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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 Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.