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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.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.