I’m not going to talk about the comings and goings of Dominic Cummings other than to say that he should do the decent thing and resign.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the subject of role models.

When I was growing up there were very few positive female role models seen on television  – unless you count panel games. The news readers, weather forecasters, politicians, presenters and pundits were all men.  Even the Question Time panel on TV and the Any Questions panel on the radio invariably was all male – as was the panel on University Challenge.  Even the disc jockeys were male. My generation did not see women in key roles in society.   We thought nothing of it. It was as it was.

Now it is rare to see any kind of news programme without it being fronted by a woman. We have the likes of Fiona Bruce, Emily Maitlis, Kirsty Walk, Reeta Chakrabarti and Emma Barnett – just to mention a few. Role models that today’s young women take for granted.

Growing up as a girl and a young woman in the 50s and 60s,  the people we saw in key positions were all men.  Contrary to primary school life today, most of our teachers were men. When I was at primary school all the women teachers were single – or “spinsters” which was the rather derogatory word for an unmarried woman at the time. Until the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was passed in 1919, married women weren’t even allowed to work as teachers. The act should, in theory, have meant greater equality for women but in the 1920s the idea of women working was frowned upon because of so many men being on the dole.  In reality you didn’t see married women taking up teaching jobs until the 1940s. The Bar that existed for married women teachers also reflected the prevailing social attitude at that time – it was a husband’s duty to support his wife and a married woman’s place was in the home.

We had postmen, milkmen, coalmen, firemen, policemen. Chefs were all men. Most of the people in the professions were men. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants. Even the driving instructors and testers were all men.  And this lasted well into the late 70s.  I can well remember on my driving test being led out to the car by a woman and being completely taken aback to find out she was the tester and not the secretary! This completely threw me and I’m sure that’s why I screwed up my driving test.  It was the very first week that women had finally been permitted to work as driving test examiners! As an aside, this reminds me of when a friend, who was taking her driving test, offered the examiner a Polo mint. He responded in all seriousness, “We don’t take bribes madam!”

I grew up watching Miss World competitions and seeing bikini clad models displayed across the bonnets of cars at the Motor Show. We were used to seeing women in TV commercials extolling the virtues of one washing powder over another. I grew up to pop songs that treated women as playthings and possessions – where the finest achievement was to be wanted by a man.

“I wanna be Bobby’s girl.
That’s the most important thing to me.
And if I was Bobby’s girl;
if I was Bobby’s girl,
what a faithful, thankful girl I’d be.”

I was not swayed by any of this but I do remember friends who felt that they were “on the shelf” if they had not met the “the one” by the time they reached the ripe old age of 25.

Most sport was restricted to men. No women’s football or cricket then.  When our sons were at primary school, the girls learned to play the recorder while the boys played football! No one complained.

At my school the boys did woodwork while the girls did home economics.  For the boys to learn cooking skills was unheard of. The science master at my Grammar School refused to take girls for A-Level science.  Consequently the sixth form arts stream consisted mainly of girls and the science stream of boys. Very few girls went on to do science at university.  Nursing, teaching, secretarial work – these were the job choices girls were offered. Clearly these were not meant to be careers as we were expected to give them up when the right man came along.

My first job in advertising was as a secretary at Y&R (Young & Rubicam).  The agency was similar to the one depicted on MadMen. The women were all typists and secretaries.  Our desks were lined up on either side of a long room. Each secretary was assigned to an account executive (male, American) whose office was adjacent to her desk. In addition to our secretarial duties we had to polish his desk and make him tea. Even then I knew I wanted to be a copywriter which was then (and still is largely) a male dominated field.  I summoned up the courage to go and see the creative director.  At 18, I did not have the confidence to tell him that some of the ideas the agency had used had been mine – given to my boss in the hope that he would let people know that they came from me. The creative director came out from behind his desk and literally patted me on the head. “You stick behind your typewriter little girl.” he said to me.  That was the day I started looking for a new job and not long after was fortunate in obtaining my first job as a copywriter.

Although I never liked the woman, things began to change seriously when Margaret Thatcher emerged as PM in 1979. Even so, in order to succeed she had to be more of a man than the men.  She wore men’s suits and had voice training so her voice became more like a man’s. However, she still “flirted” a little with the men surrounding her and mothered them – which they all seemed to like.

I tried to be a good role model for our daughter by seeking out books that showed strong women. Often the princess would reject the hand of the prince preferring do her own thing instead.

When our daughter played mummies and daddies she would carry a briefcase instead of a handbag and say, “I am the mummy and I’m going to a meeting.” When she dressed up as a nurse her brothers said to her, “why be a nurse when you can be a doctor?” Even so they still delegated the role of “cleaner” or “maid” to her when the three of them played ‘house’ in the garden shed.

Her brothers, on the other hand, were influenced by my role as an NCT  (National Childbirth Trust) teacher. One day when I was in the kitchen I heard all these strange groaning noises coming from the living room.  I went to have a look and found our four year old lying on the sofa while our seven year old was exhorting him to, “Push! Push!” With a final loud grunt the four year old gave birth to a teddy that had been hidden underneath his jumper!

When our daughter was growing up in the 80s I told her she could be anything she wanted to be.  That probably wasn’t entirely true then. But the world has now moved on. Our four year old granddaughter loves playing with her dolls house but she also knows that whatever she chooses to do in life, the opportunities are now there.

Coming back to the subject of role models, let’s hope that by the time you read this, Cummings will have done the right thing and resigned.



© Andrea Neidle, My Life in Poems









  1. Interesting post Andrea. We have lived through times of big change in this respect and there’s still with plenty of room for more. I am shocked that the science master at your school wouldn’t let girls do A level science! My mother was an academic and a teacher and valued girls’ education as much as boys’ One of my grandmothers had a degree so to me it seemd the norm to aim for. I am thankful that we had a strong science department at the girls’ school I went to.


  2. Loved today’s blog Andrea – it was brilliant. As you know, I am one of very few successful females in a very male dominated world – chemistry. As I rose up through my career there were very few notable women who I could emulate – with the exception of Trudy Elion, who won the nobel prize and I was fortunate to meet her early on, and she took a strong personal interest in my career. She was an amazing woman who never actually earned a PhD but instead was granted many honorary doctorates over the years due to her amazing accomplishments. My second role model was my grandmother (deceased now probably 40 years ago). She had a masters degree in calculus – and was the only woman in her university classes, not surprising given the day. And when my grandfather, who came from a very wealthy family, told his family he was going to marry her, his mother disinherited him. How dare he marry some “spinster” (you called it!) math teacher!! While I may not have had very many female role models, I have been fortunate to have sought out strong male role models who supported me – luckily there are a few out there! And in turn, I have tried to be a role model for those coming after me. Hopefully I have done a good job, particularly with the numerous graduate students who have come through my group, as well as the junior faculty I have mentored, but I still feel like there are just not enough of us out there. So let’s hope we can change this – and in the meantime, thanks for a wonderful essay today (and always!!). Kathie


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