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Aniother Vocice: Girl power rests on business of compassion

BY THE year 2006, 1.3 million new jobs are projected for the UK work force. A little under three-quarters of them will be filled by women. And they'll be more educated than ever before. In 1984, only 54 per cent of women in the UK had a qualification. That number now stands at 80 per cent. Statistics are slippery little devils. One plus one does not always equal two. At least that's what I was thinking while I looked at the Department for Education and Employment's latest stats. They paint a picture of a trend that has been gathering steam for some years now.

Girls are doing better - much better in many cases - at school than boys. Where the maths stops adding up - or where the real world intrudes - is that this educational advantage isn't translating into economic opportunity in the conventional sense. But that isn't to say it still won't change the world. In our data-crazed age, we have more and more facts at our fingertips about how strongly girls start out on their passage through life and how side-tracked they can get in a society that has traditionally attached little value to their concerns.

Girls are much more likely than boys to suffer from depression and worry about their weight. But contrast these social trends with some other equally strong ones. In 199596, 10 per cent more girls than boys obtained at least five A to C grades in their GCSEs. In younger age groups, girls consistently scored much higher in English and moderately higher in teacher assessment, which suggests to me they are more socialised and better at communicating than their male peers. In both the UK and the US, there are slightly more female undergraduates than male (consider that, in 1970-1, the UK had twice as many male undergraduates as female).

And in the field of adult education, female enrolments outnumber male by nearly three to one. From education to employment, women are clearly hungry for opportunity, but while their move into the work force has upped their visibility, you still couldn't make a very conclusive case for equality. The female success stories that the media parade as evidence of the gains women have made are scarcely representative of the average working woman's lot. That doesn't mean that educational success isn't leading to success in the workplace for women. It is, but it's success on their terms and you won't find it by looking in the usual male hidey-holes.

Women are wonderful entrepreneurs, and they have an instinctively entrepreneurial attitude to their assets, none of which is more valuable than education. They have suffered so much from the status quo that they are keen to find ways round it. Education helps them find those ways. At the moment, it's more obvious in grass roots political activism - environmentalism and human rights, for instance - but I'm convinced the entrepreneurial zeal with which women are transforming the political landscape will have an equal impact on the global economy.

The process is much more graphic and easy to grasp in a small, economically marginalised community than it is in our own scattered society. In communities and co-operatives around the world, I've seen what the umbilical connection between education and economic opportunity means to women. It is fundamental to self-esteem. And it is women's self-esteem which holds a society together, ensuring cultural continuity, offering a chance to protect the past while shaping a future.

But how do we get from here to there? How do we elide the educational achievements of girls today and the empowerment of women tomorrow? Progress poses challenges. Here in the UK, for instance, there seems to be a real worry that women are not attracted to the sciences or engineering, and those that are, are much less likely than men to turn their qualification into a career. I don't see that as a problem.

In the US, the National Council for Research on Women recently released data which detailed the closing of the gender gap in the fields of maths, science and sport. Who says that won't happen here too? It seems to me we have to look for women to apply their learning in newer, less predictable ways, using so-called "feminine" values such as a sense of community. You don't have to wonder what would happen if we could feminise economic activity and economic relations. There is already plenty of evidence in the work of female financial pioneers whose concern about the society their children will inherit promises to fundamentally change global economics.

The holistic perspective that the future demands comes naturally to women. I can imagine a day will dawn when compassion counts for as much as cash flow. And that's the day when education and economic opportunity will be perfectly in sync for the girls of the world.

Anita Roddick is founder of the Body Shop

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