The occasion was the second review of Opportunity 2000, an initiative launched to much fanfare two years ago to promote the cause of women at work. Its aim is to help women to breach by the end of the millennium the so-called 'glass ceiling' that reputedly prevents women reaching the upper echelons of British corporate life.
The record to date does not augur well for its chances. According to a recent survey by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, last year only five of the 1,370 chief executives of Britain's quoted companies were women, and only two groups from the FT- SE 100 had female executive directors. The same report showed that women executives are still paid 6 to 8 per cent less than men in comparable jobs and noted that the more senior the position the wider the pay gap.
Another survey, conducted by Ashridge Management College, for Opportunity 2000, found that this year 59 companies in the top 200 companies had women on the board compared with 21 four years ago. But of the 59 appointments 80 per cent are non-executive. The worry must be that 'token' women are being added to boards in an effort to disguise the lack of progress in promoting internally.
Although the room of the executive talk shop where the meeting took place was adorned with portraits of well known faces, such as Glenda Jackson, Prue Leith and Baroness Thatcher, a list of top women in the boardroom still involves the usual round-up of Kathy O'Donovan, finance director at BTR, and Yve Newbold, Hanson company secretary. There have been more recent additions, such as Rosemary Thorne, Sainsbury's finance director, and Pippa Wicks, finance director at Courtaulds Textiles, but they remain very much the exception to the rule.
Yet the statistics do not seem to depress Lady Howe, who chairs Opportunity 2000. 'I'm very pleased with the way things are progressing,' she says. 'You are not going to get 50 per cent of chief executives being women within two months. It's a long-term programme.'
But two years on, what progress has there been? Member companies of Opportunity 2000 pledge themselves to specific goals such as increasing the number of women managers in the workforce, improving maternity benefits, and extending the use of job-sharing, career breaks and term-time working.
There have been successes. British Airways has started job-sharing at senior level and has appointed Barbara Harmer as its first Concorde pilot. Boots has put 40,000 shop staff through an equal opportunies awareness programme. Northern Foods, the foods conglomerate, has increased the numbers of women in management earning more than pounds 30,000 in 1991 to 8.3 per cent this year (from 4 per cent). In 1987 two of the group's 11 graduate recruits were female. Last year it was 20 out of 36.
Lucas, one of the few heavy engineering companies to have signed up, has more ground than most to catch up. In 1991 when the company joined, 27,000 Lucas employees were women, but women were only 2 per cent of its managers. Lucas has concentrated on getting more women to apply for its graduate trainee scheme and this year 45 per cent of applications were from female students.
'We regard this as progress,' says Kate Cornfield, project director of Women In Lucas. 'If we can get more young women in at that level, they have more chance of progressing later on.'
But for all its good intentions, Opportunity 2000 still has gaping holes. There are no City law firms or merchant banks on the campaign's list of 216 members, two sectors where women have found it notoriously difficult to climb the corporate ladder.
There is a smattering of chartered accountants on the list but here too success has been limited. Arthur Andersen has increased the number of women partners in its UK practice from none to five in the past three years. But five out of 154 UK partners is still a poor ratio. Ernst & Young is only slightly ahead with 19 female partners out of a total of 398.
'In the past women have very often left the firm before they had reached the stage at which they might be made partner,' a spokesman said. 'It was not that they were denied promotion.'
Another persistent problem with the initiative is that the goals some companies pledge are often vague, making an assessment of their progress difficult.
Unilever's pledge, for instance, says the company 'fully supports the initiatives of Opportunity 2000' and that it has implemented a 'two-year research project' to investigate 'key issues'.
In its defence the company says that in some cases the proportion of women managers has risen from 14 per cent in 1991 to 17 per cent. 'We had done a considerable amount of work in this area before Opportunity 2000 came along,' Elaine Beauchamp of Unilever says. BT's pledge devotes more space to congratulating itself on the enlightened nature of its staff policies rather than a commitment to quantifiable targets. Its goals include learning more accurately women's views and expectations, comparing male and female perspectives and guiding the strategy. But it never really pins down what the strategy is.
The unions feel that BT's approach to Opportunity 2000 is elitist. 'We're a bit disgruntled about it because BT seems to be aiming everything at management,' Pat Dwyer, equal opportunities officer at the Union of Communications Workers, said. She said that lower grades, such as directory inquiry operators, where women far outweigh the number of men, do not qualify for the company's career break policy.
If pay is one problem, government policies are another. Britain has been dragged into improving its maternity leave provision but its proposed 14 weeks would be one of the shortest in Europe, second only to Portugal. This is likely to hamper progress. The closure of many public sector nurseries and the high cost of private places make it difficult for women to return quickly to work and compete for promotion.
Even employer-operated schemes do not always work. Sainsbury has nurseries at three locations but has found they are not cost-effective and that take-up is sometimes limited. It now plans to provide information on child care instead.
Lady Howe says she does not want Opportunity 2000 to be a lobbying organisation. That is perhaps a mistake.
As long as government policies are at odds with private sector initiatives, change seems doomed to remain limited.
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