Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Beyond the ceiling, the sky's the limit

Today, thousands of daughters will glimpse the world of work. But how are their mothers getting on? Polly Toynbee, Esther Oxford and Vicky Ward examine seven sectors for signs of breakthrough, and profile a few who have made it

Polly Toynbee,Esther Oxford,Vicky Ward
Wednesday 26 April 1995 23:02 BST

On Take Our Daughters to Work Day it had better be the fathers, not the mothers, who take them, otherwise most girls will spend their day Hoovering offices, serving hamburgers or answering telephones. Today a quarter of a million schoolgirls will be taken to work to get a taste of jobs they may never have considered - going on duty with firefighters, sitting on company boards, rat-catching.

Britain may have more working women than most other European countries - they make up half the workforce - but they are grouped heavily at the bottom, occupying only 4 per cent of middle and senior management posts, 2 per cent in top management, and 3 per cent of directorships.

Most revealing of all, 2 per cent of women earn as much or more than their partners. The glitzy image of shoulder-padded women of the Eighties bestriding the boardrooms is mainly a myth. The huge growth of jobs for women, and the shrinkage in jobs for men, is mainly because women are cheap, not because they are stealing men's jobs - though the realisation is dawning that promoting women to top positions means promoting fewer men, and then a backlash may begin in earnest.

Girls now outperform boys in GCSE results and gain almost as many university degrees, but often not heading towards top-earning occupations. Optimists point to the large numbers of women entering the bottom and middle ranks. But others fear the "glass ceiling" - that invisible barrier between high- achieving women and real power at work - will continue to batten them down.

The glass ceiling is mainly about babies. Women without children say they see no problem. But 16 per cent of women in middle and senior management have children, while nearly all their male colleagues are fathers. Ambitious women often have to make an unbearable choice never faced by men, which explains why a fifth of them are opting not to have children.

To compete at the top, women have to behave like top men and scarcely see their children, bring work home, attend conferences at weekends and stress themselves into an early grave. Men can only work these back-breaking hours because they have their children cared for them by women at home. Meanwhile, the mania for managerial efficiency drives everyone on to work harder and harder, making it more daunting than ever for women to reach out for the top.

Polly Toynbee


In the past five years, many more women have reached middle management. At Midland Bank, for example, which has an equal opportunities scheme, women's presence in management has doubled since 1989 from 24 to 48 per cent. Even more startling has been the rise of women returning to work after maternity leave. In 1989, it was 41 per cent; in January this year, 83 per cent. "This," says a spokesperson at Midland, "is likely to be among the best figures for the City, since Midland is still one of the few banks to have a workplace nurseries programme." According to equal opportunities watchdogs, the merchant banks are still way behind the clearing banks in promoting women, and in the City as a whole, 2 per cent of women have made it to directorial level.

Alison Thorne, chairwoman of City Women's Network, a 200-strong organisation for senior women executives, says the past few years have seen a massive turnabout in women's attitudes to City jobs. "Women are now refusing to accept the inflexible terms and long hours of City employment. They have the confidence to set up businesses on their own and work to their own agenda. A lot have gone into management consultancy."

Carol Galley, deputy chairwoman, Mercury Asset Management. Aged 45. Married to a German banker, no children. She started off as a librarian at SG Warburg and worked her way up the ladder. An employee of Mercury for 25 years, she virtually lives at the office, but leaves at 4.30pm on Fridays to go to her house in the South of France. Salary: £450,000 a year.


More than half of medical students are now women, but the top ranks are still mostly men. Women make up 28 per cent of hospital doctors and 28 per cent of GPs. Many congregate in the lower status, regular-hours jobs: 76 per cent of community health doctors, for instance, are female.

At consultant level, only 16 per cent are women, most in paediatrics and psychiatry. The worst speciality is surgery: 105 out of 3,310 surgeons. Barriers to becoming a consultant are mainly caused by intense competition for the series of six-month training posts, which involve moving around the country and last into the mid-thirties. In theory, doctors can take a break between posts, in practice very few women dare. Many drop out of the race when they choose to have children, taking part-time GP or community posts instead.

The profession is starting to worry. Now that half of doctors are women, their reluctance to go on into specialisms will create shortages and less talent to choose from.

Professor Averil Mansfield, a vascular specialist, was the first woman appointed as a surgical professor two years ago at the age of 56. She sits on the council of the Royal College of Surgeons, where she is a passionate advocate of encouraging women into surgery. She married late and has no children. She earns an estimated £100,000 and works 60 hours a week. "A surgeon needs stamina to stand up all day but not great physical strength."


None of the FTSE-100 listed companies has a chairwoman, and the Institute of Directors has only 2,500 female members against 33,500 men, but more and more women are creeping into managerial roles. As yet the Equal Opportunities Commission has no figures, but a spokesperson ventured the general view that there has been a marked change in women's attitudes and this year, every woman setting up in the stereotypically female role of PR consultant can be matched by another setting up their own firm of solicitors. "It's to do with confidence, and childlessness," adds Alison Tweddle who runs Women in Business, a forum for top businesswomen. "Women work for 10 years before having children, so they've attained the level of experience to set up on their own."

Yve Newbold, 55 is one of the sector's few female success stories. As Hanson's company secretary she earns an estimated £200,000 a year. She is married with four grown-up children, and started her career as a lawyer.

