Women were first admitted to the House of Lords in 1958. It is amazing that it took so long and yet now women are very much to the forefront of the business of the Lords. In fact, I think I can say that the House is the most egalitarian of the institutions I have worked in, both in terms of numbers and attitude. Attitude is especially important. There is absolutely no sense of difference in the House between the respect, role and friendship of the men and women. It is most refreshing. The current Speaker is Baroness D’Souza, her predecessor Baroness Hayman. Baroness Royall is shadow Leader of the Lords; there are women peers distinguished by achievement in sport, charity, education, science, law and medicine, and they form about 25% of the House. Not enough, but not bad compared with industry and some professions.
I was prompted to write this after reading this morning that President Obama has voiced disapproval of US golf clubs which restrict membership to men. He is of course right because a golf club is not just about playing golf, but about business, networking and prestige. We have an issue in this country about the Pall Mall clubs. There are a few that are for one sex only, which is fine as long as they are purely social. But take as an example of one that was not, the Oxford & Cambridge Club. At a time when the two universities were going completely co-ed, and striving to give the message that women students were treated equally with men, the O&C Club in the 1990s resolutely stuck to a men only policy, and women associate members, whether Oxbridge graduates or female relatives of members, were relegated to the basement and told to stay there. The protest against this policy culminated in the resignation from the club of both vice-chancellors and nearly every head of the colleges in both universities, but it took from start to finish several years to get the club to change its rules. If its essence was graduation from Oxford and Cambridge, and those two universities treated men and women the same, then the club could do no less.
The outstanding issue of lack of balance is women on the boards of companies. Only 14% of places on the FTSE boards are held by women. Headhunters, often themselves women, advise that unless one has extensive experience in business, one cannot aspire to a non-exec position. Women’s roles, which they hold in great numbers, in running public organisations, hospitals etc. with budgets of billions, count for nothing in the competition. Not that one would want to do it, but the female perspective in business would improve its success, I venture.