How to make opportunity knock: New sticks and carrots are needed if women are to get a better deal, says Barrie Clement

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The Independent Online
PROGRESS towards equal opportunities in Britain is 'depressingly slow'. That was the conclusion of Joanna Foster, who, it was announced yesterday, this week relinquishes the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in favour of Kamlesh Bahl, a 36-year-old company secretary and lawyer.

In June, Ms Bahl, an unknown quantity to commission officials - and to most other people - will be welcomed to the commission's London offices in Poland Street, introduced to an earnest secretariat and furnished with large quantities of statistical ammunition showing a narrowing but still massive gap between the employment opportunities of men and women. The most germane fact, perhaps, is that women's earnings are still only 71 per cent of men's, having risen from 66 per cent when Ms Foster started in 1988.

After scanning the statistics, however, Ms Bahl will do well to cast aside the paper and concentrate on a critical examination of the tactics of the commission since Ms Foster took office five years ago. Ms Bahl's principal task will be to convince the legions of middle-aged males with 'attitude' at the top of British industry to espouse equal opportunities, and that will not be achieved by statistics alone.

Having considered the data and the policies, she is likely to decide on a mixture of stick and carrot, as did her predecessor. But the sticks and the carrots could have been better chosen.

Under Ms Foster the stick consisted of court cases which served to warn recalcitrant employers that the consensus-seeking commission had teeth and was prepared to bite. The most high-profile litigation involved Alison Halford, former assistant chief constable in Merseyside, who alleged sexual discrimination and the sort of particularly nasty male chauvinism that seems to be favoured by men in uniform.

Commission officials were determined to post a 'don't mess with us' message, but this may have been counterproductive. It disappointed women when it did not succeed - Ms Halford was widely criticised for accepting a financial settlement, which let the police authority off the hook. At the same time, what some saw as the commission's aggressive approach may have deterred some organisations from promoting women to senior positions lest those women resort to the law if they felt that their ambitions were being unreasonably frustrated.

Despite these drawbacks, however, this 'stick' part of the commission's policy could scarcely be abandoned by Ms Bahl. The 'carrot' part of the policy bears closer examination. One of the most difficult problems Ms Bahl faces is tactical rather than strategic. In particular, it is how to deploy the concept of 'enlightened self-interest' in persuading business people to recruit and promote women.

The commission under Ms Foster has relied heavily on the impact of the 'demographic time bomb'. This argument - it became something of a mantra - said that the country was running short of young people and that organisations would therefore need to look elsewhere for high-quality employees.

An anticipated fall of 25 per cent in the number of 18-year-olds formed a coda to almost every speech on the subject. Special measures would need to be taken to attract job applications from black people, the disabled, the long-term unemployed, released prisoners and women.

The emphasis seemed to be that equal opportunities was a business imperative, rather than a social duty. Champions of career breaks, proponents of flexible working hours were all heard entreating business people to listen for the ticking of the bomb.

Then came the recession. Employers suddenly found an abundance of school leavers seeking jobs. Workers were made redundant in their hundreds of thousands.

Many organisations, especially in the private sector, felt that there was no longer any need to place a special premium on the position of women in the organisation. It was easier to go back to tried and tested pools of recruitment. It was cheaper, too, because there was no need to worry about childcare allowances and workplace nurseries.

Such politically incorrect musings then derived a degree of respectability from the Confederation of British Industry - itself an 'equal opportunties employer'. In an internal paper, published by the Independent on Sunday, the CBI asserted that the demographic time bomb had been defused and that the commission's contentions had been devalued. The inference widely drawn from that document was that companies could go back to employing young, Anglo-Saxon males.

The paper, 'Economic Growth and the Prospects for Employment', said that the number of unemployed people would rise to 3.1 million by the middle of this year, possibly levelling out at around 3.2 million in 1994. Unemployment was unlikely to fall below 2.5 million during the Nineties. It concluded: 'Clearly some of the business arguments for accessing and advancing previously excluded groups and for increasing training become less relevant'. Among those 'previously excluded groups', of course, were women.

The paper appeared to allow industry to wash its hands of any responsibility for giving women equal opportunities, hinting that this was the function of the

Government.

The publication of this paper seemed particularly unfortunate, given that the CBI is one of the main supporters of the voluntary Opportunity 2000 campaign, which seeks to persuade employers that women should be represented at all levels in companies. The campaign does not countenance government interference in the form of more legislation.

Ms Foster's assessment of her own period of office is sober. 'Equal opportunities is now on the agenda. But recession has pushed it on to the back burner,' she wrote in Personnel Today magazine. The proportion of women who were 'economically active' had risen. The figure stood at 53 per cent last summer, up by one point since 1988. In the same period the proportion of economically active men had fallen from 76 to 74 per cent.

'But what jobs are they doing?' asked Ms Foster of the women who had found employment. She cited the case of Burton, which recently cut full-time jobs while creating part-time ones. Women would provide the flexibility needed in the Nineties, she said. The drawback was that they were simply mopping up low-paid jobs without redundancy protection and pension provision.

The abolition of wages councils - a provision in the employment Bill that is currently going through the House of Lords - might well increase the employment opportunities for women. However, the absence of the councils - which set statutory minimum wage rates - will mean that pay generally is lower - in the short term at least.

So now that the recession is officially over, will the demographic time bomb resume its ticking? Despite a recent fall in the unemployment rate, it will be a considerable time before there is a shortage of school leavers again. Even if there is, another recession is an inevitable part of the economic cycle.

So Ms Bahl must be circumspect when it comes to using statistical projections. There are lies, damned lies - and demography. Perhaps, instead, she should box clever and keep it vague: if employers do not recruit and promote women, they may not be getting the best people for the job.

(Photograph omitted)

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