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.
``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.
Some, such as shared parenting, begin at home: ``We can't say to a woman, `You're climbing higher and higher on the ladder, but you've got to go home and do it all yourself.' A lot of this is getting men involved.''
That also means getting the next generation involved. Foster encourages parents to ask themselves: ``Are we bringing up our sons and daughters in traditional ways, or are we giving them androgynous skills?''
Other solutions, such as child care and care for elderly relatives, grow out of a combination of public- and private-sector initiatives.
``There are more women at home looking after dependent parents,'' Foster comments, ``than there are looking after kids, because of the falling birthrate.''
A few deeply entrenched problems require legal remedies. Last month a 28-year-old shipyard canteen cook, Julie Hayward, won a major pay-equity victory when the House of Lords ruled that she is entitled to the same basic rate of pay as male painters, thermal insulation engineers, and joiners doing work judged of equal value at the shipyard.
Calling this a ``very significant benchmark case,'' Foster says, ``It shows we're entering a new phase of equal opportunities. Julie Hayward, in having won her case and the judgment given by the Law Lords, has shown the way for other women in jobs such as hers. They can now really fight a case in the hope of winning it. It's going to encourage employers to harmonize pay structures.
``The law,'' she adds firmly, ``can make a dramatic difference.''
Not everyone shares her enthusiasm. Many employers view Ms. Hayward's victory with ``alarm and despondency,'' according to Tim Johnson, head of employment law at the Confederation of British Industry.
``There's a strong voluntary tradition here,'' Mr. Johnson said in a telephone interview. ``Employers and unions are reluctant to call the law in.''
Another dissenting opinion on equal-opportunity issues comes from Barbara Amiel, a columnist with the Times of London.
Following a speech Foster gave in March to a group of professional women in London, Ms. Amiel lambasted what she described as Foster's ``paint-the-picture-bleak'' attitudes on sex discrimination. The column drew angry letters from readers, who defended Foster's ``first-class record in developing the badly needed skills of 45 percent of the work force.''
Agenda for the next three years
Foster remains undaunted.
As she draws up her agenda for the next three years on the commission, formulating ways to help women - and men - build ``good careers and good families,'' she keeps coming back to a favorite word: balance.
The central issue confronting many working women, she comments, comes down to the question ``Must success cost so much? How do we get pulled between our professional and our personal lives, and how do we sort out the balance?
``We need balanced people,'' she adds emphatically.
If Foster's own life as a working mother of the '80s is slightly out of balance these days as she commutes between Oxford, Manchester, and London in her new post, it does not stop her from sending up a touching wish for her 16-year-old daughter, Kate - envisioning her as a working mother of the '90s.
In what could pass as a partial definition of equal-opportunity progress, Foster says, ``I hope passionately that she won't have to get as tired as we've got in trying to do both.''