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Good families - and good careers. Commission head hopes to speed up women's progress in the workplace

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 1988

Oxford, England

LONG before Joanna Foster took over as head of Britain's Equal Opportunities Commission last month, she knew firsthand the obstacles that can slow women's progress in the workplace. As the mother of two children and the wife of a management education consultant, whose work required frequent moves, Mrs. Foster had zigzagged her way through a ``very patchwork'' career. Beginning as a secretary for Vogue magazine in London and New York, she later ran the Conservative Party's press office for five years before moving to the nonprofit Industrial Society, where she headed a department dealing with issues affecting working women.

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``It's been full of stops and starts,'' says Foster, a cheerful, energetic woman wearing a red skirt and black-and-white polka-dot blouse.

``Stops because of the kids, and stops also because of relocation. The whole mobility issue is in my mind a very big equal-opportunities issue.

``For economic reasons organizations need people to be highly mobile,'' she continues. ``But for social reasons people say, `I don't want to move because of the family.' Once that happens, employers have to say, `Right, how can we mitigate some of the stresses on families?'''

New set of issues

Mitigating stress on families is, in fact, as much a part of Foster's goals during her three-year term on the commission as trying to solve such persistent workplace problems as equal pay and sexual harassment.

In an interview at her family's home on the bank of the Oxford Canal - a house filled with an eclectic mix of furniture and art collected during lengthy stays in France and the United States - Foster outlined ``a new set of equal-opportunity issues that center as much around home as around work, because there is such interaction between them.''

Employers and lawmakers alike, she says, need ``active encouragement to help make it more possible that families don't suffer, so it can be easier to be an effective parent and an effective employee.''

Women now make up 45 percent of the labor force in the United Kingdom, with mothers of preschool children being the fastest-growing group of workers.

But here, as elsewhere, most women remain clustered in low-paying, often part-time jobs that offer few benefits.

That balance is starting to shift as employers recruit ``very bright young women'' from universities. ``But at about age 28 women say, `What about my family life and my career?'''

Answers to that dual question are never simple. But companies that have moved ahead the fastest on equal opportunities, Foster observes, are those in which men in top management are either very ambitious for their daughters or have a wife who is working. ``They understand the realities that whoever gets home first pulls the fish fingers out of the deep freeze and puts them in the micro.''

Tarzan-Jane stereotype outmoded

Yet often, Foster says, the men making promotion decisions ``are still middle managers whose wives do not work. Therefore, they have a very different framework of who does what.

Many of them still think in terms of traditional roles, with the man as breadwinner. But [the stereotype of] Tarzan who goes out into the jungle every day is completely out of date. Jane has to be in the jungle as well.''

To help Tarzan, Jane, and their offspring, Foster recommends a variety of family supports.