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Report finds shocking absence of women from UK public life

The number of women in senior levels of the judiciary, education, the arts, finance, civil service and government is plummeting

  • Guardian News & Media Ltd
  • Published: 18:22 February 24, 2013
  • Gulf News

London: The advancement of women in the senior ranks of politics — which was evident only a few years ago when Gordon Brown had eight female cabinet ministers and there were 31 women in government — has gone into reverse, with Britain rapidly falling down the international league tables for female democratic representation.

The country fell 37 places through the noughties, from 33rd place in 2001, to joint 60th in 2010. In western governments, only Ireland and Italy had fewer female representatives in 2010.

The evidence of the shocking erasure of women from public life — including at senior levels in the judiciary, education, the arts, finance, the civil service, the City, media and government — is presented in Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? to be published on Monday. The report is compiled by Counting Women In, a coalition of five organisations including the Fawcett Society and the Hansard Society.

The group was created after the 2010 general election, in which female candidates were scarce. The Sex and Power report, the first in an annual series, is modelled on the audits of public life that were published by the now defunct Equal Opportunities Commission.

“The report shows a shocking absence of women from powerful roles in Britain,” said Nan Sloane, of the Centre for Women and Democracy. “We’re told that change doesn’t happen overnight; well, this is proving to be a very long night. The quality of decision-making in our democracy is unrepresentative and suffering as a result. There needs to be meaningful action now.”

The report outlines how women make up only 22.5 per cent of MPs; 12.3 per cent of council leaders (in England); and 17.4 per cent of the cabinet. Only a third of public appointments are female, as are 15.6 per cent of high court judges and 5 per cent of editors of national daily newspapers. In many areas, progress has shifted into reverse, such as in the devolved regional political bodies, where fewer women have been returned at recent elections.

In Wales, the percentage of women elected has dropped from 50 per cent in 2004 to 40 per cent last year; in Scotland, the figure has dropped from 39.5 per cent to 34.9 per cent in the same time. In a handful of other areas, progress has been made in the past decade, but with a long way still to go.

Women now lead three in ten trade unions and membership is 50-50. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: “It’s appalling that women are falling down the league table. Ministers and business leaders often talk about the need to see more women at the top, but it’s at risk of being a case of ‘all mouth and no trousers’ when they oppose measures such as stronger family-friendly rights and quotas.”

A lack of representation is not just a democratic deficit, but also ignores a pool of talent and a diversity of views that can enrich the economy. A Deloitte accounting report in 2011 found that European companies with women in senior management and on the board had on average a 10 per cent higher return than companies in which women were absent in the most senior positions.

“Women are a majority [51 per cent] of the population, but power is concentrated in the hands of a minority,” the Sex and Power report says. “This damages the interests of both women and men as well as the country as a whole.”

The report makes recommendations focused on improving the pipeline to power, including improving civic education in schools; creating proactive champions of minority groups to encourage participation; establishing equal representation on media panels; setting quotas in candidate selection; and launching a government campaign to improve female representation at the 2015 general election, as well as improving the monitoring of who becomes a candidate and why.

Claire Annesley, a professor of politics at Manchester University, said that 2008 marked the peak of women in senior political positions, when Brown appointed Jacqui Smith as the first female home secretary and promoted several women in the government.

Before Tony Blair’s first term as prime minister, only 40 female MPs had ever held ministerial office. By the start of Blair’s third term, the figure had doubled to 80, with women holding about one third of all government posts through the Blair years.

The situation is very different today.

“Currently, many departments have no women, including the Treasury,” said Annesley.

‘Out of step with the world’

In addition, much of the support infrastructure and resources to promote women’s participation has been abandoned or sidelined: the Equalities Office has been cut, the Women’s National Commission scrapped, the Equality and Human Rights Commission downgraded, and the “inspirational” target of 50 per cent female appointments to public boards by 2015 forgotten.

David Cameron’s A-list of candidates for the last election has been abandoned and not much is heard of Laura Trott, his lone adviser on women, while his promise of women making up a third of his cabinet is now seen as a pipe dream. Despite the huge influx of women into all the professions, the glass ceiling is uncracked. Lady Hale, the country’s most senior female judge, has gone as far to say that the UK is “out of step with the world” and positive discrimination is required. So what has made a difference elsewhere?

A number of countries now have mandatory or voluntary quotas. Ireland stipulates that 30 per cent of political candidates must be female. Belgium also has a 40 per cent quota, state funding is lost if the target is not met. Are quotas fair?

