Man-Made: Why So Few Women Are in Positions of Power by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds – review

In the topsy-turvy world of British politics, with Labour seeking the centre ground and the Conservative party projecting itself as the party of the workers, Man-Made feels heaven sent. With an unerring lucidity, it lays out the multiple ways that inequality continues to frustrate the aspirations of half the population. Given that its female interviewees include the chief executives of the Association of Drainage Authorities and Yorkshire Water, the vice president of (environmental) Upstream BP and the chair of the Civil Aviation Authority, as well as a range of top lawyers, journalists, arts administrators and politicians including Harriet Harman, this book not only covers the centre ground but all that runs beneath, or flies above, it.

Tutchell and Edmond’s starting point is the gross imbalance of power in contemporary Britain, with women still heavily outnumbered at the top of public, corporate and political life. (The exceptions are primary school headships and chairs of magistrates.) The dismal figures on women’s representation are the direct consequence of three decades of stagnation since the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination acts, the implementation of which has been “patchy, uncertain and incomplete”.

The Conservatives place their faith in voluntary action, particularly in relation to the low number of women on company boards, and, while more women are elected to parliament and appointed to senior ministerial positions (particularly in the runup to general elections), we have achieved nothing like the near parity of the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, which have also, incidentally, promoted strong female leaders.

Man-Made is a mix of tough empiricism, sound analysis and human storytelling. Through its extensive interviews (admission of interest here – I am quoted on a couple of occasions) the authors pick their way through the minefield of contemporary working life. How depressing to be reminded of the many pitfalls that still exist from the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures around dress (“avoid dowdiness, flamboyance and sexiness”) and behaviour (a strong woman is still considered a hard bitch; a more consensual female dismissed as weak) to the kind of shocking sexual discrimination that seems particularly rampant in Britain’s orchestras, of all places. It is interesting to learn that the informality of the new media companies masks some very old practices and prejudices.

Beware of wearing black and white, successful women are still advised, or you will at some point be asked to refill an empty glass or find a coat draped over your arm. Not so funny is the story of astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who made the momentous discovery of the first pulsar only to see her male supervisor win a Nobel prize, or the FT journalist who found her less experienced male replacement offered £10,000 a year more.

Secrecy about colleagues’ pay feeds one kind of discrimination but there is a fascinating section on what would emerge if we calculated pay differently. Factor in overtime, the pay of part-time workers and the salaries of high-earning men, and the currently “wide” gender pay gap becomes a chasm. With every child, a woman’s income reduces by 13% and the UK has among the lowest rates of maternity pay in Europe.

Is there a secret to success for women? Not really. There is often an encouraging father in the background but a supportive significant other is much more vital. For high-achieving women, the double shift is not the only challenge; some men just can’t hack a more successful partner. Virtually the sole common denominator among all those interviewed is a university degree (and often additional qualifications) but how important will this remain in an age of mass higher education?

Some interviewees call themselves feminists; a few quail at the term. A number have children but it is the second child, apparently, that proves the toughest hurdle. Most of those interviewed put their success down to luck. The authors disagree but do conclude that the “defining characteristic” of almost all they spoke to is “an extraordinary modesty”. Is it intolerably English of me to find this cheering?

The book includes several road-tested proposals for change. They include pay transparency, paid work breaks for both men and women (either to retrain or reproduce), tougher equal rights accountability within companies and the establishment of clear targets to achieve parity of men and women, whether in the House of Lords or on company boards. This last proposal draws on important lessons from Norway, which has, since 2008, required all boards to have 40% female representation. Man-Made is politically important, because it embodies, and makes vital use of, the hard slog on gender equality of many campaigners and researchers over decades.

It is obvious that our daughters and granddaughters simply cannot wait for equality to evolve naturally. It won’t. So, as the authors of this impressive book note towards the end, “We either fix the women or we fix the system.” Given that the women have shown themselves to be infinitely more creative, flexible, ingenious, reliable, productive and loyal than the system, there is really no contest.

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