Sexism at the Office

‘[Sir Arnold Robinson and Sir Humphrey Appleby were plainly quite confident, as we have already seen, that they could sway a sufficient number of Hacker’s Cabinet colleagues to vote against this proposal when it came before them.

The source of their confidence was the practise, current in the 1970s and 1980s, of holding an informal meeting of Permanent Secretaries on Wednesday mornings. This meeting took place in the office of the Cabinet Secretary, had no agenda and was – almost uniquely among Civil Service meetings – unminuted.

Permanent Secretaries would ‘drop in’ and raise any question of mutual interest. This enabled them all to be fully-briefed about any matters that were liable to confront their Ministers in Cabinet, which took place every Thursday morning, i.e. the next day. And it gave them time to give their Ministers encouragement or discouragement as they saw fit on particular issues.

Fortunately Sir Humphrey’s diary reveals what occurred at the Permanent Secretaries’ meeting that fateful Wednesday morning – Ed.]

I informed my colleagues that my Minster is intent on creating a quota of twenty-five per cent women in the open structure, leading to an eventual fifty per cent. Parity, in words.

Initially, my colleagues’ response was that it was an interesting suggestion.

[‘Interesting’ was another Civil Service form of abuse, like ‘novel’ or, worse still, ‘imaginative’ – Ed.]

Arnold set the tone for the proper response. His view was that it is right and proper that men and women be treated fairly and equally. In principle we should all agree, he said, that such targets should be set and goals achieved.

Everyone agreed immediately that we should agree in principle to such an excellent idea, that is was right and proper to set such targets and achieve such goals.

Arnold then canvassed several of my colleagues in turn, to see if they could implement this excellent proposal in their departments.

Bill [Sir William Carter, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Ed.] said that he was in full agreement, naturally. He believes that the Civil Service must institute some positive discrimination in favour of women. But regretfully he felt obliged to point out that it cannot happen in the FCO for obvious reasons. Clearly we cannot post women ambassadors to Iran, or any of the Muslim countries, for instance. Generally speaking most of the Third World countries are not as advanced as we are in connection with women’s rights – and as we have to send our diplomats to new postings every three years, and entertain many Islamic VIPs in this country, the proposal would definitely not work for the FCO. Nonetheless he wished to make it clear that he applauded the principle.

Ian [ Sir Ian Simpson, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office – Ed.] said that he was enthusiastically in favour of the principle. He believes we all could benefit from the feminine touch. Furthermore, women are actually better at handling some problems than men. He had no doubt about this. Regretfully, however, an exception would have to be made in the case of the Home Office: women are not the right people to run prisons, or the police. And quite probably, they wouldn’t want to do it anyway.

We all agreed this was probably so.

Peter [Sir Peter Wainwright, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Defence – Ed.] said that, alas! the same applied to Defence. Women are hardly the people to control all those admirals and generals. Nor is it a practical possibility. To place a women at the Head of Security.

I observed that M. Would have to become F. This provoked a gratifying degree of merriment around the table.

Arnold, speaking as for us all, agreed that Defence must clearly be a man’s world. Like industry. And Employment, with all those trade union barons to cope with.

John [Sir John Mckendrick, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Security – Ed.] took an even more positive line. He was happy to inform us that women are already well represented near the top of the DHSS, which has two of the four women Dep. Secs. currently in Whitehall. Neither of them is in line for Permanent Secretary, obviously, as they are Deputy Chief Medical Officers (and in that case they may not be suitable for other reasons). Furthermore, constitute eighty per cent of the typing grades, so he was delighted to be able to tell us that his Department was doing too badly by them. He added that, in principle, he was in favour of them going to the very top.

Arnold summed up all the views expressed: the feeling of the meeting was – unquestionably – that in principle we were all thoroughly in favour of equal rights for the ladies. It is just that there are special problems in individual departments.

I raised again the question of the quota and stated that I was against it. Everyone immediately supported me. There was a feeling that it was not on and a bad idea – in fact a typical politician’s idea.

I gave my view: namely, that we must always have the right to promote the best man for the job, regardless of sex.

Furthermore – and I made it clear that I was speaking as an ardent feminist myself – I pointed out that the problem lay in recruiting the right sort of women. Married women with families tend to drop out because, in all honesty, they cannot give their work their fully-minded attention. And unmarried women with no children are not fully rounded people with a thorough understanding of life.

There was general agreement that family life was essential and that it was hard for spinsters to be fully-rounded individuals.

I summed up my remarks by saying that, in practise, it is rarely possible to find a fully-rounded married women with a happy home and three children who is prepared to devote her whole life, day and night, to a Government Department. It’s Catch-22 – or, rather, Catch-22, subparagraph (a). This remark produced more gratifying merriment from my colleagues.

Arnold had allowed considerable time for this discussion, which indicates the importance that he attached to the problem. He concluded the matter by asking everyone present to ensure that all of their respective Ministers oppose the quota idea in Cabinet by seeing that each Minister’s attention is drawn to each Department’s own special circumstances. But he also asked all present to be sure to recommend the principle of equal opportunities at every level.

Through the chair, I made one final point my Minister sees the promotion of women as one means of achieving greater diversity at the top of the Service. I asked all of my colleagues to stress, when briefing their Ministers, that quite frankly one could not find a more diverse collection of people than us.

It was unanimously agreed that we constitute a real cross-section of the nation.’

– Lynn J., Jay A. 1981. The Complete Yes Minister London, Great Britain: BBC Books (1991) p. 367-370