By Janet Veitch

03 March 2016 - 16:06

'We can't allow another generation to grow up putting up with inequality.' Photo (c) Mat Wright.
'We can't allow another generation to grow up putting up with inequality.' Photo ©

Mat Wright.

The fifth of the United Nations' 17 new development goals is to achieve gender equality for all by 2030. We asked Janet Veitch OBE, who chairs the British Council's advisory group on gender equality, how far we still have to go, and whether this goal can be achieved by decree alone.

What are the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

They are 17 targets that have just been agreed by all members of the United Nations. The idea is that countries will strive to achieve them over the next 15 years. They concentrate on the most important things - things we have been trying to conquer for centuries, and where we should all be working together. For example, the first goal is to end poverty, and the second is to end hunger – no small task!

Aren't these goals only relevant to less wealthy countries?

When the goals were being set, it became clear that some countries are closer to ending things like poverty and hunger than others. So the UN set two different kinds of targets. Some are designed to achieve minimum conditions for the very worst-off nations: things like clean water and sanitation. But for better-off countries like the UK, there are stretching targets; for example, to increase the proportion of women in leadership positions.

We hope that the most serious problems will have been solved by the deadline of 2030, but also that all countries will have taken a significant step forward. This approach means that every country, even the most developed, has work to do. Here in the UK, for example, we have some way to go in ending child poverty, a goal we set ourselves some years ago.

How do you work out how well a country is doing in terms of gender equality?

Social scientists have been trying to measure equality for many years now. And we've come up with different approaches at different times. There is agreement on some crucial indicators; for example, poverty. The gender pay gap is well known. At all salary levels, men still earn about 20 per cent more than women doing the same jobs. The highest-paid men earn 54.9 per cent more than their female colleagues. This pay gap continues into retirement: women’s pensions in the UK are typically one third lower than men’s.

Why do most women still earn less than men?

In broad terms, women’s poverty is closely linked to the fact that they do much more unpaid caring work than men, and this eats into their ability to earn. And because of their caring responsibilities, they are unable to compete as effectively in the labour market, so women have ended up crowded into less well-paid jobs, such as administrative roles.

We also know about the glass ceiling. This invisible barrier to better-paid positions is often linked to the fact that women’s caring work means they are less likely to be able to compete for promotion at important points in their careers.

How important is it to have women in government?

The second important indicator is voice: how often women are represented in decision-making, public policy, and politics. It’s often said that, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. It was certainly the case that, in the past, when women were not in parliament, their policy concerns were not taken seriously. Even now, men outnumber women at Westminster by two to one. The disparity is even more striking at local government level, where lots of decisions on the frontline services that really affect women are taken, such as the provision of childcare and healthcare.

What about violence against women?

Talking of policy concerns that were not taken seriously brings me to my third crucial indicator: men’s violence against women and girls. It’s only over the last 20 or 30 years that women have begun to talk about this unspoken epidemic of violence, ranging from low-level sexual harassment in public places, to sexual and domestic violence within the family, rape, and the murder of women because they are women – i.e., femicide. The United Nations estimates that one third of women and girls have suffered from some form of violence. Such violence takes many forms across the world  – female genital mutilation, acid attacks, forced marriage - but it is all aimed at controlling women and keeping them in their place, so to speak.

Violence against women and girls is a cause and consequence of women's inequality, and that's another important reason to stop it. Women politicians have been getting this issue on the political agenda. Years ago, when women members of parliament first stood up to talk about domestic violence in parliament, they were heckled. Now, we have a female home secretary, Theresa May, who is championing a UK-wide government strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.

How close to equality are women and girls in the UK? 

The UK is a developed country, and therefore of course we have lower levels of illiteracy, poverty, and malnutrition than developing countries. As part of the European Union, we also prioritise women’s equality. Over the last 30 years or so, we've passed European laws on equal pay for women (the Equality Act of 2010), maternity rights (which are covered under EU legislation) and so on.

However, there's still some way to go in achieving actual equality and securing these legal rights in practice. So, for example, although it is illegal to sack a woman because she is pregnant, the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that more than 50,000 women are (illegally) sacked each year when they are pregnant. The number of reported rapes is now the highest since 2003, while two women a week are murdered by their partners or ex-partners – figures that remain stubbornly high.

Can the UK take a leaf from other countries' books, when it comes to equality?

We could learn from other members of the European Union – for example the Scandinavian countries, where the division of unpaid caring work, like cooking and cleaning, is closer to being balanced. More than a third of both men and women in the UK agree that women do a disproportionate amount of the housework.

And some countries have done much better than we have in creating a gender-equal parliament – for example, the number of women in UK parliament is outranked by Rwanda. We come in at a discreditable number 48 in the world rankings.

What's most surprising about the data?

For me, a surprising thing has been the link between women’s vulnerability to violence and poverty. Poorer women are more likely to be attacked. Women of all income ranges can be, and are, affected by violence. But your chances of experiencing domestic violence and rape increase if you lack the financial resources to escape from the situation. The link between poverty and domestic violence is particularly telling, because it suggests that it happens because women are economically dependent on men and unable to leave. And that tells us something about the potential impact of economic cuts, or a reduction in women’s independent income, upon women’s safety.

People often say that women’s equality has been achieved. They also say that men’s inequality is a big problem – and sometimes that men suffer from women’s violence too. Such views ignore the facts above, because those facts are not widely reported – hardly surprising, when you think how far men outnumber women in decision-making roles in the media.

Which is more important - legislative change, or change in social norms?

For many years, I believed that changing the law was all we needed to achieve to improve life for women. And it's clear that, in countries where the law is inadequate, women’s rights still lag behind.

However, the law in itself is not enough. I've come to believe that changing the way we all think and talk about women and men and our human rights is the most important thing. As long as it seems okay for women to be demeaned and stereotyped in the media, limited to a smaller range of jobs, discouraged from taking leadership roles while they are young, and deprived of female role models, we will continue to see significant gaps in women’s achievements.

Is it possible to change social attitudes about women's roles? 

Well, the good news is that we have seen huge developments in women's rights within societies throughout history, so we know that social norms evolve and change constantly. The bad news is that change comes about slowly: the gender pay gap is only going down by one or two per cent a year. But setting targets, like the UN's SDGs, is a great way to commit resources to intractable problems.

What can women do for their own emancipation?

They could educate themselves to understand how gender inequality is reinforced through the media, through advertising, through films and literature, and through the way we educate boys and girls in their gender roles. They could then work with other women to make a bigger change in society for our daughters. We have to stand up now, to speak out collectively about the issues. We can’t let another generation grow up putting up with inequality.

What can men can do to support women?

Men need to talk about the impact of gender inequality – they need to start redefining masculinity away from predatory, hyper-masculinity. Most of all, men need to be allies and support what women are trying to do for themselves. Men can support their mothers, partners, and daughters. A good starting point would be doing their fair share of the unpaid caring work.

Visit our ‘Sustainable Development Goals: Facing up to the big global challenges’ exhibition, until Friday 8 April 2016 at the British Council's headquarters, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN.

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