Put women in their place: at the top of the tree

Share
Related Topics
YOU MAY well be reading this surrounded by the detritus of Christmas, a pile of his-and-her gifts stacked in the corner. Some will very definitely be hers; perfume, ear-rings, lingerie, the "must-have" devore scarf. Others are indisputably his; not just boring old socks, but all kinds of gadgetry including the year's newest gizmos.

And looking down on all this, the cards that really do have the yuk factor about them: those whiter than white, purer than pure depictions of the Madonna and Child. Images of that sort, together with all those bottles of eau de cologne and dinky bits of lace, put women firmly in their place and say that the best way to be is the traditional way to be. Dutiful mother, with - to spice things up a bit - a touch of the whore.

Yet these abiding images are confused this year's end with some extraordinary ones; of an edition of Newsnight on the four-day Iraq war in which the presenter in London, the interviewer talking to Vice President Al Gore in Washington, and the correspondent out in the field were all female. Film from the front showed women, thumbs up, returning from successful air strikes. Never was it more apparent that the price of progress involves women taking on the nastier roles formerly belonging to men, and having to deal with the mess made by politicians, even if it means using war as a last resort.

Yet despite these extreme moments of the past few weeks showing women in their ultra-conventional guise, and the depressing spectacle of them as partners to men at their beastliest, there is still cause for cheer. For 1999, more than any other year, is one we can salute as the year of women. It will be the moment when John Bull will have to graciously give way to his smarter, sassier sister.

In Britain, more than two-thirds of professional jobs are likely to be taken by women in the coming year. Careers such as the Law are attracting more and more bright young female graduates, so that now the majority of solicitors under 30 are female. The change has come about so fast that in the past 10 years, the number of female solicitors has increased by 153 percent.

The likelihood of the young lawyer in 1999 being a woman is matched by the chance that a doctor will be one. The proportion of women reading medicine is now so high that in the coming 12 months, just over half of the newly registered house doctors in this country will be female.

That these professions should attract women in such numbers makes perfect sense. The nurturing and listening skills, combined with the tact and people-friendly talent which so many women appear to have as if by instinct, suit careers which involve dealing with members of the public. But the tougher, more cut-throat world of business will also see women securing more and more of the plum jobs. In 1999, women in the office will not be so much typing letters as dictating them - together with the terms of the company. Not just in Britain, but across the corporate world, the misogynist will have to stand aside. There will be more females at the top of the business world than ever before. And every day in 1999, we will have a reminder of just how far women have come whenever we use a bank note. Not only will there be the Queen's head on it, but a woman's signature too. Merlyn Lowther, the Bank of England's new chief cashier, starts her job on January 21.

Women's emergence in both business and the professions puts paid at last to the idea that they only go to work to fill in time between leaving school and having a family. Salaries have gone up too, and in areas where skills are in short supply - such as accountancy, management consultancy and IT - pay is just about equal. So far, so good. But can it get any better? And what about poorer women in lower-grade work?

The problem is that for women both at the top and the bottom of the ladder, the image on the Christmas card - that of mother and child - comes back to haunt us still. For women at the top, the ultimate sacrifice so many are expected to make is that of not having children. At the apex of the corporate pyramid, there are very few women indeed. Only 3 per cent of the most senior positions in Fortune 500 companies are held by women, be they chairmen or chief executives. And the characteristic which makes top women achievers quite different from men is that far more of them remain childless.

Slip back down the rungs of that career ladder, and you will find women at the bottom also have a problem with children. This time it is having them. The sheer struggle of successfully combining the raising of children and the demands of a job means that women continue to make up the majority of the low-paid. The average gross weekly female wage is pounds 185, compared to men's pounds 374. The figures are skewed by the extent to which many of these low-paid jobs which women opt for are part-time. Without adequate child care, there is little choice.

Not all is lost. When the national minimum wage becomes law this year, two million low-paid workers will get the biggest boost to their pay packets they will ever have received - an average of 30 per cent. And for low- paid, read women.

The strategy on low pay, together with new policies on child care, will make 1999 the year when we will judge just how far the Blair Government reality matches up to its early rhetoric. In the coming months, the working family's tax credit system comes into force, enabling those going back into work the chance to set the cost of child care against their tax bills. This will form a major plank of the National Child Care strategy, which will also include the greater regulation of child care services. And that has to happen; without guarantees that nurseries are safe places to leave children, mothers won't be going anywhere near the workplace.

If all these moves in the lives of women (be they corporate queen bees, professionals with purpose or working mothers) do make 1999 a true year of womankind, what more fitting finale to the 20th century - a hundred years which brought universal suffrage, the opening of countless educational and career doors, and the dignity bestowed by control over fertility, safe childbirth and public repudiation of conjugal violence.

But for all the talk of increased opportunities, we still have a long way to go. Look again at those Madonna and Child cards lining your shelf. See how tightly encircling the arms are. Isn't it time they stretched out to others, so that women are no longer alone with their children? A casting aside of the corrupting influence of strident individualism, so that we become a community of women and men together - now that would be real progress in 1999.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
Jeremy Corbyn addresses over a thousand supporters at Middlesbrough Town Hall on August 18, 2015  

Thank God we have the right-wing press to tell us what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn as PM would be

Mark Steel
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future