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Women’s Problems

Annie Peate

17 August 2011

Today, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published the findings of their Sex and Power 2011 report with overwhelmingly disappointing results for women whose aspirations extend beyond the ‘marzipan level’ of senior management. The report – which provides an index of women in positions of power and influence – found that more than 5,400 women are missing from the Britain’s 26,000 most powerful posts – a trend which currently shows no sign of subsiding. Furthermore, the EHRC concludes that although there are now more women in top posts in 17 of the 27 occupational categories reviewed (namely, senior police officers, trade union general secretaries, heads of professional bodies, members of senior judiciary and chief executives of national sport bodies), progress is both sectoral and ‘torturously slow’.

The report predicts that at the current rate of change it will be another 30 years to achieve an equal number of women senior police officers. Indeed, the authors of Sex and Power 2011 further suggest that it could be another 40 years on top of that before women equal men at director-level in FTSE 100 companies; that’s a staggering 70 years before the number of stilettos rivals brogues in the boardroom! This figure of course first made its way into the public consciousness following the publication of Lord Davies’ Women on Boards report on February this year which stopped short of calling for quotas to redress this troubling deficit.

These findings will notcome as a great surprise to anyone who works in those occupations in which women are ‘missing’. According to Sex and Power, these include public appointments, editors of national newspapers, health service chief executives, and chairs of national arts bodies. However, what is most worrying is the absence of female leadership in terms of national and local government. To quote the numbers, the EHRC index shows that of the 5,000 women missing from Britain’s top jobs, 181 of those are women missing from the 650 members of Parliament. And, if predications prove correct, it will take 14 elections, or up to 70 years, to achieve an equal number of women MPs.

This parliamentary gender imbalance could have some potentially interesting consequences for the type of political decisions and policies the government are making as the nation claws its way out of recession. For example, the Fawcett Society have publically condemned the Coalition’s decision to drastically cut spending on benefits and public services, warning of the resulting care gap women will be forced to negotiate. And, as Work Foundation research has previously highlighted, the high concentration of women working in the public sector means that public sector job losses and pay freezes will disproportionately affect females, leading some commentators to accuse Coalition policies as being both sexist and naive. Furthermore, when women do appear in the political frame, they seem subject to an unusual scrutiny which, for one reason or other, is not afforded to male MPS – who could forget Blair’s Babes?

The EHRC’s Sex and Power 2011 report highlights the need for an increased presence of women in positions of authority in Britain. But most importantly we need more women involved in political decision-making at all levels; not only to ensure that policies implemented do not unfairly discriminate against a particular gender, but to pave the way for a diversification of politics more generally, be it gender, class, sexuality or race. When asked, last week’s rioters complained of the disconnectedness of politics from the personal, a lack of understanding of the issues affecting young people. The same is true of gender. For women to feel politically represented, they must first feel so politically. Unfortunately, for occupational and workplace gender issues to remain at the forefront of policy debate, we need female MPs to put it there. So this is a call to arms. Its time to get on your soapboxes ladies.