Ruth Wishart: Fight for equality is far from over

TODAY is the 101st International Women’s Day, but changes are still needed at work and at home, writes Ruth Wishart

TODAY is the 101st International Women’s Day, but changes are still needed at work and at home, writes Ruth Wishart

So HERE we are again: the 101st of the breed, and not a Dalmatian in sight. What joy … International Women’s Day: an entire 24 hours in the year devoted to the female condition.

My first outing on an IWD? Ah yes, I remember it well.

Marching down a street in Glasgow, hoisting the left-hand side of the Women in Media banner, lovingly painted by the husband of the other pole bearer and my own.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

A fine double-up we agreed; men coming out as feminists but who understood their place on 8 March. If not barefoot, and hardly pregnant, at least in the kitchen preparing sustenance for their warrior queens. My mum came too.

And at the packed post-march meeting there was but one real topic of conversation – not storming the political barricades, not sending a woman to the moon, but that time-honoured, quintessential building block of liberation: affordable childcare.

Fast-forward to the Noughties and little has changed on that front, except that contemporary women can and do exchange pretty well all of their salaries to ensure their children are adequately cared for as they step back on to that wobbly career ladder. Without a partner earning decent money to meet the other household outgoings, that is simply not an option.

So 21st-century childcare remains a make do and mend patchwork quilt, stitched together by grandparents doing the fetching and carrying, informal childminding of the kind that can circumnavigate regulations, and stressed working parents juggling schedules and praying that no offspring needs urgent dental attention during the staff planning meeting.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Scandinavian model is usually flagged up, and remains proof that if you pay enough tax you get sufficient rewards.

Proof too that culture and attitude are important components of an equitable society. In the UK we still seem surprised that pre-school and small children of working parents need looked after. Yet, like snow on the runway and leaves on the line, it’s scarcely a new phenomenon.

Neither can we agree the party line on parenting. Governments lurch from suggesting that mum’s the ideal word for school-age kids, to urging everyone with a child over seven to get back to work or else.

Surveys fall like malign confetti, assuring us variously that the working mother is guilty of serial neglect, or the stay-at-home variety is too brain dead to offer the necessary stimulus.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

What’s a poor benighted woman to think or do (outside of the obvious little liquid helper chilling in the fridge) when the conventional wisdom is that a mother’s place is in the wrong, wherever that place might happen to be?

But 21st-century fathers are scarcely less confused; advised that bedside presence at the birth is an essential rite of passage and the ideal start to a lifetime of meaningful bonding, then offered just enough paternity leave to check the wean’s eye colour is a reasonable facsimile of their own. The hue may change, of course, but they’ll be long back at paid employment by then.

Women in the workplace face another set of conundrums, selecting their weaponry of choice to plan an assault on that ceiling fashioned from toughened glass. Some, usually in financial services, opt for being one of the lads, trailing around the pubs and clubs after hours in tailored togs, intent on proving they can be as stupidly smashed as the next guy.

Some, in a triumph of hope over experience, endeavour to prove consensus has it all over macho posturing. As the gag goes, they just know that Lehman Sisters would have done it better. Neither camp appears to have made a serious dent in the roofing material.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

That nice Mr Cameron, having been chatted up by some comely Norwegians in Sweden the other week, opined that Britain’s boardrooms would not be fully functional without more gender balance.

Indeed. And amen too to the rider that countries such as Norway which operate boardroom quotas to achieve that happy outcome can point to a healthier bottom line for their trouble.

But given that Britain’s Footsie businesses can muster a paltry 15 per cent of female directors, my breath is not being held for a swift revolution.

Not that it’s just boys being boys that keeps the stats so pathetic.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Women who do scale the corporate heights queue up to tell you they didn’t want special treatment; they wouldn’t want anyone to think they got there on anything but merit.

It’s a usefully facile argument deployed over the years to ensure that the House of Commons can expect parity of numbers by the year 2150 or so. Possibly. For a while we got that a bit more right in Scotland when Holyrood tiptoed towards equality of opportunity, and the first post-devolution Cabinet had a healthy raft of female ministers.

But barely a third of the candidates who stood in the last election was female, and that’s reflected in the make-up of the current chamber.

The sexual revolution hasn’t done quite what it said on the tin either. Having control over their own fertility allowed women to have sex for the fun of it, which has somehow morphed in some quarters into a ladette culture of raunchy promiscuity. Texting sexually explicit snaps of your boobs and bits to someone you fancy doesn’t strike me as the perfumed path to perfect intimacy.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

But perhaps the saddest aspect of this year’s Women’s Day is the raft of statistics which tell us that the unkindest welfare cuts of all will fall on women … women as carers, women as recipients of essential services and benefits. Men will suffer too, but Planet Austerity is disproportionately peopled by women.

Reasons to be cheerful? Well, we don’t live in a war zone with casual rape as a daily feature. We don’t live in a world where religious zealots remove basic rights from women.

So I’ll still raise a glass tonight. But then, not much change there either!