Reality Check on Gender Equality

In 1970s Britain, men and women were still far from equal. They could be legally sacked for being pregnant and were largely absent from positions of power. But the 1970s was also the beginning of huge change, with a surge of interest in women's rights and a flurry of legislation aimed at achieving gender parity.

Thirty years on, many campaigners fear that society has grown complacent. Therefore, activities in November and December 2005 commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) - all born in 1975 - have placed the emphasis on the work left to be done as much as on achievements so far.

Coinciding with these celebrations, the EOC - an independent, government-funded body that works to stamp out discrimination - appointed a new chair, Jenny Watson. She hailed the progress so far, but said many women still "enjoy only a veneer of equality". That veneer "all too often falls apart when they have children or want to look after older relatives," Watson said in a speech in London in November.

The Fawcett Society - a campaigning organization named after Millicent Fawcett, one of Britain's leading advocates of women's suffrage, and instrumental in bringing about the Sex Discrimination Act - takes a similar line. "We find that while there are many successes to celebrate, there is still a great deal further to go to close the inequality gaps between men and women," it concludes in a report titled 'Are We There Yet? 30 Years of Closing the Gap Between Men and Women'. The report stresses that challenges to going forward include "overcoming the myth that gender equality is won".

It is a sign of changing times that the government is working on plans to bring the EOC and bodies protecting ethnic minorities and differently-abled people under a single umbrella organization, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Some campaigners are concerned it will not be as effective as the separate entities, but an EOC spokesperson said it would be responsible for "taking forward sex equality".

On a global scale, while Britain has already achieved much, it is yet to match Scandinavian countries such as Norway, whose measures to promote women include setting quotas for the number of women that must be included on management boards.

The Switzerland-based international organization World Economic Forum produced a report measuring the gender gap across the world and ranked Britain eighth of 58 countries. Following its survey of nearly 9,000 business leaders in 2004, Britain scored highly for political empowerment and educational attainment, but was ranked 41st for economic opportunity as the pay gap between British men and women showed little sign of closing.

Aside from pay, a rash of public comments and research demonstrate that old prejudices linger in Britain, notably regarding violence against women. Police have estimated that only 15 per cent of rape cases are reported, as women fear the charges they bring will not be taken seriously or are led to believe by society that they are to blame. A survey of 1,000 people, male and female, commissioned by Amnesty International and published in November 2005, found that more than 25 per cent of those surveyed believed a woman was at least partly responsible for being raped if she had worn revealing clothing or was drunk.
When compared with the 1970s, the number of rapes recorded has increased, but the number of convictions has stayed almost constant, the Fawcett Society noted in its 30-year report. In percentage terms, that translates into a rape conviction level of 5 per cent now, compared to 33 per cent in 1977.

The Fawcett Society report, like Watson's speech, drew attention to the changing nature of men's as well as women's roles. Men are often as anxious as women to spend more time with their family in a society suffering the longest working hours in Europe, as it struggles with some of the highest living costs.

A survey of 2,015 adults in October 2005 by British polling organization ICM Research found that 69 per cent believed women and men's lives were becoming more alike in their struggle to balance work and home. For women, they believed their success in becoming established in the workplace had made it harder to juggle responsibilities. Fifty-nine per cent of men and women questioned said it was now harder for working women to balance work and family than it was 30 years ago.

In a wave of reaction, a growing number of women no longer want to have it all and are electing to spend more time at home, with the help of rights to flexible working introduced by the current Labor government.

The risk, however, is that women will pay dearly for that and the biggest grievance of all is that they are still financial victims.

An ongoing survey carried out by the EOC as part of the anniversary events has so far found closing the pay gap is the single-most important equality issue. Fawcett's 30-year report supports this with its finding that the hourly pay gap between women and men was 18.4 per cent, an only modest improvement on 1975, when women earned 29 per cent less than men every hour. For part-time work, the gap has hardly changed over the past 30 years. It was 42 per cent in 1975 and is 40 per cent now.

The disparity stretches into retirement, as women are penalized for time taken out to bring up children, during which period they don't pay pension contributions. "Women suffer in retirement because our so-called 'contributory' system fails to recognize their contribution to our nation through bringing up children or looking after relatives. We need to reassess the nature of that contribution and show that we value it," said Watson. She called on the political class to keep such issues high on the political agenda.

Already, the record number of women members in parliament has helped to ensure greater rights to flexible working and make family-friendly legislation an election issue in the run up to Prime Minister Tony Blair winning a third term in office in 2005.

According to the Fawcett Society's report, 20 per cent of Members of Parliament are women, compared to only four per cent in 1975. That was also the year when Margaret Thatcher (who later went on to become the Prime Minister) became the first woman leader of a major political party in Britain.

Speaking in 1974, Thatcher described the difficulties of being selected, as a woman, for a safe parliamentary seat. "They would say to me sometimes: 'Yes, we think you've made quite good speeches...but we don't think it's right that a woman with young children should stand'."

Sadly, there are those who still hold that view.    


More by :  Barbara Lewis

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