Jim Hacker is at home, giving an interview to a young girl named Kathy, who is writing an article for her school magazine. His wife, Annie, enters the room to remind her husband to watch a TV programme that evening. It features a woman MP, whom Hacker refers to as a "rampaging feminist". Kathy then changes her line of questioning, and asks the Minister if he thinks that women are the "exploited sex". He is sure that it is no longer the case, despite the House of Commons overwhelmingly comprising men. Finally, Kathy asks Hacker to describe his personal achievements that have made life better for others. He finds himself unable to name one and resorts to stonewalling, eventually telling her that her allotted time is up. After she has left, Hacker confesses to his wife that he'd been asked some difficult questions. He is dejected that the last one was so perceptive: what has he achieved? Annie suggests that if he could enact one reform of the civil service, it would be something. She goes on to propose that he give more top civil service jobs to women. He agrees to try, out of principle. After all, "Principles are excellent vote winners."
The next day, Hacker is in his office with Sarah Harrison, an Under-Secretary, who is proving to be very efficient at her job. The Minister asks her how many women in the civil service are appointed to senior posts. She replies that there are no Permanent Secretaries, four out of 150 Deputy Secretaries and she is one of 27 Under-Secretaries (out of 578). Hacker invites her to suggest a solution, and she advises bringing women who are proven in the private sector straight into the top grades. She leaves, and the Minister is joined by Bernard, his Principal Private Secretary, who is followed shortly afterwards by Sir Humphrey Appleby, his Permanent Secretary. Hacker proposes to Sir Humphrey that there be a 25% quota of women in senior positions within the next four years. The mandarin begins his customary delaying stratagem, but the Minister sees through it and demands action immediately. Sir Humphrey responds that it will take time, as civil servants are promoted gradually. However, Hacker puts Sarah Harrison's suggestion to him and he is aghast. The Minister reminds him that people in industry change jobs all the time and asks him, why, in fact, there are so few women at the top of the civil service. Sir Humphrey tells him that they "keep leaving to have babies and things." Hacker has decided to promote Sarah Harrison to fill a vacancy in his own department for a Deputy Secretary. While Sir Humphrey believes her to be very able, he refuses to recommend her for promotion, as "it's not her turn yet." He then mounts a vigorous defence of the present system, while also claiming that in no way is he "anti-women". The Minister is exasperated.
Later, Sir Humphrey meets with Sir Arnold Robinson, the Cabinet Secretary, who proposes a three-stage method to block Hacker's plan. Sir Humphrey must first lecture him on the subject until he loses interest in it. If that fails, the Minister must be informed that it has upset the trade unions. Finally, as a last resort, Sir Humphrey must let slip to Mrs Hacker that Sarah Harrison is rather attractive. Sir Arnold intends to mobilise the Cabinet against the "quota nonsense".
Back in Hacker's office, Sir Humphrey breezes in full of confidence that he can stop the Minister's scheme. Although he still cannot convince him, their meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Annie Hacker, whom Sir Humphrey invites to one side for a sherry. He takes the opportunity to implement stage three of Sir Arnold's advice.
Sir Arnold later chairs a meeting of the Permanent Secretaries to discuss the problem. It seems that they are all in favour - to a man - of the principle of equal opportunities, but each department appears to present unique difficulties. Sir Humphrey observes that one couldn't, for example, promote a woman to be Head of Security, since 'M' would have to become 'F'. As regards the quota, Sir Humphrey is resolutely against it. In his view, they should always have the right to appoint "the best man for the job, regardless of sex." Sir Arnold instructs his subordinates to draw their ministers' attention to the obvious predicaments within their own departments.
Hacker returns to his office after the latest Cabinet meeting. He is vexed that all the ministers agreed with the quota in principle, but then said that it wouldn't work in their own departments. He adds that his wife is no longer supporting him in the matter, despite it being her suggestion in the first place. Sir Humphrey finds these developments "extraordinary". Hacker asks Sarah Harrison in and offers her the post of Deputy Secretary. However, she informs them that she is resigning from the civil service to join a merchant bank as a director. She states that she wants achievement, rather than mere activity. Hacker can't conceal his disappointment and tells her of the battle he has fought for her promotion. In reply, she bluntly tells him that she has no wish to be part of a 25% quota, and that the Minister is "just as paternalist and chauvinist as the rest of them." Hacker simply mutters: "Women!"