Nordic models and global gender equality

30 Oct

It’s said of Winston Churchill that when he wanted a martini he would pour himself a large gin and think of France (in tribute to the origin of vermouth, the cocktail’s usual other ingredient). I sometimes think that in the UK, policies for gender equality are similarly formulated: write the reform you want whilst thinking of Scandinavia. This usually means Sweden, but with a nod to Finland for education, Norway for wealth, and this week’s much heralded Iceland, for overall gender equality.

In the midst of coverage of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, in the UK we have paid most attention to our own drop in position. Last year, according to the WEF index, we were still in the Top 20, as I blogged in June when looking at how the World Cup countries fared in gender equality rankings. Now we have dropped to no. 26 in the table – the top 5 are all Nordic, with Iceland at number 1. Meanwhile, in the Guardian, a prominent Icelandic gender equality analyst has reminded us, that in spite of its successes, Iceland is ‘no feminist paradise’. Why not? Well, in short, because gender equality remains to be achieved.

In an index like the WEF’s, you’re presented with differences between men’s and women’s positions on economic, political, health and educational dimensions within countries, rather than levels of opportunity in each of these areas. So countries move up and down the index, depending on how they affecting the gaps between men and women’s circumstances, rather than on the actual opportunities available. Many middle-income nations therefore come high up in the rankings. Moreover, as Ms Rudolfsdottir points out in the Guardian article, the gender gap between Icelandic men and women in terms of life expectancy may not be terribly bothersome, when you recognise that both men and women live to be over 80: there’s a gap, but not at a level where it suggests that there are major failings in meeting public health needs.

In other respects, however, even Icelandic figures show that much remains to be done. Iceland is well-known for having amongst the highest female political participation rates in the world. These are boosted by a voluntary quota system for party candidates – so future success is not written in stone.

And although generous parental leave entitlements are a crucial part of Iceland’s picture of success (they have the longest period of dedicated fathers’ leave anywhere) even these measures have not resulted in abolition of the gender pay gap – although women’s participation in employment is very high at 88%. The gender pay gap in Iceland is around 20%, not dissimilar to the UK’s.   The explanation for this perhaps surprising finding, is that men and women tend to be employed in different sectors. Icelandic men are more likely to enter relatively well-paid areas such as scientific and technical sectors and construction, compared to women’s greater participation in sectors such as social and personal care, and public sector professions in administration, health and education. Other Nordic countries share this characteristic of high performance in terms of retaining women in work, but having a lesser impact on pay differentials between men and women. Gender parity will come when more girls train for professions which command the highest salaries, and/or when ‘caring’ roles attain higher value. There is, indeed, much to do…

As for the UK, we should be concerned that at a time when we are outperforming many other countries economically, our gender inequalities remain: the gender pay gap is, in fact, increasing. Levels of female participation in politics are poor here compared to our Nordic counterparts: we rank 75th in the world in terms of women occupying ministerial positions, and women still account for fewer than a quarter of MPs.

So we need to take a long hard look at the ingredients for closing gender gaps –we still have to find the perfect policy cocktail to produce gender equality in economics, politics, health and education, anywhere in the world. Whilst women’s employment rates in the UK are increasing, we now rank only 48th in the world, according to WEF. The cost of childcare is an important part of the picture: we pay high fees for a fragmented system, whereas universal, state-subsidised childcare is available throughout Scandinavia. Nordic models may not solve everything, but by paying attention to universal service provision and men’s role in the home, they have progressed further towards gender equality than we have. Let’s be stirred to further action, not shaken by obstacles along the way.


Silicon Valley chickens and women’s eggs

15 Oct

When I read on Twitter that egg-freezing was being offered by Apple and Facebook as a perk to women employees, I thought it was a joke. But then I went and looked for coverage and found that it is in fact true. Gender pay gap? We’ve a quick fix for that darling, we’ll give you $20,000 to freeze your eggs so that you can concentrate on your work and compete on equal terms with our male employees in those crucial childbearing career-building years. Yes, we can level the playing field with invasive surgery and new technology – don’t worry about the fact that success rates are hazy, that according to nbc reporting,doctors recommend freezing at least 20 eggs, which means two cycles of treatment – thus basically blowing the entire $20,000 ‘perk’.

