Archive | October, 2014

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.

 

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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? ….

 

 

dave4

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

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