Has progress on gender equality reversed?

26 November 2012

"A combination of the cuts, female underemployment (draining the talent pool still further of women who might one day move into senior roles) and the scarcity of females of diverse backgrounds at the top of Britain's most important institutions could, for the first time in decades, put the glacial rate of progress into very sharp reverse."

Yvonne Roberts, Guardian, November 25, 2012

Analysing and assessing the state of gender equality in today's Britain can trigger a severe spell of cognitive dissonance. 

Depending on which report or account you read, you may be led to believe that the glass ceiling has long been shattered, or barely scratched.

This debate was once again sparked by the Church of England's vote on women bishops. In fact, this is a good example of the ambiguity of gender equality today. Whilst women are still not allowed to serve as bishops, it is perhaps ironic that the head of the Church itself is a woman.  

In this Sunday's Observer Yvonne Roberts suggested that progress on equality is backtracking. She claims: "in every sphere of life, in the UK and the rest of the EU, in banking, the City, law, medicine, Westminster and Whitehall, inequality is embedded and, more shamefully, is treated as the norm."

The UK ranks 18th in World Economic Forum's annual Gender Report, a ranking that has gone down from 16th in 2011. This would mean Yvonne Roberts may have a point: the UK is indeed backtracking in gender equality. 

However, the UK currently has the fifteenth highest proportion of women MPs out of the 27 EU Member States (Source: Parliamentary briefing paper, October 2012, PDF) and it currently ranks at 57th for female representation in parliament out of the 190 countries included in a reported put together in 2012 by the United Nations Development Programme and the Inter Parliamentary Union. In 2009, before the last election, it ranked 59th. Indeed, since the last general election there's been a higher number and proportion of female MPs than ever before. Prior to 1987 women had never taken up more than 5% of House of Commons seats.

In that sense, you could say things are improving, albeit slowly. 

According to Yvonne Roberts, when it comes to public life women's role is far from rosy:

"Nine men sit on the Bank of England's rate-setting monetary policy committee; eight sit on the new financial policy committee to monitor financial stability; and the six frontrunners to become governor of the Bank of England are also all male. In addition, for the first time in 16 years, there is no female minister at the Treasury or in eight other departments. Rudd says David Cameron must be held to his pledge that by 2015 a third of his cabinet (now five women and 19 men) will be female."

On the other hand, recently the Professional Boards Forum said 16.7% of FTSE 100 board seats are now held by women, up from 12.5 per cent in 2010.

Last year ONS data revealed that women in their 20s earn 3.6% more than men. 

Another great example of the ambiguity of gender equality in today's society is a story we covered last week that illustrated how female employment and unemployment are both at record highs. 

As often happens, numbers can be interpreted in various ways. The measuring of gender equality presents no exceptions to this rule. In the past century, progress has undoubtedly been made, and it could be that in recent times it has just slowed down. 


Flickr image courtesy of Leitza*

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