"You don't," said the woman with beautifully blow-dried hair, "win in life by playing by other people's rules."
What you need to do, she said, is to use your "unique advantage." Which, if you looked 'round the room, you might have thought was some very, very, very high heels. But apparently it wasn't. Apparently, your "unique advantage" was the fact that you were "wired to think of the group" because you were, in a world where it's rarer than a rhino, a woman.
You could, she said, help to deal with what a director of a big consulting firm called, on the same panel, at a conference in London on "the Gender Agenda" this week, "attrition" by encouraging women to talk about their strategies for growth. Their strategies, that is, for growth of their families, and how they might, for example, tell prospective employers that they were planning to have four children, and still work 100 hours a week. She didn't suggest that if you were only going to have a chance to peek at them when they were asleep, it might be better to stick to one. She talked instead about things like "multi-dependency" models that might make your business "great."
The woman with the beautifully blow-dried hair was American. So was the woman who talked about "attrition," and so was one who talked about the importance of being "plural," which apparently meant sitting on lots of different boards. If you want to be a successful businesswoman in London, it looks as though it might help to cross the Atlantic first.
It might also help to be married to a successful man. "It hasn't escaped me that the real reason I've been asked to speak," said Miriam Clegg, who had bought some very high leopard print heels for the occasion, "is because of my husband." She talked about how women could get on. "I hate quotas," she said, with such passion that you could see why the Deputy Prime Minister fell in love with her. But she was, she said, a "reluctant supporter" of them on a "temporary" basis.
Quotas. Oh, dear, quotas. A word to make even the hearts of the "uniquely advantaged" half of the population sink. But then, so do the figures. Women, said Deborah Mattinson, who was presenting some new research, make up 7.8 percent of board places across the FTSE 250. They make up 2 percent of executive directors of FTSE 350 companies, which is the kind of figure that might boost your sales if what you made was "multi-dependency" models of the noose. Half of the population, according to the research, thinks that businesses should "do more to get more women into senior positions," but only a few think the answer is quotas. People under the age of 24 don't, apparently, give a monkey's either way. Perhaps they think that if you want to be in business, all you need to do is audition for Dragon's Den.
Would quotas work? They have in Norway, but then everything in Scandinavia seems to work. People in Scandinavia follow the speed limit (as anyone who's been stuck behind them knows) even when they're deep in a forest. If they're told to get more women on boards, they do.
Sure, we need more women on boards, but what we really need is more women in business, and more women in business who stay the course. We need more women who don't think, as one woman said at the conference on Thursday, a woman who happened to inspire one of the main characters in Absolutely Fabulous, that they "don't want to be on a board" because they "want to be creative." We need more women who understand how money works.
Women are being pummeled by the financial crisis. As a result of this week's Autumn Statement, they're losing almost three times as much as men. But that's because women are too dependent on the state. We haven't bothered to get the skills that might get us more money, and more clout. If men have been allowed to rule the roost, in banks, and hedge funds, and FTSE 100 companies, that's because women have let them.
Many women seem quite happy to leave the big decisions that affect our lives, and our world, to men. Like the union leaders who have spoken out this week, they seem to want the world to stay the same. It won't. Unless a miracle takes place, and even if the euro doesn't collapse, the state is going to shrink. If women, or union leaders, want it not to, they'd better come up with a more practical answer than "make the bankers pay."
Even the man who says he wants to lead Britain doesn't, according to one of his former advisers and the co-author of a new report on "why enterprise must be at the heart of Labour politics in the 21st century," "understand business." He's "not interested in it," the former adviser told a blogger this week. "He's too academic. We'd have business leaders coming in to meet him, but... they weren't impressed."
On this, if nothing else, and certainly not dress sense, I'm with the business leaders. If we want people to have jobs, we can't pretend that business doesn't matter. We can't just leave it to the (often right-wing) boys. Ladies of the left, and also of the right, it's time to wise up. And maybe leave those very, very, very high heels at home.