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.



The public face of women

29 Apr

Yesterday in the New Statesman, media scholars Heather Savigny and Deirdre O’Neill outlined the findings of their study of newspaper coverage of women MPs over the last couple of decades. It makes for sobering reading – not only is coverage often appearance-oriented and casually sexist, but it is also more often negative than coverage of male MPs. And over time these traits appear to have become more, rather than less, pronounced.

So as women’s representation in Parliament has increased (to the dizzying 22% of today), the propensity for their voices to be heard has decreased. Savigny and O’Neill find that ‘As well as a relative decrease in women appearing as the main actors in stories, in relative terms they were being quoted less in 2012 [than 1992 or 2002]’. Press coverage appears to reinforce the ‘maleness’ of the political sphere, with women MPs less likely to be included in newspapers, and often to be reported on with reference to their dress sense or their body parts, rather than their views on political issues.

These findings have come out in the week following the Times’ exhortation for more women to become involved in political blogging, covered by Charlotte Henry here. Henry suggests that a lack of female role models and fears of negative public reactions may deter women from taking part in the political conversation opening up online; Savigny and O’Neill refer to work by the Fawcett Society citing the sexism they encounter as a reason why some female MPs stand down. It seems to come back to entrenched views around what is considered an authoritative public voice, a credible representative – these remain on a default male setting.

I came across another piece in the Huffington Post where Meryl Streep (most lauded female screen actor of her generation) said that she had wondered perhaps if she was ‘too ugly’ to be an actress, and urged younger performers to be less concerned about their weight. This was accompanied by a slide show of ‘unconventional beauties’ which included Sophia Loren and Julianne Moore – these women, and others on the list, are, I would have thought, quite simply ‘beautiful’. Are our standards of ‘conventional beauty’ narrowing so that beautiful women are seen to conform to ever more limited traits? And what of the rest of us? Just as women’s visibility may finally have potential to increase across public domains, the rush to judgement on appearance – often before judgement on merit or skill – may hold back many from coming forward in a visual media age.



A Cabinet of curiosities

10 Apr

Maria Miller’s departure from Cabinet this week created a vacancy for the portfolio for women, as well as for her role as Minister of State for Culture Media and Sport.

The incoming Minister for Women is Nicky Morgan – a woman – unlike Miller’s replacement as Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Sajid Javid. He will apparently take over the equalities brief, working on areas apart from women’s equality. In a remarkably ham-fisted set of announcements, it was confirmed that the new Minister for Women will report directly to the Prime Minister, thereby reversing an initial perception that the Women’s Minister would have to answer to a man en route to influence in Cabinet. But Nicky Morgan will not have a full seat at the table, as the Minister for Women now enjoys only ‘attends Cabinet’ status.

It has been reported in the Guardian that ‘Morgan will only attend [Cabinet] when issues pertaining to her brief are on the agenda’. This rather suggests that the Government does not consider that issues affecting women are a part of every Cabinet meeting. For a Prime Minister and Government already widely accused of having a ‘women problem’ this seems to confirm the message that ‘women’s issues’ are an occasional add-on to the mainstream of Cabinet business.

As she has a child, Nicky Morgan helps the Prime Minister avoid having a Cabinet devoid of mothers.   It seems a salutary reminder of the ways of the world that whilst the majority of male Cabinet ministers are fathers, none of the three fully-fledged female Cabinet ministers (Theresa May, Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers) are mothers. Given that less than 10% of children attend private schools (and only a small minority of University students go to Oxford or Cambridge), but around 80% of women have children, the current Cabinet seems a very odd reflection of reality indeed. The UK now ranks 20th out of 28 EU countries in terms of the proportion of women at ministerial level, and more Cabinet ministers attended one Oxford college (Magdalen) than there are women ministers. These statistics should ring alarm bells not only for politicos advising on the government’s electoral strategy, but for female voters who wish to call their ‘representatives’ to account.



From the Mumsnet election to the Gransnet budget?

19 Mar

The 2010 General Election was dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’, with the future of public services for families high on the agenda, and politicians from across the spectrum keen to engage in webchats on the site.  Fast forward to today’s budget, and the talk is all about pensions and savings rates – predominantly benefiting the older population.

Granted, yesterday’s childcare announcement made some difference to working parents; but there is debate about the extent to which these changes accrue to those most in need.  The decision to enable parents in receipt of the new Universal Credit to claim 85% of their childcare costs is welcome – but does not happen until 2017; the tax free £2000 of childcare costs on offer will benefit higher earners the most.

And who are the savers in Britain?  According to the Resolution Foundation, half of low- and middle- income families have no savings, and two-thirds have less than one month’s income put away to fall back on.  And most of these people have either a frozen pension, or no pension at all.  So it looks like the squeezed middle in the middle of life are not the prime beneficiaries of today’s changes.

Meanwhile, those with more substantial savings (the relatively wealthy, the old) have been thrown bones in terms of enhanced ISAs, and more freedom to draw down or invest pension pots as they choose.  We’d better hope they do so wisely, or any savings to the State may be limited.

In another sign that the lower-income working parents are not George’s Osborne’s target audience, the benefits cap –  unveiled in detail in today’s speech –  does include maternity and paternity and adoption allowances, tax-free childcare costs and Child Benefit, but leaves pension income outside the cap.

The message seems pretty clear:  pensioners’ interests matter, because pensioners vote in large numbers and are well-represented in Parliament. As I’ve noted before, younger people (especially women) are less visible in Westminster, and younger age groups are less likely to vote.

In the run-up to 2010’s election Gordon Brown ran into a little local difficulty when Mumsnetters asked him to name his preferred biscuit.  With the focus of today’s budget on wealthier savers, I’m guessing that Mr Osborne’s favourite is the Hob-nob.


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