Editor-At-Large: More women at the top? Fine. But where is work for the rest?

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The Independent Online

The expression "grumpy old woman" is television shorthand for a well-known female of a certain age ranting about everything from the menopause to shopping. But this Christmas, the comedy stereotype masks a worrying truth. There's not a lot for women to be happy about right now. The number out of work has risen to over a million, the highest level since 1988. Every day between August and October this year, 260 women lost their jobs. Over Christmas, that figure will rise, as local authorities implement the 330,000 job losses ordered by George Osborne.

Once you're made redundant, getting back into work is nigh on impossible. The number of women out of work for more than a year has doubled in the past 12 months to 277,000. Time and time again, women working in the public sector are being asked to reapply for their jobs as local authorities start to shed one in five workers. Not a state of affairs designed to breed seasonal good cheer.

Although there might be small signs of economic recovery, it's not much use to women, who traditionally make up the largest number of low-paid and part-time workers. This year, 350,000 new jobs were created in the UK, of which 95 per cent were part-time. You'd expect women to benefit, but four out of five of these jobs are being taken by men, and the vast majority go to workers under 35. If you're a middle-aged woman with teenagers, or single with a mortgage, you're really going to suffer, because the remainder of the new jobs went to workers in their fifties, many of whom will have taken early retirement and sought part-time work to supplement their pensions.

Earlier this month, a crass Tory councillor in the South said unemployed Northerners should move down and take up seasonal work like fruit picking, currently mostly carried out by young people from eastern Europe. The idea that a mother could uproot her family to pick cherries for six weeks, following work around the country, is absurd. What women need is decent work where they live. It's not surprising that British women are more likely to die of cancer than their counterparts in the developed EU countries, their life expectancy is several months less than the EU average, and they are more susceptible to heart disease induced by workplace stress.

All those years of caring, sharing New Labour – and we're worse off in every sense. And women on benefits have discovered that we're a less caring society too: the National Centre for Social Research, charting our attitudes to social issues over the past 30 years, recently found that the number of us who think the Government should provide a decent standard of living for everyone has sunk to the lowest levels since Maggie Thatcher left office. But more and more women are claiming benefits, because their chances of getting a job are minimal.

How can we be so callous? No wonder another survey found that British women are getting more miserable as they get older. Quite frankly, if you're struggling to manage in a crap part-time job with little or no security of employment, with the knowledge that your employer can treat you shabbily because there are no other chances of a job in your area, then what on earth have you got to be happy about? This kind of vicious circle is what produces poor health.

Employment prospects for women will only improve when they are adequately represented in the boardroom. Last year, the number of female directors barely improved to 12.5 per cent, a pitiful figure.

The good news is that David Cameron appears serious about his election pledge to force companies to hire more women. He wants half the long lists for directorships to be female. Lord Davies has been asking businesses whether the Government should implement quotas, forcing them to have 40 per cent female boards. For FTSE 100 companies, that would meang 200 more women.

Last week, the Government appointed 31 business leaders as non-executives, advising Whitehall departments how to carry out efficiency savings and implement long-term strategy. Happily, 40 per cent of the appointees were women.

Without fundamental change in the boardroom, the prospects for the female workforce are not good. Let's hope Mr Cameron bites the bullet and imposes the 40 per cent quota. Nothing less will do.

Style note for Gwynnie: an LBD is black. And a dress...

She must have forgotten her underwear! Mother-of-two Gwyneth Paltrow generally wears rather prim clothes – until she has to walk down a red carpet, when she clearly places herself in the hands of a stylist whose job is to get Gwynnie on as many front pages as possible.

In 2008, promoting her film Iron Man in London and Paris, she wore sheer lace dresses that barely covered her backside, with the highest heels possible. This time around she's opted for a lurid backless dress by Peter Dundas for Emilio Pucci. His revealing creations have graced Sienna Miller and Cheryl Cole in recent weeks, but this lace-up number leaves very little to the imagination and gives out a definite bondage message.

Paltrow is a woman who doesn't generally radiate sex appeal. She promotes a healthy, earth-mother vibe through her website GOOP, where her latest fashion bulletin gushes: "I like to stick to the classics.... A little black dress has gotten me through many a fashion crisis." She's doesn't seem to be heeding her own advice.

Hark, when Lennox sings

Mariah Carey is a hit with a completely unexploited category of music-lovers – female goats.

A farmer in Yorkshire started playing pop music to his herd at milking time to see if it improved productivity. The tune that has most increased yields as the animals chill out is Mariah Carey's 1994 hit "All I Want for Christmas is You".

Surely they can return the compliment by naming a new yogurt or cheese after the famously demanding pop diva?

Meanwhile, Annie Lennox tells us that she's wanted to make a Christmas album for years, but she hates rabid consumerism during the festive season. So why has she just released an album of well-known Christmas carols and songs including "Silent Night" and "Winter Wonderland"?

Don't be embarrassed, Annie. Admit it was a clever career move.

Farce: The family way

Sadly, the wonderful Catherine Tate won't have a new show on television this Christmas, but the DVD of her hilarious Nan's Christmas Carol is on sale now. Tate is starring at the National Theatre in Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings, my perfect treat. No playwright captures the grisly nature of family gatherings like Ayckbourn: the evening is a cathartic experience, a unique combination of recognition and revulsion. He and Tate are national treasures.

In our house, Christmas lunch was when Granny asked for "a very small portion" and then ate till she was sick, and Uncle Ray threw wet flannels at people hiding behind the sofa. One memorable year, Dad bought a goose with all its feathers on, and Mum hit him round the head with it. Happy days!