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This is still not the hour of the powerful woman

IN an ideal world Radio 4's Woman's Hour, like The Big Issue, would have no reason to exist.

But even today, when women are making cracks in the glass ceiling and in some cases breaking clean through it, they are viewed in some quarters similarly to the way the homeless are by those clambering doggedly up the property ladder.

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It is as if feminism never was, as if Germaine Greer and other members of the sisterhood hadnever burned their bras in anger. For Greer, the mere sight of nail varnish, lipstick, high heels and a Wonderbra, was confirmation aplenty that sexism was alive and well.

She wanted parity of pay, sharing of domestic and child-rearing chores, equality of opportunity, a fair crack of the whip, a fulfilled life. It didn't seem a lot to ask but she may as well have tried ordering a burger with beef in it. Wresting power from those who have it is always painful and prolonged.

Which brings me to Woman's Hour and its list of the 100 most powerful women in these isles. This is, of course, a quite meaningless exercise, in that it has no authority. Nothing will change because of it. It is just about possible, I suppose, that a young girl still at school may be aware of it and determine that she would like one day to top a similar list. That will take some doing, since the list's compilers – including a former tabloid editor, a crime novelist, a Tory MP and an erstwhile Labour MP who was consigned to political oblivion (the House of Lords) by George Galloway – decided in their wisdom that the most powerful woman in Britain is the Queen.

It is a bizarre choice given that the Queen has not achieved her position through education or hard graft or innovation but by inheritance. None of the judges got to where they are today by this route. They are who they are because, one assumes, they are intelligent and have a special talent. Nothing was served up to them on a plate.

Nevertheless journalist Eve Pollard justified their decision thus: "Most women on our list were judged to have power because they had reached a place where they have control – of policy, of direction, of influence, of staff". How the Queen managed to reign supreme when tthese were the judges' criteria heaven knows. That she has influence is without doubt, not least in the presentation of so-called honours to timeservers, toadies and child abusers. But what policy has she initiated? In which direction has she taken the country other than up a class-ridden cul-de-sac? Is there anything at all she could change tomorrow for the greater good of the common weal if she were so moved?

What's worse though is that by putting the Queen at the head of the list the judges have done a heinous disservice to countless other women who have succeeded against the odds. In that regard the recent car-crash of a court case featuring Chris Huhne and his ex-wife, Vicky Price, is illustrative. By any standard, she is a high-flier, a thoroughly modern and well regarded businesswoman. Yet even she was required to play second fiddle to a man who expected her to conform to the stereotype of the dutiful spouse. Some may argue that it was ever the case but take, for example, Margaret Thatcher who in another era one would more happily have accepted as the judges' top choice. From the outset she let laid-back Dennis know that she did not become involved in politics to wallow on the back benches but to seize every opportunity to make a difference, which meant becoming Prime Minister.

Interestingly, there are just four women politicians in the top 20 listed by the judges, including Theresa May at number two and Nicola Sturgeon at twenty. The rest of the list is largely made up of chief executives and senior civil servants, reminding one of Ms Greer's comment: "I didn't fight to get women out from behind a vacuum cleaner to get them on to the board of Hoover." Most of the selected women obviously have power but it is limited to the companies and institutions they lead. Why the vice-chancellor of Manchester University is on the list and her equivalents at St Andrews, Napier and Queen Margaret are not is doubtless due as much to ignorance as it is to merit. But even those men who are in charge of Britain's biggest and wealthiest universities have limited power, such is its dilution in these days of delegation through bureaucracy and committees, rules and legislation.

Nevertheless what Woman's Hour has managed to highlight are areas in British life in which women are less conspicuous than they ought to be. One such is obviously politics. Were this a list of the most powerful men it would surely be dominated by politicians drawn from across the political and geographical spectrum. Would Alex Salmond be on it? Of course he would, but probably not as prominently placed as his deputy is here.

Another area is that of the media. Take the BBC, which has twice recently appointed a new director-general without once giving the job to a woman. It seems that women are deemed capable of producing programmes and running stations but can't be trusted to run the corporation, despite the manifest failings of their male counterparts.

Much the same goes for other aspects of the media, in particular newspapers. Having slaved in this galley for several decades I can recall only one Scottish national newspaper which has had a female editor. There have been more women editors in London, but it is far from the norm. Indeed, at present there is just one woman at the head of a national paper – Dawn Neesom, editor, of the Daily Star – and she was not regarded as powerful enough to make the cut. But I did once have a female boss. She was called Miss Dickson and she ran the newsagent's for whom I worked as a paper boy. That was power in the raw.

Ian Bell is away.

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