September 14, 2012 9:37 pm

The Diary: Sarah Sands

The editor of the London Evening Standard reflects on a debate on the melting away of professional women at high altitude
An illustration by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

Feminism, like childbirth, is something that women discover for themselves. The other day, the Evening Standard co-hosted with Google “A Seat at the Top Table”, a debate on the melting away of professional women at high altitude. The room was packed with women of different generations and with very different views on the subject, from zeal to scepticism.

The speakers were Cherie Blair QC, fund manager Helena Morrissey, Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children, Caroline Thomson, the BBC’s chief operating officer and the FT’s Lucy Kellaway. They disagreed on details but shared a liberating confidence in saying what they thought.

In the audience, women in their 20s were agog at the discussion of common experiences and solutions for shaking up the status quo, from quotas to a cultural shift in parental roles and working practices. Among the faces present from an older generation, I noticed the academic Lisa Jardine and her guest, Margaret Mountford, a familiar face from her days alongside Sir Alan Sugar on The Apprentice. They were rolling their eyes that the same old ground was still being trampled.

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Women debating in public forums are sometimes criticised for being cautious and conciliatory. Thomson, building on her experience at the BBC, gave some good advice before the debate: don’t be the only woman on a team in a controversial venture, because you will end up as the lightning rod for criticism.

The dynamic among our panel was striking and unusual. They listened and gave way to each other, even as they passionately disagreed. One audience member, columnist Jenni Russell, asked why so few women appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. One answer was that women are reluctant to argue in public. That depends. If, say, you watch Tory MP Chloe Smith being fed to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, you are unlikely to volunteer. But, if you had seen our panel telling it like it is, you might. Context is all.

Cherie Blair wondered why, after decades of discussion about female advancement, the necessary cultural shift had not yet taken place. But an anecdote from Helena Morrissey suggested otherwise. She’d asked her young son what he thought he might do when he grew up: “Stay at home, like daddy,” he said.

. . .

A strong panel discussing an urgent topic was one explanation for the popularity of the debate. Another was that everyone was intrigued to get inside Google’s London HQ. While Google knows a great deal about us, the company itself remains a little mysterious. As we hoped, it was a shiny playground for hip young things. One area of office space is set up for croquet. Entrances are cool cabin doors. The waiting area for the panel was a green velvet padded room, half-bordello, half-Titanic. Lucy Kellaway demanded instantly to escape.

Ah yes, Lucy. From the moment she sat down, her eyes flashed dangerously. Just before the start, she quietly explained that she had nothing prepared, so could I throw her a line by using the phrase “extraordinary women” in my introduction. I duly did, and she toyed with it in much the same way that Mark Antony employed the phrase “Brutus is an honourable man”. Our rogue panellist did bring focus to the debate, though. She suggested that appointing female non-executive directors is a fig leaf that hides a failure to promote women to the top executive roles. As Jardine and Mountford would recognise, perhaps with a groan, the debate goes on.

. . .

September is being described as an Indian summer. It is for me. I am off to India for a week, walking in the Ladakh region. The pleasure of India is only diminished by the particular irritation of its visa demands. Visa photographs have to be a different size from the usual ones required for UK passports and I need a colleague to vouch for the fact that I won’t indulge in journalism while I am there. In the global marketplace for attracting tourism, straightforwardness of visas is key. I love the emerging African nations where you can just hand over $10 at immigration. London businesses tell me that simplifying our visa system to encourage wealthy Chinese tourists would fill their coffers. Why won’t the government respond?

. . .

The Chipping Norton set, according to one of its number, racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, amounted to a group of mates. Associations with power-broking make it sound vulgar. In fact, Brooks knew David Cameron from school and was friends with the prime minister’s parents. This is the effortless kind of social power that happens organically, ie, through blessed connections.

In the same way, groups of like-minded and socio-economically compatible people magically end up holidaying within visiting distance of each other in Provence or Tuscany. I was discussing the CN set last week with a member of the establishment whose roots are in Cumbria. Felicitously, his roots are shared by others members of the House of Lords, media and literary figures and they naturally gravitate to each other’s houses.

He asked where my roots were, and I had to admit that I am geographically adopted. At weekends I am in Norfolk, where I have lived only for a year. But, like many immigrants, I embrace my new land with full Last-Night-of-the-Proms fervour. I have already started wrapping Christmas presents – Holt pottery for everyone. When I hear East Anglian mustard mentioned on Radio 4’s Food Programme, I feel local pride. As for a Norfolk set, I am sure there is one, but I would not presume to call them mates. There is a set, and then there are people who just live in the area.

. . .

London’s airport capacity is being cited as the just cause that allows Boris Johnson to go to war with David Cameron. The view within Westminster is that the mayor is using the issue to win at politics, but it is possible that he is using politics to win this issue. The mayor is convinced that the Thames estuary airport is the answer and senses that George Osborne has bought into Heathrow expansion, so he is doing all he can to disrupt the process. Unlike Zac Goldsmith, Johnson has no romantic death wish to fall on his sword; he would prefer to wield it. He says that he could raise the money for an estuary airport by tomorrow, but investors see which way the political wind is blowing. It looks like a tempest to me.

Sarah Sands is editor of the London Evening Standard

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