Mary Dejevsky: Power, influence and the new old boys' clubs

Those in the chairs are men, the women are handing out the microphones
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All right, so I was miffed. Just a little. A new foreign policy think tank, Atlanticist in complexion, was launched in London recently and my invitation failed to arrive. Let's be generous for a moment. Perhaps it got lost in the pre-Christmas post; perhaps funds were limited. Or perhaps the organisers felt a foreign-policy writer at The Independent would not be persuaded to modify her views by a glass of House of Commons champagne. (Thanks for the compliment.)

But there was a reason, quite apart from my interest and expertise in things East-West and transatlantic, why they might have thought fit to put that card in the post. Their outfit, the Henry Jackson Society, has an extreme shortage of women. There is one on the 11-strong organising committee and four of the 20-plus patrons are female. The rest are men.

In mitigation, the Henry Jackson people might say that their group is not alone in its male preponderance. A quick survey of the websites of the more prominent British think tanks shows that these research and policy groups present a profile more reminiscent of the upper echelons of London's Clubland than a representative sample of professional London.

The higher up you go, the wider the disparity. Among senior researchers and recent speakers (where included) the women are regularly outnumbered three or four to one. When you reach the level of patrons, trustees and directors, you can count the women, at best, on one hand. My observation from taking part in meetings at such establishments bears this out. The great majority of those sitting in the chairs are young-ish men; the women are handing out the microphones. And try the Christmas parties: there were times when I felt almost as conspicuous as I did during visits to Kosovo way back in the time of former Yugoslavia: at dusk, the young men would take part in the ritual passeggiata; the women mostly retired indoors.

The imbalance applies almost across the board. There tend to be comparatively fewer women at defence and foreign policy related groups, and more - interestingly - at those focusing on economics. But the balance is not significantly better at those which focus on areas seen traditionally as "women's" issues, such as health and child-development. Nor do I detect any signs of improvement. Some might argue that, in the end, it does not matter. Privately funded think tanks, which have sprung up all over in recent years, are essentially lobby groups. They pursue research into issues of the day with a view to influencing government policy. Ministers can take or leave their conclusions.

But my view is that it does matter, quite a lot. Women often have different experience from men and different analytical take on policy. At a time when the Government, the Civil Service and academia have all tried - with some success - to improve access to jobs and promotion for women, the think tanks increasingly offer a parallel, male-dominated career track. They may argue, in their defence, that so many qualified women are snapped up by the public sector to meet diversity targets, that they have little choice. My sense is that, as a fashionable source of graduate employment, they do not try very hard.

Their recruitment relies to a great extent on "networking" (the successor of the "old boys' club"). Their intake is further narrowed by the invidious practice of unpaid work experience, which is stacked against anyone who does not live in London or know well-placed people who live there. My observation is also that young men are more likely to gamble on work experience leading to a "proper" job than the girls, who accept paid employment below their ability in the hope of working their way up.

At a time when government departments are encouraged to open more senior posts to those outside the Civil Service and when it is accepted practice for ministers to recruit partisan special advisers, think tanks come into their own. They are increasingly becoming the training grounds for the advisers, politicians and ministers of the future. If the informal entry points to politics and government are not widened, it will not just be the Conservatives wondering where they are going to find more women MPs.

And with think tanks, as with special advisers (among whom, incidentally, men outnumber women four to one), we are talking about influence and power without accountability. Far from diversifying the views heard in government, think tanks and their products allow ministers to pick and choose the answers they prefer. We saw from the Hutton and Butler inquiries where this sort of government leads. I fear the power pyramid of British politics - after a brief flirtation with more equal opportunities - is reverting to masculine type.