Oh my, what terrible weeks we are experiencing. We started the month with more refugees losing their lives trying to cross the sea to safety; Calais Camps misery and unexploded bombs in London. We then progressed with the American election. But there was another important piece of news however that appeared lost in a sea of information and that I wish to discuss in my blog today as it is equally relevant to women and to equality (or lack of it): The World Economic Forum published its Index of Nations for Gender Equality.
The index measures equality around some key parameters: economic empowerment, political empowerment, education and health. Some pretty key criteria if you ask me, but - guess what? - UK has gone down from 9th to 20th place. Not to mention US and Australia, even further behind at 45th and 46th place respectively. So now it is estimated that there won’t be gender equality for another 170 years – an increase on last year’s estimate of 118.
On the other hand, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Rwanda, Ireland, the Philippines, Slovenia, New Zealand, and Nicaragua are all at the top, even so, only the first five have closed the gender gap by 80% or more. I am sure many of you won’t be surprised that most Scandinavian countries are there. But, had I asked you to guess the top ten, Rwanda, Ireland, Philippines and Nicaragua would have not exactly come to the front of your mind. Surely here in the UK we are better, more progressive, more open minded and make decisions based on a meritocratic system?
Let me tell you, as somebody who has lived in this country 23 years and has been a passionate advocate for women for over 10, OH NO WE ARE NOT! And so we are slipping inexorably towards the bottom. But why?
Well, I have my theories.
First, it’s that ‘old boys’ network cliché. Except, it is not a cliché at all, it is true. You want to look at the private sector, public sector, educational institutions, you name it. In most places the same people rule, who met in the same schools, went to the same universities, enjoyed a similar upbringing. Those networks are made up by ‘boys’, and dominate the establishment so you are either in or you are not, women and men alike.
This approach is pervasive and affects most areas in society, but especially those linked to political and economic empowerment. The British 50:50 Parliament initiative says that only 3 in 10 MPs and Peers are women, equivalent to 30% or so. Rwanda’s figure sits at 64%.
We also know that in the UK men continue to denominate top-table seats across the FTSE 100. As for hundred private companies that are not required to publish any figure, I fear the worst.
‘Old boys’ continue to choose ‘old boys’ as their successors, protégés and mentees.
Nothing can change that unless some important but still fringe government-led initiative becomes mainstream and an increasing number of women rushes through the flood gates, making it possible for the younger generation to push ahead. Or more likely, let me tell you, it will be by introducing quotas. I can see your noses curling up in disdain, but here’s the proof:
- Board quotas have been introduced in countries such as Norway and Iceland. Top spot.
- Quotas have also been introduced in many African parliaments, including Rwanda, another top spot holder.
Then, of course, we must talk about childcare, share of caring responsibilities, flexible working, and paternal leave.
In Scandinavian societies the State has legislated in favour of working families (of whatever denomination) and granted the flexibility, child care and leave necessary to retain women in the workforce and grant them the economic independence that ultimately adds £££ to the country’s GDP. In some of the other top spot country, I suspect that community network and extended families come to the working woman’s rescue. Here in the UK most of us have the worst of both worlds. No community network and not supportive legislation and company policies to speak of. And even when the company policy exists, its ‘old boys’ culture is decisively against it.
So here we are, down to the 20th spot. With a woman as country leader, we hope that things will improve in due course, but – as the recently launched Women Equality party (WE) has already publicized – her first 100 days have made no difference to gender equality. I am waiting impatiently to see if the next 100 will.