March 12, 2013, by Rosamund Aubrey

Success, but not the top jobs – not yet anyway

The 8th March was International Women’s Day and the celebrations ranged from respect for, and appreciation of women, to a celebration for women’s political, economic and social achievements.

The Guardian, as expected, enthusiastically celebrated International Women’s Day; I particularly liked the top 25 African women, but there were many more. National Geographic also celebrated by highlighting favourite quotes from ‘our women explorers. Whether they are educating young girls in Africa, or searching for fossils in Madagascar with their two young children, we are proud to support their work.’

But the focus of the 2013 International Women’s Day was violence against women, poverty and imprisonment. The United Nations’ campaign, “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women,” seeks to strengthen the international community’s commitment to put an end to violence against women. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s UNiTE campaign calls on all governments, civil society, women’s organizations, men, young people, the private sector, the media and the entire UN system to join forces in addressing this global pandemic. “ He said: “There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.”

Violence against women is still a major concern in the UK, and it takes many forms. After appearing on Question Time, Mary Beard the classicist, was the target of sustained and vicious abuse after the administrator of a website chose her as a target – it has been reported that internet trolls posted “dozens of horrifying sexual taunts.” She thought she had a thick skin until then.

So what is the score card for equality?

How do universities measure up? Although nearly half non-professorial staff are female, only 20% of professors are women and the University & College Union estimates it will take nearly 40 years to reach parity.

Gone are the days when there were different pass rates for boys in the 11+, hence some girls were denied grammar school places. Girls get more A grades at A Level than boys, 27.2% to 25.8% and are more likely to win places at prestigious universities. In medical schools women have outnumbered men for over a decade and will potentially become the majority of the workforce by 2017. It is also predicted that female doctors will not only continue to experience a pay gap, but will also not attain roles where they ‘walk the corridors of power.’

Jean McEwan, professor of clinical education and consultant cardiologist, compared the rise of women in medicine to that of a disruptive innovation. ‘Part of the reason why women are not reaching higher leadership roles can be explained using this disruptive innovation model, where men are modelled as the “mainstream.” Professor McEwan says, “Unfortunately for us, leadership is mainstream business and disruption will be resisted. Despite improved and increased leadership, prevailing leaders will appoint those like themselves.” It’s an interesting idea, but it still boils down to ‘leaders appoint those like themselves.’

And of course most judges are men, most business leaders, most vice chancellors ….. , but we have had a female Prime Minister and Speaker and we have many knowledgeable and able women in all walks of life. Professor Dame Athene Margaret Donald, DBE, FRS is a distinguished British physicist and Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge – it is well worth reading her blog. She writes on diverse issues including issues facing women, particularly in academia.

Why is British public life dominated by men? This report by Women in Journalism was prompted by an article in the Guardian by Kira Cochrane: “In a typical month, 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today show are men. Where are all the women?”

In the UK just 22% of MPs are women, in Sweden it is 47% and Rwanda 48.8%. Despite the small number and the derogatory term “Blair’s babes’ after Labour won the 1997 election which increased the number of female MPs significantly, Boni Sones argues in Women in Parliament: The New Suffragettes that “women MPs have had a hitherto unknown effect on policy, pushing such issues as child protection, rape and domestic violence to the centre of the political agenda.” Current and former women MPs have also spoken of sexism in Parliament, although Ann Widdecombe says they are being overly sensitive; but given the evidence she does seem to have been extraordinarily unaware.

So despite equality legislation women still face many barriers to equality and there is still the pay gap for equal work. Many local authorities and public sector organisations got round equal pay legislation by paying men bonuses. It should be noted that trade unions were complicit in denying women equal pay, including those who worked for local authorities, and it wasn’t until the strike by women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory in 1968 that equal pay became a national issue This led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act, Barbara Castle’s commitment to women workers after she became involved in the dispute at Dagenham.

There has been a lot of progress. Until the 1960s women couldn’t take out a mortgage without a male guarantor, now 23% of mortgages are taken out by women, and the industry realises that women are making the family financial decisions and is changing the way it works accordingly. Many organisations operated a marriage bar, if a women married she had to leave her job, Barclays only rescinded this in 1961 and the Foreign Office clung onto the bar until 1973. Here’s an interesting article about a woman in the Diplomatic Service.

We’ve still got a long way to go, and this article in the Daily Telegraph by Jenny McCartney entitled Feminism is still a thing of the future, illustrates why many of the changes needed are not legislative.

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