Archive | January, 2019

Gender Gap or Gender Chasm?

29 Jan

It’s tough at the top – especially if you’re a man on top of everything.  That appears to be a message coming down 5000 feet from the latest meeting at Davos.  Last week, world leaders, CEOs, civil society players and high-profile activists, attended the annual World Economic Forum meeting, to respond to the problems of the world – and one of those problems seems to be working with women.  Yes, ‘Davos man’ has apparently declared that one of the consequences of the ‘Me Too’ movement, is that men just don’t know what to do around female colleagues any more.  It’s been reported that powerful men now feel that they cannot mentor women, or spend time alone with female colleagues, for fear of being misconstrued, or accused of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.


The other day I was reading an article discussing the gap between rhetoric and reality concerning climate change at Davos.  While a lot of serious discussion goes on, it’s in a context where many have flown into Davos on private planes, and many represent corporations which are far from carbon-neutral in their activities.  Similarly, in matters of gender, Davos can be seen as doing a lot of talking, with less obvious real-world consequence.  To its credit, the Forum publishes a Gender Gap Report every year, which has become a focus for discussion of the (snail-like) pace towards global gender parity.  However, the Davos forum has struggled to shift the dial much in terms of gender balance: this year, 22% of attendees were women, and so progress towards equality is agonisingly slow.  The average age of women attending is 49 – five years younger than for men – and just short of the age at which a French novelist recently declared that women become ‘invisible’.  So older women are thinner on the ground at Davos than older men, and younger ones may not get the same opportunities to network with senior people as their male counterparts.  If even a small proportion of the 78% male delegates feel that working closely with women represents a reputational risk, nothing is likely to change very fast for working women.


Perhaps you might say this is all irrelevant, as Davos represents an elite whose days are numbered; we should look elsewhere for transformational ideas.  That may be true, but it remains the case that women go to work every day in companies and organisations shaped by ‘Davos Man’.  It’s also the case that in spite of the reference made to ‘Me Too’, these issues around gender in the workplace have been going on a lot longer.  It was as long ago as 2002 that the now US Vice President, Mike Pence, told The Hill that he never dined alone with women other than his wife; and a 2015 survey of American political staff found that women reported not being allowed to drive their bosses or attend events alone with them; one said that in 12 years she’d never had a meeting with her boss with the door closed.  These types of rules can only create an unequal workplace, with women deprived of opportunities and access, in environments where men hold most of the power.  Although in Britain and Europe there may be less rigidity about meetings after work, or one-to-one contact between professional men and women, we are hardly free of workplace inequality between man and women, or, regrettably, of instances of sexual harassment. And the implication that the ‘Me Too’ movement, or more open discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace, has somehow made life difficult for men, has been voiced here as well – notably on the BBC’s Today programme. 


So what to do? In the case of the gender gap, perhaps it’s quite simple: as I was reminded by another blog this week, maybe it’s just a matter of remembering ‘the radical notion that women are people’.




The other leave vote ….

7 Jan

Amid our current political turmoil, a vote concerning leave has largely escaped major attention.  With collective energy absorbed in the consequences of the vote to Leave the EU, a cross-party delegation of MPs will shortly be meeting with the Speaker to urge him to introduce a system of ‘baby leave’.  This will enable pregnant women MPs, and new mothers and fathers, to vote in parliament by proxy.  Following a debate last February, plans for proxy voting – which would allow new parents to nominate a colleague to vote on their behalf – were approved, but have since failed to be implemented.  In spite of high-profile support for the measures, including from ‘mother of the House’, Harriet Harman, and the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, progress has ground to a halt.


This may not seem like the most pressing issue to stressed politicos contemplating Brexit, but the baby leave system (or current lack of it) could come into sharper relief in the tense months ahead, as there are currently 4 pregnant MPs, and they will wish for their voices to be heard in the crucial votes deciding Britain’s future, which will dominate this parliamentary session and beyond.  Moreover, for those with concerns that leaving the EU may diminish workers’ rights to entitlements including maternity and parental leave, it sends a bad signal to see our political representatives lagging behind much of the rest of the workforce, with no official leave system, at such a critical time in politics.  In this context, it is not surprising that the women’s caucus in parliament is advocating that the system be subject to a trial,  beginning as soon as 1st February, when a short number of weeks remain before the exit date for leaving the EU, on 29th March.


Quite apart from Brexit, it is striking that the British parliament has moved so slowly on this issue.  In the February debate on baby leave, Tulip Siddiq pointed out that Swedish, Danish and Slovenian representatives in parliament are entitled to up to 12 months of parental leave, as are those in Finland, Estonia and Latvia.  In other countries such as Belgium, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands, the maternity leave system is not formal, but members can be replaced by a political colleague while taking leave. In Israel, there is 12 weeks of parental leave available to both mothers and fathers.  The Czech Republic has also recently introduced a system of parental leave for parliamentarians, and Iceland, a world-leader in gender-equal parental leave, also allows proxy voting.  In Australia, proxy voting is available to nursing mothers.  So the international precedent is there. Britain shares a lack of formal leave system with the European Parliament, and a video of the Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland, bringing her baby into that chamber to vote, went viral.  She has spoken in favour of making parliaments more family-friendly, which is a significant element in global initiatives to make parliaments and political life more open to women and more gender-sensitive.


Back in Britain, the lack of proxy voting also raises the question of regional inequalities.  If the only way to vote is to bring your baby with you to Westminster, it is clearly more difficult if you commute from constituencies in, for example, the far North or West of England or Scotland. At a time when it is vital that all the UK’s voices are heard, the other leave vote matters.




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