Isabel Spearman and Thea Rogers (Photo: Getty Images/REX)

POLITICS

When will we stop undermining women at work? 

Poster girls for the honours scandal, Thea Rogers and Isabel Spearman probably don't deserve OBEs, says Gaby Hinsliff. But they do deserve acknowledgement for what they actually do

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

What would be a fair reward for putting the chancellor on a diet and persuading him to get a haircut? Is an OBE enough or maybe a damehood? And then there’s the job of giving the prime minister’s wife fashion tips. Worth a gong or just a mention in dispatches?  

It’s ridiculous, obviously. Nobody deserves a trip to Buckingham Palace for a bit of styling, so no wonder David Cameron’s proposed farewell honours list, in which both the chancellor’s chief of staff, Thea Rogers, and Samantha Cameron’s former aide, Isabel Spearman, are tipped for OBEs, has caused a right old fuss. The only snag however is that it’s a fuss based on a complete misunderstanding of what women behind the scenes in politics actually do, which is a hell of a lot more than just holding the make-up bag while the boys think all the clever thoughts. 

And while you may shed few tears for women in such high-powered jobs, it smacks rather worryingly of an age-old assumption about the work women do – that it’s somehow more frivolous, softer and just not quite as important as the work being done by an equivalent man. 

Thea Rogers may go down in history as the woman who changed George Osborne’s fringe, but that’s conveniently ignoring the 99 per cent of her job that didn’t involve hair. She was behind the "northern powerhouse" slogan you heard every Budget, plus all those hi-vis photo opportunities, because the former BBC Newsnight producer was hired to help reposition a chancellor regarded as being posh and out of touch.  

It smacks rather worryingly of an age-old assumption about the work women do – that it’s somehow more frivolous, softer, and just not quite as important as the work being done by an equivalent man

But Osborne soon came to rely on her political judgement too, at least partly because Rogers isn’t an instinctive Tory and provided a fresh, sometimes challenging take. (Those Treasury civil servants who nicknamed her "the pitbull" can only wish she’d stuck to hairdressing.)

Isabel Spearman, meanwhile, may have a fashion background but, frankly, the prime minister’s wife is pretty capable of getting dressed by herself. Spearman was less stylist, more the woman who made everything work: keeper of the diary, fixer, adviser, but also chief troubleshoooter, the one the Camerons called when their sudden exit from Number 10 left them urgently needing somewhere to live.

And, no, she doesn’t deserve an OBE for that either, frankly. The honours system should be for rewarding service to the nation, not repaying personal favours, and the fact that it’s been pretty widely abused in the past – Margaret Thatcher’s resignation list covered everyone, from her personal director and PA to the fashion director of Aquascutum, her favourite brand for suits – doesn’t excuse Cameron. He could have been the one to break tradition instead of perpetuating it.

But funny how it’s two women who end up on the front pages, symbols of everything that’s wrong with a visibly shabby honours system, when two-thirds of the list were men. It’s far from immediately obvious in some cases what service these anonymous party donors, Remain-backing ministers and assorted spin doctors provided to the nation (as opposed to Cameron himself) but, well, they’re not nearly so photogenic, so they're not the public faces of this scandal.

The truth is that both men and women can find themselves doing some faintly ridiculous-sounding things when working for an overstretched senior politician. Special advisers of both sexes get used to choosing ties or lipstick, babysitting the kids in an emergency or even (if you work for Hillary Clinton) being asked to check the TV listings so the boss doesn’t miss The Good Wife. The difference is that if you’re a woman, people are depressingly more likely to assume the trivia is your full-time job, rather than something you do while simultaneously keeping track of Brexit negotiations and organising a leadership campaign.

So, by all means let’s have a cleaned-up honours system, where rewards are genuinely earned. But while we’re on the subject of recognising and valuing the sometimes unsung things people do – which, let's face it, is a historically sensitive subject for women – well, let’s not pretend that the honours system is the only one with a problem, eh? 

@gabyhinsliff 

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Isabel Spearman and Thea Rogers (Photo: Getty Images/REX)
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