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gender equality

The road ahead – charting a course towards gender equality

How far we have come on gender equality and what is still left to do?  In Barrow Cadbury Trust’s centenary year for International Women’s Day we asked Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society to reflect on this question.  Barrow Cadbury Trust is committed to equality for women and also recognises the potential benefits that such equality could offer to men too, particularly in family and domestic matters.  At the Trust we ‘gender lens’ everything we do and actively work with others to bring about change.

At Fawcett we have a long history of involvement in the women’s movement, beginning in 1866 with Millicent Fawcett at the age of 19 collecting signatures on a petition for votes for women.  Over the past 150 years women have had to fight for every step of progress that has been made. That progress has been considerable.  Property rights, access to the professions, access to higher education, the right to vote, equal pay, all women shortlists, outlawing rape within marriage, up-skirting legislation … the list goes on.  But despite this progress equality still feels like a distant prospect.  This is because structural barriers to women’s equality remain. The focus on individual rights rather than those all-powerful systems and structures means we have at times sat back and thought, ‘we’ve outlawed that, job done’.  Job only just begun would be more accurate. So we need interventions which remove or overcome those barriers and we need attitudinal change to embed them.

Structural inequality is when discriminatory practices, attitudes and behaviours are baked into an organisation or system.  The way it operates day to day discriminates against women and perpetuates gender inequality.  So in the workplace, how this works in practice is that women are undervalued across the economy. As a result, the jobs they do are valued less and they earn less than men. Women cannot know if they are being paid equally at work because they do not know what their male colleagues are earning.  So we want to see a new, enforceable ‘Right to Know’, so that women can find out about pay discrimination and resolve it with their employer without having to go to court.

Senior roles in particular, but also certain professions, are designed to be long-hours jobs.  But we could design work differently if we chose to.  At Fawcett we have called for all jobs to be flexible by default unless there is a good business reason for them not to be, including opening up senior roles to part-time work.  This would normalise flexible working and move us from it being something a minority of workers have, to something for the majority.

Creating a parental leave and childcare system that presumes equal responsibility in caring for children would represent a big systemic change.  At the moment the system presumes the mother is the main carer and dads have just 2 weeks paid paternity leave plus shared parental leave but only if the woman chooses to give up some of her maternity leave.  We want to see a longer, better paid, period of leave reserved for dads, and a more generous, supportive system for all parents and carers, underpinned by investment in our childcare infrastructure.

Ending violence against women and girls is critical for women to achieve gender equality.  The fear of male violence and its impact distorts our society and is a huge cost to women, children and to the economy. There is still a prevailing blame culture, objectification is rife throughout women’s and girls’ lives, and gender-based violence has become normalised rather than regarded as unacceptable.  The importance of campaigns such as the #MeToo movement to raise consciousness and support survivors of abuse, and challenge and change attitudes, is a hugely important challenge to this cultural norm. It is about individual and organisational accountability. Harvey Weinstein has been found guilty, but so should the film and insurance industries which protected him. This is what systemic change would look like.

Finally, equal power is the key to unlocking the changes we still need.  Evidence shows that where women are in decision-making positions they are more likely to make decisions which have a positive impact on women’s lives, tackling issues such as childcare or domestic abuse.  So we have to get more women into politics at local and national level. Interventions such as ‘all women shortlists’ have been extremely effective in creating a step change in this.  But we also have to address what is still a toxic culture in our politics and wider public debate.  So reforming parliament and local government, online harms regulation, political party accountability and transparency, including collecting and publishing diversity data, are all critical if we are to see lasting societal rather than just personal change.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, the Fawcett Society
http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk Twitter: @fawcettsociety