Cheaper childcare is the only way

Childcare minister Liz Truss hopes childminders will reduce their costs - but she can't guarantee it

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The Independent Online

Women are a valuable resource that business and political leaders continue to treat with contempt. The number of female board members in the FTSE 100 – in spite of Cameron's lobbying – has just gone down! Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, passionately believes that women are the key to success – both in the world of business and in government. She says that if there was true equality, from the division of labour in the home right up to the boardroom, then society would operate more efficiently. I agree – as a boss I've seen women multitask, given loads of subsequent high-flyers their first job, and been impressed by the way women operate in a team. But never mind my (admittedly biased) opinion – a new study of French blue-chip companies such as L'Oréal and Danone shows that women also increase corporate value. Over a six-year period, companies with a third or more managerial posts filled by women returned 30 per cent more profits to shareholders. While Britain clings to the "nudge" approach (aiming to increase female board members to 25 per cent by 2015), France has passed legislation requiring boards to be 40 per cent female by 2017.

Women determined to get to the top in the UK have to be childless, or earn enough to pay for a support system. An increasing number of high-profile women are refusing to fit into working practices they consider are created by and favour men – long hours, constant availability on email, and activities such as team-building events. Women don't want to spend more time at work than they have to. But should we be treated differently to men because we bear children? Facebook has just appointed Nicola Mendelsohn, a successful ad agency boss and a mother of four who insists on working a four-day week, to head up a large part of its empire outside the USA.

Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In, argues that ambitious women should focus on their careers and not spend less time at work to focus on their families. She says they need proper help at home to allow them to rise up through the ranks. Unlike Ms Mendelsohn, working a four-day week is not an option for 90 per cent of British women. Many work part-time because that's the only employment available. Most working women (single or in a partnership) need to earn as much as they can to pay the bills. I can't celebrate Mendelsohn's appointment, because her truncated working week isn't the way forward for female power in the workplace.

Ordinary women's ambitions are stunted through lack of affordable childcare as well as partners who don't shoulder their share of domestic life. The annual survey by Save the Children (State of the World's Mothers Report) places Britain 23rd in the world. Unless we make it easier for women to rise to the top, conditions for other women will never improve. For most, the cost of childcare means working is barely economic. Childcare minister Liz Truss has put forward proposals to relax the rules on childminding by increasing the number of kids that can be supervised from three to four. Obviously we need more and better qualified childminders, but at the moment our child to staff ratios are no worse than many comparable countries, such as France.

Nick Clegg has scuppered her plans, claiming children will not be "safe". Ms Truss hopes that childminders will reduce their costs as they care for more kids, but she can't guarantee that. Her proposals are not perfect, but Mr Clegg's intervention is scandalous. Never mind the boardroom – the sooner Parliament has a legally enforced quota of women the better.

Eat up!

Restaurateur and Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton, says cooking has replaced religion as a way of bringing people together. Has someone popped something exotic in his scones? Television cookery shows are popular entertainment with carefully staged "jeopardy" and plenty of ramped-up emotions for the cameras, but there's little proof that they have increased the amount of time a family spends in the kitchen chatting, communicating or preparing food together. In fact, we eat together less than ever, and the old notion of the communal post-work supper in the kitchen has disappeared. Organised religion has certainly lost its attraction, but I hardly think that baking bread or making a sponge cake provides the same spiritual solace you get from singing a hymn or contemplating great architecture. The best thing about learning to cook from scratch – which Mary Berry wants taught in all schools – is that is gives you a sense of self worth. Your efforts will please other people and you acquire a whole variety of skills by default, from maths to geography to literacy. But you don't necessarily learn empathy and compassion, which is at the heart of belief.

Sugar babes

The Apprentice is back, and thank goodness I don't have to employ any of those frightening women with their big hair, tight skirts and flawless make-up. I'd feel like a badly packaged parcel in comparison. I wasn't surprised pushy teacher Jaz got the boot in episode one, but none of these females are a good advert for the sisterhood. You get the feeling that they've developed specially pointy elbows to shove any opposition out of the way. They might like to stop being so strident and emulate Karren Brady, who manages to exude confidence and capability and never appear brash. These contestants, male and female, talk in meaningless soundbites. The best new show on the BBC, after a low key start, has been The Politician's Husband, by Paula Milne, now sadly concluded. A wonderful study in nastiness, it made The Apprentice look like am-dram.

Amazing graze

Nigel Evans, the Deputy Speaker, claims the fascinating scar on his forehead was inflicted by an over-enthusiastic masseur. I find that hard to believe, and I've had massages of all sorts, clothed and unclothed, in five continents. Why are we so interested in a graze? Since his recent arrest, the MP has been the subject of intense press scrutiny. Mr Evans firmly denies allegations of rape and sexual assault claimed to have occurred in 2009 and 2013, and has received many letters of support. The scar, which appears to be covered with make-up, looks just like the injury one might sustain walking into a tree – I've done that more than once after a few bevvies. But the MP insists that after paying £25 for a massage to relieve a migraine in Chinatown, the mark mysteriously appeared on his forehead. Why not just say he's been touched by God? The worst thing that happened to me during a massage was being walkzed on by a semi-naked holy man with very knobbly feet in Goa. But I felt fantastic later.