Christina Patterson: The hangover that women can't shake off

Yes, we need cheaper childcare, but the real question for women is ‘Are you hot?’

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"It is difficult," said an official report to the director of the Australian Trade Commissioner Service, "to support the appointment of women." It was difficult, apparently, because although a "relatively young, attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness in a subordinate capacity", the appointee "would not stay young and attractive for ever". And that could well "become a problem".

It was difficult because "relationships with businessmen would tend to be somewhat formal and guarded" and because it was "doubtful" if a woman could stand the "fairly severe strains". It was difficult because "a man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife", but "a woman Trade Commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work". And it was difficult because "single graduates" would "probably marry within five years", but "a spinster lady" can turn into something of a battleaxe."

You can see why the report might conclude "that the noes have it". Too young, too old, too pretty, too ugly, too weak, too bossy. Too exhausting, in fact. Better, much better, to stick to the status quo. Women "in a subordinate capacity", ideally "young and attractive". Which, I'm afraid, is largely what we've done. Forty-six years after the report (one of thousands of gems in the National Archive of Australia) was submitted, the situation relating to women and work is barely better.

The pay gap between men and women in this country has actually grown wider: from 21.9 per cent in 2007 to 22.6 per cent in 2008. And a quick glance at the website of that tax-guzzling disgrace of a body assigned the tricky task of looking after the interests of the minority that isn't a minority (along with other minorities that are) confirms that the overall trend isn't good. "New report highlights shocking lack of women in positions of power and influence in Wales" is one of the cheery headlines you get when you tap "women" into the website for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Or "Sex and Power report reveals fewer women in positions of power and influence". Or just "Fewer women in top posts".

It's all so drearily familiar that even this battleaxe can scarcely be bothered to type it. And for the non-"spinster ladies", the ones who mess up the work place with their big bumps, and leaking breasts, and bags of baggage and nappies and problems and excuses, and their tiresome maternity leaves, and their tiresome guilt, and their tiresome worry, it's even worse. More than a third of working mothers want to leave their jobs to look after their children, according to a new report commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. And a further six in 10 would prefer to reduce their hours.

Leaving aside the women MPs who will almost certainly be leaving their jobs to "spend more time with their families", that still means that nine in 10 mothers are unhappy about their jobs. The Government can extol the virtues of work as much as it likes, but when the work available to you is tedious and poorly paid then it's not surprising that the "balls" (in super-remunerated Cherie's memorable phrase) seem barely worth juggling. No wonder Sarah Brown sticks to home baking and Twitter.

The arguments about work and motherhood will, of course, run and run. Yes, we need cheaper childcare; yes we need to combat the macho, long-hours culture; yes we need to remember that it takes two people to create a child and the responsibilities of one of them doesn't cease at conception. And yes, we need to address the inequities of a public sector which allows half the workforce to absent itself at the first whisper of a child's cough and a private sector which barely glimpses daylight.

But there's another issue here and it's got nothing to do with children. More than 80 years after women were given the right to vote, we seem more convinced than ever that the chief role of women in our society is adornment. Want to be a receptionist? You'd better be hot. Want to read the news? You'd better be hot. Present a chat show? Judge ballroom dancing? Write a book? Be an MP? Well, why would you want to, but you'd better be hot. Oh, and young. Ideally, under 30.

Fail this test, and you'll suffer. Even Ann Widdecombe, remember, dyed her hair and went to fat club. Jacqui Smith was accused of driving her husband to porn. And if you want to survive as a woman over 50, you'll have to make an effort. You might – think Anne Robinson, think Julie Christie – need surgery. But don't think we're only talking about the public eye. Even the head of the Charity Commission wears short skirts and high heels.

On Saturday, I went to see The Hangover. It was quite funny, but not quite as funny as the male critics had said. I don't think anyone was suggesting that this tale of a stag night gone horribly, riotously, sickeningly wrong was any kind of a blueprint for a civilised society, but still, the women characters were a little depressing. A plain fiancée who's a pain. A silent, pretty bride. A super-sexy whore. The plain fiancée gets dumped, of course, for the tart with the heart – and very long legs indeed.

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