I wrote somewhere years ago that the late Jean Denton, later Baroness Denton of Wakefield, had forged a career in industry and politics without ever compromising her femininity. This was in the days before irony became fashionable and I fully expected to be upbraided by Denton, who had already prospered in the male-dominated worlds of motor racing and vehicle leasing at Herondrive and Austin Rover.
In the event, Denton wrote me a letter of thanks, saying that it was rare for anyone to make the point in public that it was a struggle to maintain both one’s ambition and sexuality in the modern environment. We became friends and she used to invite me to watch the Trooping of the Colour from her balcony at the Northern Ireland Office, where she was minister for small business, to her cancer charity events and occasionally to her breakfast table at the Ritz.
I was always impressed with the effortlessness with which Denton networked. This was hardly a surprising talent in someone of considerable charm and intelligence, not to mention success in business and politics, but what I mean is that she operated her own women’s networks, without ever becoming “special interest” and remaining entirely inclusive of male networks. She was a universalist.
I imagine that the same talent would apply to Pearson’s Marjorie Scardino or former cut-price airline chief Barbara Cassani, now leading London’s Olympic bid. They may know what Denton knew in the Seventies – that all networks are to be played, not just those of which you happen to be a member. One hopes that today’s men understand that too.
I say that because last week I was at the launch of a report from think-tank Demos, called ‘Girlfriends in High Places – How Women’s Networks are Changing the Workplace’, written by Helen McCarthy, who gave a ferociously articulate opening speech. For security reasons, we were asked not to talk about the keynote speaker – so I’ll just say she’s a well-known barrister and married to the Prime Minister.
The event was held at London’s Garrick Club, this being the post-ironic age, and there was much talk of breaking down bastions of male privilege. After nodding at exclusively male-bonding activities and the sexual politics of the office, the report argues that women’s networks can be an effective strategy for “overcoming some obstacles to diversity because they challenge the invisible structures that hold women back at work.” Furthermore, such networks “possess a number of key qualities that set them apart from more conventional approaches to tackling gender inequality.”
Realistically, the report acknowledges that these networks will need to work hard to build their legitimacy and that they will face threats from a backlash from men, who will see no sense in fighting old-boy networks with equally exclusive new-girl networks. There will also be charges of insularity, elitism and the tempting of women who hold high-stress jobs with unrealistic, alternative options.
This last point drifts dangerously towards the adage that once they’ve seen Paris, you’ll never get them back on the farm. But this is a useful and insightful report, which treats gender as a fact rather than a political weapon and is wholly honest about the business of networking. There are just a couple of points with which I would take issue.
The first is that much effort is expended in counter-balancing the entrenched “old-boy networks” in business. But the old-boy network in business is these days widely based on an etymological misconception. The old-boy network had very little to do with age and gender and everything to do with the school of which you were an “old boy”. These networks were broken down, apart from the odd resistant pocket, by the social liberations of the Sixties and Seventies.
The second point is that much of the women’s networking agenda takes us into the dreaded territory of work/life balance (as if work isn’t part of life). It is a universally acknowledged truth among gender activists that a generous accommodation between work and family is good for business and good for the economy. But this just isn’t true.
The biggest, most profitable and successful enterprises are built by those who are obsessed with work, at the expense of family life. This is equally true of men and women. There may be some benefit to the economy in the reduction of stress-related diseases, but that is as nothing compared with the wealth created by those who overdo it at work.
The networks that will make a real difference will be those that address this social and economic issue, whether their members are male or female. And that would be an advance of which my friend Jean would have heartily approved.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon