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

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.