One of the functions of government is to make public appointments, usually chair and non-executive director roles of public bodies. On 12 March the government announced the latest of these, the new chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The new chair will be in charge of the largest funder of heritage in the UK, with an eye-watering £375million annual budget. The HLF is a lifeline for all sorts of heritage organisations, from huge castles to small community regeneration projects. It does much good work.
The new Chair is soon-to-be-retired MP Sir Peter Luff, Cambridge economics graduate and career Tory politician. He is standing down at this election and will take up his new role almost immediately after Parliament dissolves, on 30 March. So what's the problem? Well, Sir Peter's appointment represents an uneasy trend - replacing the senior women of the heritage sector with men. In the past five years the three highest ranking public heritage roles have been taken away from the ladies.
Liz Forgan of Arts Council England was the first to go. Left-leaning, she was appointed in the final year of the Labour Government and under the ConDem coalition lasted less than 12 months. She left in October 2010, asked to step down at the end of her first term to make way for someone who understood private finance and investment.
Just to prove this isn't a matter of good girls and naughty boys, Dame Liz wasn't universally beloved - her leaving party was branded a 'thought leadership event' and cost the taxpayer some £8,000. Interestingly the greatest criticism of it came from the Telegraph, but the extent to which politics plays into media coverage is definitely a topic for another day. Suffice to say, whatever she got up to in those final throes, the reasons for her dismissal were not necessarily based on her performance as Chair. She was replaced by Sir Peter Bazelgette, the man responsible for Big Brother.
The sad tale of Kay Andrews at English Heritage follows similar lines. Energetic, knowledgeable and well-respected, Baroness Andrews, staunchly Labour, was asked to step aside after just one term as chair, the expressed desire being that she be replaced by someone with more business acumen. Step up Sir Laurie Magnus, investment banker extraordinaire.
And finally the HLF. Dame Jenny Abramsky, formerly the most senior woman at the BBC, became chair in 2009 and served six years before standing down, again before her term was fully up. Slightly ironically the article covering this quotes her views on representation of women in her previous life, where she launched Radio Five Live:
"People immediately said: 'Oh, it's going to be Radio Bloke,' and I was determined that it wasn't going to be Radio Bloke. I was also determined that we were going to have women all across the network... It's very important when you think about how you cast your voices across a network...that you make sure both sets of voices are equally dominant."
And there is the point. No-one is suggesting that the three men who replaced these three women cannot do a good job. But where is the representation of gender equality? In a profession which employs more women than men, why are we looking at an almost all-male senior squad? Across the heritage sector the most senior women are now all officers rather than chairs: Carole Souter, chief executive of the HLF, Kate Mavor, director of English Heritage in its new life as a charity, Kate Clark, director of Cadw, and Helen Ghosh of the National Trust represent a diminishing pool of female voices in a sector that had been moving towards equal senior representation. It is a depressing situation.
When discussing this with others on Facebook a friend commented "Surely the best person gets the job? You can't just throw it at a woman so you can satisfy equality box ticking?" Quite right. Because you don't need to. Women (and this is important) can and do achieve the same level of competence, expertise and leadership as men. Not all women would do well in these roles. Neither would all men. But to imply that a woman would be appointed just to tick a box, even if she were a nincompoop with the political awareness of duckweed, is an insulting argument which speaks of a feeling of deep insecurity. We don't need to make token appointments - we have brilliant women to do these jobs! You can have gender equality AND competence!
Harriet Harman's damning letter to cabinet secretary Jeremy Haywood described the HLF appointment as "yet another example of the Conservatives giving out jobs to the boys" . Equality and politics seem indivisible. With women making up 51% of the population and, these happy days, having all of those voting rights, the sexism behind these and other similar decisions could still come back to bite the men who made them.