Nineties woman has a new worry - typecasting

Catherine Pepinster on the think-tank report which tries to identify winners and losers
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The Independent Online
Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. When she first joined the fashionable think-tank Demos, Helen Wilkinson tried playing it like a man, with a sharp edge and a quest for success. Then she changed tack.

She opted for a grunge look and values which would make Swampy the tunnelling road-protester proud. Now she's switched again, and she's a technophile, on the Internet, meeting the challenges of her job. Or put it another away: once she was Mannish Mel, then New Age Angela and now she's Networking Naomi.

These, according to Wilkinson (and Demos), are the new breeds of women, who along with Back-to-Basics Barbara and Frustrated Fran (the one who comes the closest to losing out in life) can be found across Britain, in every office, shop and home.

In the think-tank's latest report, Tomorrow's Women, the subject of a conference to be held on Friday, Wilkinson and her co-author, Melanie Howard, use the five types to illustrate their thesis on what is happening to women today: namely, that they are no longer a homogenous group but have conflicting needs and opinions. Her report suggests that the divisions will not be felt so keenly between the sexes, as between different types of women. There is a widening gap between women with children and women without, for instance, and this will make it harder for governments to deal with women's issues.

For some women, the next decade will be a time of opportunity, of being at ease with the world. The Networking Naomis - people such as actress Emma Thompson and designer Nicole Farhi - are connected to people, technology, and their feelings.

New Age Angelas (think of the cook Sophie Grigson or Linda McCartney) are similarly confident but reject materialism. Instead they are creative and keen on personal discovery.

Success in a man's world means being like a man for Mannish Mel. A touch of the Nicola Horlicks or Margaret Thatchers, perhaps? It can be tough being Mel, but it's even tougher being Fran or Barbara, says Wilkinson. Frustrated Fran has grown up thinking feminism should have delivered, but she's still struggling to cope, juggling jobs and motherhood, usually on little money, often with an errant or absent husband. She's epitomised by the movie characters Shirley Valentine or Thelma and Louise.

As for Back-to-Basics Barbara, she frets about the state society's in, with families breaking up and neighbourhood shops closing down. The outspoken vicar's wife and Thought for the Day presenter Anne Atkins is a Back-to- Basics Barbara, says Demos.

But is it all anything more than common sense dressed up in jargon? The report is full of diagrams and phrases such as "tools of community" and women who are "sustenance driven". Feminism is out, it says; long live serial feminism, be it business feminism, mothers' feminism, or single- girl feminism.

Women have always been different from each other, some might say. The five-caricature gimmick is a typically slick Demos device, aimed at gaining publicity. But Wilkinson says she wants all kinds of people to read the report. "If I'd written it in a drier way it would just stay on the shelves."

Until Demos came along, think-tanks were dry, academic places run by men with pipespontificating about macro-economics. Demos was different: it was not so much interested in the Phillips Curve as the zeitgeist. Once only history was bunk; now Demos produces snazzy reports full of bunkum about "cities of bits" and how "the cultivation of imagination will need new organisational forms".

It was founded four years ago by Geoff Mulgan, who formerly worked for shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown and the journalist Martin Jacques. Helen Wilkinson, his girlfriend, joined Mulgan on sabbatical from the BBC and the two shared his salary.

From the start, their work tended to stray outside the normal range of think-tank issues. Evolutionary psychology, the use of time, smart cards and troubled young men are all issues they have tackled.

In those early days there were few other workers and little money. Today Demos employs 18 members of staff, cramped into its London headquarters in Blackfriars and has a turnover of pounds 600,000. It has influence right at the top of the Labour Party.

From the beginning, Mulgan, Jacques and Wilkinson realised that branding and soundbites were as important to think-tankery as they are in advertising. So in a world dominated by institutes and centres of policy and economy, they picked a name that would be easily remembered and never confused with any other tank.

Mulgan and Wilkinson quickly recognised the need for friends in high places. Those on its advisory council and board of trustees are influential and varied: they include Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays Bank, the Consumers' Association's Sheila McKechnie and Chris Haskins of Northern Foods.

While the organisation's verve and originality are admired, many people think it lacks intellectual rigour. The right-wing polemicist Simon Heffer complains it has a "fantasy agenda". Sir Ralf Dahrendorf once said that it was doing exactly what a think-tank should do - think - even though some of its reports were complete rubbish.

So what makes Helen Wilkinson an expert? She is a 32-year-old politics graduate, born in North Wales. Like Neil Kinnock, she is the first in a thousand generations of her family to go to university. And after so clearly defining women in five categories, she confesses to be difficult to place herself. "Women's lives change all the time," she says, "but I also believe that in the future women's lives will still be about inequality."

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