When Theresa May became prime minister and set out her vision, women were among the groups she promised to champion. She cited unequal pay on a list of “burning injustices” alongside race and class inequalities. This year companies with more than 250 employees were for the first time compelled to report on their gender pay gap. This can be calculated in different ways, but the Office for National Statistics has it at 17.9%, down 0.5% from last year. At this rate it will be decades before women and men are paid the same, but the data is moving in the right direction.
Unfortunately, even such modest progress is the exception rather than the rule in 21st-century Britain. Unpalatable though it may be both to ministers and feminists, the evidence suggests that women’s advancement has stalled and is in danger of going backwards – if it is not doing so already. The government did not accept last year’s finding by the House of Commons Library that 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women – £79bn, against £13bn for men – and refuses to conduct its own analysis. But work by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust has shown that women, and particularly BAME women, are disproportionately affected by cuts to public services and other spending.
Nine in 10 single parents are women, single female pensioners are more likely to be poor, and poor BAME women face multiple disadvantages even before the effects of cuts are calculated. Last month’s report by UN poverty expert Philip Alston highlighted the impact on single mothers of policies including universal credit. Four women have launched a high court challenge to benefit reforms they claim are discriminatory. The Equality and Human Rights Commission projects that the poverty rate for children in single-parent households will be 62% by 2022. Any economic shock following from Brexit will only exacerbate such hardships.
The bad news is not limited to money. From criminal justice to business to mental health, evidence suggests the position of women is not improving. As complaints of rape have soared, the rate of charging has fallen by 23.1%. The number of women holding boardroom positions has barely changed in a decade. A recent NHS survey found that almost one in four older teenage girls has a mental disorder. While #MeToo raised awareness of the extent of sexual harassment, attempts to hold men to account have in many cases – most recently in the House of Lords – fallen flat. In Northern Ireland, seeking an abortion remains a criminal offence.
The referendum to legalise abortion in Ireland cheered feminists the world over. But last year the World Economic Forum warned that movement towards gender parity was “shifting into reverse”. This week another report highlighted the lack of progress on eradicating child marriage and high rates of domestic violence. In the US, as Margaret Atwood writes in this weekend’s Guardian Review, reproductive rights are under attack as never before.
The current number of female MPs in the UK, 209, is a record. The photos of the recent G20 meeting show just one woman prime minister: Theresa May. The UK can be proud of its progress in some areas, even if it is sometimes slow; and there have been advances in recent years, such as the law broadening the definition of domestic violence. In the scheme of things, however, it is difficult to see how shrinking the state can ever be compatible with reducing inequality between the sexes. Because the greater share of domestic and caring work is undertaken by women, any attack on dependency is, by definition and even if inadvertent, an attack on women.
In 2010 Mrs May, who was then equalities minister, wrote to warn George Osborne that his emergency budget risked worsening the position of women and minorities. Successive waves of cuts since then have hit these groups again and again. The fact that many women are not affected should not blind us to the facts. Progress towards sexual equality must not be taken for granted.
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