“Women are always asked to justify themselves. Nobody asks if men are good enough,” Sloane said. “We have 650 MPs and a population of 30 million women. We are only looking for 325 women who are competent. Is that not possible?” Ironically, what has also made a difference to the promotion of women in other European countries is the political will of a strong [inevitably male] leader.

In France, Spain and Chile, gender-parity governments were achieved because “the president or prime minister needs to or wants to appoint women,” said Annesley. “When he does, great progress is made.” What the report also underlines is that monitoring the progress or otherwise of women and minority ethnic groups is unnecessarily hampered.

“In many cases, the statistics vital to understanding what is happening in our democracy are not there,” said Charlie Woodworth of the Fawcett Society. “That, too, sends a message.”

Cheri Goddard, also of Fawcett, added: “It’s not solutions that are lacking. It’s political will. After years of glacial progress, this report and the ones that follow will ensure that lack of action won’t go unchecked.”

Sloane said: “All the parties are committed to becoming more representative, but they are not doing what it takes to achieve it. That involves power, and power is never given away readily. That has to change.”

Women have their say

Heather McGregor runs a leading headhunter firm and is also the author of Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women.

“I like all the recommendations — they are all very sensible. All these organisations need to make better efforts. But what’s missing is the other half of the argument, and it is that women themselves have to put up their hands for these roles. Fifty per cent of the responsibility for getting on in their careers lies with women themselves.

“I’m sure everyone understands and believes there is a problem here, Britain is run by men. But perhaps people don’t understand how acute it is, how ingrained it is. For example, you look at the fact that there are no women bishops, and then you think it through: bishops sit in the House of Lords and therefore the House of Lords has an in-built bias towards men.”

Stella Creasy is the Labour MP for Walthamstow in London. She was selected as the candidate from an all-women shortlist.

“We’ve dropped the ball. We thought we were on a roll, after an explosion of activism, and this is a sobering reminder that my generation of feminists have a job to do. We have an 80-20 society and I want a 50-50 society of equal representation. It’s in everyone’s interests. We have gone from a glass ceiling to a glass menagerie where there is one small group of women doing well and we are no further forward in extending the reach. It’s not just politics — politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the media, from panel shows that are all men, to there being more darts on TV than women’s sports. We have to have a step change.”

Samantha Mangwana is an employment lawyer at the legal firm Slater Gordon.

“The general perception is that this kind of inequality is something that happened in the 1970s, that it is not a problem any more. But actually it is getting worse.

“Since the financial crash, the doors of our offices are constantly revolving with women coming in who were outperforming men on their teams, but then being made redundant when the men are not. One woman said to me, ‘I got engaged so obviously I’m a pregnancy risk.’ That’s symptomatic of the environment woman are in.

“There are specific things that we see time and time again and it’s around maternity and pay.

“Women do really well in their careers until they become pregnant and the overt assumption begins that their commitment to their job has eased off.”

Kenny Frederick is the principal of George Green’s School on the Isle of Dogs in London.

“There are lots of very successful women around and we need to celebrate their achievements and get them mentoring our young people, but we also need to refocus our efforts our efforts in schools and colleges and put women’s’ issues back on the agenda, challenging the stereotypes and traditions that keep women out. So many young women who will not be able to achieve their potential in a world heavily weighted in favour of men; it’s a real waste of resources.

“In our school, we’ve spent a lot of time tackling issues around racism and homophobia. We realise we’ve not spent enough time looking at sexism and making sure girls are comfortable with who they are, and not limiting themselves with their career choices and in terms of how they expect to be treated by men. I’ve been quite shocked by negative attitudes from girls. Boys, too, need to be challenged and understand that their attitudes are inappropriate.”

Jude Kelly is a theatre director and currently the artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London.

“I was shocked to see this report in the sense that you don’t want to have proved that which you sense was true. So much work has gone on in the last ten years around issues on representation and yet we seem to have gone backwards.

“There are strong women coming through in the arts, I see them developing, but it remains the fact that there are still strong male traditions and strong male networks.

“There aren’t the same women’s networks promoting, mentoring and encouraging women to go for these roles. You are also never going to get away from the work-life balance and the fact that it is women rather than men who are left to juggle these things.

“But most importantly, equality of representation requires men and women together. It can’t be a female eye on the ball, it has to be society’s eye on the ball. It’s a question of when this stops being a women’s concern and starts truly being an issue for everyone. Women cannot do it on their own.”

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