Women slip back on the corporate ladder: Despite years of campaigns for equality, men still dominate the boardrooms. Roger Trapp reports

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CAROL REAY, chief executive of Reay Keating & Hamer, a West End of London advertising agency, is a woman not exactly in a man's world, but certainly a rarity.

A decade ago, when she helped to set up the company, the rapid influx of women into professions and businesses such as marketing and advertising created the idea that by now there would be many others like her.

But despite years of campaigns and initiatives like Opportunity 2000, that has not happened.

As this week's survey by the Institute of Management and Remuneration Economics shows, after climbing steadily over the past two decades, the proportion of management jobs held by women has fallen from 10.2 per cent in 1993 to 9.5 per cent. The proportion of directors has held steady at a modest 2.8 per cent.

While some people have questioned the survey's accuracy, the statistics have shocked many who felt genuine progress was being made. But Ms Reay feels it confirms the view that much of the work being done by Opportunity 2000, the campaign aimed at promoting women in the workplace that is backed by this newspaper among others, is 'background'.

'Some of the big issues that make it very difficult for women to get on are still not being addressed,' she said.

Chief among these is childcare. Many women reach their late 20s or early 30s and find they have to make a choice.

'They feel they are working women by nature, but they hear stories from women who've done it and decide they don't want to be Superwoman.'

This idea is given support by the report. Women were 'twice as likely to resign their positions as men', said Roger Young, director general of the Institute of Management.

But forced redundancy brought about by the recession and the seemingly constant rounds of 'downsizing' is also taking its toll.

Dianah Worman, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel Management, says redundancy practices based on the last-in, first- out formula are 'definitely discriminatory'.

This is because women are likely to have been in their positions for a shorter time than their male colleagues. They also tend to be in the middle-management roles that are increasingly being wiped out by 'delayering' and 'empowerment' initiatives associated with corporate restructuring.

Not every company is taking this approach, though. J Sainsbury, the supermarkets group, where Rosemary Thorne is finance director, says it does not practise positive discrimination, but is anxious not to lose talented people that it has spent a lot of money training.

It points to the 1988 changes, that made the hours worked in the stores more compatible with families, as a particular factor behind the proportion of women in management roles rising to 42 per cent in the past five years. It does not expect the percentage to fall as a result of the current round of job cuts.

As well as Ms Thorne, the company has a female non-executive director and a departmental director (the level below the board) in Judith Evans. But she is in charge of personnel - a traditional stronghold of women - and the company wants to put more women in such areas as distribution.

This is also the aim of BT, another Opportunity 2000 supporter. Victoria Hillier, equal opportunities manager, says the proportion of women in the workforce has remained at about 26 per cent, while the total headcount has fallen from 210,000 to 155,000. The company, which has Hanson company secretary Yve Newbold as a non- executive director, is seeing a particular improvement at the senior management level, where 11 per cent of posts are filled by women.

Ms Hillier said: 'Generally, the whole company thinks much more about appointing women and being conscious about their place.'

Nor is this pure altruism. 'We have developed a management diversity programme, and a lot of the good we're achieving is coming out of that rather than as a result of legislation saying we must.

'There's a sound business case. Management is moving so fast, you need a mixture of people to make up a team.'

In professional firms, where profits are very much based on staff working long hours, progress seems to have been slower. Although women have accounted for about half the intake of law and accountancy firms, they have still to make much impact at the top.

A recent survey by The Lawyer magazine found that the proportion of women being made partners slipped by 5 per cent last year, while the large accountancy firms typically have little more than a handful of women among their hundreds of partners.

But some see a positive side to the decline. According to Cristina Stuart, managing director of SpeakEasy Training, which specialises in helping companies obtain the most from men and women working together, some women are becoming confident enough to strike out on their own and use their talents in a more congenial atmosphere rather than continue to battle in a hostile environment. In the United States, women are expected to own about half of all small businesses by the end of the decade, and there are signs of this trend being repeated in Britain.

Ms Reay did not set up in business for this reason - her original partners were male, after all. But having done it, she is in a position to use being her own boss to her advantage. 'I don't have to play those games,' she said, referring to the traditional male habit of sitting in meetings to the dead of night.

She and her female colleagues are able to arrange work around family.

But, as one might expect from a boss, Ms Reay - who works from 9am to 6pm, but makes telephone calls in the car to and from home - also makes clear that she enjoys being a working mother. 'I'm much more efficient. My life has been enhanced. I have more energy for my work, as well as for my family.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- WOMEN MANAGERS AND DIRECTORS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Industry group Percentage of women Percentage of all top in industry group posts held by women Distribution 27.2 15.4 Public sector 16.1 4.0 Paper, printing and publishing 15.9 3.0 Chemicals and allied industries 14.7 5.5 Other non-manufacturing industries 14.0 5.8 Food, drink and tobacco 13.7 13.9 Other manufacturing industries 9.9 7.4 Banking, finance and insurance 9.5 18.3 Mixed industry groups 7.3 2.1 Energy, water supply 5.4 5.0 High technology 5.3 7.5 Other industry groups 4.9 12.1 Whole sample 9.5 100.0 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Institute of Management/Remuneration Economics -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)