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The myth of "feminisation"

Hasan Suroor

FIRST, A well-known fact: a British workplace is no longer a sea of white and brown men in grey suits; and even in smoke-filled boardrooms there is a view beyond the glass ceiling. Now a myth: too many top jobs in key areas are being taken away by women causing a dangerous "shift in the balance of power between the sexes."

And now the ultimate myth: something called the "feminisation" of the workplace is going on — and so rapidly that it threatens the very identity of men. It is said to be already happening. Remember the woman chief executive of a company who referred to a male journalist as "that gentleman in tight trousers," rather than by his name?

In the past week, the British media have been consumed by a new controversy over what has been termed a "battle of sexes." It all started when Michael Buerk, one of Britain's most respected broadcasters and a former high-profile BBC news presenter and foreign correspondent, complained that the "shift in the balance of power between the sexes" had gone too far and men were being reduced to picking up the crumbs. He used a rather colourful expression to suggest that men were in danger of being marginalised — not only at the workplace but everywhere.

"Life is now being lived according to women's rules," he bemoaned in an interview with The Radio Times adding that men were becoming "more like women." "Look at the changes in the workplace. There is no manufacturing industry any more; there are no mines; few vital jobs require physical strength. We have lots of jobs that require people-skills and multi-tasking— which women are a lot better at," he said.

Using the BBC as an example of how women were supposedly squeezing men out of their traditional strongholds, Mr. Buerk complained: "Almost all the big jobs in broadcasting are held by women — the controllers of BBC1 television and Radio 4, for example ... These are the people who decide what we see and hear."

The BBC is routinely accused of all manner of things — pro-Labour bias, anti-Israeli tilt, too much political correctness — but this is the first time someone has made a fuss over its gender profile which, despite some women in senior positions, remains — like most of Britain — very much a male patch. Its two top positions — chairman and director-general — are, both, held by men. And another coveted position — that of the BBC's Political Editor — has always been, and continues to be, a male monopoly. Feminists were rather upset when, recently, the BBC brought in a male journalist from outside the BBC to replace its outgoing political editor Andrew Marr bypassing its own senior female staffer, Martha Kearney, political editor of Newsnight. The Guardian's columnist, Polly Toynbee, famously accused the BBC of throwing away an opportunity to signal a change in its macho approach to political journalism by ignoring the more mellow Ms. Kearney's claim.

Outside the BBC, things are even worse. In almost all professions — politics, bureaucracy, business, academia, police, army — it is a man's world. And that includes the media where, contrary to Mr. Buerk's lament, top jobs are not occupied by women.

Women's groups have angrily contested the theory of the "feminisation" of the workplace pointing out that far from dominating the workplace, women do not even get the same wages as men for the same work.

As for claims that the City — London's notoriously male-dominated financial district — is being "taken over" by aggressive women bosses, the fact is that, according to surveys, there is only one female chairperson among Britain's top 100 companies, and one woman chief executive. Boardrooms are said to be overwhelmingly white and male. One analyst said that it was still "unusual" to see women in senior positions. "While there are some exceptional women who have reached exceptional positions, they remain just that: the exception. I am a woman working in the very male-dominated City and I have lost count of the times that I've been the only female in the room," noted Polly Fergusson editor of the financial magazine Shares, writing in The Sunday Telegraph.

Arguably, the Old Boys network has started to sag a bit, but "feminisation" of the workplace? Come on. For, despite all the hand-wringing over women barn-storming their way through male preserves, British society still remains solidly white, male and middle class.

So, what is the Buerk-ian fuss about? Obviously, even after 50 years of women's lib, some men still find it hard to accept the idea of women in sharp suits setting the agenda and telling them what to do. A more charitable explanation is that Mr. Buerk's outburst was all a PR gimmick to create interest in his new Channel Five programme Don't Get Me Started! And, lastly, it is August — the "silly" season when nothing happens and a news-starved media need to manufacture controversies to remain in business. Take your pick.

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