Sex and power: 70 years until equality?

Amongst all the high emotions and press coverage of the A Levels and university entrance last week, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission slipped right under the radar. This report, entitled ‘Sex and Power’, looked at the number of women in power or influence in Britain in 2010-11, and compared it with previous years, looking at trends and predicting as a result the trajectories of female involvement in 27 key occupations over the next few decades.

The figures were worrying: although 17 of the 27 categories showed an increase in women at the top compared to 2007-8, these increases were small, and still did not come close to being at the same level of representation as men. In 10 of the categories, there had actually been a drop compared to 2007-2008, and given that these groups included members of Cabinet, health service executives and public appointments, all of which are roles which seek to represent fairly the wider population (including the 51% of women this contains), then we are right to be concerned.

The report stressed the (sometimes depressingly) slow progress that is happening in the field of gender equality. It estimated that with current trends, it will take 30 years to achieve equality between men and women holding positions as senior police officers, 45 years for the same to happen with the senior judiciary, and 70 years to achieve an equal number of women MPs and women directors in the FTSE 100.

70 years is a long time – 3 generations, almost, into an unforeseeable future. Look at how much the world has changed in the last 70 years, since 1941 – change almost beyond belief. With memories of our history still very vivid in our collective memories, however, we can acknowledge and understand why there are still inequalities in our society: we are still very much a society in transition towards greater fairness and gender understanding. Yet today, in 2011, in our world, we have the structures – the laws, the shared public understanding – very firmly in place for absolute equality and fairness, so why is change taking so long?

The Report is quite clear on this point: ‘Outdated working patterns and inflexible organisations continue to be major barriers to women’s participation in positions of authority.’ This is the bottom line – we are not evolving our working patterns fast enough, despite the fact that the technology and the examples of good practice both exist to do so. We need to continue to seek actively to address this, making it possible for women and men to work in a fluid environment that enables them to respond effectively and with ease to all the demands on their time, not the least of which is the important role that they have in bringing up the next generation and parenting them well.

The A Level results and the success of girls that it highlighted remind us that as a society we invest enormous amounts in the education of our young women. They are ready and more than able to contribute to the improvement of the world, and we are foolish if we continue to make it difficult for them to do so. Let’s not waste their talents.

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