Or, for those really ahead of the curve, a woman could freeze one round of eggs at age 25, this would account for the first $10,000 of the ‘employee benefit’, and then there would be a $500 per year storage charge for as long as the eggs remain frozen. Oh happy days! In a reputable news source in the early 21st century it is reported that this may mean that at ‘35, [when she] is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby’ . These words are apparently seriously quoted. Perhaps this is because it is a US news source – the wealthiest country on the planet today has no maternity leave, paternity or parental leave – a position it shares only with Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

Should a woman choose to freeze her own eggs for whatever reason that is one thing. But when an employer says ‘I’ll freeze your eggs so you don’t have to worry about losing out while you climb the greasy pole on our terms’, I think we should all step back and analyse what is happening very carefully.  The first thing I thought when I read about this is that hoary old song from My Fair Lady -‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ Rather than thinking how the workplace might better accommodate parenthood and any kind of ‘balance’ in life for executives of both sexes, they’ve hit on a technological fix to make the status quo ‘work’ for women. There’s a line in that (even less PC than I remembered) song that rings incredibly true to this whole mindset – Rex Harrison asks of women ‘Why don’t they straighten out the mess that’s inside?’ – a view which fits perfectly with the tech companies’ vision of extracting those problematic, perishable eggs to re-insert when ‘convenient’. We have to ask when convenient for whom. There are few words in the Forbes article covering this item which give a clue: the ‘perk’ is offered to women and their male partners; and a few others are cited in the nbc article: ’offering this benefit “can help women be more productive human beings.”’ Is it time to be very afraid? If a man or a company asked me to freeze my eggs I know what I’d say to them …

Meanwhile, back in the land of the ‘level playing field’ I thought that the idea was that we looked at the possibilities that technology offers for more flexible work arrangements, that empowerment comes from combining employment with family life. I thought that the skills we all gain and the knowledge we acquire from the demands of our closest relationships has real value – the kind of value that transfers to the workplace, as we endeavour to solve problems with other people. I thought technology was giving us new opportunities to flex and adapt the current corporate system to incorporate employee well-being and the returns that this brings. That’s what I’d call innovation. But clearly Silicon Valley is way too chicken for that.


Gender equality: just a click away?

14 Oct

Compare and contrast Roxane Gay and Simon Kuper writing in the last few days in the Guardian and FT respectively: both talk about the role of celebrity in supporting gender equality, but reach different conclusions. Gay writes that while interventions by Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence are welcome, they can work to disguise feminist activism practised by less glamorous women on the ground; Kuper (behind the paywall, ‘How Brad Pitt brings out the best in Dads’) is saying that photos of Brad Pitt with a baby strapped to his chest are an important part of encouraging active fatherhood, which mustn’t (perish the thought) be viewed as ‘girly’.

Celebrities may be one ingredient in spreading messages about gender roles – they can contribute huge reach – but they do not usually create the conditions for greater equality in most people’s lives. This remains the province of grassroots activism, civil society and governments.

Perhaps, though, celebrities’ significance in public debate is to do with what stage of the debate we are at. In terms of gender equality, the conversation is far more developed regarding public roles for women in society, than is the case concerning domestic roles for men. The concept of the ‘working father’, after all, still struggles to take hold.   Maybe Brad Pitt is helpful in the vanguard of images of masculinity that incorporate caring activity.

Meanwhile, both Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence have been caught up in discussions about feminism in the digital age. As we all try to come to terms with issues of privacy and intrusion presented by mobile phone and internet technology, the views and experiences of celebrities may give discussions around digital reputation an added urgency. Lawrence suffered a gross violation of privacy when naked images were hacked from her computer accounts; Watson was threatened with similar exposure following her UN speech to encourage men to embrace the feminist cause. This threat turned out to be a hoax, but speaks volumes about attitudes towards women who speak up in public.

