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Dice still loaded in favour of men

The news about the brighter sex hardens. Reports pile up confirming that girls are outperforming their brothers at school at every stage from early reading to GCSE, and steaming ahead on university entrance. So far, so successful for all those positive policies launched 20 years ago. So it is curious that much ambivalence still exists as to what exactly we are educating girls for.

Last week's ministerial soul-searching about female supremacy at school coincided with a batch of books from the new wave of British feminists. Young women may have blossomed in academic achievement, confidence and career prospects since their mothers read Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch in the Sixties, we were reminded, but they still face the same old working life of compromise and hard choices once they contemplate motherhood.

I was bemused to read some of the explanations offered for the stagnation in boys' performance. Keeping up with the laddishness of the peer group I can believe, but lack of incentive as job prospects dwindle and identity crises multiply is a far less convincing explanation. What sort of certainties do girls have even now, after so many advances for their sex, that they will be able to pursue even brilliant careers all the way through a natural progression to the top?

Progress through education is one thing. Many more industries and professions are welcoming talented and well-qualified young women. But every bright girl knows that that is where the plain sailing stops and, within a few short years, uncertainty begins.

I remember watching that brilliant columnist Bernard Levin locked in an angry television debate during the wilder days of feminism, in which he told his interrogator that she could choose whether to give up her career or have children, but was quite unable to comprehend an invitation to put himself in the same shoes.

I am quite sure that boys of any age would feel a million times more confused and uncertain about their career prospects if they knew they would have to decide, just at the age when promotion opportunities arise, whether: (a) they intended to have children; (b) they would want to stop work to raise a family, or just soft-pedal for five to ten years while competitors surged ahead; (c) whether they could depend on a partner able and willing to share parenting duties; or finally (d) they would be able to count on local nursery education and care.

It is amazing is that so many girls believe it worthwhile to stick at their educational and career ambitions in spite of the dusty answers they still receive to such questions. Personally, I was so busy being a working mother at the time that The Female Eunuch was first published that I didn't have time to read it. What strikes me most forcibly is that there has been so little change in working conditions and support for my daughter-in-law and my younger colleagues 30 years on.

If there is one word I would add to Peter Wilby's exemplary list of banned ideas for 1998 it is "juggling", as in juggling home and job. Keeping babies and business plans in the air at the same time is too playful and banal an image to convey the high order of organisational skills and judgment involved. Once you have become experienced in hiring help, organising transport, handling emergencies and creating timetables and lists, you are seriously equipped for any management job from headteacher, to editor, to Nicola Horlick.

Perhaps that is the sort of education and training that boys need, though come to think of it they are still far more likely than any girl to become an editor or a headteacher. So why are they really switching off as soon as the going gets tough?

How is a better match to be achieved between the academic performance of girls and their subsequent career patterns? There is still a bland assumption that girls will continue to improve on their achievement in precisely the same national curriculum as boys, which is as it should be, until they run into an equally bland failure to face up to changing social realities in the world of employment.

The softer wave of home-grown feminists is more clear-sighted or honest about the emotional pull of motherhood than the sisters used to be, but tends to see solutions in more sharing personal relationships and a more caring government, rather than in the workplace or in political correctness. I still believe that huge shifts in the attitudes of employers are necessary, and that far too few have properly considered the consequences of the combined trends in demography and women's qualifications.

Because there are fewer men in relevant age-groups, employers need more qualified women at all levels. But they will have to accept that many such women will want to work part-time while their children are young, and then pursue their careers on full throttle later on. That is the only way to make sense of their education and abilities, though it may not occur to most girls while they are swotting for A-levels.

The stumbling block is that most businesses, like schools or government services, assume masculine career patterns: if you are going to succeed you will be running the department by 30, the whole show by 40, and thinking about early retirement 10 years later. Any break in the middle is a no-no. But the pattern needs to be turned on its head for women: family life the priority at 30, but heading for the top at 40 or even 50 (while father-figures head for the golf-course).

Some women (and their employers) manage it now, but a career-pattern this way round will have to become much less of a struggle if girls are to continue to see the point of working hard at school. It is one thing to encourage their achievement, quite another to take a grip on the logical consequences.

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