How women can win at work

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The Independent Online
`You gazed up the trouser leg of British Leyland and just knew there was no hope," said Julia Cleverdon, chief executive of business in the community, and one time industrial relations officer at BL.

`I was told then to understand that [in the car industry]nothing ever changes. Our campaign has been about helping people understand how to make change," she said, as she celebrated the relaunch of the employers' campaign group for women, Opportunity 2000, to be known henceforth as Opportunity Now.

After eight years, Opportunity 2000 has 700 members, many of them employers who have successfully increased the proportion of women in management positions. But the "gender thing" is not yet cracked, said Clara Freeman, campaign chairman and a director of Marks & Spencer. "It is not just a case of bemoaning the fact that there is just one female chief executive among the FTSE top 100 companies," she emphasised. "We intend to look at the whole pool of labour."

From now on the campaign will focus on increasing the number of women in traditionally male bastions of employment such as construction, manufacturing, engineering and transport.

They will look not just at opportunities for promotion to management grades, but at skills and training for women below these grades. They will also look at how to increase the representation of women in the workforce. "Complacency threatens the competitiveness of the British economy," said Ms Freeman.

Certainly, the figures are none too promising. Half the graduates in law and accountancy are women, but the drop-out rate is high. Among female graduates with much sought after qualifications in science, technology, and engineering, the drop-out rate is 75 per cent, often due to maternity. Many would like to continue working, but employers have yet to look for ways of helping them juggle their dual responsibilities. As a result, many women are faced with a stark choice: join the long-hours culture and have too much work and too little life. Or give up your career and experience the economic hardship and boredom of too little work and too much life.

The reason often mooted by businesses is that there is simply no place for those who are unable to put in 50 hours a week.

This line of argument was challenged by a number of top-level professionals who attended the launch. At Glaxo Wellcome, said Anne Prichard, the drug company's human resources director, people appreciate its policy of allowing maternity leavers to return to work in their own way, part-time, during term time, or after taking an extended break. Because the company has undergone continuous change over the last few years, she argued, staff have the flexibility to handle variations in how people work.

Even where the workload is very heavy, there are ways of anticipating pressure points and to work around people's individual requirements, suggested Fiona Reynolds, a member of the Cabinet Office. In her own case, being able to work two days a week from home helps her tackle a heavy workload.

Despite the benefits of family- friendly policies, the barriers of old- fashioned work practices, stereotypical assumptions and long hours, and the lack of affordable child care still exist, noted Ms Freeman.

Of them all, outdated attitudes are perhaps the most potent. "We don't do women," was the trenchant reply from one employer approached to sign up to Opportunity Now by Julia Cleverdon, representing an industry she said, where new skills are the only chance of survival. Her reply? "Where there's death, at least there is hope."