A task for the Cherie at the top

Yvonne Roberts urges Cherie Booth, QC and mum, to expose the Superwoman myth
Click to follow
Superwoman is back! Or so the media would have you believe. Cherie Booth, barrister and mother - who also happens to be married to the Labour leader, Tony Blair, the man who may be the next prime minister - was yesterday appointed a Queen's Counsel.

Cherie Booth is one of only eight women among a total of 71 new QCs appointed this year. Her achievement was neon-lit not just because of her youth (40 is young for a QC) or her spouse but also because it coincided with two other events which appeared to give her appointment added spin, out of which the stuff of dangerous myths is made

The first was a conference called "The Woman Lawyer: Benefit or Burden?" This highlighted the often atrocious discrimination against female employees in the legal profession. Addressing the conference Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, pointed out that last year only 43 out of 539 applicants to become QCs were female and he (belatedly) promised affirmative action in the system of appointments.

Second, the Family Policies Studies Centre reported that one in five women are now opting not to have children. Among the reasons listed are the pressures of career and work.

Cherie Booth, in her success at work and in becoming a parent three times over, has apparently catapulted herself over not one but two banks of rocks on which many other women's aspirations have been torn to shreds. What is more, she has done so in spite of (or perhapsbecause of) a father, the actor Tony Booth, who has said that during her childhood he was an infinitely better drinker than he was a dad.

So how did she do it? Does her success provide yet more evidence that it is not the way society is organised (for the lads) which holds so many females back, but their own lack of stamina, guts, determination, talent and energy?

In short, if Cherie can be Superwoman, why can't the rest of us? Isn't she a role model for at least some of those 20 per cent of childless women who are convinced it is just not possible to rise up the ladder while simultaneously raising Tom, Dick and Harriet?

It clearly helps that she is not just clever, but very clever. She has a first-class degree. She is also charismatic. Michael Beloff QC, the head of her chambers, says: "I still remember the impact she made on me when she first came to see me. No one has ever made a bigger immediate impact."

Even so, I am sure Cherie Booth would be the first to dissociate herself from the idea that she is the Labour Party's modern myth. No Superwoman she.

Almost every female I spoke to - regardless of political affiliation - who watched Cherie Booth at the Labour Party conference when she first officially "came out" as the Labour leader's wife made the same comment. She looked as knackered as the rest of us.

Women who hold down hard, stressful and often desperately underpaid jobs, and who work a double shift in the home, have a major disadvantage over male colleagues in the workplace.

The true nature of the female effort is literally invisible - and that applies to women who have first-class degrees and the media-invented Superwoman aura as much as it does to those who have neither.

No one else is witness to the hours worked after the children are in bed; the feeling that there is never any time for yourself; the knowledge that while a man may have a wife to fall back on when the school play coincides with a major commitment, the buck often (although not always) stops with the woman.

In almost every household I know where the man and the woman allegedly have careers which are deemed equally significant and, in theory, share childcare, somehow the woman in practice is the one who is there most often for the children.

This is frequently her own choice. Someone once said: "Success has made a failure of many men." What women like Cherie Booth are attempting to do is to redefine the meaning of "success" so that it applies to something more than the number of Ks you earn and how many working hours you can boast.

These women do not want to forfeit a family life which may matter to them as much as work. Instead, they weave their commitments outside the home into the home as best they can: not so much having it all as sacrificing as much as possible.

At the conference on discrimination against women in the legal profession, Cherie Booth said: "I don't want us to ... have to sacrifice our children for our careers."

To transform her into Superwoman is to peddle an illusion. Cherie Booth, just like many of the rest of us, has probably had weekends on automatic pilot when she has been too zapped with exhaustion to move, never mind think.

The true answer to the question: "How has she done it?" is much the same as it is for too many women - with great difficulty and at some private cost.

The other danger in canonising high-flying women is that it distracts from what is literally the real job in hand. It slows down change. In 1960, women made up only a third of the workforce. Now it is almost half. Yet still the workplace is designed for the male breadwinner, who is expected to have almost no involvement with family.

As a result, in employment terms Britain is a jalopy pitted against the faster, sleeker, more efficient European family saloons. On average, British women earn 30 per cent less than males - 6 million part-time workers have almost no rights. Women may make up half the intake of many of the professions, but still they are not at the top.

Females make up only 2.8 per cent of senior managers, 10 per cent of managers and a miserly 3.7 per cent of board members. Women are handicapped not not by lack of ability, energy and drive (look at how well girls perform in school) but by a system which should have been sent to the scrapyard 30 years ago.

Britain now has a vast and still growing female bulge at middle management level, but in the next decade thousands of women will expect to join Cherie Booth and move to the top - and if they don't, they will be strong enough to ask why.

Blackpool, for instance, is almost already there. Forty five per cent of senior management posts in the town are filled by women. How have they done it? Like Cherie Booth, they have talent and determination - but they have also had the benefit of a council that encourages nursery provision, training courses for women, flexi-time, job-sharing, career breaks and an open mind on recruitment. Who benefits? Blackpool, for a start. It capitalises on what was previously a vastly under-used reserve of talent.

If Cherie Booth is wise as well as clever, from now on she could use the platform that is hers not just to expose the Superwoman myth but to sell the kind of changes which would have made her achievement just as impressive and only half as painful.

For the sake of us all.

Yvonne Roberts is a feminist and writer.