Tag Archives: gender equality

Spending more time with our families …

29 Aug

As Ruth Davidson steps down from the Conservative leadership in Scotland, citing the primary reason as being her commitment to her young son and the family life that top-flight politicians so frequently find it hard to balance with the rigours of campaigning, travelling and irregular working hours, I was struck by the difference that her being a woman has made to the accompanying discussion.

When male politicians resign ‘to spend more time with their family’ it is often treated as a kind of euphemism.  We routinely assume that they have committed politics. Or, find out that they have had an affair, that makes their position somehow untenable.  Either way, the ‘excuse’ is seen as standing for something else.  And in the case of affairs, it’s often met with a collective eyeroll, and the schadenfreude comments about how the wife must be delighted to have him around more …

However, when Davidson remarked that her son’s arrival in November had made her reassess her feelings about leadership and the possibility of future campaigning, with all the separations from home that that entails, the one thing people do not seem to have done, is disbelieve her account completely.  Sure, she’s known to disgree with Boris Johnson on a range of issues, and may even disapprove of his decision to prorogue Parliament, though she did not overtly say so.  But the pull of a child aged under one for its mother, has largely been viewed as a ‘real’ element of the story, in a way that is not broadly characteristic of treatment of men resigning for ‘family reasons’.

In the event, Ruth Davidson entered into the current Brexit crisis only in so far as to say that MPs should back PM Johnson’s (somewhat opaque) efforts to secure a new deal with the EU. In this way, she said, they could avoid the spectre of No Deal.  No criticism was made of the Prime Minister’s strategy – possibly another sign that a General Election may happen, and Davidson would be aware of the significance for her UK party, of retaining a Conservative presence in Scotland.

Over on Radio 4, towards the end of the PM programme, two women who happen to be mothers and involved in political commentary – Hannah White of the Institute for Government, an authoritative think tank, and Zoe Williams, the Guardian columnist – took part in a discussion about the issues in balancing career and family life.  They noted that there is still much more to be done to support female MPs in the midst of early parenthood, as the template of of work assumes a level of availability that is hard to maintain without resources of alternative care, and – especially relevant for Scottish and other far-flung representatives – proximity to place of work.  Making full parental leave available to both male and female parliamentarians would potentially mitigate against all these factors impacting female politicians disproportionately.  I have often written about these structural issues, and they do bring us back to some of the geographic and economic inequalities which have some role in how we got into the wider political turmoil we are all now part of …

Back with Ruth Davidson’s announcement, and the coverage it has received, which provides yet another example of the differential treatment of men and women in public life: she as truth-telling about work-life balance, men as finding an expedient getaway.  We could, alternatively, believe, that Davidson, like her male counterparts, is using ‘family reasons’ as political cover.  And if we did, that might be viewed as very of the moment ..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Springing into action on Shared Parental Leave?

20 Mar

Today marks the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere, the official start of Spring, and the day when we experience almost exactly equal amounts of daylight and night time.  What better time to consider the balance between the sexes in terms of earning and caring work, and gender equality in general?

Appropriately, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee have published their Fathers and the Workplace report, making recommendations concerning paternity leave, flexible working, workplace culture and the much-discussed – and often criticised –  Shared Parental Leave, which was first made available to parents almost exactly three years ago, in 2015.

Shared Parental Leave was introduced in order to better meet the aspirations of new generations of mothers and fathers, who wish to share employment and childcare responsibilities more equally, avoiding the traditional default of breadwinner fathers and mothers as parents-in-chief.  As dual-earner families have grown in numbers, and younger men and women report more egalitarian attitudes regarding paid work and parenting, this all seems to make good sense.

However, the particular system of Shared Parental Leave that was introduced in the UK has done little to shift the dial in practice, in terms of who does what.  It does not come with a realistic level of wage replacement, nor does it represent a means whereby fathers have their own entitlement to parental leave; rather it is a method for women to transfer leave to their partners during the first year of their child’s lives, after they have used up the initial weeks of non-transferable maternity leave. The government estimated that the policy would be taken up by 2-8% of parents, and evidence collected since, suggests that even this figure may have been optimistic.  As the Committee’s report sums up: ‘The Government’s objective is for mothers and fathers to share the task of caring for their children more equally. The current shared parental leave policy will not achieve this on a large scale, as the Government’s own estimates of take-up show’.

