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Laurie Penny on the myth of the "myth" of gender equality

The Daily Mail gets excited about yet another attempt to put women in their place.

Lay down your placards, ladies: the fight for equality is over and we can all go back to the kitchen. The Centre for Policy Studies has just released a "study" entitled "Feminist myths and magic medicine" that claims that there is no evidence that men are paid more than women, that where there is evidence of sex discrimination, that evidence doesn't matter, and that inequality is okay because some women actually choose it. Predictably, the Daily Mail has gone mental, expansively declaring the joyful news that "gender equality is a myth".

The report's author, Dr Catherine Hakim, has spent several years positioning herself as the only academic who can save this sick society from the scourge of feminism, one terrifyingly painted-on eyebrow permanently cocked at what she calls the "feminist myths" of equality legislation and "family-friendly" employment policies, presenting her table-rattling propaganda for right-wing think tanks as objective academic research. Hakim, who may or may not have actually met another woman, is best known as the face of "preference theory", the wildly original notion that differences in work outcomes between men and women in the developed world are not the result of enormous, straining patriarchal guns held to the head of every single female in the job market, but because women and girls make "substantively different career choices" from men, opting for part-time work and shorter hours that better enable them to juggle paid work with the pressures of childrearing that still fall largely upon the shoulders of women. It is a sad indictment of the state of modern gender relations that this is seen, by Hakim and her many breathless devotees in the right-wing press, as some sort of staggering insight rather than weary confirmation of the status quo.

"Unfortunately, feminist ideology continues to dominate thinking about women's roles in employment in the family," writes Hakim, in a section of this entirely unbiased report entitled "Twelve Feminist Myths", before coming to the conclusion that, because many women actually choose to work longer, more gruelling hours for less pay in order to raise families alone, "Equal opportunities policies have succeeded," and all outstanding quota systems and equal pay. She also opines that the pay differential is entirely women's fault, and that in fact many women and girls just want to marry rich men who will take care of them, and that that choice -- being a free and laudable consumer choice -- should also be applauded.

There is, however, a substantial difference between choice and empowerment. Choice is not the same thing as control, and not everyone who has a choice has freedom. Some choices are incredibly difficult, like the choice, faced by nearly all women in the developed world, between giving children the time they need, giving paid employment the time it needs, or -- in most cases -- frantically juggling the two while attempting to retain some some semblance of independent selfhood and sociability. Some choices are distressing, like the choice between professional and personal fulfilment that still mars the lives of many women in a way that it simply never has for men. Presenting these painful decisions as benign lifestyle choices is not just tarting up a hideous social stalemate in the language of consumer indulgence: it's actively cruel.

In one key respect, of course, Hakim is right. Equality legislation can only go so far if it does not challenge the frameworks of a profoundly unequal system and there is only so far that one can crowbar women into a labour scheme that already exploits men before something starts to strain to snapping point. On the question of Hakim's loathed "family-friendly" policies, for instance, one can mandate all the maternity leave one likes, but as long as the labour of childcare is still undervalued, underpaid and done largely by women who are expected to be grateful for any concessions made to their "lifestyle choices" by benevolent bosses, "outcomes", in the language of Hakim's report, will continue to be skewed in favour of men, and women will continue to face unpleasant choices that do real harm to their lives and ambitions. Equal pay for equal work is not, whatever soft liberal faux-feminists claim, the one goal of the women's equality movement -- more important to the substance of women's lives is what Judith Butler called "the right to equal work itself".

These observations on the limitations of equality legislation might seem to echo Hakim's, but the difference is that I am a revolutionary feminist and Catherine Hakim is a recalcitrant hack academic with a personal vendetta against women who do not know their place and who would not know real social justice if it whacked her over the head with a huge glass ceiling. Her conclusions, lavishly lapped up by the Mail and the Telegraph, are that because legislative reshuffling has not solved equality, we can and should entirely abandon the notion of equality in the home and the workplace. Others, myself included, would rather take this as a signal to tear this unequal labour system into tiny bits and replace it with something that treats human beings as creatures with agency, dignity and pride.

The real problem with gender quotas in executive pay and employment is not that they are unnecessary, but that they have been co-opted by the right to convince the public that something is actually being done about sex inequality. It is breathtaking hypocrisy for Theresa May to promise to put more women on the boardrooms of big companies at the same time as helping to engineer public-sector and welfare cuts that will force single mothers to rely on their partners for financial support and abandon millions of women to poverty and unemployment. One cannot ape the postures of liberal feminism while rolling women's rights back two decades and expect to be taken seriously as Equalities Minister by anyone with a pulse -- not even in a government that considers the boardroom its core constituency.

It's time we all stopped obsessing over the glass ceiling, not because it doesn't matter, but because there are tens of millions of women huddled in the basement, shut away from power and public concern. Focusing our attention on the glass ceiling distracts us from the fact that the basement is rapidly flooding, and the women who have to live there want more than "choice" -- they want real control over their lives.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.