Anita Gale marks International Women’s Day with a review of the UK’s slow progress towards gender quality
Today is the latest annual ‘International Women’s Day’, with the United Nations designating this year’s theme as ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality’. Something that is so appropriate when much more action is needed; and also achievable if the determination to do something about gender equality really exists.
Look, for example, at our elected institutions in the UK. In the House of Commons, there are 191 women MPs, including 99 on the Labour benches, 68 Conservatives and 20 SNP. At the last general election, 1033 women stood as candidates – the largest number ever. But considering that women have been able to stand for Parliament since 1918 closer analysis reveals that it’s not really that a good story. In one day in May last year 459 men were elected to the Commons – nine more than the 450 women elected since 1918. It’s taken 97 years to get 450 women MPs, only 39 of whom have sat in Cabinet, and only one as Prime Minister.
If we look at the devolved institutions established in 1999 we see that women have fared much better in the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament. In 2003, Wales became the world leader as the first democratically elected institution to have 50% of women members. But this didn’t just happen out of the blue. Labour fielded an equal number of women and men in 1999 ensuring that women stood in winnable seats.
In political and public life generally, women remain in the minority. Moreover, women in the workplace still earn less than men with the pay gap taking a long, long time to close despite the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
How too can there be equality when the level of domestic abuse is still so high? The Office of National Statistics in their 2014 report estimated 1.4 million women suffering such abuse, with two killed every week by a current or former partner in England and Wales. And this high level of violence against women doesn’t stop there, with approximately 85,000 women raped each year.
Our laws are improving on this front, with many police forces now expected to deal with domestic abuse in a much better way than previously – owing to better understanding and training and the ability to bring more perpetrators to justice. All for the good but we’re yet to resolve how to change the culture of society that allows such violence.
So can more laws change the culture to help achieve the UN’s pledge for parity? Take the 2002 Election of Candidates Act, which allows political parties to have women only selections to address under representation – and something Labour has adopted since 1997. The legislation originally included a sunset clause based on a belief that it wouldn’t be needed after 2015. But in 2010, the Labour government extended the provision to 2030. Will it still be needed then?
In the business world, there are very few women at the top table – recognition of which has seen efforts made to get more women on Boards. A report last year for the government by Mervyn Davies on gender diversity in the boardrooms of FTSE companies revealed an increase since 2011 from 12.5 % to 26.1%. Intervention is working but it needs following up, including the use of quotas, voluntary or otherwise.
We must continue to ensure that more women can participate in the highest levels of decision making, have access to power, and are protected properly in law against violence from their partners and others. As we progress, albeit slowly, along these paths, equal representation in our democracy should be a given. It’s now time to make that happen.
Baroness Anita Gale is a backbench member of the House of Lords and a former General Secretary of the Welsh Labour Party. She tweets @BaronessGale
Published 8th March 2016