Harriet Walker: Don't slam the door and then tell us we've got opportunities

Women are just not taken seriously enough. What hope do we have of getting into boardrooms when the focus is so much on our bodies?

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Pity the women – those poor hapless fruitloops who got themselves born into the wrong body. The body that bends weak minds to its own devious impulses; the body that finds more comfort in bed than in bench presses; the body that has within it the miraculous capacity to produce life and little people.

Scorn them too, for their inability to make it on their own: for their perennial reliance on handouts and sympathy from the lads and the law-makers. They just can't help it: any endeavour they turn their little minds to goes sour or explodes in their faces, singeing so many false eyelashes and peroxide coifs.

This week has seen some of the most vast and varied comments about women and their status, all of them pointing to one thing: that we cannot get it right, no matter what. There were shrieks of disapproval at the suggestion that Cheryl Cole, Our Lady of Glamour, Domestic Tragedy and Tropical Diseases, might have put on some weight. This would not be an issue – because it's trendy to decry women for being too thin as well, don't forget – but it's made Cheryl's lovely little face go all puffy and funny. For shame Chezza! It's your job to keep that phiz in good nick; what else do you do to occupy your time?

Then there's model Irina Shayk, this month's cover star of Sports Illustrated, whose undulating surfaces cause men and women alike to go a bit dizzy, except eeeek! as one tabloid points out, she's only gone and left the house without shaving her legs. How disgusting, the golden glint of follicles on her otherwise flawless and mile-high legs. Honestly, it's enough to put you right off gawping at her breasts.

Women, eh? They get all these opportunities and they still mess it up. That's why the Government is seeking to help them get jobs and fit in with normal people. We all know it's dangerous having dissatisfied minorities in our midst – not that you have anything to fear from women. They couldn't organise a Tupperware party in a suburban living room. Or they could, but they're either too weak from hunger to bother, or so fat that they don't need Tupperware in the first place. What leftovers?

The men in suits don't offer their help by making decisions on positive discrimination, you understand, because that would be patronising to women and unfair on the other, more talented people who already have their feet and other appendages firmly wedged under the table. They suggest "change", that abstract political concept about as easy to outline as Fermat's Last Theorem but as simple to tick off the proverbial to-do list as "take the rubbish out".

Lord Davies of Abersoch advised in his report, published yesterday, that FTSE companies set their own "challenging targets", which will in turn lead to a "much higher figure" than the suggested 25 per cent minimum of female board representation by 2015. Leaving the balls stationary in their courts, however, means that the only "challenging target" likely to be established in many offices is moving the wastepaper bin further away before aiming Lord Davies's findings squarely into it.

"Leaving business to tackle the problem on a voluntary basis isn't working," says Anna Bird, of the Fawcett Society. "Continuing with this approach means excluding another generation of women from the top table of business. The time has come to take radical action." By "radical", Bird isn't talking firebombing or scaling the Houses of Parliament, or even making a noise. She means quotas, which Lord Davies stopped short of, and which cause patriarchal businesses to squeal like, well, girls.

In 2005, the Norwegian government imposed 40 per cent quotas on listed companies for female directors and board members. The world did not explode – or rather, it did two years later because of what the majority male execs had done to the economy. France and Spain have followed suit. In Sweden, 45 per cent of MPs are women, and they make up 50 per cent of government ministers. And the Swedish press don't spend their time studying the depilatory efforts of women in the spotlight.

There are currently 18 FTSE 100 companies without a single female director, and almost half of all names in the FTSE 250 have no women in their boardrooms. There are four women in a Government cabinet of 23; that's less than half the number therein who went to Oxford. Clearly some quotas are easier to fill than others.

Imagine transposing these figures to kitchens, or janitorial agencies, or kindergarten staff rooms. It isn't just that women don't want the top jobs or that they're not good enough for them; there is no established way in. The problem is that women are still not taken seriously enough in any walk of life. Even the international megastars still have fat faces; even the global lust icons have hairy legs. So what hope do we have of getting into boardrooms when the focus is so much on our bodies?

There has been much debate during the past week, as New York and London have seen models stalking the catwalks, about body image. While the fashion industry certainly has some role to play in the way women ingest views of femininity, the twice-yearly appearance of slim young girls in expensive clothes has nothing like the insidious influence that the gossip rags and circle-of-shame Misogynists' Weekly do.

The fashion industry is regarded as one that systematically undermines women's confidence. In fact it is among the few industries that tirelessly employs and supports them, quota or no quota – from businesswomen like Tamara Mellon and Anya Hindmarch, to Angela Ahrendts, the CEO of Burberry (one of only five FTSE 100 companies with a female chief exec), to the countless women who manage retail spaces and work on shopfloors, factories and, of course, in the modelling trade. Fashion is one of very few democratising industries in which women can do well.

Several women, like Betty Boothroyd, the former Commons Speaker, who have managed to ascend to top positions, believe quotas are demeaning. But slamming the door behind you only causes the glass ceiling to wobble more violently. That it is entirely possible for a woman to reach these jobs without the help of a quota is further proof of her capabilities, and only strengthens the case for more of us being allowed the chance.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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