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.





Family problems?

19 Aug


I should be delighted at the new focus of our Government on being ‘family friendly’, and at the announcement of a ‘family test’ for all domestic policies – except that I have a strange sense of déjà vu ….

If you do follow this policy area, yesterday’s speech from David Cameron does not sound new. ‘Family friendliness’ has been mooted as a concept, and as a more concrete policy commitment, repeatedly over David Cameron’s premiership: in the Coalition Agreement there was a desire to ‘make our society more family friendly’; in the 2012 Queen’s Speech, there was the announcement of the Children and Families Bill (now Act) some of the aims of which – faster adoption; support for couples experiencing relationships problems – were reiterated yesterday; addressing inequalities in marriage has been another theme (gay marriage; more flexible parental leave structures; new proposals to put mothers on marriage certificates as well as fathers).

But the Government has delivered policies with families at the centre, which suggest a focus on ‘some families rather than others’. The changes made to Child Benefit, turning a universal benefit into one based on income thresholds for individual parents is arguably the opposite to being ‘family friendly’ in general – put simply, family income is not considered relevant in distributing support to children – and higher earning lone parents lose out relative to couples with the ‘right’ earnings balance. Yes, it’s complicated, and it’s difficult to make sense of it.

More important, perhaps, is what happens for the poorest families. Benefit caps, the bedroom tax, and cuts in public services all affect the most disadvantaged families most. It is unlikely that ‘family friendliness’ shall be applied retrospectively, and with little policymaking scope left in this Parliament, the status of the ‘family test’ is questionable. Early in this Parliament there was mention of family impact statements which fell by the wayside until mention of the ‘family test’, and a Childhood and Families Taskforce appears to have fizzled out …

And the big response to disadvantage – as re-stated yesterday – is the Troubled Families Initiative which targets intensive support at families with multiple problems. However, this initiative has been criticised from the start for being based on what the New Statesman has called the ‘zombie’ statistic of 120,000 families to be targeted. This figure was arrived at from statistics around deprivation collected under Labour, and re-framed to encompass families with anti-social behaviour and truancy problems. The basis for the figure is therefore unclear. Furthermore, yesterday on Newsnight, Louise Casey, the tsar with responsibility for the Troubled Families initiative, admitted that the widely publicised figure of 53,000 families having been ‘turned around’ did not equate to these families no longer getting help from intervention services. She justified the low figure for getting parents in troubled families into work (4,500 out of the 53,000) in terms of the long distance many of the families have to come in order to achieve employability. In an Orwellian turn, it transpires that ‘turned around’ means sufficiently achieving against outcome targets so as to trigger payment-by-results fees to Local Authorities. ‘Turned around’ does not mean that a family’s multiple problems are solved, it means that Councils can be paid for dealing with them up to a point …..

The Prime Minister went out of his way yesterday to praise lone parents for the splendid job they often do in raising the next generation. And now the Troubled Families initiative is to be rolled out to address half a million families, based on current successes. Meanwhile, the ‘family test’ will be overseen by Iain Duncan Smith, whose Universal Credit proposals have been criticised for penalising second earners in couples, and whose rhetoric has often been viewed as less accommodating to non-traditional family structures than the Prime Minister’s words.

Louise Casey said that dealing with the complex issues in the most disadvantaged families was extremely challenging, and that progress had to be seen in the context of families who sometimes had as many as 9 major problems. Many of these issues seem to be related to poverty and poor mental and physical health, and limited sources of support. Intensive intervention may work to alleviate these, and it is in all our interests for such problems to be solved. But to discuss this with couple support, as a part of being ‘family friendly’, seems to disguise underlying economic problems. To paraphrase the famous rap song, these interventions are aimed at people who ‘got 9 problems but ‘the family’ ain’t one’.




Why we need outspoken women

31 Jul

Last night I was in the audience at a New Statesman event where Mary Beard and Laurie Penny discussed why we are so afraid of outspoken women. Chaired by Helen Lewis, it was great to see a platform filled with articulate women.

Much of the discussion concerned misogyny online – not surprising given that both of these writers have been attacked on social media, and have spoken out about it. It was interesting to hear examples where they had called out abusers and ended up getting them onside.   This seemed to have been done most effectively by reminding abusers of women in their own lives and how they would feel if someone spoke to those women, in the way they had commented online about a public figure.

An interesting theme emerged around women having a sense of belonging in the public sphere. Mary Beard has written and spoken about how the classical world effectively silenced women perceived of as ‘intruding’ into that sphere. The authoritative public voice remains a deep, male one, with women still often portrayed as shrill or whining. Professional women are often advised (a la Margaret Thatcher) to lower their speaking voice and modulate their tone in order to operate effectively. To lose authenticity in this process is the killer: finding your own voice – literally and metaphorically – is what matters. Laurie Penny talked about how women’s appearance is brought into the mix, with women who express opinions often derided as ‘ugly’ and thus not deserving to be heard. On the flipside, if ‘pretty’ there is often the assumption that a woman is not there to be heard, rather just to be looked at – not worth hearing for a different set of reasons. She speculated that there may be ‘one day’ that a woman is heard – when she hits a magic period where not too old, not too young, not too distracting looking, etc.. We should not hold our breath though.

