Nicola Sturgeon made it clear on taking office as First Minister in Scotland, reinforced by her appointment of a gender balanced cabinet, that equality in high office can be achieved. And in the recent election debate the women leaders were seen to perform better than their male counterparts, replacing swagger and bluster with reasoned argument and debate. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon topped the post-debate opinion polls by offering sincerity, passion and intelligence as a coherent alternative to the baying of the men in suits and remarked that the debate showed, “why we need to break the old boys network at Westminster.” But in a world where Nigel Farage, the white, middle aged, city man, who went to a school that charged annual fees of £17,500 can cast himself as a political outsider, is the era of privileged, pale and male really coming to an end?
While it s true that Nicola Sturgeon acted quickly to ensure that her cabinet had equal representation of men and women, change at a national level is slower. For example, in Scotland only 28 per cent of the candidates standing for election as MP’s are women. Women have made progress, albeit slow progress, in representation on the boards of big businesses and public bodies but has anything really changed for women in the workplace as a result? Or have these successful women simply put on the clothes and adopted the mannerisms of the powerful, becoming part of the system without actually changing it? Placing women in influential positions doesn’t in and of itself bring about equality in the whole system. Having more women in powerful roles can change what power looks like but one doesn’t automatically follow that it will change what power looks like. One only has the say the two words ‘Margaret Thatcher’ to see the truth of that statement.
Take the ethically branded Co-operative Group, where Ursula Lidbetter is Chair. The group, along with all other high-street retailers, has refused to sign up as a Living Wage employer. The workforce, mainly women who continue to dominate part-time and insecure work, suffer and often have to rely on working tax-credits to top up their pay packets. Having women at the top of a business does not guarantee better conditions for those women working in the business.
Those who advocate gender equality in politics and in the boardroom need to match that support with commitments across all of society. The gender pay gap is wide and persistent. George Osborne has hailed as a success the current gap of 19.1%. True, this is the lowest on record but there has been equal pay legislation in the UK for over 40 years! In addition, women are increasingly being employed on zero hour and other insecure contracts.
The changing nature of the debate at a political level is, undoubtedly, a good thing but unless women use the position of power to create real change for the majority of women then the pale, male and stale system will be replaced by one that may look different but which will, in practice, be exactly the same.