When the Equal Opportunities Commission was disbanded, I knew a problem had been created: there was no longer a powerful advocate in UK for gender equality. The consequences of this have become painfully clear this week as key stakeholders have lined up in favour of gender inequality, by opposing the Government’s proposals to give parents more choice about how to use leave entitlements, a move that would, among other things, help to tackle pregnancy discrimination.
Government wants parents to be able to share leave after 18 weeks after the birth, instead of the current 26 weeks. As a comparison, in the countries that have made most progress towards gender equality, such as Sweden, parents are able to share after just two weeks (few do, but the choice is the family’s). In 2006, the UK introduced one of the most unequal parenting leave entitlement regimes in the world and this inequality is now being defended; the increase in choice for parents is being presented as a “reduction” in maternity leave for mothers, when in fact the leave that mothers are entitled to remains unchanged and their choice about how to use it is increasing.
I cannot bear the idea that we cannot leave mothers and fathers to choose how they use their leave and instead force them either to use their leave in the restricted way that someone ‘up there’ has decided, or lose the use of it altogether. I agree with the lobbies against change that we need to protect some mothers from bad employers, but I believe the proposed method backfires terribly, on women in particular.
It is time for a new start in the campaign for gender equality.
This is no longer men versus women. It is between those who act to keep men and women different when it comes to family life versus the advocates of equal sharing of responsibility in all spheres. It is not party political – the advocates on both sides operate right across the political spectrum. It is not about commerce versus society – the advocates on both sides exist in both arenas.
The focus will be as much on the domestic and caring domain as the work domain, recognising that the two are inseparable – inequality in one causes inequality in the other. The experiences of women and men are interdependent. Pregnancy discrimination is an issue for men, the exclusion of men from family services is an issue for women. The care of children is now the most gendered thing in our society – it disadvantages children, drives the pay gap and costs the economy billions.
The campaign will be inclusive – it will embrace women and men, mothers of sons and fathers of daughters. In order to overcome how alienated men have become from the old gender politics it will need to make specific efforts to engage and welcome them – quotas for participation?!
It will recognise that many women and many men have the power to choose inequality and often do – the existence of such choice is not the problem, but the veiling of this choice as someone else’s fault is – you cannot choose inequality then be angry with others about it. It will recognise that powerlessness exists among both men and women and that many of both sexes cannot act through choice.
It will focus on the things that generate gender inequality the most, whether they afflict women or men the most. It will recognise inequality in these afflictions.
Advocates for equality – men and women – are popping their heads above the parapet and finding each other. I note that Daniel Knowles at the Daily Telegraph has written twice on the subject, criticising the Fawcett Society and reproducing their response to him. I love Rebecca Asher’s book on motherhood, Shattered.
I do not feel comfortable writing this blog post. I don’t feel my position on these issues is held to have as much legitimacy as a woman’s. I don’t like to disagree with people I have worked with for many years. But I cannot help being in profound disagreement with the position that is being put forward – that of limiting the sharing that a family can do in the first year. I am pleased that men and women are now speaking out together on this, setting the shape of things to come. We should have started this in 2006 but it is never too late to act.