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International Women’s Day and Britain’s gender gap of shame

International Women’s Day and Britain’s gender gap of shame

🕔05.Mar 2015

As the world prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day, Chris Game from the University of Birmingham looks at the data and concludes the country’s gender gap is not narrowing. The gap in Britain in terms of political empowerment is widening – with the figure for Birmingham City Council in political leadership and senior management hardly worthy of flag waving on Sunday. 

Sunday 8th March sees the 107th celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) – including here in Birmingham, of which more later. It’s a longer history than is often supposed and, reflected in its still occasionally used Leninist title – International Working Women’s Day – a more socialist one.

There were conspicuous exceptions, including the suffragettes, but the West as a whole didn’t really latch on to it until, following International Women’s Year in 1975, the UN proclaimed March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace and started increasingly to badge and orchestrate it.

That’s fine for those countries where it’s a public holiday, and for those who don’t celebrate Mother’s Day until early May. We, though, link that American creation to Mothering Sunday and the traditional Christian practice of visiting one’s mother church on the fourth Sunday in Lent (March 15 this year).

There’s the risk, therefore, particularly when you throw in Valentine’s Day, of IWD morphing into another of those fluffy Spring days when women get a bit of a day off, like domestic servants of yore, and maybe a meal out.

I was particularly impressed, then, to see on the IWD website that, of the 1,000+ IWD ‘events’ already registered, the UK will be contributing virtually twice the number of any other single country, the US included.

Not all are taking place this weekend, but over the coming few days The Drum, the Midland Arts Centre, the Custard Factory and Newtown’s Pannel Croft Village are among the specific Birmingham venues hosting IWD-related events.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, whatever else they’ll be doing, one thing these events won’t be celebrating is this country’s narrowing gender gap – because it isn’t.

In the past decade, according to the best comparative data we have, the UK’s overall gender gap hasn’t closed at all in absolute terms. Judged alongside some 120 other countries, the relative gap has widened, as it has on all major sub-indexes, on some of which it has widened absolutely.

The instrument that measures these things is the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index, the 2014 report of which is its 9th annual edition.

Being an index, its principal interest is less in actual levels than in the gaps between men and women in four main categories (sub-indexes).

Economic Participation and Opportunity records labour force participation rates, remuneration, and career advancement. Educational Attainment is about access to primary, secondary and tertiary education. Health and Survival combines sex ratios at birth – to capture internationally the phenomenon of ‘missing women’ – and healthy life expectancy. Political Empowerment compares the ratios of men and women in ministerial and parliamentary positions.

In all indexes, the highest possible score is 1 (equality) and the lowest is 0 (inequality), although in my adaptations I prefer to lose the decimal points and percentagise the proportion of the possible 100% gender gap that’s been closed.

And the UK’s embarrassment, particularly on International Women’s Day, is that since 2006 our overall gender gap hasn’t closed by a single percentage point. In my graph, 74% of the gap was closed by 2006, putting us 9th in global rankings, and in 2014 it was still 74%.

gender gap

Meanwhile, all sorts of countries had overtaken us – not just the US and the volatile French, but from parts of the world one wouldn’t necessarily expect: Nicaragua (6th), Rwanda (7th), the Philippines (9th), Latvia (15th), Burundi (17th), Bulgaria (22nd), Slovenia (23rd) and Moldova (25th).

As already indicated, there’s not much to celebrate in any of the indexes, but naturally some make less embarrassing reading than others. In education, for example, we have a rare sub-index measure of more than 1.00 – a 1.36 female-to-male enrolment ratio in tertiary education – although it’s more than cancelled out by a 0.94 ratio for primary education.

Two sub-indexes are particularly gloomy. On none of the five Economic Participation measures is the UK ranked even as high as 45th, with ratios for advancement of 0.52, for estimated earned income of 0.62, and wage equality for equal work of 0.69.

The Political Empowerment graph would look like a duplication of the overall one, but with a key difference. The UK’s purple line of shame this time signifies an actual widening of the gender gap as well as a steady fall in ranking.

As we approach the election, our ratios of women in parliament and in ministerial positions are 0.29 and 0.19 respectively – compared, for instance, to Denmark 0.64, 0.83; Finland 0.74, 1.0; South Africa 0.81, 0.59; and Rwanda 1.0, 0.65. Of which the best that can be said is that at least the bar for the next lot to try to jump is set pretty low.

For understandable reasons, there simply aren’t comparable international data available of sufficient quality to enable the inclusion of local government in either the career advancement or political empowerment indexes.

However, there are still, pretty obviously, significant gender gaps in both the political leadership and senior management of Birmingham City Council. By my calculations from the most easily available listings, the ratios that might be compared with those above are as follows: Cabinet 0.5; Council 0.46; Chairs of Overview & Scrutiny, regulatory committees and leading members of outside bodies 0.78; Senior management, as listed by name on the Council’s website 0.79.

So, better than Westminster, a lot better than Downing Street, and almost certainly better than Whitehall. Whether it’s worth that much celebration, though, after 107 years of International Women’s Days is surely debatable.

Pic: Rt Hon Nicky Morgan, Minister for Women and Equalities

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