The current era in which we live is bringing new opportunities for everyone and not least for women. Advances across the whole spectrum of society have been so rapid in the last 20 years, let alone the last 100 years, that it is difficult to estimate the differences in attitudes and expectations which have been created. But in spite of wide acceptance of new ideas and concepts, those from the past still linger in our subconscious and can produce behaviour which is at variance with declared modern practice.
This applies probably more strongly in the area of men/women relationships than in any other. For generations men have been the dominant force. Kings, ministers, soldiers, dictatorial husbands - these are the significant, dominant, masculine images in most people's minds - whereas sensitive, sympathetic men are frequently perceived as weak and ineffective.
On the feminine side, the long-established stereotype of the delicate, caring, submissive woman lingers on. Neither of these perceptions is universally true today. Many men, as leaders, are adopting very different styles of working. These more up-to-date managers obtain results by paying more attention to people management, often dispensing with taut hierarchical structures and dictatorial methods. and attaining goals by consensus.
Equally, some women, fully qualified and confident in their approach, are moving forward very positively and making increasingly large contributions. Merlyn Lowther, who has just been appointed deputy chief cashier to the Bank of England, is an example. But this is not universal. Too often from school days onwards many women set their sights too low. They do not acquire the right kind of qualifications and often, although one side of their character is ambitious and wants to progress, the other side is held back by the idea of what has traditionally been accepted feminine behaviour. They fail to stretch themselves by taking the risks which would open up wider opportunities.
As is always the case, those who fail to take a positive stand soon get overlooked. The social, political and business structures which have not kept pace with the speed of change exacerbate the situation.
Some elements in the church, for example, stand firm on an old worn out principle, and refuse to permit women priests. Academia, where there are many brilliant women, closes ranks and few are nominated even for the position of readers, let alone professors. Many businesses still have tight organisational structures which result in very slow acceptance of innovation, so very few women ever reach board level.
But change is in the air, BP chairman Robert Horton has, for example, made it a declared policy that he will have more and more able women in senior positions, not on preferential terms but on merit. But I hazard a guess that his goal will be more slowly attained than he would wish because middle managers are often those with the most entrenched views. They are victims of patriarchal cultures. They have the most to lose and do not wish to open the doors to women who may well be more able than they are.
There is always a strong backward pull towards things that have been: they carry some certainty and they have worked in the past. Whereas the new, the untried, may not work. No one wants to run the risk of being associated with failure and so they don't experiment. Innovation and creativity are viewed as dangerous and are stifled.
There are, of course, many other aspects to consider when reviewing the slow progress of women. Education and qualifications, particularly scientific and technical qualifications, are still not what they need to be, but that is steadily being rectified. I go into many girls schools and in these establishments not only are academic results very high and improving all the time, but, given the chance to prove themselves as head girls, prefects and captains of games teams, they are learning leadership skills which help in building confidence.
But confidence, regrettably, is still too often lacking. Social patterns undoubtedly act as a strong deterrent. Women can, for example, find themselves caught between a career and motherhood because child- care facilities are too expensive or not available and this frequently takes women away from the work scene at a crucial time.
In schools where motivation is poor and commitment at a low level, the performance of boys as well as girls is far below the desired standard. We need to develop more positive attitudes if potential is to be realised. On the whole, the climate is better for boys than girls, but much more energy and determination has got to be generated if we are to make UK industry more effective.
The snobbish, elitist, prejudiced approach produces a hesitancy and ineffectiveness more damaging for women than men because they are more tightly locked into the dominance of male practices and the kind of subtle blackmail which goes on, like 'working mothers produce latchkey children and so criminals'. Whereas the opposite is almost certainly nearer the truth. Working mothers at certain levels are better informed, with a greater sense of self-worth and status and need stand no nonsense from bullying teenagers. They provide money for a better standard of living and probably holidays abroad, which can produce great cultural advantages for the whole family.
Women must remember the great victories for independence which have been won for them - the Married Women's Property Act, the vote, etc.
These achievements merit great support and renewed initiative if we are to sustain the long march towards democracy and equality.
Men must also see that they have a new and exciting role to play. We cannot in the interests of the country's economic and social development play silly little games of power tiddlywinks to maintain prejudice and safeguard individual pride. Rather we should be thinking along the same lines as Sir John Harvey Jones and Charles Handy who have a vision of the future which calls for men and women to work together towards the highest goals.