven new entrants to the list, business was opening up for women "fast".

Then there was the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society conference in Deauville, France, where Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of French nuclear group Areva, branded quotas a "humiliating" way to ensure equal status for woman in the workplace.

Her point is an extremely good one. When it's made at a conference about women, however, it loses its impact as lists and conferences dedicated to one gender do not empower them. Instead they reaffirm the misguided notion that women should be treated differently to men, and this, when it comes to the boardroom, will only ever be a bad thing as it encourages people to look at gender first and ability second.

On one level, the City is one of the most equal places in which you can work. Ever since the 1980s and Big Bang, the old-school tie has come to matter less and less. Instead it is ability, hard work, greed, competitiveness, aggression, intelligence, good luck - all of these and more - that count.

But this equal playing field is not extended to women, and I'm not talking about glass ceilings or barriers to entry. It's ingrained attitudes: we notice a skirt in the boardroom or trading floor and think it exceptional - that it should be categorised and discussed.

There are thousands of female traders, bankers, lawyers, executives and directors out there. Some fail, some succeed, standing shoulder to shoulder with male colleagues as they attack the corporate ladder.

But however their careers turn out, I bet those women don't want to be singled out for being women. Instead, I'm guessing, they would rather be singled out for being great at their job.

By all means encourage more young females into business. Ensure that sexism - along with every other ism - is stamped out. But please don't patronise us. Lists and conferences should only ever be about people - men and women. Because only then will women be judged on their abilities, as a man would, and not on their gender.

Fuelling discontent

Oil prices have fallen and British Airways' fuel bill is likely to be £100m less than the carrier expected. But still that £70 long-haul fuel surcharge remains.

BA is officially remaining mum on the subject, other than to note that the surcharge is under constant review and will be adjusted as and when appropriate.

Insiders, meanwhile, point out that while BA's predicted 2006 fuel bill may well end up being £100m less than thought, it is still pencilled to come in at around £2bn - a jump on last year's £1.6bn and a vast sum of money.

We should not forget either that BA has many other costs on its hands right now - not least its newly calculated £2.1bn pension deficit - and that revenue forecasts have been downgraded. And, of course, as a public company it has a duty to protect shareholder investments. So costs, inevitably, get passed on to the customer.

Yet something doesn't sit right. For a start, with the US Department of Justice investigating surcharges at BA and other airlines, the whole subject is hardly a happy one right now. And no matter how much business sense it may make, it can't help but rankle from the passenger's perspective to hear that BA's fuel bill is coming down while we fork out an extra £70.

Additionally, without wanting to state the obvious, fuel is always going to be one of BA's biggest costs. You wouldn't introduce a surcharge because the plane was quite expensive to buy - so why should we tolerate an oil one?

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

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