The long struggle towards equality

Why are so few women in positions of power? According to statistics, 80 per cent of the most powerful jobs are occupied by men and only 20 per cent by women.

A new book, Man-Made: why so few women are in positions of power, by gender expert Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds, former TUC President and General Secretary of the GMB, seeks to find out why, despite claiming to be a modern country, the imbalance of power between the genders still persists in the UK.

The book includes interviews with over 100 successful women from different walks of life to find out how they got to the top of their professions. The writers say their aim is to show how women can overcome the barriers placed in their way, but that more work is needed to help other women achieve success. They quote one woman who says: “The objective should not be to hand out a limited number of life belts so that a few more women can float to the top; we need to build a raft with enough space for all women-kind.”

The book was born out of the 2010 general election where the campaign was, as the authors say, “so unmistakably and disconcertingly male”. They trace the progress of women, showing that it has not been linear. “Reforms have not come steadily,” they say. “They have come in fits and starts and, significantly, progress has only been made when the campaign for reform has been backed by a powerful movement.” They say there is evidence of campaigns for change now, but that it is unclear  whether these can coalesce into a more powerful movement which addresses all the many and often linked ways in which women are ‘kept in their place’.

They talk about how “miserable reality” appears to have diluted the ambitions of campaign groups – hence the 30% Club is not campaigning for full gender equality, for instance.

There are chapters covering everything from fitting into male cultures, discrimination and misogeny to stereotypes and the old boys’ network.

The road to equality

So how can women deal with these challenges? The authors say the women they interviewed were “exceptional people” who tended not to focus on any unfairness they encountered and to play down problems such as sexual harassment.

They argue that such successful women need to be more visible so they can give women greater confidence and act as role models.

The chapter entitled The Maternal Wall talks about how having a baby is when many women often come up against career crises. It talks about the importance of flexible working, but warns that, for instance, homeworking is often chosen out of necessity rather than choice and could be subject to exploitation since no-one can see the number of hours worked at home and many do over their hours. The chapter concludes: “In short, the pressures on women in the modern world are too great. That is the ultimate condemnation of our system.”

The authors reckon that with a fairer system, the number of women making it to the top of their professions would double or treble.

So how do they get there? The authors want to see policy based on women’s needs, not business needs and argue strongly for the essential fairness of gender equality.  They say: “It may be expedient for political and business leaders to shy away from any mention of fairness and equality and to clothe their policy in the language of business requirements but gender issues are more important than that. Women deserve better than this puny initiative [of putting ‘the business case’].”

The book has 10 recommendations. These include the introduction of quotas, targets and in-house equality programmes, better enforcement of equality legislation, greater transparency in appointments and pay and a requirement for employers to have an equal rights policy and a senior manager responsible for equality issues. They talk about the right for paid sabbaticals of up to three years for study and once that policy is established for maternity and paternity breaks to be fitted into the scheme.

But Man Made is more ambitious than this. In short, it argues for a change in the way we view work so that it is integrated with family life. The authors talk, for instance, about maternity and other policies which aim to support women in the workplace, but say these do not address the central question of a workplace that is not designed for families, and most particularly for mothers. They say: “Society needs to be restructured so that work takes its proper place alongside other imperatives and is fashioned to balance the needs of both genders.”

One of the interviewees, Jane Fuller, owner and Director of Fuller Analysis Consultancy, says simply: “It helped me not to have children in my career. I could be more flexible and work longer hours if necessary, but you shouldn’t have jobs that mothers can’t do.”

*Man-Made: why so few women are in positions of power is published by Gower Publishing

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