Ball Breaking Women – anywhere?

// 5 January 2006

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) published a report today which estimates that it will take 200 years for women to achieve equal power to men. It confirms the continued existence of the ‘glass ceiling’ for women in business, politics, more than 30 years since the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act.

Whilst the report acknowledged the increased number of women in positions of power, it called the pace of change ‘painfully slow’ – women currently make up 11% of FTSE 100 directors, 20% of MPs, 10% of police chiefs, 9% of the senior judiciary and 13% of national newspaper editors.

The EOC’s annual Sex and Power report called for:

  • more access to well paid, high quality part-time work at all levels, including senior levels;
  • a legal requirement for private sector employees to promote sex equality and eliminate discrimination; and
  • an obligation on companies to run an \x91equality check\x92 to identify pay gaps and take appropriate action.

David Conway, from Civitas (the group which published the attack on political correctness covered by Jess) has responded to this by saying that the findings were “categorically not” down to discrimination, that women are “simply making different work-life choices”.

What annoys me so much about arguments like this is the assumption that these ‘choices’ are freely made, without constraint from the world in which we live. I’d take issue with the fact that there is no discrimination within the workplace – but even if there weren’t, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why it’s women who have to make these life choices?

Many people- male and female – love having children, so why are only women ‘making the decision to have families’? The only necessary time required out of a job by women that isn’t required by men is a matter of weeks surrounding the actual birth – hardly enough to ruin one’s prospects for the entirety of one’s career. After that, the basis for the assumption (other than precedent) that the burden of this life choice falls exclusively on the woman is not at all clear.

Surely most, if not all, households on the birth of their firstborn will have a long hard look at their finances and – if both partners are not lucky enough to be able to work flexibly and share the childcare burden – send the better earning partner back to work. The pay gap being what it is (see our archives for the 29th and the 17th May), this will tend to be the male partner in a heterosexual couple. This may be what the couple would ideally like, or it may not, but few can afford to do otherwise. But it’s a nonsense to assume that because people are doing this they want to do this. In this situation doesn’t the ‘life choice’ become a rather meaningless concept?. We don’t know that women want to stay at home and look after children (with the resultant negative career impacts) any more than we know men don’t want to. What we do know is that this cycle is self-perpetuating. The more women have no option other than to drop out of the fast stream if they wish to have children, the less likely these things are to change.

Imagine a world in which the EOC’s recommendations were implemented – obligatory salary reviews by firms lead to a narrowing of the pay gap. At the same time, the (realistic) option to work part time, flexibly, or from home without jeopardising your career is extended widely to both sexes, and employers are banned from discriminating on this basis. There’s no reason to think that, given time, men and women wouldn’t be making pretty similar life choices – and then the only possibly outcome at work would be that gender would be immaterial in career progression.

It’s only when perfectly sensible measures such as those recommended by the EOC are implemented that these ‘life choices’ we’re all supposed to be making actually become meaningful at all. And meaningful choice about the way we wish to conduct our lives is surely what we all – male and female – strive for?

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