Equality issues are front page news again today, but for all the wrong reasons. A male tennis tournament organiser suggested female tennis players should get “down on their knees and thank men” and Novak Djokovic questioned equal prize money in tennis.
Earlier this month, women across the world celebrated International Women’s Day. But as the comments from the world of tennis illustrate, it is not just a time for celebration; it also offers us the perfect opportunity to reflect on gender equality, why it matters and what we can do about continuing inequalities.
In many respects, we in the UK are extremely lucky: we’ve had an education. Of the 125 million children in the world who don’t go to school, 75 million are girls. That means their earning power will be less, they will get married earlier, and be less likely to be listened to and have meaningful control over their own lives.
Girls get to go to school in the UK, but where are we in terms of gender parity post-school? Women constitute 50 per cent of the population and yet remain woefully underrepresented when it comes to power and wealth: only 23 per cent of FTSE 100 board members are women; only 22 per cent of our seats in Westminster are held by women (in the Welsh Assembly that figure jumps up to 42 per cent); and for every £100 a man earns, a woman earns just £83 – amounting to an average wage gap of £300,000 over a lifetime.
Women won the vote in 1928 – less than 100 years ago – and still face prejudice and injustice. In pensions, for example, as the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) have highlighted, unfair transitional arrangements remain in place for women born in the 1950’s. These women are seriously affected by the pension age changes and were not given enough warning to make new arrangements.
From the suffragettes to WASPI, women are a powerful force for change when they work together. And now we need to work together to overcome inequality.
Why does this inequality matter? Gender balance makes good business sense. The Confederation of British Industry show that a better gender mix amongst senior managers is linked to better financial results. Likewise, advancing gender equality worldwide, consultancy McKinsey calculates, would lead to an injection of $12tn into the global economy. So equal boardrooms equals more profits and a stronger economy.
What can we do to create a society with gender parity?
Firstly, positive action such as mentoring schemes and all-women shortlists can play an important role. I’m a proud alumnus of the Fabian Women’s Network mentoring scheme which gave me – and countless other women – the confidence to stand for selection as a Labour candidate. It’s a fantastic scheme, taking women from all walks of life and of all ages to see first-hand what being a leading politician is really about. It gives women the confidence and the contacts to get more involved in political and public life.
Secondly, right now representation of women is in such a poor state that, until we get to parity or at least a critical mass, we must support all-women shortlists and quotas.
But positive action can begin before women reach the workplace, through confidence building in our homes and schools. Parents must take responsibility for both telling our daughters they can achieve anything they set out to and teaching our sons about feminism. In school, governors, parents and teachers need to treat girls and boys the same. We shouldn’t be asking boys to sit quietly ‘like the girls.’ It makes girls think they should be seen and not heard – a pattern that can then continue into the workplace. And we must encourage girls to get an interest in and continue with the STEM subjects. National Women in Engineering Day in June is a great starting point.
Thirdly, women must learn to take a seat at the table – as Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, suggests. All of us as women have to play our part. All too often, whether in a boardroom meeting or at a Q&A session, it’s the men who stick up their hands first while women stick to the sides or the back of the room. We as women have a duty to speak up, get our hands up and take a seat at the table. And if the male chair doesn’t call a woman to ask a question, make a fuss about it. If you’re invited to sit on an all-male panel let the panel know that’s not acceptable. We need to speak out – we cannot let these things go.
Finally, men’s involvement is vital. We need to get the laws changed so we can share paternity and maternity leave, and make more jobs at the top open to job-shares and part-time workers. Men need to be in on the journey right from childhood. It needs to be the norm for men to do their half of the work in the home, not to view it as “helping out.” Then we will start to see the cultural shift we need in society.
Worldwide only 11 out of 142 elected heads of state are women. To change that, and to create gender parity across society, we will need to take action and change it together.