Equal to the fight for women: Clare Dobie talks to the outgoing head of the EOC about the progress she has seen over the past five years

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THEY are queueing up for Joanna Foster's job as chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. More than 80 people have applied to succeed her.

Whoever is eventually chosen should be glad they were not successful five years ago when Ms Foster started at the EOC. She has battled hard for equal opportunities but luck has not been on her side.

Recession has made her task almost impossible. 'Family-friendly policies' have had to take a back seat while managers have concentrated on survival.

Her own assessment of her period in office - coming to an end on 1 May - is sober. 'Equal opportunities is now on the agenda. But recession has pushed it onto the back burner.' She is confident it will come forward once again, which is why her successor should have an easier ride.

When she started - after stints at the Industrial Society and Insead business school near Paris - there was a 'full flood of Eighties optimism'. Women were going to fill the gap left by the demographic time bomb - an anticipated fall of 25 per cent in the number of 18-year-olds - and skill shortages. The single European market was also on women's side.

Last week she visited Cheltenham, where she had been four years earlier for a commemoration at a further education college.

The students, mostly women, had just qualified. 'It was a moment of enormous optimism about what the labour market and society was offering. It was the day the first brick of the Berlin wall came out. There was this palpable optimism about opportunities, United Europe, peace.'

That has all changed. Now, with unemployment more than 3 million, skill shortages are no longer an issue. This theme has been taken up - unhappily in Ms Foster's view - by the Confederation of British Industry, which recently prepared a paper suggesting that employers were preparing to abandon support for equal opportunities.

'Clearly some of the business arguments for accessing and advancing previously excluded groups and for increasing training become less relevant,' it said.

Does this make Ms Foster downhearted? It is testimony to her dedication - and her ingenuity - that she manages to be optimistic even now.

Instead of solving skill shortages, women will provide the flexibility and creativity needed in the 1990s. 'I launched an Equality Exchange Network in west Wales two weeks ago and there are 80 employers there,' she said. The local industrial base has gone with the demise of steel and coal; the only hope of survival was services and tourism, both of them traditional employers of women.

She believes women are often prepared to tackle old problems from a new viewpoint. 'We haven't done well with the current lot of people supposed to be problem- solving.' A new group could do better, is the implication.

How have women done in three years of deep recession? Bald statistics suggest not too badly, at least compared to men. The pay gap, though still significant, has narrowed. Women's earnings are 71 per cent of men's, against only 66 per cent in 1988, when Ms Foster took up her post.

The proportion of women who are 'economically active' has also risen. It stood at 53 per cent last summer, up by one point since 1988. In the same period the proportion of economically active men has fallen from 76 to 74 per cent.

'But what jobs are they doing?' asks Ms Foster. Citing the case of Burton - which recently cut full-time jobs while creating part-time ones - she pointed to the dangers of working without redundancy protection and pension provision.

The number of complaints received by the EOC has jumped during the recession, reaching 22,400 last year, including 13,300 on employment. Some, but not all, of this increase may be due to the EOC's higher profile, but Ms Foster points to the number of distressing legal cases. Typical is the story of Susan Haddleton, who was sacked within three hours of telling her employer she was pregnant. He was ordered to pay her compensation of pounds 10,000.

As well as a poor economic background, Ms Foster has coped with a difficult political context. 'It remains: 'Let us not put burdens on employers. Let us not intervene in the market and the market will provide.' The difference being that the market is clearly not providing.'

Relations with Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment, appear little better than they were with Michael Howard, her predecessor. Ms Foster is unhappy that the Government did not fully consult the EOC about the abolition of wages councils and other provisions of the Employment Bill.

She believes the Equal Pay Act is almost unusable, and regrets Britain's opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty.

She rejects claims that the opt-out makes Britain an attractive place for industrialists to base their manufacturing. 'Do we really want to be a Third World country?'

Changes to the way hospitals and schools are run are also a cause for concern. Public- sector employers have been among the most advanced in providing equal opportunities and this drive may now be lost, she fears.

Her period of office, however, has not been without its successes. She cites the case of Alison Halford - the police officer who alleged sexual discrimination - even though the case ended unsatisfactorily when the allegation was dropped. It 'provoked discussion about the glass ceiling and the culture in different organisations'.

During her term of office the Barber case - on equal retirement ages for men and women - ended, though subsequent clarificatory cases have yet to finish their run through the courts.

What next? Fans - and there are many - suggest she may go into politics - she was head of the Conservative Central Office press department in the 1960s. But whether she has the stomach after the past five years remains to be seen.

Joanna Foster is speaking at a conference on the impact of the recession on opportunities for women on 18 March. It is organised by the European Women's Management Development Network in association with the Independent. Details from Amanda Knight on 071-262 5050.

(Photograph omitted)