If we do want men and women to be equal, then we have to keep acting in the real world. Whilst Brad Pitt is viewed as giving a bit of machismo to the ‘girly’ domain of caring, actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson are seen to provide cautionary tales about how powerful women can be reduced to their physical attributes. Pressing ‘like’ on a picture of Brad Pitt with a baby is not going to give us well-paid paternity leave; looking at successful women without listening to them is not like feminism at all. Celebrities may help to change the conversation, but it’s all of us who have to do the talking.



David Cameron’s Movie Script Speech

1 Oct

It’s an intriguing thought – a Britain run by Renton (George ‘choose the future’ Osborne) and Anna Scott (David ‘a public servant standing in front of you’ Cameron) … so what is the real life meaning behind the movie script speech? ….




- THE END – (or is that back to square one? Or finish what we started?)

Hard choices for hardworking families

30 Sep

George Osborne has used his speech at the Conservative Party Conference to solidify the position he outlined in the Budget: a position which takes income from the poorest families and protects pensioners, who have generally fared better in the climate of austerity. I’ve blogged about the difference in the impact of his policies on old and young before (here and here), and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that part of the motivation for relative generosity towards older people is voting behaviour. The older generation votes in larger numbers than young adults, and is also more likely to vote Conservative. In the light of Lord Ashcroft’s gloomy polling, perhaps Mr Osborne needs all the votes he can get.

He is freezing benefits that seem crucial to keeping the least well-off families afloat, including jobseeker’s allowance, tax credits, child benefit, income support, and the local housing allowance rates in housing benefit. Many of these benefits are vital supplements for low waged workers. Pensions, meanwhile, are left to rise in line with inflation.

Last week Ed Balls announced that Labour would cut child benefit in real terms by only allowing it to rise by 1% in the first two years of government, so perhaps we should not be surprised that George Osborne is showing that his austerity measures are tougher than theirs. On both sides of the political divide, less well-off families seem to have become the battle ground for effective defeat of the deficit. And the Conservatives made sure to underline the importance of that battle, after Ed Miliband’s unfortunate silence on the matter.

George Osborne’s move to squeeze the income of poor adults cannot but have consequences for children. If you are a single parent on minimum wage struggling to cope with in-work benefits as they are, the new regime looks harsh. The inclusion of an element of housing benefit in the freeze is concerning, as the difference between benefit levels and rents may increase, and there is little affordable housing on offer in the current market. If the government thinks housing benefit is expensive to support, has there been reflection on the individual and social costs of homelessness, which may increase, as people struggle to manage to pay their way under the freezes outlined today? The cost of living has not been frozen.

As women are more likely to be lone parents and/or low-paid workers, they are losers under these proposals. And women work more in the public sector and so are affected by the continuing pay freeze there. In single-earner families with two children, around £500 a year in child benefit and tax credit payments will be lost according to figures quoted in the Guardian. At the other end of the scale, the abolition of tax on inherited pensions will benefit the families of relatively rich men the most. The Conservatives’ ‘women problem’ is not helped by such measures, and neither are the life chances of children in less well-off families.

The justification for these benefit freezes is to ensure that benefits rise no more in value over time than working wages. The problem with this argument is that the difference between the two is substantially explained by wage stagnation in a fragile recovery, rather than any great largesse towards benefit claimants. A stronger economic recovery would help everyone more. The Prime Minister said today that we shouldn’t ask pensioners to bear the burden of reducing the deficit – why is it ok for children to bear the burden instead?



Scotland: a story of engagement, not divorce

19 Sep

There aren’t many things that get me up at 4.30 in the morning, but the future of Scotland is certainly one of them. Turns out I timed it perfectly – results rolling in regularly from throughout Scotland, enabling the overall result to be forecast within an hour. Scotland has said a decisive ‘No’ and the UK remains intact – there is still blue in the Union Jack this morning.

