International Women’s Day matters as much today as it ever did, argues Cerys Furlong
Chwarae Teg expects Wales to be a place where women achieve and prosper. Too often it is not and too many women face real barriers to success. We know that most people in Wales agree that women and men are, or should be, equal. However, too few of us are actively working to ensure that this is the case. So when the inevitable question is asked today about whether we should also be celebrating International Men’s Day I say no, we should not. We do that for too many of the other 364 days of the year. And Chwarae Teg will be explicit, this International Women’s Day and on every other, about the things that need to change to create a Wales where women and men are valued and supported equally.
Women in the Economy
Women and men are not economically equal. Women’s position in the home and labour market leave them more likely to be employed in lower paid, poor quality jobs with fewer opportunities to progress. This results in a persistent pay gap that stands at 16% for all workers in Wales (and 7.9% for full time workers). A recent report from PWC showed that at the current pace of change the gender pay gap won’t close until 2041, 71 years after the Equal Pay Act was brought into force. In what other public sphere would that speed of implementation be acceptable?
There is also a lack of decent work, for both men and women in Wales – roles that are well paid, rewarding and sufficiently flexible to enable men and women to share the ‘outside work’ responsibilities more equally. This is about the living wage and driving up wages for our lowest paid – using public procurement to positive address inequality and tackle poverty. But it’s also about how we support people into work, through phased periods in and out of work (including maternity, paternity and shared parental leave), flexibility in hours and decent jobs closer to home.
Women and men dominate different sectors, and we tend to place a higher value on the male dominated sectors. Our current economic strategy focusses on nine priority sectors, most of which are traditionally and currently male dominated. Of the eight sector panels advising Welsh Government on priorities for these sectors and for growth, only one is chaired by a woman. More worryingly, even the ‘newer’ or emerging industries such as ICT or Creative Industries exhibit many of the same entrenched structural inequalities as our older ‘traditional’ industries. Gender inequality is not a problem that is simply going to die out.
The Women’s Business Council estimate that the UK economy could be grown by more than 10% by 2030 if men and women’s economic participation rates were equalised. More recently, McKinsey and Co concluded that bridging the UK gender pay gap has the potential to create an additional £150bn on top of business as usual GDP forecasts with all regions likely to see between 5% and 8% increase in GVA.
Women at risk
So while men and women are not economically equal, neither are the opportunities to access support, progression and opportunity equal. We also know that women who are part of another protected characteristic are more at risk of a range of discrimination, and of poverty. We have to work harder to enable those women at risk of poverty, at risk of social or geographic isolation, or of violence and oppression to access the opportunities they need to achieve and prosper.
We know that poverty is gendered. Women are more likely to live in poverty and suffer longer and recurrent spells of poverty than men. This is in part due to the fact that single, female headed households are more likely to live in poverty. Lone parents, 90% of whom are women, are particularly vulnerable to experiencing poverty, with statistics showing that female headed households are more likely to be in poverty than those headed by a man.
Changing attitudes and behaviour
We have to work harder to change attitudes and behaviour. One way of doing this is ensuring fair and equal representation of men and women across public and economic life. This should include public bodies setting a target of 50% gender representation on their boards by 2020, the implementation of quotas and for political parties to take action to improve women’s representation as councillors, AMs and MPs. But we also need diverse female business leaders, chief executives of charities, and so on.
As a teenager I rather optimistically thought that many of the battles around gender equality and women’s economic contribution had been won. I thought that the next wave of feminism was about taking those won rights and implementing them. Bless. Unfortunately the older I have got, the more obvious it has become that we still have work to do. Whilst we should be eternally grateful for the trailblazing women who won the right to vote, or campaigned for equal pay, we have yet to change attitudes or behaviours.
So I have become the awkward woman I never imagined I would need to be. And I urge other men and women to join me, because I don’t speak for all women (what a weird thought), and I don’t speak about only ‘women’s issues’. Are the boys doing it? Well quite frankly no they are not, or too few of them are. So while I might get labelled as whining or hit with ‘she would say that wouldn’t she’, this is a problem for everyone in Wales, and something that International Women’s Day enables us to highlight, as we will do tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that.