In 1988 the Society established the Women at the Top Commission with a mandate ‘to identify barriers to the appointment of women to senior occupational positions, and to other positions of power and influence, and to make recommendations as to how these barriers could be overcome.’
The Commission’s assessment focused on the circumstances of women in senior occupational positions and public life since it was thought that change at the top, provided it extended beyond tokenism, would help all women. Bringing together representatives from the world of politics, academia, the civil service, media, and business, the Commission examined key areas of women’s representation including in parliament, public office, the civil service, judiciary, legal profession, management, higher education, the media and trade unions.
Its assessment included:
- A review of published information about women in public life and employment;
- Interviews with senior personnel in government, business and the professions,
- Interviews with experts in organisations committed to increasing equality of opportunity, including the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Women into Public Life Campaign and the 300 Group;
- Contact with companies known for good practice in the employment of women;
- A survey of employers on their policies and practices towards the promotion of women to senior positions; and
- A survey of companies on the composition of their main holding and subsidiary boards.
The final report, published in 1990, concluded that there were still formidable barriers stopping women getting to the top: of structures, of working practices, of tradition, and above all, of attitude. It described the under-representation of women in Parliament as ‘wholly unacceptable in a modern democracy’ and recommended that a Speakers’ Conference be established to consider the ways in which parliamentary and party practices and procedures place women at a real disadvantage. Considering public life more broadly, it recommended urgent action to ensure that the country ceased to under-use nearly half of its talent and so that ‘we may now cover at speed the last long mile of the journey towards equality.’
Download: Women at the Top (1990)
The Commission’s report, bringing together evidence and recommendations about the under-representation of women across a number of key areas of public life, was an important catalyst for renewed debate about the fight for equality in Britain in the early 1990s.
In its support for positive action and steps by government, business, the civil service, and the judiciary to enforce the law and proactively recruit women into public life, the report helped light the way for the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 and other political reform measures designed to improve the representation of women. But it would be nearly two decades before the Speakers’ Conference it first called for was finally set up, with the Society’s staff and trustees giving evidence to it in 2008.
Sponsored by the National & Provincial Building Society, the Women at the Top Commission was chaired by Baroness Howe of Idlicote. Its members were: John Banham (CBI), Vernon Bogdanor (Brasenose College, Oxford), Alex Brett-Holt (First Division Association of Civil Servants), Jean Denton (Black Country Development Corporation), Alistair Graham (Industrial Society), Wilf Knowles (Equal Opportunities Commission), Anthony Lester QC, Joe Palmer (Legal & General Group Plc), Lisanne Radice (300 Group), Gillian Shephard MP, Katharine Whitehorn (The Observer), Robert Reid (British Rail), and Kenneth Stowe (Department of Health and Social Security). Susan McRae of The Policy Studies Institute served as the Commission’s Research Officer and Rapporteur.
Further reports have been published subsequently:
The papers of the Women at the Top Commission were deposited at the Women’s Library and are freely accessible for use by interested researchers. However, the Library and its archive is currently transferring from its present location in east London to a new home at the London School of Economics. It will reopen at the LSE in August 2013.