Gillard, Bower, Shoesmith: Why can't a woman in public life be treated more like a man?

We may think the UK is far further down the line to gender equality than Australia - but our record with female leaders is itself far from exemplary

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Two countries at opposite ends of the earth: Australia and Britain. Two quite different, but powerful organisations: a government and a health watchdog. And two contrasting styles of departure – one instantaneous and brutal, the other murky and contested. But, at root, just one issue that refuses to go away. How feasible is it really, even now, in an advanced democratic country, to wield power, real power, as a woman?

Julia Gillard’s defeat in a leadership contest she herself instigated had been written in the stars ever since she defied the odds (and scorn) to form a government. To pose, as she did, on the eve of that contest, knitting a toy kangaroo for Britain’s new royal arrival, might be judged with hindsight a mistake. As Prime Minister, though, she can hardly be accused of pulling her punches. She gave her misogynist colleagues as good as she got. And, as she said in her unnecessarily gracious valedictory, her travails may make things a little easier for the women who will surely come after.

At least Australia is now embroiled in a national debate about gender relations and women in public life. Nothing of the sort is happening in the UK. Perhaps we flatter ourselves that we got it out of our system with Margaret Thatcher – first, when she won office, and then, 11 years later, when she was ousted by a party cabal. Nothing is further from the truth.

Consider the alleged cover-up at the Care Quality Commission which recently dominated the news. An independent review had accused the CQC of suppressing an internal report about the commission’s failure to identify defects at Cumbria’s Furness general hospital. Specifically, the review had chronicled a meeting where – it said – the decision had been made that the report should never see the light of day.

Quite rightly, the revelations prompted an outcry, not just in their own right, but because no names were named. The anonymity seemed to highlight just how easily those who are paid to represent the interests of the public are able to slide out of all personal responsibility when things go wrong. The worst that befalls them, so it seems, is that they are encouraged to resign with a substantial pay-off and their generous pension intact.

Public fury rapidly brought the names into the public domain. And lo and behold, it turned out that those allegedly trying to dodge responsibility included the then CQC chief executive, Cynthia Bower, her deputy, Jill Finney, and the communications manager. What was not generally remarked upon, though, was that they were all women. One reason why this – not uninteresting – fact might have passed without comment was that the CQC has mostly been led by women. (Of course, the men have now been sent in, as some might say, to “sort it out”.)

But this fact does – or should – raise certain questions, especially now that Ms Bower and Ms Finney have offered rather different versions of the “cover-up”. One of these concerns a right to reply. Both women complained that they had not been given a chance to answer the charges against them. Another question is whether male executives would have been treated in the same way. And a third might consider whether a group of female executives might conduct a meeting differently from a group of men in equivalent positions.

Instead of an answer, let me offer a few examples. Sir David Nicholson – who headed the regional health authority responsible for Stafford Hospital at its nadir – was subsequently promoted to head the NHS in England, where he presided over a system that prescribed expensive gagging orders for departing staff with knowledge that the NHS wanted kept under wraps. Sir David had the luxury of announcing his retirement in his own time and leaves next March with his dignity and pension intact.

Then take Sharon Shoesmith, who was director of children’s services in Haringey when Baby Peter was murdered, despite 60 visits in eight months from social workers. Shoesmith was singled out in the Ofsted report, pilloried in the media, and summarily dismissed on the orders of the then children’s secretary, Ed Balls. This was later ruled unfair by the appeal court. During her appeal she asked, not unreasonably, why the NHS and the police, which had also failed Baby Peter, were not called upon to share responsibility.

Or look at the BBC. George Entwistle had barely got his feet under the director-general’s desk when he was knocked for six by the Jimmy Savile scandal and the disastrous Newsnight programme on child abuse. His puny response sped him to an early exit. But his predecessor, Mark Thompson, had floated effortlessly above many a fray, including the Russell Brand phone “prank”, while others took the flak – chief among them the female controller of Radio 2.

After Entwistle departed (swiftly and well compensated), it was again women who mostly paid the price. Liz MacKean, who had worked on the Jimmy Savile story, left. Helen Boaden, head of news, was moved sideways. Most of the new director general’s senior appointees have been men, and many of the jobs were not advertised.

My examples are subjective, and there may be good reasons why these men and women seem to have been treated differently, starting with the obvious: the buck did stop with them; they were culpable and deserved their fate. And competence must also be considered. Lamenting to a friend the lack of women in senior jobs and even, in some areas, a decline, she suggested that in her gender-aware organisation, some of the women advanced into senior posts were to blame. Regrettably, she said, they had not always been up to the job, which made selectors wary of choosing another woman.

But competence – like work style, like the trade-off between the collective and personal interest – can be in the eye of the beholder. And until women have an equal say in setting the rules and checking the yardsticks, we should not be surprised that they are deemed to fail more often than men and that, when they do, the penalties for that failure seem so much higher.

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