Apparently I committed an appalling sexist faux pas last night. I should probably write ‘allegedly, I committed…’, as this is a crime so grave I may well have defamed myself and could wind up in front of the beaks.
Anyway, here’s what happened: here at MT we held yet another excellent Women’s Networking Event to celebrate them launch of our Inspiring Women conference 2014 – hurry hurry while stocks last, etc. The levels of networking enthusiasm and friendliness never cease to amaze me at these events. They all have to be chucked out at closing time.
MT acting features ed Kate Bassett (right) interviews Kim Winser
We were addressed by the estimable Kim Winser, now of her own brand Winser London, but a trailblazer in fashion and previously boss of Pringle and Aquascutum, and also the first woman on the board of M&S. Kim is terrific – a long-term single mother and inspiring, warm, funny. A true voice of experience.
She told the story of when she attended an M&S board meeting and the then chairman and CEO Sir Rick Greenbury – whom I also know – made a comment along the lines of ‘any women in the room? You don’t count Kim - you’re one of the boys’ . There were gasps in our room.
Later, I asked Kim if it wasn’t true that, Sir Richard being a man of a certain age and time, wasn’t it actually, in many ways, the greatest compliment he could have paid her? It showed he felt she’d arrived. Cue more gasps in the room and an ensuing Twitter storm in which I’m accused of dropping an appalling clanger.
Being a sensitive guy, I’d like to put a modest defence in. The point I was trying to make was that the position of women in business has changed markedly in the last 20 years. It is still far from perfect, but things have improved. For a huge variety of reasons, you cannot imagine Marc Bolland, now CEO of M&S, saying anything like that. But I don’t blame Sir Richard for his comment. He was from a different era and you could argue that both he and his colleagues – Kim included – may have had a better grasp on what women customers wanted than the outfit does now. Just look at its fourth quarter figures, published yesterday.
Last night's event. That's Matthew by the door...
Things have changed so fast. My mum, may she rest in peace, never worked outside our home after she had the three of us. She did work very hard bringing us up, but she didn’t have any paid employment. It would have been thought mildly odd if she did. My wife has her own business and works like stink, doing quite a lot of foreign travel. I moan a fair bit about this, although for me, looking after a six and four year old is easier than when they were three and one. Things can be quite tough when you have two working parents. We’re sufficiently well off to be able to afford paid child care but for many this isn’t easy.
When I went to university in the early 80s, the boys outnumbered the girls by three to one. (It’s now more than 50% female at my alma mater, btw). You don’t know how awful this was for a late teenage heterosexual puppy, and the unseemly stampede in the first few weeks was ghastly and hugely irritating for the girls – but that’s another story. I don’t know the stats for the representation of women in business in the early 80s but you can bet they were grim. For anyone under 35 it’s hard to comprehend how weird it was to have a female prime minister, although Lady T was pretty off in her relationship with other strong women.
I went into the media, which was an early adopter/adapter to working women. There were more women than men in the first magazine I ever worked at – and with the departure of our art director colleague to new York next week (he’s being replaced by a woman), MT’s editorial team will be 5:3 females to males.
What finally confirmed me as a true supporter of the women’s work cause – and I suppose made me some sort of a feminist - was having a daughter after two boys. I can quite clearly recall looking at her in her crib and realising a strong sense of the outrage I would feel if in the future anyone stood in her way and prevented her doing something she wanted to on the sole grounds that she’s female. She’s the last person you mess with in our household.
Talking of my daughter, I have a running gag with one of my colleagues in the office about Marnie. Quite early on – and without any conscious conditioning from either of her parents –she decided pink and things pink were definitely her bag. My colleague expressed horror at this. I wound her up by making a recording of Marnie on the iphone saying – when she could barely talk – that she loved pink, and emailed it to my colleague. I think I got on said colleague’s nerves even more when I once said to her that she could be quite ‘boysy’. That’s the residual Sir Richard in me rearing its appalling head.
Anyway, this morning as a childish gag I thought I’d put Marnie on the phone to my colleague to confirm her colour taste preference. ‘But I don’t like pink, daddy,’ she said from her pink dressing gown. ‘I like blue.’ Drat and double drat, as Dick Dastardly used to say. There’s a girl who knows her own mind.
One last thing. When a few folk out there post-2008 said that the great bank-inspired crash might never have happened if there had been more women in positions of power in high finance I did not sneerily dismiss this out of hand. When it comes to power, its use, willy-waving and the love of money for its own sake, I think women are often different from men. While they should always be treated equally in terms of work opportunity women and men are not the same. There are a number of vital aspects of management at which women tend to be better. Listening, for example. That’s biology. And that is why we continue to have a women’s conference and run our 35/35 list.