Why should it be only women who speak out about sexual violence? An IWD protest in Brazil. Photo: Getty
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On International Women's Day, let's ask men why progress towards equality is so slow

Men need to do more than ask for gratitude for being an ‘ally’ or say they think equality is a ‘good thing’ in principle. They need to feel real anger - and help make a change.

 

As our TV screens, Twitter feeds, newspapers and magazines burst with feminine talent for International Women’s Day, I have a nagging feeling something has been lost in translation. International Women’s Day shouldn’t actually be about women per se. It’s about showing what it would be like to have a more equal society. A magical glimpse of a parallel universe where all our lives are full - not just for one day, but every day - of the difference women can make if they are free to fulfill their potential. What kind of lives we could all have if they really were given equal billing, or even – perish the thought - promoted.

And when the conversation only focuses on how women are leading the charge for change, the ball is then put firmly in our court. Why can’t we find the women to lead the country, to run our companies, to fight our wars and write our great novels if they are all so talented, the refrain goes. Yet we rarely ask what kind of society it is we expect women to take on – or who else has a role to play in changing it. That makes it seem like ending inequality is something for women to do, not something from which we all benefit. In turn, the question about why progress is so slow – when we’ve had feminism for generations – also becomes something for women to answer alone.

Yes, you - Women. Why have you let inequality endure? Why does the pay gap still exists, and indeed why is it is getting bigger? Its existence is ‘just a fact’, says Nigel Farage . . . because only women have children and so of course their pay should suffer. Why are women only overwhelmingly appointed to non-exec positions in businesses rather than as decision makers - because it is ‘elitist’ to want to see women running businesses, according to Alison Wolf. Why do rape and domestic violence reports continue to rise, but prosecutions continue to fall – because it is ‘complex’, according to the police.  The list goes on - why do we still lock up women who have experienced sexual violence in conflict? Why do only middle class, white feminists seem to get the book deals? And why is the word feminism so negative, ‘unhelpful’ and offputting? All this and more is our problem - and so ours alone to resolve.

It's time to stop the blame game in its tracks. It is not for women to change the world, but for the world to change through equality for women. And that means we need to turn to the other half of the equation and ask men as the major beneficiaries why progress is so slow - and what they are going to do about it.

Feminism isn’t about women. It’s about the inequality in power and outcomes that occurs when women are locked out from the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Changing that requires not just women to come forward but men to unlock those barriers too. To be the ones saying they are frustrated by the pace of change, because they are missing out on that magical world they get to glimpse once a year on IWD. Men need to do more than ask for gratitude for being an ‘ally’ or say they think equality is a ‘good thing’ in principle. They need to feel real anger that more should be done - and help with the action necessary to get it done.

I stand alongside those amazing women fighting the good fight and encouraging them to speak up. Their diverse voices enrich my life and make me passionate about equality and how it will benefit me and those I love. But this International Women’s Day, I’m turning to my male colleagues, friends and family and asking them not just to listen, but to be accountable too.

Men of the world: see the difference women make and the talent they have. See what you are missing out on when inequality goes unchallenged, when your mothers, sisters, lovers and friends have to put up with this rubbish we call the patriarchy and so struggle to succeed. The time for sympathy or indifference is over. Start being selfish and do something about breaking it down yourselves – trust us, it will make your lives better too, not just on IWD but every day.  

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.