Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Sue Street, a strategic adviser to Deloitte and a CMI Companion, argues that, 40 years on from the Made in Dagenham strike, women need to be aiming higher.

by Sue Street
Last Updated: 05 Nov 2010

Film premieres are traditionally glamorous affairs, so it was surprising to see the prosaically titled Made in Dagenham at Toronto's International Film Festival in September. The film, set in 1968, follows the story of the female machinists who worked at the Dagenham Ford car plant, stitching Cortina seats. Discovering they were paid 15% less than similarly skilled men, they went on strike. Three weeks later, they accepted a new deal that took their pay to 92% of that of their male colleagues. Although they didn't realise it, those women helped to blaze a trail for the passage of the Equal Pay Act 1970.

I would like to report that 40 years later things are much improved. But have attitudes changed? The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, for instance, filled more column inches this year for being the first woman to win the Oscar for best director - and for beating her ex-husband to the prize - than for the film itself.

I am reminded of a very senior female government official who ran a former prime minister's policy unit. Her mother once rang her at Number 10 when she was fiendishly busy with the words: 'I'm sorry to trouble you, darling, but your brother is at work.'

And it is disappointing that, according to a recent national survey conducted by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), male managers are still being paid on average over £10,000 more than their female counterparts.

More than half of university graduates are women and more take firsts than men. Yet current estimates suggest that equal pay could be almost 60 years away. Women constitute only 22% of MPs, just four members of the new Cabinet and 14% of the directors in the FTSE 100 (only one of whom is British). Indeed, it's not unusual for top UK public companies to have no women on their boards.

So what does all this tell us? It certainly suggests that women are still up against it. Parity in the workplace seems a long way off, although the Equality Act, which was partially implemented in the UK in October, will make it easier for employees to challenge unfair pay practices. But we need to recognise the enormous strides taken by some employers to improve the corporate environment for employees - and women in particular. Deloitte, for example, operates a system of flexible benefits, enabling staff to 'buy' up to a week's extra holiday. Many people there organise their duties to work part-time, or remotely from home. The focus is very much on doing whatever it takes to get the job done, whether that is in the office or not, rather than the onerous practice of 'presenteeism', which has prevailed in the City for years. Many other private and public sector organisations offer similar family-friendly benefits that I would have killed for as a working mum.

So things have improved, yes. But I wonder if one reason for the lack of women in top jobs is simply that they don't want them enough? Perhaps they don't win the race because they don't take part. Statistics suggest that women MBA graduates, for instance, are increasingly shunning the highest paid jobs for careers in social entrepreneurship, or becoming entrepreneurs themselves. Many of these are women who are carving out routes to career success that don't involve the corporate ladder. The 'work clever' syndrome sounds great on paper. Choose your own path in your own time. No 'macho' behaviour required. So is there an element of the glass ceiling that is partly self-imposed?

I believe there is. Many high-achieving women are choosing to avoid the top jobs. And this worries me. Although I am an unlikely feminist, having spent six years following my husband's career and raising my children, I consider it vital that big business, big government, law and commerce benefit from the different talents and approaches women can bring. So what can we do?

Certainly employers must continually look to improve equality and flexibility in the workplace, but not if it damages their businesses. In a recession, they should make rational recruitment choices and retain only the best, regardless of race, disability or gender. But employers can only do so much. It is not only their attitudes that need to change.

I believe women need to confront their fundamental confidence issues. There is a sense that even if they do get to the top, maintaining success would require 'masculine' behaviour traits and misery-inducing levels of pressure. I believe that you can have it all, but not all at once. The price paid in terms of physical exhaustion, is more than compensated for by the opportunity to contribute on a national or even global scale. Small business is vital and rewarding for some, but to shine, others need to be 'in the thick of it'.

So 'sisters should be doing it for themselves'. Don't reject big roles in the public and private sectors. Don't demand the earth from your employers or assume top jobs will destroy your personal life. And don't stop having children, we need them. 'Getting engaged' no longer has Victorian connotations for women, so let's engage with these challenges and give those words new meaning.


Dame Sue Street was the permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport from 2001 to 2006, responsible for its overall strategy, delivery and expenditure. She holds appointments including strategic adviser to Deloitte, non-executive director of HM Revenue & Customs and a trustee of the Royal Opera House. She is an associate fellow of the Institute for Government. Her professional background spans the civil service and the private sector, including the Home Office, Cabinet Office and PwC.

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