Oxbridge men still dominate top jobs: Two-thirds of the people in Britain's most senior posts are the products of public schools. Kathy Marks reports

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The Independent Online
CLASS and gender play as much part in career advancement as they did 20 years ago, according to a survey by the Economist of Britain's 100 top Establishment jobs.

The magazine found that two- thirds of the top positions in politics, business, academia, the professions and the arts are occupied by people from a public school background, and more than half by Oxford or Cambridge graduates. Almost identical proportions were true of the same jobs in 1972.

A mere four women make the top 100: Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, Barbara Mills, Director of Public Prosecutions, Stella Rimington, head of MI5, and the Queen.

In 1972, there were only two women, with the Queen - the only person to survive two decades at the pinnacle of society - accompanied only by Shirley Williams, the then Secretary of State for Education.

Apart from the Oxbridge graduates, 27 of the 100 went to prestigious Scottish universities or other high-ranking establishments. Only 11 had no higher education, compared to more than twice as many 20 years ago, leading the Economist to comment that 'the day of the elementary-school-boy-made- good has gone'.

Although the proportion of public school boys in the 'ruling class' remains stable, Eton's influence has apparently declined, from 14 per cent in 1972 to 8 per cent in the present day.

The selection of jobs on the list is necessarily random, as the Economist acknowledges. But there is no doubt that a slightly different list would have included more female faces, including the two women in the Cabinet, female editors of tabloid newspapers and other high-ranking women such as Jennifer Page, chief executive of English Heritage.

About 20 chairmen of major companies feature, together with about 30 politicians and diplomats, 10 people in the arts and media and 10 in the professions.

Members of the minority without a public school/Oxbridge background yesterday rejected the idea that they might have been handicapped in their careers.

Sir Peter Imbert, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who went to a grammar school and is not a graduate, said: 'The only difference I have found is that when dealing with some people, they initially think you are not quite as smart as if you have been through the system.

'I recognised that I had to compete and became a long-distance runner rather than a short sprinter.'

Sir John Fairclough, chairman of the Engineering Council and former scientific adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said that it had never crossed his mind that he might have been disadvantaged by his educational background.

Sir John, who went to a grammar school and Manchester University, acknowledged a bias towards Cambridge graduates in the recruitment of engineers. 'But it is a question of the quality of people coming out of that engineering school rather than anything to do with the old school tie.'

Helena Kennedy, however, one of the few female QCs, believes that the old boys' network is alive and well. 'What we have to fight is the idea that access to these jobs is based on merit and it will only be a matter of time before women break through,' she said.

Ms Kennedy, who was educated at a state school and the Council of Legal Education, said: 'What it is actually based on is men choosing people who are like themselves. It's all about cloning. That's why it's so hard to make the breakthrough and that's why it has to be consciously tackled.'

Rhiannon Chapman, director of the Industrial Society and former head of personnel at the Stock Exchange - another woman who could justifiably have featured in the Economist's list - said: 'It is true that change has been extremely slight in the past 20 years. The reason is that we are using exactly the same selection processes, which are bound to produce the same results.'

Mrs Chapman, a London University graduate, pointed out that major companies on the 'milk round' to recruit graduates always visited Oxford and Cambridge and that headhunters seeking candidates for executive positions tended to assume conservative tastes on the part of clients.

Baroness Blackstone, master of Birkbeck College and an opposition spokeswoman in the House of Lords, takes a more optimistic view, believing that women have made significant progress in the past 20 years.

'We should be looking at the people in the next group down in these fields,' Lady Blackstone, who went to a grammar school and the London School of Economics, said.

'It will take time before women educated since the big changes in the late 1960s reach the age when they are likely to occupy positions of power and influence.'

(Photographs omitted)