UK Women Might Achieve Equality — In 70 Years

Illustration for article titled UK Women Might Achieve Equality — In 70 Years

A new report from the British Equality and Human Rights Commission, examining women's representation in top roles, shows that some indicators have worsened and others have improved. In other words, "It is a trend of waxing and waning; not one of constant upward movement." What does this mean for how we think of social change?

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Here is one clearly linear movement, according to the report: "British women are better educated than ever before. They are attending university in ever increasing numbers and achieve better degree results than men. Intelligent, competent women are flooding the junior ranks of law firms, accountancies and medical practices." But thanks to familiar factors identified by the study, including different domestic expectations for women with children, the picture is different at the top.

The study counted 26,000 positions of power in fields like business, government, media, and the judiciary. Some of the fields have shown improvement since the last report; other have lessened representation. The authors calculated how long, at the current rate of progress, it would take to achieve complete parity. By this formulation, there are 5,400 "missing" women at the top, and it would take another 30 years for there to be as many women in the ranks of "senior police officers," 70 years for directors of major corporations, 45 years for the senior judiciary, and 70 years for the parliament.

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The study is assuming again here that there'll be a linear progression, even though the authors themselves describe a waxing and waning. But maybe instead we need to be asking, here and elsewhere, why might things get worse again after getting better? Is it a cycle of progress and backlash? Is there inertia about social change that allows things to slacken and go back to the way things were?

Sex And Power [EHRC]
Sex And Power 2011 (full report, PDF) [EHRC]

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DISCUSSION

It's very simple. In order to reach the top of your field, any field, you have to make an enormous number of sacrifices. You need to devote a hell of a lot of time to your career, and everything else needs to take a back seat.

This does not mean that a) you have to be a man or b) you can't have children. I have a friend who has a very successful City career, who has two children. Her husband has allowed his own career to take a back seat to hers and he is the one who ferries the children to school, music lessons etc.

What no one seems to acknowledge is that there are a lot of people, men and women, who decide that they don't want a Type A life and/or career. That they want to stop and smell the roses, and (gasp) raise children, or write books, or do pottery, or yoga.

That doesn't mean that they are not successful people. That doesn't mean that they don't have successful lives. It means that they don't have any interest in reaching the "top" of their respective fields. To my mind, the fact that more of them seem to be women than men speaks very highly for women's collective sanity.

The question we should be asking is, why is it so important for us all to get to the "top"? In the UK, we have universal health care, abortion (virtually) on demand, a year's paid maternity leave, subsidised child care, etc. Would having equal numbers of men and women on corporate boards really make us that much more "equal"?