Published on 6 Mar 2015

Why have so many leading jobs never been held by a woman?

It’s now 40 years since Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, and 36 since she was elected prime minister. The Trades Union Congress has a female general secretary, Frances O’Grady. Three of our (middle-ranking) political parties are led by women.

But there are still many, many leading jobs in British public life which have never, ever been held by a female – not once. Ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday, I thought it would be worth listing the posts which have never been held by a woman.

Politics has a relatively good record compared with many walks of life. Apart of Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years as PM, most Cabinet posts have been also held by a woman at one point or another. Theresa May has been home secretary for almost five years (and a predecessor was Jacqui Smith), while the Foreign Office was once run by Margaret Beckett, albeit briefly.

Margaret Thatcher In Downing Street

The three main ministerial posts never to have had a woman are chancellor of the exchequer, defence secretary and lord chancellor/justice secretary. In contrast, Nicky Morgan is the eighth woman, by my reckoning, to have been education secretary (or its predecessor post, minister for education). The other seven were Ellen Wilkinson, Frances Horsburgh, Margaret Thatcher, Shirley Williams, Gillian Shephard, Estelle Morris and Ruth Kelly.

Most government departments have had women permanent secretaries at one point or another, but women have been notably absent from the very top jobs in the civil service – Cabinet secretary, head of the Civil Service, head of the Diplomatic Service, and permanent secretary to the Treasury.

M15, in contrast, had had two female directors-general (Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham-Buller), but the leadership of M16 has always been held by a man.

The media has a pretty poor track record in top editorial posts, though the Guardian may, in the next few days, be about to appoint its first woman editor in almost 200 years. The Times and the Daily Mail have never had a woman editor; the BBC has never had a female director-general; nor ITV a woman boss; nor Channel 4 in more than 30 years since its foundation (apart from Anne Bulford briefly as an interim). Channel 4 News, however, once had a woman editor in Sara Nathan.

The upper reaches of the law are almost a woman-free zone. The posts of lord chief justice, master of the rolls, and the new position, president of the Supreme Court, have all yet to be held by any female.

Here is my list of top jobs in public life which have always been held by men –

  • – chancellor of the exchequer
  • – defence secretary
  • – lord chancellor
  • – mayor of London
  • – Liberal Democrat (Liberal/SDP) leader
  • – first/prime minister, Northern Ireland
  • – first minister, Wales
  • – director general, MI6
  • – Cabinet secretary
  • – head of Civil Service
  • – head of Diplomatic Service
  • – Treasury permanent secretary
  • – Metropolitan Police commissioner
  • – editor, the Times
  • – editor, Guardian
  • – editor, Daily Mail
  • – director-general, BBC
  • – chief executive, Channel 4
  • – head of ITV
  • – artistic director, National Theatre
  • – lord chief justice
  • – master of the rolls
  • – president of the Supreme Court
  • – governor of Bank of England
  • – chief of general staff
  • – director general, CBI
  • – president, National Farmers’ Union
  • – leader, Unite (formerly TGWU)
  • – secretary, Football Association
  • – president of Royal Society
  • – archbishop of Canterbury

No doubt I’ve missed a few obvious ones. Readers will be able to make their own suggestions for inclusion on my list.

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2 reader comments

  1. anon says:

    depends on what your definition of a leading job is perhaps? isn’t the real power sometimes wielded by those you never see?

  2. Andrew Dundas says:

    The world’s most powerful and important leadership is with a woman appointed on her merits: Janet Yellen.
    The most influential post in the European Union of over 500 million people is Angela Merkel, who’s achieved that on her merits. The odds are shortest on Hillary Clinton becoming President and Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful military force. Again, on her merits.
    Yet it’s only 85 years since women gained ‘the vote’ on equal terms with men. That’s just how recently the UK became a proper democracy.
    The world’s best and most important job continues to be that of mother and home-maker. It’s very hard to combine that superior role with a leadership career where learning by doing and long-term alliances are essential. That explains why so many women prefer to hold the more important role of being a mum and home-maker.
    Men can try to compete in the role of home-maker, but they find it very hard to do. Because it is a difficult job which men find very hard.
    What’s wrong with your essay Michael, is that you’re unconsciously devaluing the vital role of the family both to men and children, and to our whole Nation. In your defence, I acknowledge that Mummyhood doesn’t participate in the notional money economy, and is often overlooked because of that appalling omission. It’s time to change that bias!
    True, men were once important as fighters in war. But that’s largely been washed away. What’s not washed away by this man is the superior and vital role of mothers and home-makers.

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