Women and men can live as equals but we must all work together to overcome long-standing prejudices, writes Jo Swinson MP.
Rampant sexual harassment at a corporate charity dinner. The BBC accused of breaking equal pay laws. Easyjet’s new male CEO offered £34,000 more to do the same job as his female predecessor. You don’t have to look far to find gender inequality alive and kicking in 2018. And those are just stories from the last fortnight.
Not all sexism is so blatant or obvious. Part of the problem is that we are lulled into a false sense of comfort by warm words on corporate websites about diversity initiatives, and a small number of women in powerful positions such as Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May.
This masks the fact that informal power structures in politics, the media and business are all still dominated by rich, white men.
Gendered assumptions abound in society. This week Anna Isaac tweeted how a man on the train had expressed surprised to see a “young lady” reading the Telegraph business pages and the Financial Times. After he mansplained what CBI and ECB stands for, he asked her: “So, what do you do?”
She is the economics correspondent for the Telegraph. Replies to her story confirmed that many others similarly experience being dismissed or not taken seriously because they are women.
Many studies show the ingrained gender bias spanning different spheres. Job applications for a science lab manager position were assessed differently depending on whether the name on an identical CV was John or Jennifer – surprise, surprise, John was more likely to be offered the job and was also offered 14 per cent more salary on average. The same novel submitted to multiple publishers secured eight times more interest when it was submitted by George instead of Catherine. Online, male journalists are disproportionately followed and retweeted compared to female journalists, and accounts with female usernames receive up to 25 times more malicious messages. Mostly this disadvantages women, but when it comes to areas like caring for children, it is men who are wrongly assumed to be incompetent.
We exist within a culture that is sexist: from outright misogyny to subtle cues that perpetuate gender stereotypes. It should not be surprising that we all absorb this, and in turn reinforce it, to a greater or lesser extent. This begins in childhood, with toys, books, TV and how we speak differently to little girls and little boys. Later it continues through the world of work, sport and the media around us.
The good news is, gender inequality is not inevitable. We can choose to change it, every single one of us. Having been Minister for Women for three years, I know the limitations of Government in tackling gender inequality. I made progress by introducing shared parental leave and ensuring large employers have to publish their gender pay gaps, but I recognised that as well as new laws, we need a wider movement to challenge and change our culture.
So here’s my call to arms to everyone frustrated by the lack of gender equality here in 2018: use your power to do something about it. You don’t need to fix the whole problem, just fix the bit you can. Whatever your gender, whether you’re retired, working or still at school, everyone can take action and make a difference. My book, Equal Power, contains dozens of ideas of things you can do to tackle gender inequality at home and at work, from sport to culture, and in our everyday conversations.
When you take action, please share what you’ve done using the hashtag #EqualPower. Gender inequality is not inevitable. Let’s make it a thing of the past.
Five practical things you can do to help tackle gender inequality
1. Take the online Harvard implicit bias test to understand better what you subconsciously associate with different genders.
2. Use your financial power. If you have a pension, write to the trustees to ask them to quiz big corporates on their record on gender diversity. Here is a a template letter.
3. Challenge companies that use sexist images and language, and send praise to those that break down gender stereotypes. If it’s an advert, you can make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority.
4. Be a better bystander. When you witness sexual harassment, support the person being harassed. Depending on what feels safe, this could mean calling out the harasser directly, disrupting the behaviour by starting a neutral conversation such as asking what the time is, or offering kind words of solidarity after the event. There’s more resources about this at the hollaback! website.
5. Check the gender pay gap. By law, all organisations that employ more than 250 people have to publish their gender pay gap by April this year. Have a look on this website to see if your employer/supermarket/utility provider/favourite shop has published yet. If not, email them to ask why not. If they have, ask them to explain what they are doing to close the gap.