At least David Cameron can’t be accused of hypocrisy for refusing (five times, no less) to wear a T-shirt saying: “This is what a feminist looks like”. The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 shows that, on his watch, the UK has slid down the rankings of women’s equality from 15th in 2010 to 26th in 2014.
The report is put out by the World Economic Forum, best known for its annual junket for business and other leaders in Davos. It looks at national gender gaps on economic, political, education and health criteria.
The main reason the UK’s not in the top 20 any more? It scores particularly badly on “economic participation”, that is the ratio of women in the workforce, wage equality for similar work done by men and the number of women in senior roles.
In sharp contrast to government claims that “female employment has increased in every sector… with nearly 80 per cent of the increase being in highly skilled occupations”, the report shows women are still paid less than men, whatever work they do, and are underrepresented in senior positions.
This is backed up by the Fawcett Society, which estimates that more than 820,000 women have moved into low paid, insecure jobs since 2008, and one in eight women in low-paid jobs are on zero hour contracts.
Things are also bad in the political sphere, where the UK is 74th of 186 in terms of female representation in parliament. As Zoe Williams points out, we rank “below Iraq” where “it’s still possible to get stoned to death for being raped.”
Cameron’s problem with women
Cameron has long been perceived as having a woman problem – an image he bolstered when he told Labour MP Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear” at PMQs back in April 2011. Currently just four out of his 32 ministers are women, and four women Tory MPs who entered Westminster at the last election have all decided to leave for “personal reasons” while one was deselected.
It wasn’t always so. In fact, the Tories (36 per cent) polled ahead of both Labour (31 per cent) and Lib Dems (26 per cent) among women in the 2010 general election – probably due to Cameron talking up issues like child care, equal pay and parental leave. But in early 2011 women’s support for the Tories fell sharply when these promises failed to come to pass. Polling by YouGov in April 2014 showed that over the previous six months Labour led the Tories by 7.1 points among women.
This is hardly surprising, given the disproportionate negative impact of Tory policies on women’s income, jobs and services. Cutting the budget for the welfare state affects women more because they tend to be poorer than men, whether working or not; receive income from the welfare state because of their caring role; usually live longer than men; and make up around 66 per cent of public sector workers.
The statistics, and policies, weren’t any better under Thatcher, ostensibly our first “woman” prime minister (according to biology, at least). She appointed only one other woman to the Cabinet during her years in power, with “other talented figures left “languishing in lesser posts. She froze child benefits, refused to invest in affordable childcare and criticised working mothers for raising a “crèche generation”. Apparently, she was “left cold” by feminism.
Bringing us back to that pesky T-shirt, courtesy of Harriet Harman on the front bench at PMQs on Wednesday, just across the dispatch box from the red-faced, apoplectic Cameron.