Eve on Top

Eve on Top: Women’s experience of success in the public sector is a textbook by David Baker and Bernadette Casey, with a foreword by Harriet Harman. Both authors are highly qualified and extensively published.

The book is a qualitative study looking at the position of women in senior positions across public sector industries. The book essentially provides a case study of 16 women who were interviewed ‘in detail about their background, upbringing, career progression, successes and failures, challenges and experiences’.

The women who took part are anonymous in order that they could be more open about their experiences.

The book takes an in-depth look at these women and what emerges is very interesting. There is some similarity of views but quite a few conflicting also. The ‘glass ceiling’, for example, is considered and the views were widespread. My interpretation of one participant’s comments (Maggie) on this is that it is made up by women who ‘want to have it all’ and as a result do not put all their effort into the workplace. Most of the women felt that there is a glass ceiling though they had not experienced it themselves. They also provide anecdotal evidence of women they knew, particularly in male-dominated industries, who had been discriminated against. I was surprised at the vehemence with which some women spoke about this issue. Helen felt that that if such a thing exists, it is down to us to break through it and if we don’t we have ourselves, only, to blame.

Confidence, in this book, too, comes back to haunt us. It is talked about as being the ‘imposter phenomenon’ which causes us to spend more time thinking about what we can’t do or have not yet done, rather than focussing on what we can do and have achieved.

What motivated the women to be successful was covered in some detail and ‘three key drivers’ were identified: ambition, determination and self-motivation. The authors noted that they found the women to be ‘highly energetic, with a significant capacity to work hard and independently, wanting to be the very best that they could possibly be’. They also noted that in speaking to the women, they are clearly very confident now, but it had not been an easy journey for all of them.

The authors do make some concluding observations: success for these women is not all about money and reaching the top. Even so they were glad to have achieved their ‘relative’ success while working at keeping some balance in their lives. Broadly speaking they agreed that there are obstacles to advancement for women, but these particular women had worked to overcome them. However they did add a health warning to this as there is copious research that demonstrates that gender discrimination does still happen in the workplace in numerous ways.

In reviewing this book, I found it quite difficult, to get a sense of coherence around each of the individuals. In a case study, you would normally be dealing with one individual and therefore be able to grasp quickly who they are and what their views are. The necessity of anonymity, the structure of the book and the fact that 16 individuals are involved made this complex.

The background of each woman is provided but their views in each chapter are given randomly, but only in the sense that they do not come in the same order each time. I found myself, in the first couple of chapters, referring back to their profiles to remind me of their background, but gave up after that. As a result it is difficult to piece together an overall picture of each woman and her views easily. By the end of the book, this was beginning to come together a bit better. I recognise that this is a textbook but I think that if it were more accessible, it might have a wider appeal.

Clearly, taking a qualitative approach is always going to be more difficult in terms of coming to conclusions, so for me in the end, this was no more than an interesting book. I think that it is useful in that it does document a lot of what we hear from each other about our respective workplaces.

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David Baker is Principal of University College Plymouth St Mark & St John and Professor of Strategic Information Management there. He has published widely in the fields of strategic management. Bernadette Casey left school at 16 and was married with a child by the age of 19. Balancing the domestic with a desire for knowledge, she went on to further and higher education as a mature student, gaining an Honours degree in Sociology and Politics from Plymouth Polytechnic in 1978, an MA from the University of Manchester in 1979 and a PhD, also from Manchester in 1987. She has taught in a dult and Higher Education since 1980. Bernadette Casey is now Dean of the School of Culture, Communication and Society at University College Plymouth St Mark & St John.

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