The Modern Militant: Jenny Watson

Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, combines a softly-softly approach with a fierce commitment to social justice, says Adam Hill.

Wherever there is sex discrimination to be stamped out, Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), is there stamping. But - relaxed and charming in person - she is a far cry from Private Eye's ‘wimmin' warrior stereotype of the 1980s.  ‘It's not like I think everything's wrong,' she jokes.

Watson was only a child when the EOC was established in 1966, when the Sex Discrimination Act became law. After gaining a degree in communication studies and working in campaigning roles at Victim Support and political reform group Charter 88, she concedes that within her lifetime, there has been ‘much progress' towards equality.

But to those who believe that the gender war has been won, and that the EOC is a relic of a bygone era, Watson still has this message: ‘In the 1970s, women earned 29 per cent less per hour than men - today they earn 17 per cent less. There is a sense that we've cracked it, but the "equality" that women  experience is a thin veneer.'

Her language may sound accusing, but instead of old-fashioned militancy, Watson and her four-strong in-house PR team prefer ‘measured' messages. For instance, the EOC recently issued a press release after the ­European Court of Justice ruled that women who take maternity leave have no automatic rights to the same pay as male colleagues in the same role. ‘The Times, BBC's Today programme and The Guardian said completely different things,' Watson explains. ‘We just wanted to tell the facts. We were concerned that employers could be lulled into a false sense of security.'

It is a brave approach. Those who engage in debates on equality open themselves up to attack from journalists on the lookout for ‘political correctness gone mad'. Watson says: ‘It's a risk we manage. Eighty per cent of what I do is communicating with politicians, employers, journalists, NGOs and government. This approach, says Miles Templeman, ­director-general of the Institute of Directors, is typical Watson. ‘Jenny manages to avoid the sort of evangelical thing you get with some people in her sort of position. She works with businesses rather than lectures them.'

Maybe her conciliatory position is because she now has business concerns of her own. She joined the EOC as a commissioner in 1999 but left five years later to co-found management consultancy Global Partners & Associates, which advises clients including The British Council on human rights. She only works three-and-a-half days a week at the EOC and, as such, is also deputy chair of the Banking Code Standards Board, a member of both the Advertising Standards Authority's Advertising Advisory Committee, and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management.

Katherine Rake, director of gender equality group the Fawcett Society, gives a clue as to how Watson is able to spread her net so wide, when she says: ‘She cuts to the heart of a ­problem quickly.'

But what qualifies Watson to advise on ­radioactive waste? ‘It's not a scientific committee,' she laughs. ‘I have a background in transparency and freedom of information. People need to see there are no hidden agendas around nuclear waste.' Referring to another of her roles, she adds: ‘And there is an overlap between the EOC and banking. Both are regulatory bodies.'

Watson's outside interests are useful since her EOC role will cease to exist next year. From October 2007 a new umbrella body, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, will amalgamate the interests of three groups: the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the Disability Rights Commission, and the EOC. Trevor Phillips, the former CRE chair, will oversee the new organisation. ‘I didn't apply for the job,' says Watson. ‘But don't rule me out of interesting "chair" jobs in the future.'

So, does Watson, who this month celebrates only her first full year as chairman, and who has only one year left of her job remaining, feel she has achieved her objectives? ‘Good question,' she says. ‘My objectives were to have established sex equality as a key political battleground that matters to the mainstream, and to get change around women, pensions and equal pay.'

To some degree these ambitions have been achieved. The Government this year committed itself to closing the pay gap, by following the recommendations in the Women and Work Commission's ‘Shaping a Fairer Future' report. ‘There is a battle going on for women's votes. In the 1970s we wouldn't have had a debate about fathers wanting to spend time with their children. There has been progress on everything where I'd set myself a target,' says Watson.

Work still to do
Before it is absorbed into the amalgamated group, the EOC is keen to bolster its links with stakeholders such as employers, the Confederation of British Industry and pension ­advisory groups. There are several areas Watson says she still wants to get her teeth into. Equal pay is high on her agenda, and she is particularly outspoken about the PR industry's failure to close the gap between male and female pay - which she says is worse then the UK's average pay discrepancy. Click here to listen to Jenny Watson discuss this further in this week's PRWeek/CTN podcast.

‘We also recognise that issues such as pregnancy remain difficult for employers,' Watson adds. ‘We realise businesses start up because they want to make money.'

Such comments illustrate the enigma of her role. Watson is personable and relaxed, proof that one can be fiercely committed to social justice and be easy to get on with. And the IoD's Templeman insists that despite her charm, ‘Jenny would never be watered down - she's far too forceful'.

Some might argue that Watson's ‘evolutionary' approach - where businesses and NGOs strive for common ground - is to blame for the prevalence of inequality in some quarters. But former Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart defends Watson's style: ‘She is good at spotting when a delivery authority has a weak aspect to its case. Jenny is low-key, but she makes strong relationships with people.'

‘You can always be more visible,' says Watson. ‘But visibility doesn't always mean more influence.'

CV - Jenny Watson

2005 - Chair, Equal Opportunities Commission

2004 - Founded Global Partners and Associates

2000 - Deputy chair, EOC

1999 - Commissioner, EOC

1997 - Chair, Fawcett Society

1996 - Campaigns and comms manager, Charter 88

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