The future of the left since 1884

The fight for gender equality goes on

Let's not wait another 100 years for gender equality, writes Sam Smethers.



It is just 100 years from the first legislation granting voting rights to 8.5 million women (those aged over 30 who met a property qualification) we still have just a few items on the to do list. The gender pay gap, the scale of misogyny and violence against women and girls in our society, the lack of women in positions of power and yes the President’s Club dinner shows that we have unfinished business. And then some. Sometimes it feels like a mountain to climb. Where to start? I am sure that is what those early suffrage campaigners felt too as they considered what they had to overcome. Property rights for women, rights over their children in divorce, access to higher education and the professions as well as voting rights. After many years of campaigning they won those battles (Millicent Fawcett campaigned for 62 years until equal voting rights for women were granted in 1928) and women have fought and won many battles since. The Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, outlawing rape within marriage, coercive control legislation to name but a few. But what is the next chapter?

At Fawcett we have kicked off this centenary year by publishing our Sex Discrimination Law Review. This ground-breaking piece of work was launched partly in response to Brexit – which poses a real and present threat to women’s rights – but also because we wanted to take stock of the legislation we have, identify any gaps and propose some radical changes in the law. We recognise of course that the law alone will not deliver gender equality, but it has an important role to play and while we leave women unprotected or where our legislation remains weak we have a duty to strengthen it.

We found that violence against women and girls is endemic in our society. Half of all women have experienced sexual harassment at work; 64 per cent of women of all ages have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places and 1 in 5 women aged over 16 have experienced sexual assault. Two women each week are murdered by a partner or former partner. So we call for relationship and sex education to be taught in schools from an early age and recognise the gendered nature of violence in our society; misogyny to be recognised as a hate crime; women at work to be protected from harassment from customers, clients and contractors (this was removed from the Equality Act in 2013); coercive control legislation to extend to the period after a couple have separated; and a review of the law on the admissibility of a victim’s previous sexual history evidence in rape trials.

Progress on closing the gender pay gap and achieving gender equality in the workplace has stalled, so we call for the threshold on gender pay gap reporting to be lowered to 50 employees and a new duty on large employers to prevent discrimination and harassment. This would build on gender pay gap reporting and require employers to take proactive steps and then report on the action they had taken. To improve transparency on pay we call for the introduction of equal pay audits every three years. Equal pay awards should also automatically include back dated pension contributions. We call for an extension from 3 to 6 months to bring a pregnancy discrimination claim, the protected period for pregnancy discrimination to extend to 6 months after she returns to work, and enhanced statutory maternity and paternity pay which is amongst the lowest in Europe. To transform who does the caring we call for an overhaul of the shared parental leave system with a longer, more generous paid period for fathers.

We increasingly think in an intersectional way. Discrimination and disadvantage is multi-layered and we know that BAME women, disabled women, LGBT women, and older and younger women all experience additional barriers because of their identity. Yet our legislation does not recognise multiple discrimination. This has to change. We also call for the intersectional nature of hate crime to be recognised (Muslim women and transwomen are particularly targeted) and gender pay gap reporting to be extended to include other identity characteristics.

Finally, we come back to women in power and the need to legislate to require political parties to provide basic equality monitoring data on their candidates for general, local and devolved elections. Our parliament, local government and political parties must both achieve transformational progress on women’s representation (for this we may need enforceable targets or quotas) and clean up their act on harassment. For this it is clear to me that only an independent process with meaningful sanctions will do.

Gender equality for women in all their diversity, 100 years on from the first voting rights for women this remains our aim not only because it is right for women but because as Millicent Fawcett said, it is right “for civilisation itself”. The to do list remains long. And I don’t know about you but I’m tired of waiting.


Sam Smethers

Sam Smethers is chief executive of the Fawcett Society, former CEO of Grandparents Plus and a Generation Rent board member.


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