"There are still very, very few women in the boardrooms," she says. "And, of course, it is in the boardrooms that decisions are made. To achieve that, we need more women to go into traditionally male fields such as design. Otherwise we will never leave the current situation - one example is men designing cars for men. There is still not nearly enough flexibility for women's maternity and family requirements - but then women are not demanding enough. They need to speak far more vociferously than they do."


Media is one of the only sectors in the workplace for which nobody has even attempted to compile women's employment statistics, which, points out Ginny Dougary, journalist and author of The Executive Tart and Other Myths, "is surely interesting in itself". (Because of this, Dougary and other senior journalists have founded a group called Women In Journalism - as yet in an embryonic stage.)

Three national broadsheets have female deputy editors, and there have been several women editors of Sunday tabloids, although no national daily paper has had a woman editor. Jobs that are perceived as "hard" - such as news, foreign affairs and politics - are still dominated by men.

Many media women work as freelances once they have had children; the unsocial and long hours demanded in newspaper production sit badly with the demands of a family.

In television and radio there are also problems with working hours, 80- hour weeks in the lead-up to programme transmission are not unusual. In television, both BBC channels are controlled by men but women are coming up as departmental heads. Radio is doing much better. The entire staff on Radio 4's MediumWave programme, for example, is female, two of the five BBC radio channel controllers are women - Jenny Abramsky at Radio 5 Live and Frances Line at Radio 2. The most senior female executive in radio is Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC radio.

She is 51, single and childless, she earns more than £100,000 and has a solid background in newspaper journalism. She was also director of programmes at Channel 4. When appointed editor of the Guardian Women's page she said: "If you have no brother and go to a girls' boarding school and a women's college, you grow up to see women running things and have no sense of women being in captive roles. I thought everyone had seen the light, the job was done, the battle won."


More women than men now enter universities as students - for the first time since women were admitted to the all-male institutions. There are more female lecturers than ever employed to teach them.

There the good news ends. According to the lecturers' unions, women's jobs are most likely to be in the lowest, worst-paid grades. They are often part timers, or on short-term contracts. In 1989-90, 97 per cent of professorial posts were held by men - women's share had crept up to 4.9 per cent by 1993. Oxford University boasted last year that more women than men had been appointed to jobs - but the survey included clerical jobs, and women still have only 17 per cent of Oxford's academic posts.

In schools, women are less likely than men to be given extra responsibilities and therefore more pay. A survey by a teachers' union of 15,000 teachers found that only 4 per cent of female respondents were heads or deputy heads, against 11 per cent for men.

Vivien Cutler, 44, has a reputation for turning around tough inner-city schools. For six years she was head teacher of St Paul's Way School in Tower Hamlets, east London, once notorious for poor results and low morale. Under Ms Cutler's direction, attendance shot up, exam results improved and two Bengali girls won places at Oxford. She now is head of Highbury Grove boys' school in Islington, north London and earns more than £50,000.

She is divorced, with no children. Education is more open-minded about equal opportunities than many careers, she says, although there are still too few women in senior management. "The real problems arise from the attitude of the staff," she says. "Some find it difficult accepting a female headteacher."


The likelihood that a female head will be under a judge's wig in a British court is tiny - only 6 per cent of High Court and circuit judges are women. The only woman among the 32 Court of Appeal judges is Dame Elizabeth Butler- Sloss.

The Lord Chancellor accepts that women need encouragement to apply for senior ranks. Last year only 43 of the 539 applicants to be QCs were women, although their success rates were higher: 21 per cent of female QC applicants were successful, against 13 per cent of men. Women barristers are still more likely to concentrate on the lower-paid, lower prestige areas of family and criminal law.

The number of female solicitors who hold practising certificates is more promising: in 1984 there were just over 5,000; in 1993 there were nearly 17,000.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, 60, is the only female judge in the Court of Appeal. For six years, she put up with the title "Lord Justice" as there was no feminine title for her job. She is married with three children, and earns more than £100,000.

"I was lucky. My father was a judge. People were prepared to take me on as a pupil and a tenant. It was easy getting into chambers. Getting work was much more difficult. Gradually it got easier as I went into more specialised inquiry work. When I became an expert in licences for buses and lorries people started to recognise my name.

"Having children did not disrupt my career. I was offered a job as district judge, which suited me. I could spend much more time with my three children."


Only two women have made it to top jobs in the civil service - Barbara Mills, director of public prosecutions and Valerie Strachan at Customs and Excise, ranked alongside 35 men at permanent secretary level. The Government has a target of putting women into 15 per cent of the top three grades by 2000. With only 10 per cent so far, few expect them to reach it - although women occupy half the bottom managerial posts in the civil service. At the Inland Revenue,all 22 top jobs are held by men, although 60 per cent of total staff are women.

Ann Bowtell becomes permanent secretary at the Department of Social Security in September. She has been in the department since 1975. For 10 years she worked part time, looking after her four children, youngest now aged 19. Promotion was barred to part-timers then, but no longer, so she was lucky not get stuck. Sheworks a 60-hour week and will earn more than £90,000 in her new job. She fears that in both private and public sectors tough efficiency measures mean life at the top is much harder, which may deter mothers "It would he difficult to get to the top with children if you had a partner with equal ambition." She suspects her husband hung back in his career to aid hers.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in