British working women - cracking centuries of tradition
Nearly a decade ago, Britain passed its Sex Discrimination Act, which had Fleet Street columnists in jokey paroxysms over renaming Manchester ''Personchester.'' At the same time, a 16-year-old Suffolk farm girl decided not to follow in her mother's footsteps by marrying the boy next door, but to go up to London and become a banker.Skip to next paragraph
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Today that farm girl is a vice-president in an American bank in London. As for Britain, it has been found in violation of European Community equal-rights requirements, while London celebrates its first female lord mayor in eight centuries with a Broadway show tune - ''There's Nothing Like a Dame.''
It is the kind of paradox that characterizes life for many professional women here in Britain - public negligence and private determination.
Britain, to be sure, has had its feminists since before the days of George Bernard Shaw. But unlike the United States, which boasts a long tradition of independent feminists, Britain has traditionally lumped feminism in with the political left. It's an attitude, observers here say, that has deprived politically moderate but career-minded women of a forum for their views: Even with Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in office, critics contend, her unwillingness to address women's issues is symptomatic of the nation's public indifference.
Twelve years separates Britain's equal-pay legislation from that of the US, and affirmative-action rules have yet to be enacted here. Combine this with Britain's recent economic woes, which have hit hardest those occupational areas where women have made the most recent gains, and which have fostered a renewed attitude that women do not have the same needs for paying jobs, and life becomes especially challenging for the growing numbers of British women entering the work force.
Observers on both sides of the Atlantic credit the two countries with moving in similar directions regarding working women's rights. And many say that British women fare far better than their European counterparts. But dozens of interviews conducted with English and American professional women here in the City, London's financial district, show a consensus that Britain - largely because of less effective legislation and unique cultural mores - still lags behind the United States. In fact, a recent government study showed that many of the problems confronting high-ranking British women today - tokenism, lack of role models, indirect discrimination - are similar to those first encountered by their American counterparts a decade ago.
''After spending six months in the States for bank training, I would say that England is at least 10 years behind America in its attitudes towards women working,'' says the bank vice-president who, like many women interviewed, did not wish to be named.
''Britain now leads the whole of Western Europe in its numbers of women entering the work force: 65 percent of all women between the ages of 16 and 59, '' says Prof. Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester and director of the recent government study on female managers. ''And women are increasingly going into the traditional male preserves - management in particular. Unfortunately, while lots of British companies have the attitude that it is good to let women in at low levels, they are not as progressive about promoting them.'' Statistics indicate that the proportion of women managers in the United Kingdom still lagged at less than 20 percent in 1981. Comparable US figures show that nearly 30 percent of all working women were in managerial or ad-ministrative positions by 1982.
''In the States women command their institutions to support them,'' says Lisa Dickinson, an American bank vice-president based in London. ''But that doesn't happen here. Feminism has never caught on as a big topic here, and since there is no affirmative action, managers do not feel threatened if they don't hire and promote women.''
''America's equal-opportunity legislation has a lot more teeth than Britain's does,'' explains Eleanor MacDonald, a management consultant and founder of the London-based Women in Management organization. ''Because we have no quotas here , things are left in a very nebulous way. As a consequence, career paths are not clear, entry gates are not specified.''
Without such formal avenues, observers say, many British women lack not only the skills but the confidence needed to carve career patterns. ''There is sort of a negative syndrome here,'' Ms. MacDonald says. ''Women aren't used to saying , 'Yes, I can' and changing social patterns.''