EOC leaves a vacuum

Observations on gender

On 24 July, the Equal Opportunities Commission aimed its parting shot, Completing the Revolution, at an uncaring world. This is the EOC's final report before it is subsumed into the all-encompassing Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) as of 1 October. The new commission will also swallow up the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission.

Set up in 1975 with the aim of "eliminating discrimination", the EOC has always been rather good at using cold, hard figures as ammunition in the gender wars - a subject that the mainstream media now tend to regard as tired and boring. The EOC has often been a lone voice reminding us of statistics we would rather ignore. In this vein, Completing the Revolution is a fantastic swansong. Just when you thought all that women's business was done and dusted, here's another sledgehammer blow for any society with a conscience.

The conclusions are so major they are scary. At the current rate of progress, it will take 65 years for there to be equal numbers of men and women in top jobs with FTSE-100 companies. The pensions gap will take 45 years to neutralise. The full-time workers' pay gap between men and women will take 20 years to close, the part-timers' gap 25 years. It will take another 200 years for there to be equal numbers in parliament. I repeat: 200 years. So much for the era of "post"-feminism.

The report concludes that there is one area where progress is so close to zero that the gap will never close. Check out the finality of that - never. This area is housework. Women spend 78 per cent more time than men doing household chores, and the report implies that women might as well stop hoping that anyone will ever share their domestic burden. This is an astonishing admission in a society where it is a widely held belief that men and women have equal roles and that gender is just not an issue any more.

Does this matter? Does anyone care that it's women who have to do most of the vacuuming? Probably - and depressingly - they don't, and that's why the death of the EOC is such terrible news. Who is going to remind us that, on average, women working full-time still earn £559 a month less than men? That 25 per cent of women are entitled to a full state pension compared to 95 per cent of men?

The new CEHR will argue that it can still campaign on these issues - and more effectively, because, as a large entity, it will have more resources. But gender is not the minority issue we would like it to be. And the demise of the EOC just plays along with the current charade: pretending that we already have equal opportunities, so we don't need a special commission to tell us that an imbalance persists, thank you very much.

Farewell, EOC, from women everywhere. We'd like to say that we'll miss you. But no doubt we'll be too busy doing the housework to notice that you've gone.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?