|You are in: Business|
Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 07:25 GMT 08:25 UK
The woman who achieved too much?
A void, in gender equality terms?
Nah. Victorian times were a golden age for women's rights.
"The colonies developed women's rights early on, because you could not ignore half your workforce," says New Zealand born Dame Judith Mayhew.
"You could not put women in the drawing rooms, because there weren't any.
"They had to clear the land with the men and get the tents up."
And when, early last century, British women sought the vote, it was to their spirited colonial sisters that they turned for help.
"They had this great drive because they had come from a pioneering society."
Ancestors of that Victoria diaspora are still teaching Blighty a thing or two about progressing the woman's lot, if Dame Judith's story is anything to go by.
Since arriving in Britain in 1973 with a suitcase, a box of books and box of records, she has, with black rights campaigner Albie Sachs, set up Britain's first race and sex discrimination course, at Southampton University.
As a lawyer, she has risen to become special adviser to the chairman of Clifford Chance, the world's biggest law firm.
And as a politician, she has since 1997 acted as, effectively, leader of the City's local authority, earning the reputation as the "most powerful woman in the Square Mile".
(Nationwide, she is the 15th most powerful woman, ahead of Martha Lane Fox, JK Rowling and News of the World editor Rebekah Wade, Management Today believes.)
Yet the feat she trumpets most was, in June, gaining her peerage.
"You have to ask why so few women in the commercial and professional sector have been given this honour," Dame Judith says.
"We are almost like an invisible army. There are women out there who are doing just as much as many of the men who are getting knighthoods, yet go unrecognised."
"Partly because they do so many things."
Britain's voluntary sector "absolutely depends on highly skilled women", whose contribution, often at a local level, goes unacknowledged on the national stage.
There is also a "natural reticence in women, not pushing themselves forward".
The importance of Dame Judith's gong is that it could help to signal an end to this timidity. To call time on the lingering reserve within Britain's sisterhood.
She hopes her story will show how women can reach the top in academia, the City, politics, the Queen's birthday honours list.
"Role models are hugely important in defining your status," she says, talking of the influence on her of her education.
"My school was very strong on women's role models. I received that cultural tradition of the pioneers.
"That was the way we were brought up - 'go to the world girls and conquer it'.
"It never occurred to us that we could not do whatever we sought to do."
In Britain, she channelled this determination into invading the country's male-centric society.
"Being a woman helped enormously because I was never taken so seriously that people decided to block me. Until I had achieved what I wanted and it was too late.
"Being an immigrant was also hugely important, because you cannot be pigeon-holed."
So she rose, foreign and female, to "the heart of the establishment in the most establishment part of the country.
"Which says something about London as a cosmopolitan city - it welcomes newcomers and extracts the best of them, unlike some cultures in Europe."
The problem lies in knowing when a career has extracted enough.
Where Dame Judith recognised a flaw in her gameplan was its breadth.
In many ways it is men who are trapped in their working patterns. Women have possibly got it better.
"My life is not one for any sane person. Having so many full-time jobs is not to be recommended. Nor is working an 18-hour day.
"I have fun and enjoy what I do, but it has been at the expense of my private life."
Indeed, her launch into politics in 1986 was prompted by the breakdown of her marriage.
"It was the time on my hands when my husband left me that made me go into public life."
Typically, women have managed a more equitable work-life balance.
In law, for instance, the rarity of female names on partnership notepaper does not necessarily indicate discrimination.
"The evidence shows that a lot of women prove they can do it, then drop out after eight or 10 years, often to have families.
"This is possibly because they realise the enormous stress that jobs at the top create, and decide there is more to life. They have a broader view of achievement."
Indeed, they now have choices denied many of their male colleagues.
"In many ways it is men who are trapped in their working patterns. Women have possibly got it better.
"Men are parents too. Men need a balanced life."
A revolution to come will see workers of both sexes storm the nine-to-five, 18-to-65 barricades of working culture.
"Young people are beginning to challenge this long hour-macho culture and wanting a better balance to their lives.
"You will see an adjustment in the generation coming", which will increase men's representation at home, and women's in the boardroom.
Keep on rolling
Not that Dame Judith has plans to lead this particular cause by example.
"There is perhaps a better balance to be struck than I have done," she says.
"But I enjoy my life. If you stop and rest on your laurels, life becomes dull, so my attitude is to move from one thing to another."
There is plenty left to fight, for causes of the City, Clifford Chance, the woman's lot.
"Legislation has stopped, or at least penalised, overt sex discrimination.
"That means you have to watch for more institutionalist, indirect discrimination."
There is an Antipodean ethos to be built among England's pleasantries.
"New Zealand is led by women. The prime minister is a woman, the chief justice is a woman, the governor general a woman, the chief executive of the largest company is a woman..."
For a glimpse of Britain future, look not to your horoscope or government flier, but the next flight to Wellington, Auckland, or Otago.
You asked the experts
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Top Business stories now:
Links to more Business stories are at the foot of the page.
|E-mail this story to a friend|
Links to more Business stories
To BBC Sport>> | To BBC Weather>> | To BBC World Service>>
© MMIII | News Sources | Privacy