Cycling one way through gender politics

18th February 2000 at 00:00
The Equal Opportunities Commission is about to become loud and stroppy under Lynne Berry, its new chief executive. Hilary Wilce talks to her.

THE EQUAL Opportunities Commission has slipped off the map in recent years. Lynne Berry, its new chief executive, plans to put it back.

Berry is a small, dark-haired, energetic and confident woman of 47, who came to the commission last November with a

reputation for picking up dusty institutions, shaking them out, and setting them on their feet again.

The EOC is a faded flower of 25 years, prominent when first set up to promote and enforce gender equality , but now so quavery of voice and uncertain of profile that many people are surprised to hear that it still exists. Is this union with Berry, then, a marriage made in heaven?

Definitely, says the broadcaster and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who has known both for years.

"I feel the EOC has been lost for a long time and that the staff there have been very damaged and derailed. But Lynne is a very determined person. She has very strong principles, and a great gift for being able to make people feel at ease. People speak very highly of her indeed."

Berry comes from being executive director of the Charity Commission, where she turned a civil service bureaucracy, good at law enforcement but not much else, into an institution of modernised purpose, with a third of its staff out on the road every week proferring help and advice. A mere 4,000 people a year visited the Charity Commission's various offices when she arrived, she says. By the time she left, 60,000 a month were hitting its website.

Before that, she turned the Family Welfare Association from an organisation that, she says, had "lost its money, lost its way" into "one that knew exactly where it was going, with a firm financial base, and the public credibility to be seen as a major organisation".

"I enjoy being part of the pro

cess of transformation. I'm certainly not frightened of problems. I think you have to deal with them in a way that lets you use the energy they create."

This is lucky, because even the most casual contact with the EOC's chaotic London office makes it clear that the organisation is not short of problems.

Berry intends to make it "a strong and stroppy" organisation, "loud, credible and better at telling people what we do". She wants it working for a "joined-up" equality agenda with the commissions responsible for race and disability.

Internally, she and the relatively new chair, Julie Mellor, are restructuring the four offices (Manchester, London, Cardiff and Edinburgh) so that lobbying and communications functions are focused on the capital.

High on the agenda is the continuing campaign for equal pay. Women still earn, on average, 20 per cent less than men, she points out, and, "it is clear that girls are still making choices at school as young as 14, which then mean they will end up in low-paid jobs all their lives, which will hen ultimately affect their pension. We are working very closely with the Department for Education and Employment on this, particularly in relation to the Government's new learning and skills councils, and the youth support system."

Sexual stereotyping, the work-life balance, women in public life, working closely with the new Welsh and Scottish assemblies, and possible legislative changes are also on the agenda, although she is keen that the revamped commission is seen not as confrontational, but as an agency willing to work with others. "I think a lot of employers, for example, have been worried about talking to us. They thought they were going to get a slap on the wrist. We have to show them that equality can be to everyone's advantage."

However, individual legal cases will continue to be important. A current one, concerning the right of a girl to wear trousers to school, is considered significant because the commission gets many enquiries in this area and wants the position clarified.

Berry is a grammar-school girl from Worcestershire, who studied English and history at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology before doing post-graduate work on social policy in Cardiff, where she also became a community activist involved in housing and domestic violence.

She has been a social worker in London, held numerous trusteeships, and chaired the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on standards of governance in the voluntary sector. She has also held academic posts, including head of policy and continuing education at the National Institute for Social Work, and enjoys a life of research, lecturing and writing alongside her other jobs. "I like to be able to put things in their wider context."

This packed CV, along with a sometimes relentless articulacy, quiet confidence in her own abilities, and unhidden ambition, has caused some to label her as driven or earnest.

"She can provoke jealousy because she is so single-minded," says long-time friend and colleague Geraldine Peacock, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and former chair of the Association of Chief Executives of National Voluntary Organisations. "But she commands intense personal loyalty. Mention her name to almost anyone who's worked for her and they can't say too much in her favour. She leads by example. She would never expect anyone to do anything she wouldn't do herself. She really is an exceptional person."

When not working, Berry lives with her husband in Islington (she has no children of her own, but has helped raise a stepson), enjoys opera, theatre and seeing friends, and is such a keen cyclist that on her endless rounds of the EOC's offices the bicycle always goes too. When you've had to negotiate the one-way system to get somewhere, she says, then you really know that you've been. "And in a way that's not a bad metaphor for how I engage with things."

'We have to show employers that equality can be to everyone's


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