A Woman’s Word
by Louise McGolpin
If recent reports are anything to go by, you would be forgiven for believing that some rapes are more serious than others, safety of domestic abuse victims is not worthy of priority and feminism is to blame for male unemployment. But please “calm down dear” – these trifling observations are not a cause for concern.
Something is very wrong. It would seem that a number of significant actors in our government are unable to even closely discern what women in the United Kingdom are about. A sustained string of gaffes belonging to David Willetts, Ken Clarke, and David Cameron, along with Vince Cable’s plans to scrap flexible working schemes, the proposed cuts to legal aid and funding for women’s shelters being all but annihilated, together paint an uncomfortable picture of values within our cabinet. (And this list is not exhaustive.)
What is the response of the Cabinet to suggestions of gender discrimination in their policies? They will appoint a Woman’s Advisor.
There is nothing revolutionary about the appointment of an advisor that deals with gender issues. In fact, there is an entire department at the Home Office devoted to reviewing equality. Nor are such roles singularly found within government organisations: they are a laudable tool in the egalitarian kit. Across corporate, academic and governmental institutions we see the creation of roles to promote the consideration of all interests within an organisation.
Simultaneously we see that these roles do not work in isolation. Officers charged with promoting inclusivity are not a solution; they are one part of a solution. In order that the interests of women to be incorporated into policy decisions in government indeed in any entity, all the constituent parts of an inclusive model must be functioning.
Dr Erika Rackley is an eminent doctor of law at Durham University Law School, who recently formed part of an important consultation on the process of judicial appointments to the UK Supreme Court. She observes that “the danger of appointing a Women’s Advisor means that attention is shifted away from other key issues, in particular the poor representation of women in public life generally” and that “taking positive steps to address the reasons behind the lack of inclusion of women’s interests in cabinet decision making would be far more fruitful”.
Indeed, officers in our government are already appointed to perform this function. Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, speaking on the Guardian roundtable last week, astutely observed that individuals such as Theresa May and Lynne Featherstone are specifically tasked with considering the impact of their Department’s activities on women. The problem is not that these issues are considered at all but that the effective incorporation of these considerations at a budgetary and legislative level is absent.
Take domestic violence for instance: this is a crime of a secretive nature where community infrastructure is paramount to the safety of victims. Indeed, a study conducted by Coventry Women’s Voices found that the combined impact of the spending cuts on women victims and survivors of rape or domestic violence poses a serious threat to their human rights. It is difficult to see how these findings were ignored in the policy decision to cut funding in the area, tantamount to closing fifty per cent of centres across the UK.
In the operation of governments lies ultimate discretion. When introducing legislation, our parliament has the responsibility to act compatibly with human rights. Our parliament is sovereign and its choice of legislative bent is entirely determined by the policies the government chooses to implement.
There is a strong case for spending cuts, though it is not the only solution. The deficit reached record levels in the first quarter of 2010. For now, austerity measures appear to be working: data generated by the Office for National Statistics showed a net repayment of £7.750 billion in January, up from £5.204 billion in the same period last year. This was the highest for any month since January 2008 and decreased borrowing by £16 billion year on year. However, fractional increases in GDP, coupled with high inflation and weak numbers from the high street paint a bleak picture by anyone’s standards, perhaps unless you are Greek or Italian.
What is entirely without reason is the disproportionate effect of those cuts on women. Unemployment is at an all-time high. The fact that twice as many women lost their jobs during this recession as men is telling. Schemes introduced to provide viable work for the alarming quantum of unemployed 16-18 year olds have favoured male-centric technical vocational schemes, largely ignoring the desires of young women to find gainful employment.
The old attitudes toward women persist in the workplace from shop floor to boardroom and are evident in this government’s policy decisions. Here we have a strong case for some cognitive therapy: if these misguided and discriminatory assumptions were challenged during the cabinet’s decision making process in a proactive and habitual way, the result would likely be very different.
The suggestion that members of government are all misogynists is untenable. What is far more likely is the government’s approach to forming an expedient remedy in a time of national crisis invoked a slap dash response to the treatment of certain, crucial interests in our society, probably misinformed by readily accepted pervasive stereotypes regarding women.
The economy is no more a priority than the people that operate within it. Now, in the cold light of day, it is time to consider what decisions are worth following through and what decisions were ill-advised and require revision. By appointing a Woman’s Advisor, cabinet members eschew a proper decision-making procedure, and will inhibit the reform of cognition that is much needed in the upper echelons of our society, in order for it to filter through. Far more convincing would be a leadership that made a point of delivering well-rounded solutions in a time of crisis.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and racing to the finish line with moneybags in hand has the potential to leave vast swathes of our society shackled with long-term consequences of decisions they did not take. The appointment of a Women’s Advisor does not alleviate these risks and will cost money along the way, but it is hoped, as Dr Rackley astutely puts it, that Laura Trott will become “a beacon for women, rather than simply a token”. As such, she may come to represent an acknowledgement of deeper problems, and though she alone is not the solution, the presence of such a role inches us away from the engrained acceptance of ignorance to the interests of women.
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