Smashing the Glass Ceiling

Kirsty Davies says positive action is the only way to end discrimination against women in Wales

I was appointed as the Deputy Director of the IWA just over a year ago. One of the first things I looked at when I started was whether our membership reflected the diversity of Wales. Last year only 13 per cent of our Fellows were female and 20 per cent of our individual members. I immediately set about trying to improve the balance in our membership. Today nearly 15 per cent of our Fellows are female and 24 per cent of our individual members. Progress has been frustratingly slow.
This has led me to question why women aren’t engaging with the IWA and public life more generally. To this end we held an event in March called Putting Women in their Place, looking at women in business and public life. It featured the Equality and Human Rights Commission report Who Runs Wales which highlights some pretty depressing statistics. For instance:

A survey of Wales top 100 companies found not a single female Chief Executive.

* Only 25 per cent of councillors in Wales are women and just 9 per cent of council leaders.
* There are no female black or Asian councillors in Wales.
* Only 16 per cent of secondary school headteachers are women even though 74 per cent of teachers are women.
* Only 21 of local Authority Chief Executives are women despite 73 per cent of local authority staff being female.

Although some women have made some amazing strides, when it comes to the generality of women’s position and opportunity in public life in Wales the status quo is unacceptable. Although we have near gender parity in the National Assembly, this is vulnerable and precarious, as demonstrated in the IWA’s report Critical Mass: the Impact and Future of Female Representation in the National Assembly for Wales. The reality for most women outside Assembly politics, in universities, in local government, in trade unions, in business, in sport, in the media, almost anywhere you care to look, is that very few women make it to the top leadership positions.

In true women’s mobilisation style, the group IWA Women began to form spontaneously from the audience and panelists of our event in March.

As you can imagine we have had several heated debates in the last six months about what we can or should do to raise the profile of issues critical to women’s advancement in Wales. We have agreed that for business, trade unions, universities and so on stop discriminating against women we need a critical mass of women in lead positions to lead the way.

How will we get there? We have thought of many ways of achieving critical mass in organisations in Wales. I for one am not a fan of the phrase ‘positive discrimination’ and I am not enthusiastic about women being given preferential treatment. But the only effective challenge I can see to the preferential treatment that exists towards men is to level the playing field and give women opportunity by accepting that some form of positive action.

This is critical, not just to securing our current position but also to reaching our end goal – genuine equality. These are mainstream issues that deserve to be treated as such and integrated into mainstream politics rather than looked at as an aside to policy. These debates should not be exclusive to women either.

I am elected to Cardiff County Council and all the meetings are held at my kids’ tea and bedtimes. The childcare system when I got there was archaic. I could list 100 ways that I am disadvantaged at the council as a result of my gender, and our council is by no means the worst. However, I have never met an officer, councillor or department who believed they were discriminating against me because of my gender.

The culture is the problem. In 2004 Cardiff Council had to spend millions of pounds bringing women’s pay up to that of their male counterparts. In 2008, despite measures put in place, even in departments run by women, when the policy was revisited four year’s later, in 2008, women were still being paid less than their male counterparts. The pay rise had to be repeated all again.

Of course, many women have reached the top of their professions in Wales. From my experience however, these women often have had to work harder and longer than their male counterparts. Moreover many Welsh women have had to sacrifice elements of their life to succeed in a system pitted against their gender.  Unless we believe that half of the Welsh population, women, have less merit than the other half, we must accept that, for the moment, meritocracy isn’t working.

The problem is not insurmountable. In Norway, for example, the 2008 legislation that returned 40 per cent women to Norwegian business boardrooms has been an unmitigated success. The truth is that business and organisations profit from having men and women in leadership positions. Senior figures in banking in the UK have speculated on what impact gender equality would have had on reducing the banking casino culture and the subsequent credit crunch. It is critical to remember this, rather than looking for masculine characteristics when employing women or selecting candidates in political parties.

Of course, cultural problems are hard to change, often taking generations. But legislation is relatively easy to change, as are party selection procedures.

These are difficult decisions to take as they can be unpopular. I applaud the steps that Welsh political parties have made that have given us near gender parity in the Assembly. Yet, as the IWA report shows, this position is precarious. Political parties, organisations, businesses, universities, local government, everyone right across the board need to keep making these difficult decisions even when they are politically, financially or personally unpopular.

IWA Women is panning a conference for the New year that will look at the relationship of women with the media, how they are portrayed by the media and the treatment they receive when working in the media. We have further projects planned after that. We will keep raising the issue of gender equality again and again. The IWA and IWA Women are ideally placed to facilitate these debates because we act as a bridge between the academic, public and private sectors. All three need to be engaged in this debate.

If Wales is to grow and prosper as a nation we need all of her citizens to be actively engaged in the process. It is critical that we use all of our capacity, male and female, to survive what will be difficult times in term of the economy and the environment. The complacency surrounding the position of women in Wales must be shattered. The glass ceiling is as much in evidence as ever, despite the achievements of some amazing Welsh women.

So what can you do? Join the IWA. Join IWA Women. Help me and the other women
on our group to continue to force the debate on issues critical to women and ultimately to Wales.

This article is based on a speech delivered at the launch of IWA Women and the report Critical Mass: the Impact and Future of Female Representation in the National Assembly for Wales (available from the IWA at £7.50 – and free to women who also join the IWA).

Kirsty Davies is Deputy Director of the IWA.

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