In order to address the low take-up issue, the Government has embarked on a new campaign, ‘share the joy‘ which publicises Shared Parental Leave, showing couples who have used it, talking up the benefits of both parents being able to work and to take leave during their baby’s first year.  But without higher levels of pay for Shared Parental Leave, it is hard to see how raising awareness will increase the attractiveness of the package.  And while, of course, caring for babies and children can often be joyful and rewarding, what many parents are looking for is a policy which will enable then to share the load of meals, laundry, appointments as well as the joys of parenting.  As today’s report says, ‘[the] campaign to promote shared parental leave is welcome, but does not constitute a plan of action for achieving wider societal change.

If we’ve learnt anything from other countries, it is that getting to that point takes time.  The ‘latte papas’, the much-vaunted buggy pushers of Sweden’s urban landscape, only reached a critical mass because of decades of policy tweaking. Sweden first changed the law regarding leave in 1974, when maternity leave was changed to parental leave, for which both mothers and fathers were eligible.  However, there was an option for men to sign over their parental leave to their partners – in 1994 it was discovered that most did so, meaning that only 10% of parental leave days were actually used by men.  In order to attain the gender equality envisaged by the original policy, the government introduced a ‘daddy quota’ of 30 days leave in 1994.  If fathers didn’t use this quota, the month of leave was lost from the couple’s total entitlement.  This policy had immediate impact on fathers’ participation in early parenting, and dedicated leave for fathers spread as a policy throughout Scandinavia.  In the intervening years, the amount of leave for men has been increased repeatedly, and the Nordic countries regularly top international indices measuring both gender equality and happiness, or life satisfaction (incidentally, today is also the International Day of Happiness, and the Finns top the UN’s index this year).

At the end of last year the Telegraph reported that the Swedish government was looking to increase their ‘daddy quota’ to 5 months, to further enhance gender equality.  Perhaps a test of how embedded such policies have become, is that in the early days of parental leave in Sweden, sceptics complained that men just used their days to go elk hunting;  now in the West of Sweden where an elk hunting week is an annual tradition, they are looking change the rules for subsidised childcare to mean that parents can have an ‘elk days’ entitlement, without their partners having to take holiday to accommodate the hunt ….

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Nordic experience of dedicated leave for fathers has long been cited as a preferred solution to the problem of gender imbalances in take-up of parental leave.  Today’s report goes so far as to recommend that the government considers replacing the current system of Shared Parental Leave with a Nordic-style independent entitlement for fathers.  The Women and Equalities Committee suggests a 12-week period of paternal leave, with the first four weeks paid at a capped wage replacement rate, and the rest at statutory levels.  While the costs of such a scheme are not inconsiderable, there is scope for them to be balanced by greater participation in the workforce by mothers.  There are still plenty of barriers to the success of such a policy – not least the slowness of government machinery.  Elsewhere in the report there are recommendations related to flexible working which are not slated for review until 2019, and Brexit will keep everyone busy at least until then.  There are also wider barriers, in the shape of prevailing workplace culture, and the long reach of gender stereotypes. But as the Swedish experience shows, we might be getting somewhere with this type of policy in 20 years’ time.  Springing in to action? Maybe not, but perhaps, at last, a kickstart.

 

 

The write stuff

18 Nov

You may have heard of the latest marketing foray into the area of gendered writing products (e.g. here and here) – the ‘Pencils for her’ on sale at a department store near you. These pink beauties bring back memories of Bic’s much ridiculed ‘Pen for her’ and their tribute to South African Women’s Day. As I tweeted when I discovered these latest lovely pencils – they’re perfect for using at your #headdesk …

In the spirit of disbelief encouraged by pencils which are not only pink but emblazoned with such woman-friendly slogans as ‘Buy the shoes!’ and ‘Glitter &Bling’ – oh, so that’s what we’re made of – and the wonderful concept that is ‘Girl Boss’ (because we all know that women are too raddled and/or busy with children to be credible at work …) I decided it was only fair to find out if there is in fact such a thing as a ‘Pencil for him’ .

I did a quick tour of the internet and found that gender equality is alive after all – the company responsible for ‘Pencils for her’ does indeed produce a set of  ‘Pencils for him’. And how do these pencils look? Well, like default pencils – they’re not even blue! – just classic wood tones for the traditional look of the empowered writer. Apparently though, this male selection comes in blue packaging, so no awkward crossgender mistakes might be made to embarrass the lucky recipient.

