Women still lag far behind in terms of pay and job opportunities to the detriment of us all
The 18th-century bestseller An Enquiry Into the Duties of the Female Sex, by clergyman Thomas Gisborne, advocated a belief, still popular, that the brains of men and women are hard-wired to occupy different but complementary roles, with little overlap. Gisborne acknowledged: "The superiority of the female mind is unrivalled." Unrivalled, that is, in duties that "… refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise – and, diffuse, throughout the family circle, the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness."
In her 2010 book, Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine points out we conform to whatever are the prevailing social expectations of what it means to "man up" or act as a "real woman". In the 18th century, that meant many girls abided by notions of excessive femininity. But now? As the last several days have amply demonstrated, when male and female roles are under constant redefinition, dictated not least by the market and the need to earn a family wage, while a certain class of men, accustomed to generations in power, see both their influence and "their" institutions challenged, it can become a bruising and, at times, ugly, contradictory and profoundly socially unjust battle. But first, we have the good news.
On Friday, the London Stock Exchange appointed two women directors, Sherry Coutu and Joanna Shields. The proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards has topped 20% for the first time, raising hopes that the UK government's weedy target of 25% of female representation by 2015 is reached without mandatory quotas. According to Jane Scott, the UK director of Professional Boards Forum, only 13 FTSE 100 companies have 30% or more female representation on the board. "There is no shortage of candidates," Scott says. "And there is no compromise on the experience or skills required." The economic argument has been repeatedly proved. In a 2012 report, for example, the Credit Suisse Research Institute said that organisations with one woman or more on the board outperformed those with none by 26% over a six-year period. In that context, shareholders should be appalled at the poor commercial judgment on display, if not the sexism.
Change in the boardroom is under way but it is hardly a female revolution. Greater participation in public and political life is vital to such an endeavour. However, only one in four MPs is female; women are a tiny minority at the cabinet table and in the Lords, in senior financial committees, at the higher echelons of the judiciary and on public boards. Innovatory schemes such as the Fabian Women's network programme are essential to challenge the old boys' alliances whose roots are centuries old. However, until a critical mass is achieved, women in parliament and public office will continue to feel guests in a predominantly hostile house.
A battle that resumes tomorrow at Westminster yet again reveals the size of the gulf between the Lords and the ladies. Or, more precisely, in this case, the 10 women who have alleged that the Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard behaved "inappropriately". The women have been judged "credible" witnesses yet, surreally, the rules of the Liberal Democrat party do not permit disciplinary action. Rennard has refused Clegg's request to apologise. Undoubtedly, the electorate will take heed that in 2014 a major political party has no suitable procedure for dealing with serious sexual allegations. In contrast, the law courts are, belatedly, proving more active. Tomorrow, supported by more than 100 peers, Lord Rennard intends to resume his seat. As we report today, Bridget Harris, one of his accusers, has quit the party in disgust. "Nick Clegg had a duty to show moral leadership. He hasn't", she says. "I don't believe that parliament is the place for change anymore."
It is precisely this lack of representation that means women, unjustly, have become the shock absorbers of austerity. They are paying a far higher price proportionately than men, finding themselves cemented into a lifetime of low earnings and under-utilised qualifications. George Osborne, has announced a further £12bn in public spending cuts. As feminist economists on the Women's Budget Group repeatedly point out, 65% of jobs in the public sector are held by women; 310,000 public sector jobs will be axed in five years until 2015. Eighty per cent of the "new" jobs are in the private sector, according to the TUC. They are low skill, low paid. A far higher proportion of female income therefore also comes from benefits so, again, women are hit hardest by benefit cuts.
Paradoxically, at school, girls outperform boys. However, they are scarce, for instance, in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). In 2012, 12 times more boys than girls took computer studies at A-level. In Shanghai and Singapore, there is no gender division in the subject. Here, segregation by occupation continues. Women are steered into the arts and "care", grossly undervalued. Even when they enter the professions, progress halts when they have children. Part-time means a career is sabotaged. Childcare costs cripple. According to the Fawcett Society, twice as many women as men are economically inactive; three times more women are in part-time work; and 28% of women are low paid compared with 17% of men.
Skills-appropriate jobs for women could boost GDP by 10% by 2030. Everyone benefits. Instead, currently for women, the ladders are rapidly disappearing as the snakes on the board multiply. A general election may help. In 2015, politicians will temporarily scramble to find their inner woman as they go in search of the crucial female vote. Manifestos should signal that investment in social infrastructure matters. Universal free childcare ought to carry as much clout as rail expansion and HS2. Women need flexible working that strongly supports part-time careers. Reskilling is a priority; child benefit should be restored and anomalies in tax credits addressed. More than 900,000 working families will not qualify because one or both parents earn too little to pay income tax.
Among other demands should be added equal pay and positive action in public life, quotas even. What this agenda costs in the short term will be more than matched by what is unleashed in talent and capabilities, improved tax revenues and reduced benefits. Ideally, a flourishing society allows everyone, male and female, to fulfil their potential. Instead, gender, class and ethnicity all carry heavy and unnecessary penalties. That is socially unjust, economically unsound, globally uncompetitive and politically naive. Not even the men in charge can afford this to continue.