Women have never had it so good at work, says M&S chief
Sir Stuart Rose insists that neither gender nor motherhood is a barrier to career success
In a revealing interview, published in today's Observer Magazine, the head of the 125-year-old high-street institution rejects the suggestion that professional women suffer from sexism.
"Girls today have never had it so good, right?" said Rose. "Apart from the fact that you've got more equality than you ever can deal with, the fact of the matter is that you've got real democracy and there really are no glass ceilings, despite the fact that some of you moan about it all the time.
"Women can get to the top of any single job that they want to in the UK. You've got a woman fighter pilot who went on to join the Red Arrows ... I mean what else do you want, for God's sake? Women astronauts. Women miners. Women dentists. Women doctors. Women managing directors. What is it you haven't got?"
Rose also dismissed the idea that having children can create an uneven playing field for working mothers.
"Childbirth is a biological fact," he said. "Women have children: I can't help that. But I know lots of women who have got two or three kids - Nicola Horlick is a good example - there are many girls in here [Marks & Spencer] who have got two kids who come to work. Kate Bostock [recently appointed to oversee the company's UK merchandising operation, including clothes and homeware] has got two or three kids and she's running the full-time, biggest buying job in the UK, so it can be done."
Bostock is being tipped as a possible successor to Rose when he steps down in 2011, a move that would make her the first female to occupy the chief executive's chair at the largest womenswear business in the country.
Not everyone agrees with Rose. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, says that women make up just 9% of directors of the UK's top 100 companies, 19% of MPs in parliament, 7% of senior police officers, 23% of civil service top management, 9% of editors of national newspapers and 18% of trade union general secretaries or equivalent.
There are, according to the society, two main reasons for the glass ceiling still being in existence. "First, there is no flexibility at the top," said Dr Katherine Rake, its director.
"Women tend to have greater commitments at home and so need flexible working arrangements. While some organisations are prepared to enable this at less senior levels, many will not at the top. Second, there is no change at the top: people often select in their image - and because the top of organisations are generally white and male, they stay white and male. It's a Catch-22 situation."
Research for a recent two-part BBC2 programme, The Trouble with Working Women, found that, on average, men earn £369,000 more than women across their career. At the age of 20, men and women are level pegging in terms of earnings. By 30, women are being paid 7% less on average than men. By the age of 40, that gap has grown to 20%.
Harriet Harman, the equalities minister, recently proposed laws to correct so-called structural pay discrimination by allowing employers to favour equally qualified women over men. But she admitted that inquiries launched by Labour over the past decade in an attempt to unmask prejudice among employers had failed to find any evidence of such activity.
Rose's claims are, however, supported by research released last week which found that the shortage of women on the boards of Britain's top companies has nothing to do with the glass ceiling and everything to do with a shortage of women ready to enter the boardroom.
Kathleen O'Donovan, who became the first female finance director of a FTSE 100 company when she took over at conglomerate BTR (now part of Invensys) in 1991, said: "There needs to be a significant increase in the pool of women and we believe there are women out there with enough experience who, when mentored and specifically developed in this area, will be classed as board ready."
She and co-founder Isabel Bird launched Bird & Co, specialising in training women for the boardroom, particularly as non-executive directors.
Bird said: "There have been too many reports about glass ceilings which lament the lack of women on boards but provide no answers. Boards are willing to recruit women but there is a supply problem. We spoke to chief executives and chairmen and found that the absence of women is no longer a demand-side issue."
Erin Pizzey, who founded the first women's shelter in the UK and the charity Refuge, agrees with Rose - but questions the cost women have paid in achieving their goals.
"There has been a subterranean war between men and women," she said, "which has largely been won by women who don't understand what they've lost. The hard-won freedom of choice has imprisoned women.
"I just see an exhausted generation trying to do it all."