And what, I hear you cry are the uplifting slogans on these icons of literary machismo? They include: ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Smooth’ and ‘You’re welcome’ – truly the gift that keeps on giving. Somewhat bafflingly the men’s pack also includes two ‘Best in show’ – perhaps because men are so dull they couldn’t think of anything else to say – or maybe the man in your life has more than one person he wants to impress with his winning ways. Or perhaps these are giveaways to compliment those displaying sufficient ‘Glitter & Bling’ – one shudders to think really …

And thinking is not much in evidence in marketing like this – it’s tempting to say that it’s about time that product designers sharpened up their ideas so that I’m not left wishing to erase all traces of their sex-stereotyped world . Unfortunately ‘use of this pencil is not defined by gender’ is too long to fit on the bespoke pencil range. Let’s just hope this ‘him and her’ writing stuff does not become a staple. Writing implements are for free expression by all. I rest my (pencil) case.

 

 

Human Writes ….

12 Aug

A few years ago, Bic, the biro makers, were widely ridiculed when they advertised ‘a pen for her’, in pink of course, and apparently suitable for female hands. Now, Bic South Africa has apologised for, and deleted, an advert posted for South African national Women’s Day. It depicted a woman in a suit, smiling to camera, accompanied by the following text:

Look like a girl

Act like a lady

Think like a man

Work like a boss

What could possibly go wrong? … How this caption got past even the vaguest internal monitoring process remains a mystery – the cynic might suggest that Bic put the image out knowing exactly what attention it would garner – but is any publicity really good publicity? And why choose a day normally reserved for celebrating women’s achievements to suggest that anything but womanhood goes?

Because that’s the worst thing about this advert – that ‘girl’ ‘lady’ ‘man’ and ‘boss’ are all fine identities – but ‘woman’? Just not something you can routinely be in your successful life. ‘Woman’ , it would appear, is an attribute you have to cover up with other things in order to get by. I can barely be bothered with the ‘think like a man’ element of this – the element which seems to have garnered most comment – because all the arguments have been repeated so many times it’s tiresome. No, not all men are the same and neither are all women. It’s the other parts of the captioning that make matters even worse. We can’t even look like women or act like women, rather we need to strive for girlishness in appearance and be ladylike in our actions. How could this ever have been seen as an empowering message – as Bic claimed initially was their intention? Since when was looking like a girl empowering for women except in a rather objectifying and ageist way? Since when was acting ‘like a lady’ the passport to empowerment? The Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘ladylike’ is ‘polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman’ – all the better to oppress you with, my dear … As for working like a boss, well the items seem to add up to the fact that this is not something ‘women’ do either.

And perhaps most depressingly of all, this thoughtless image for a Women’s Day campaign has been conjured up by a manufacturer of pens – pens, the very thing we use to communicate our thoughts and express ourselves. Perish the thought that a woman might write something powerful. Would the girlish loops of our handwriting and the ladylike decorum of our letters stand us in good stead? Not so. According to a recent experiment where an author sent the same script out to agents under respectively a man’s and a woman’s name, and got different results – the male bias of the prospective publisher would soon put paid to any silly ideas like that…. We really should know our limits, as drawn by the red line of a Bic biro, no doubt.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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http://www.oecd.org/gender/data/genderwagegap.htm

http://www.wageindicator.org/main/salary/world-map-gender-pay-gap

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.

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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.

 

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.

 

 

2013: a year for action on gender equality?

1 Jan

Oscar Wilde once said that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. On that basis, 2012 was something of a triumph for women’s issues – violence against women, rape and the need to achieve greater gender equality the corridors of power,  all remained high on the public agenda.  However, in terms of rape and violence against women, the talk often reminded us how jawdroppingly sexist many powerful men remain (I blogged on this in August); and in terms of gender equality in business and politics, the talk has been accompanied by little concrete action –  in this country at least. We now have a smaller proportion of women in the Cabinet than before the re-shuffle, and attempts to introduce quotas for women in boardrooms throughout the EU have been thwarted for the meantime.

Against this backdrop, it was something of a tonic to read the UN’s gender equality timeline   for the year, which shows that there has been some progress in women’s position in society and in power in many parts of the world.  Among the highlights, Algeria and Senegal have significantly increased the proportion of women in their parliaments to just over 30% and 43% respectively (the UK falls in at 60th in the world, equal with Malawi, with just over 22% of parliamentarians being women). The Council of Europe adopted a Convention of Preventing and Combating Violence against women and Domestic Violence which has been signed by 25 member States, but still requires countries to ratify it in order that it may come into force.  In October, the first International Day of the Girl Child highlighted the costs of child marriage and measures being taken to prevent it.  And just before Christmas, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution banning Female Genital Mutilation – a practice discussed here in July.

So, sometimes slowly and iteratively, sometimes more rapidly, progress in gender equality can be made.  As India confronts its poor record on sexual violence and Pakistan donates to a fund for girls’ education named after Malala, we should all resolve to make 2013 a year of action in gender equality.

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