Deborah Orr: Having a hard time in the office? The City should share the blame

'The sexist culture rampaged for 30 years, unchecked by the Government's cautious forays into social democracy'

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In his first pronouncement as Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson suggested that recent proposals extending the right of parents to flexible working may have to be withdrawn. His reasoning is that new legislation would put extra pressure on small businesses, just when they could do without it.

My reasoning is that since we are already at the start of a severe recession, few people would be taking up the offer of flexible hours for parents with children aged six to 16 anyway, even though a new survey finds that 86 per cent of mothers and 83 per cent of fathers would like to do so. There is nothing like a contracting economy for bringing to bay those pesky workers and their rights. Mandelson is merely attempting to make a harsh reality look like a deliberately business-friendly policy. His famous political opportunism still beggars belief. But while the gesture may be symbolic, practically speaking, what it symbolises is sinister.

The electorate has already learned the hard way that while the profits of "business" at its biggest remain largely in private hands, everybody gets to shoulder the losses. Now Mandelson has brazenly announced that cultural losses are now to be "socialised" as well as financial ones.

The macho, sexist culture of presenteeism rampaged in the City for 30 years, unchecked by the present Government's cautious and faltering forays into the promotion of social democracy. The pay gap alone – 43 per cent in the city, compared to 22 per cent among the rest of the workforce – stands testament to how impervious to gender equality legislation the sector was and is. It's a victory for all those who resisted so comprehensively the idea that in a decent society the needs of families should be the concern of employers, that the Government is so keen to be seen to abandon the principle now.

An article in the current issue of the London Review of Books suggests that viewers enjoy the 1960s-set US television series Mad Men because it is "an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better" in which "we wait for the show's advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over".

The writer, Mark Greif, is to some extent correct in his assessment. Yet the compelling thing about the series is not observing that things have improved, but marvelling at how much more adept business has become at hiding what we no longer even call "chauvinism", for fear of sounding like throwbacks.

No industry sector has been better than the finance sector at promoting itself as modern and egalitarian while instead preserving and fostering the sorts of attitudes displayed in Mad Men. Women occasionally blow the whistle on City behaviour, but understand that to do so is to say goodbye to their financial careers.

Having decided to get out and become a thriller writer, Linda Davies wrote about being asked to wait behind after important meetings by a powerful client, so that she could be chased round the conference table. Her colleagues filed out obligingly, even though they knew what was going to happen. She also says that on several occasions she would be attacked "mid-trade' by her male colleagues, who would tie her up with Sellotape to try to mess up her deals.

Venetia Thompson, who was nicknamed Airbags at work "on account of my breasts", wrote a piece earlier this year for The Spectator magazine, describing the drinking, the lap-dance-club visiting, the sexism and the racism that routinely occurred in the City, and was fired for her pains. "Pulling a colleague off their chair in a headlock, calling someone 'Ferg' [Feargal Sharkey, Darkie] or 'wiki' [wiki-waki, Paki], hurling a keyboard in fury, or getting so drunk at lunchtime that you have to have your car keys wrestled away from you, are, it seems all acceptable forms of behaviour," she commented afterwards. "Writing about it is apparently gross misconduct."

It is in the courts, though, that the really vile side of the City is best viewed. The list of women, in London and on Wall Street, who have brought sex discrimination cases is long. Recently Gill Switalski appeared to have won a case against F&C Asset Management, in which she accused a new line manager of becoming "fixated" with her flexible hours – even though she was hitting her targets – and mounting a campaign of "bullying, harassment, intimidation, sexual discrimination and victimisation against her". Switalski's flexible hours were in place so that she could look after her sons – one with cerebral palsy and one with Asperger's. She still faces further litigation, with the prosecution alleging that she "faked a breakdown". Individual cases tend to drag on, as allegations are always ruthlessly contested.

Many women lose their cases, even though their rejected testimony tends to sound familiar. Women working in the City often complain of attitudes changing radically after they became pregnant or had children. Certainly career trajectories suggest that City working and families don't mix. An equal number of men and women enter the profession, but at the top, all but 3 per cent of workers are men. City employment lawyers confirm that more than half of sex discrimination cases are to do with pregnancy and maternity.

Cases tend to fail because it is claimed that the women were simply no good and unwilling to admit it. And there is often an implication. as well, that any harassment females were subjected to was just "fun". Also, any evidence that the women had previously "played along" with the macho office culture tends to be used against them. Anyway, City companies are so keen to keep harassment cases out of the press that they are usually settled out of court. A pay-off buys silence, and as Venetia Thompson discovered, silence about bad behaviour is highly prized.

In the past, even the City women who did have the guts to go to court and win have received little sympathy, due to the huge sums they earn, and the large payouts they tend to be awarded. But we should be worried that the Government is now taking a leaf out of the City's book, and snatching away even the theoretical right of a modestly earning parent to consider trying to combine the needs of their employer with the needs of their child.

It's a shame – a fancy wardrobe would have been some consolation for Sarah

*Nobody ever said that the Republican Party was against the conspicuous consumption of luxury items. Actually, I'd rather grasped that they were all in favour of it. So why is it such a big deal that £96,000 has been spent on campaign clothing and accessories for Sarah Palin, pictured, and her family?

A watchdog group has even filed a campaign finance complaint against her, which Palin, ever the feminist, says is "sexist". She adds: "Oh, if only people knew how frugal we are!" as if John McCain had personally forced her to gussy herself up. The assumption has to be that Palin only splashes out money that isn't her own. That doesn't sit well with the rest of her political presentation, even though it chimes nicely with the reality of her spending record in Alaska.

Even so, it seems a bit mean that the rules demand that she cannot keep any of the gear, but must instead donate it to charity. Isn't the woman going to get anything as a consolation prize for not getting to be "a heartbeat away from the presidency"?

Maybe Palin could simply announce "I sold it on eBay", like that private jet she "sold" on eBay even though nobody bought it on eBay. Then everyone would win.

*Abortion campaigners have every right to be miffed at continued resistance to debate in the Commons about some of the irritating anomalies around abortion law. Most awful is the denial of abortion rights to women living in Northern Ireland, while the rest of the UK can access the service. But the continued demand that two doctors have to certify that one's fragile mind is the reason for "their" decision is disgraceful as well. Perhaps we should just make signs to hang outside wards, clinics and surgeries, saying: "You don't have to be mad to get an abortion here – but it helps!"

n NO agonising over flexible work for Angelina Jolie. The actress and mother of six tells the Italian edition of 'Vanity Fair' that: "The kids are my priority, so it's possible that from now on I will make fewer movies. I may even stop altogether. I no longer have the ambition I had in my twenties." Weird, really, that you have to be a wealthy Hollywood actress, living in a celebrity bubble, before you can state the obvious and normal without fear of retribution.

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