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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation