Wonky Women: The Political and Social Agenda Is Increasingly Being Set by Women from Leading Research Organisations. They May Still Be Poorly Represented in Government, but Are These Top Policy Wonks Having a Greater Impact from the Outside?

By Reeves, Richard | New Statesman (1996), April 7, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Wonky Women: The Political and Social Agenda Is Increasingly Being Set by Women from Leading Research Organisations. They May Still Be Poorly Represented in Government, but Are These Top Policy Wonks Having a Greater Impact from the Outside?


Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


"A brilliant woman is a plague," lamented Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "A plague to her husband, her children, her friends, her valet, everyone." Rousseau would not be happy if he cast his eye over the think tanks of the centre left today, as they are experiencing an epidemic of femininity.

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So complete is the feminisation of progressive think-tank leadership that when Jennifer Moses, former head of the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank CentreForum, was scooped into the new Downing Street talent pool last month, interest was sparked in her nationality (American), her party allegiance (non-Labour) and her Goldman Sachs-generated wealth (gigantic)--but not her gender. Meanwhile, Demos is run by Catherine Fieschi; the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is co-directed by Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim on a job-share basis; and the Social Market Foundation is run by Ann Rossiter. At least on the non-Tory side, all the top wonks are women.

This feminisation is, in part, a simple reflection of the general rise of women in public life. "Part of it is purely statistical," says Fieschi. "There are simply more women in public positions." But Fieschi, and others, think there may be more to it than that. These organisations are important ideas factories for progressive politics, but are also independent organisations at some distance from the dysfunctional, tribal, macho culture of Westminster and Downing Street. As such, they provide perfect platforms for women who want to make an impact on politics without having to play the boys' games.

"The kinds of demands that being a special adviser makes on your life are ones that women in particular might reject," suggests Oppenheim. "A think-tank role gives you more control over your time." Journalism and research organisations also provide perches for high-profile women such as Polly Toynbee at the Guardian and Julia Unwin, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

"It is a cause for celebration to see women in these jobs," says Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights. "But if you look at Downing Street or even the cabinet, where the number of women has actually fallen, you see that governmental power remains mostly male."

Access to key government jobs still appears to require a Y chromosome. Moses will be one of the very few women in Gordon Brown's No 10, alongside Oona King, the former MP with the tough task of making the government more female-friendly.

The rise of the wonky women can also be seen as part of the evolution of the think tanks themselves. The principal progressive think tanks have been through three stages, suggests Fieschi. The first stage was a "blue-sky" period, when idealistic directors were encouraged to think boldly about a progressive future. James Cornford, the first director of IPPR, was an academic by background and a marvellous iconoclast. He cared little for what ministers, or shadow ministers, thought. But this was at a point when Labour had been out of power for three terms, and was keen to demonstrate that it was fizzing with ideas about how to make the nation better.

The second stage came in parallel with Labour's terms in office. With the party securely in power, the priority for centre-left think tanks was to provide realistic, grounded, sensible policy advice. This technocratic era was unsurprisingly marked by a revolving-door relationship between the think tanks and the government. Geoff Mulgan, the founding head of Demos, went on to run the prime minister's Strategy Unit and then the No 10 Policy Unit; Phil Collins, a former director of the Social Market Foundation, became chief speechwriter to Tony Blair.

IPPR acted as a training college for Labour politicians and advisers. Patricia Hewitt, a former deputy director, became an MP and then cabinet minister. So did David Miliband. And James Purnell.

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Wonky Women: The Political and Social Agenda Is Increasingly Being Set by Women from Leading Research Organisations. They May Still Be Poorly Represented in Government, but Are These Top Policy Wonks Having a Greater Impact from the Outside?
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