No matter which side of this debate you were on, the level of civic engagement brought to this vote is a spectacular victory for Scottish people and the democratic process. People cared about the outcome of this referendum and they were proud to stand up – and to queue – to be counted. The last couple of weeks has seen us gripped in a political story of unusual passion and intensity, and rather than turning away towards apathy, the Scottish public – all of it – engaged. From the 16 and 17 year olds voting for the first time, through a surge in registration throughout deprived communities, to pensioners turning out in high numbers, all of Scotland wanted its say. And 85% turnout is unprecedented in the UK, where disillusionment has led to relatively low levels of participation in recent elections.

So what now? What’s really interesting in the fall-out from Scotland’s decision is that it cannot be isolated from the wider context of UK democracy. Over 1.5 million people voted ‘yes’ and they have to be heard and included in the decisions made from here. David Cameron acknowledged this in his response to the outcome of the referendum this morning. He outlined a programme not just to deliver further devolution of powers to Scotland, but the address democratic deficits throughout the UK. England must have its say, at the level of regions and cities. Devolution, one might say, is coming home. It is quite a feat for Scots to redefine English politics through a demonstration of the power of participation. But perhaps we should not be too surprised – after all, the Enlightenment that heralded modernity in culture, science and civic life did grow up in Scotland and show its ability to be an engine for innovation for the wider world.

In opening up the question of devolution for all, the Prime Minister has acknowledged the strength of politics when everyone takes part. The challenge now is to deliver this throughout the UK, so that unheard voices get their say in their affairs. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the patronising tone of parts of the Better Together campaign – if the unheard are really to be brought to closer the table this tone must stop, and moves be made towards genuine inclusion throughout the UK. The Scottish vote showed that people rejected the complexities of navigating EU membership and currency in an independent country locked in an uncertain relationship with the rest of the UK. Now the ‘no’ vote raises the complexities of representing the needs of local cultures, communities and markets whilst maintaining a meaningful UK–level government. Already the constitutional experts are pointing to the many complications of who represents whom in what way, whilst working to represent their constituencies on the one hand and make decisions for the whole of the UK on the other. Is the rest of the UK ready to participate with the passion and purpose of Scots? I hope so – engagement is a promise for the future.

Out of kilt-er?

28 Aug

Wonklifebalance happens to be a Celt – and so has taken particular interest in the Scottish independence debate. The recent ‘Better Together’ broadcast shone a wonderful light on the ‘thoughts’ of yer average Scottish woman …

At a level, it’s an innocuous portrayal of a woman’s unpacking of her political thinking in her ‘relatable’ kitchen, cuppa in hand. Already Emma Barnett in the Telegraph has come out against the Twitter tide of ‘sexist’ calls, to say that this is just a defensible portrayal of mundanity – an ‘ordinary’ person expressing her ‘ordinary’ thoughts on politics. But there is a problem with this argument. The person in this party political advertisement is being presented as a kind of ‘everywoman’ – or at the very least as a representative of the demographic of women who care for children. And the most striking feature of the entire broadcast is her total lack of agency.

Her husband won’t ‘leave off’ about independence, but she hasn’t had time to collect her own thoughts; when she does reflect over her relatable cuppa, it is solely in terms of others; she is concerned about her children’s future, her parents’ pensions – but she has nothing to say for herself. The entire broadcast seems to be predicated on the idea that she is being badgered about her voting intentions, which is something she has had no time to construct her own thoughts about.

This is potentially a bit of an own goal for the ‘Better Together’ campaign. In Scotland, women have been identified as more likely to be in favour of remaining in the Union than men, if they have decided how to vote (see e.g. here and here). So the danger from the Better Together point of view, is that in one fell swoop both decided and undecided female voters get pissed off.

It would have been preferable if in the midst of a soft focus on children’s toys, the broadcast could have addressed issues in childcare provision, or if pensions might be seen as something women have a stake in themselves, rather than just worrying about their own parents. This broadcast portrayed caring work as something which left you with no time to think about politics. Perhaps, in fact, it’s amongst the most political things we all do – whether combined with employment or not. A cuppa of platitudes is not what we need from any government.






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