And we certainly should not be silent. We all carry with us images of people in public life which are essentially male: even for this panel of successful women writers, the image of a political commentator or essayist, remains that of a man. This observation struck a chord with the audience and made me think about how I’d recently been in a gallery and asked for more information about an artist whose name I didn’t recognise – I unthinkingly enquired about who ‘he’ was. We all do do it, because that is how things have mostly been. But by taking part in the public conversation women change this.

A token re-shuffle?

15 Jul

The arrival of more women in the Cabinet in this week’s re-shuffle has hardly resulted in unalloyed celebration amongst commentators, let alone the voting public. And no wonder. So late in the parliamentary cycle it is unlikely that new ministers will make major changes to departmental or government policy direction in the run-up to the 2015 election.

Inevitably, the promotion of Nicky Morgan, Liz Truss and Esther McVey has raised accusations of ‘tokenism’ – women being brought on board because of gender alone, not due to merit or skill on their part. Opponents might say this is not so much a re-shuffle as a shuffling of the deckchairs before election defeat – but all-out election victory for either of our two main parties is not yet certain by any means. And much of the electorate remains apathetic at best, often not registered to vote to boot.

The tokenism argument addressed to women does make me raise an eyebrow – of course it’s true that being seen to support more women into office must have been a factor in the Prime Minister’s thinking. But all Cabinets contain members who are tokens of something – that’s kind of the point. No-one seems to be calling Philip Hammond a ‘token’ Eurosceptic – but there he is, a signalling device put in place to address sectional concerns. It is, as the Today programme put it, arguably all about the ‘optics’ – i.e. a re-shuffle to address perceptions, not policy content. You could also say that by replacing Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan, rather than Liz Truss who has some background that portfolio, David Cameron is making a ‘token’ gesture to show that Gove’s policies will remain essentially unchanged. I’m sure the teaching profession will see no irony in his new appointment as Chief Whip.

But the fact that more women have been brought to the top table does matter. The perception of a mono-cultural Cabinet with too few women had grown too important to ignore. The cynical would say that this is just window-dressing; but the window had to be dressed because the impression of sidelining women had grown too dominant and too damaging to ignore. It was necessary for David Cameron to address this issue, and that indicates the impact of those who have drawn attention to women’s poor representation in parliament and at the top of government.

The interesting thing about politics is that, in the words attributed to Macmillan – a PM with his own famous ‘night of the long knives’ – all the neat policy directions do get stirred up by ‘events, dear boy, events’. Perhaps for the new Cabinet this should be re-phrased as ‘events, dear person, events’ – they will get in the way, and at least we now know that some more diverse perspectives might influence responses to them. That is a small piece of progress. Let’s hope that politics can move on beyond the window-dressing and break down the doors of perception.

A World Cup of Gender Equality

17 Jun

In the face of World Cup fever, I was idly wondering how the countries involved compared on issues other than football.   Then I was inspired by the WSJ’s ‘World Cup of Everything Else’ – which is a must-visit amusement for lovers of data visualisation. Here the World Cup countries are ranked on everything from population and threatened mammal species, to Body Mass Index and numbers of McDonalds per head of population. Also in there is a figure for women’s representation in parliament. I’d been thinking about how women in the World Cup countries fare whilst we’re all fixated on the male game, and so have put together some figures from global data sources to see who wins where women are concerned.

I looked for information on the proportion of women in parliament in the competing countries (relatively easy to find for all countries at the World Bank) and measures of the gender pay gap worldwide (more complicated to measure in the first place and much poorer global coverage). In political representation, the Netherlands, Ecuador and Costa Rica are out in front with 39% of members of parliament female, whilst Iran has fewest women in parliament: only 3% of representatives there are female. For England I’ve had to use UK figures throughout, and with 22% of MPs female, we’re strictly middle of the table.


Source: http://search.worldbank.org/all?qterm=women+in+parliament&op=

Meanwhile, on the gender pay gap, many other gaps emerge. There’s no information on this for many of the countries in Latin America and Africa, nor for Iran or Croatia or Bosnia Herzegovina, on the most accessible measures. The OECD compares differences in median earnings for full-time working men and women (in blue in graph below) whilst the Wage Indicator data (in red) comes from surveys, rather than population samples, and compares hourly rates of pay by gender. On the OECD measure, Belgium is our winner with a gender pay gap of 6%, whilst South Korea and Japan are bottom, chalking up gender pay gaps of 37% and 27% respectively. Using the Wage indicator figures, which cover more Latin American countries, we can see that Ecuador and Argentina and Chile all have gender pay gaps of over 30% – but in Chile’s case OECD information on full-time workers comes in at a lower level of 16% difference between men and women’s earnings. Again, England occupies the centre ground, close to the results for USA and France – and narrowly beaten by Germany on the OECD measure.




