Business View: Dame Marjorie and Ruth - it's time to deliver

Many women hit career troubles, but some just don't hit their targets
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The Independent Online

Readers may recall that I am no fan of Ruth Kelly. When she was promoted to the Cabinet, I recounted a conversation with a senior financial services executive who had dealt with her when she was at the Treasury. He said she was one of the least impressive ministers he had ever dealt with, and could not understand her rapid ascent. So that she is now in so much hot water is of no little surprise.

My hostility to the Education Secretary is not shared by all, though. Some people argue that had Ms Kelly been a man, she would not have had as much opprobrium heaped upon her. There is a general hostility to successful women, they claim. The media is too willing to suggest that they should be at home looking after their children rather than being out there, reforming education or running public companies.

In general they have a point, though I'm not suddenly going to become a fan of a Cabinet minister who I fear is where she is because of her ability to do Tony Blair's bidding without answering back.

This resistance to successful women - call it plain old sexism if you want - is one reason why so few make it to the top. Another reason, though, became apparent in an excellent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week. This found that many woman who have children tend to fall off the career ladder when their kids are young.

There are two key times when this happens. The first everyone knows about - when women go on extended maternity leave and choose not to go back to full-time work.

The second is when children start school. This is because professional couples tend to send their kids to nurseries, which look after them until 6pm or so. But schools finish at about 3.15, creating the problem of what to do with the children for the extra three hours.

This is enough to tip mothers, already frazzled by having to juggle work and home life, over the edge, and at least one in 10 women give up work at that point.

The effect of childbirth is shown by the disparity in wages. Earnings for women without kids are 91 per cent of the average male hourly wage, but for women with kids, this drops to 67 per cent.

So successful women who can juggle a family and a career should get more understanding - be they Ruth Kelly, Nicola Horlick or, perhaps the UK's most successful businesswoman, Dame Marjorie Scardino. But you have to be careful not to indulge in reverse sexism, allowing a businesswoman more leeway than a man might have.

In the case of the Pearson chief, you have to ask whether she would have held her job for nine years of, dare I say, not great performance if it wasn't for the fact she is such a high-profile businesswoman. Here is someone who promised to double the group's share price, yet on Friday it stood just 9 per cent higher than it was in January 1997 when she arrived from The Economist. Here is someone who spent massively on online acquisitions at the height of the dot-com boom and has not made them even vaguely work for shareholders.

For most of her time Dame Marjorie has been protected by her mentor, Lord Stevenson. But he stood aside as chairman last year in favour of American ex-banker Glen Moreno. He is said to be pressing her to sweat Pearson's famous media assets - including Penguin, Prentice-Hall, Longman and the Financial Times - a bit more. And if they don't deliver, think the unthinkable, which is that the FT could finally be sold off - something many analysts and investors believe should have been done long ago.

Most political commentators feel Ruth Kelly won a stay of execution last week. A couple of days before, Dame Marjorie also delivered some decent figures that stilled her critics. But neither can feel comfortable about the long term unless they start to deliver.