I was casting around for other measures of the state of gender relations, and found that the World Economic Forum (WEF) produces the global Gender Gap Index, which summarises the relative gaps between women and men in health, education, economics and politics. So who would win the World Cup on gender equality? According to the WEF index, the answer is – Switzerland, which comes in at number 9 in their world rankings. (The very top of the WEF table contains the Nordic countries of Europe, alongside New Zealand, the Phillipines and Ireland – none of whom qualified for the World Cup this time). Algeria, Iran, and Ivory Coast all rank low on this index, coming in at 124th, 130th and 131st respectively. Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and England all feature in the Top Twenty, whilst the host country, Brazil ranks 62 in the world – just ahead of two other previous champions, Mexico and Italy.


Source: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2013.pdf


So what have I learned from a look at the World Cup of gender equality? Depending how you look at it, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Belgium are winners. And for much of the world, politics, economics, health and education can still be a game of two – gendered – halves.


Armchair or action? : the question posed by the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit

11 Jun

In all the hype surrounding this week’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit it’s not surprising that the significance of the event has been questioned. From accusations of ‘hypocrisy’ in the Guardian – centring on the poor treatment of refugees on our own doorstep, whilst William Hague and Angelina Jolie highlight the plight of victims in far-flung fragile states – to Jeremy Paxman’s sceptical tone on Newsnight when he remarked that the perpetrators ‘wouldn’t be there’, dissenting voices have been heard, amidst cautious optimism from the organisers, NGOs and rape victims themselves.

It is important to accept that such an event cannot do everything to solve complex and often intractable problems: critics point out that there is rape and sexual violence in all cultures, not just ‘over there’; that misogynist attitudes occur globally and are hard to change; that establishing a rule of law on sexual violence in conflict does not mean that such laws are upheld, or that victims routinely get justice for the crimes meted out against them – crimes often perpetrated by authority figures. Others ask, why not seek to stop the wars themselves instead?

However, in spite of logic, these can all end up being arguments against doing anything at all. What’s the point if wider issues in sexual violence and conflict are not addressed? And in doing so these arguments miss some important points: to see perpetrators as absent from the scene is not quite accurate – they are there in victims’ testimony, and, according to the Independent, interviewed in a documentary screened at the summit. Representatives of governments and agencies worldwide are attending the event, and have the power to influence the training and behaviour of both military and peacekeeping forces, so that the idea of impunity is made increasingly unacceptable, and sensitive treatment of victims encouraged. Laws and UN declarations may not in themselves eliminate sexual violence, but they do send out a strong signal that such behaviour should be brought to account through justice systems. Surely the message counts for something?

Ever in search of some evidence, I looked at a Briefing from the Institute of Development Studies which neither shies away from the complexities, nor absolves the situation of hope. Since the Bosnian war there has been recourse in humanitarian law for victims of sexual violence in conflicts, but the researchers recognise that there are particular problems faced by displaced populations, who may or may not be in official camps – if not in camps they are less likely to see humanitarian laws against sexual violence enforced. Documenting experiences of displaced people and of vulnerable populations over time – after wars have ended but sexual violence still occurs – means that much more is known about the magnitude of the problem and about what potentially helps.

Meanwhile in the Washington Post, researchers note that not all conflicts are associated with widespread sexual violence. This means that we can learn about the particular factors which escalate its risk, and this opens up the possibility of preventive strategies. And States which tolerate sexual violence perpetrated by their armies can be named and shamed. So, shall we sit in our armchairs, critiquing from the sidelines, or join the trending opinion on Twitter that says ‘Time to Act’? Change will not occur overnight, but that does not mean it is not worth pursuing at all.

Shared Parental Leave: all jacket, no bike?

22 May

Back when I was a student, a motorcycling friend of mine introduced me to the expression ‘All jacket, no bike’. It was a phrase used to describe young men who wore well-scuffed leather jackets without having ridden, let alone owned, a motorbike: they looked the part.

Reading some of the commentary on the changes in parental leave – coming into force in the UK next year – (e.g. here and here) I remembered my old friend’s expression again. Shared Parental Leave has been heralded as an innovation to overturn what Nick Clegg has called ‘Edwardian’ patterns of division of labour, upheld by highly unequal leave structures for women and men, following the birth of their children. Under the new regime, men will be entitled to take up a mother’s unused maternity leave, should she qualify for it, and give permission for the father to do so. This, in theory, increases parents’ choice as to how they share leave after birth.

However, in practice, as I have blogged before, the fact that the entitlement to leave is granted to men via mothers – rather than given to individuals – and that statutory rates of pay are meagre, together mean that fathers’ take-up is likely to be low. As men continue to be more likely to be chief wage-earners in households, it will continue to make economic sense for women to take longer leave, and for men to remain in full-time work in a large swathe of families. And while the new arrangements allow employees to request flexible working, employers do not have to provide it for them. Many have pointed out that flexible working can still carry a stigma, with men fearing that they might miss out on career progression by asking for it. In our current turbulent economic times, these concerns are likely to be heightened, with few willing to put their heads above the parapet to make the request, or to contest decisions made against their preferences. For parents who do want to share employment and parenting responsibilities more equally, the costs can remain high.

So it does rather seem that we are left in a situation where the government has put on the jacket of gender equality, but not, as yet, invested in the bike. Whilst signalling towards equality is welcome, so much more remains to be achieved. Shared parental leave still needs a kickstart.




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