Glass ceiling and rock bottom: women in 2013 Britain

Gender equality is on the rise amongst the British elite. But outside of this bubble, women are suffering disproportionately from austerity and its fall-out.

Ask what factors are preventing women in Britain from possessing the same life chances as men and you’ll get a myriad responses. Workplace discrimination, covert and overt. The increasingly prohibitive cost of childcare. Pay disparity. Few would argue that the defining barriers are an inability to deliver a winning after dinner speech, toast or deftly network at a drinks reception.

But that’s exactly what a number of prestigious girls’ private schools across the country are embracing. “Even if you have five A* grades at A-level,” Charlotte Vere, the director of the Girls Schools Association fronting the initiative, said, “unless you can make toasts and after-dinner speeches you are not going to go far.” Pupils at fee paying schools across the country will be invited to staged drinks parties and formal dinners, where they’ll be coached on “effective networking” and other intricacies of etiquette on the dinner party circuit. This PR friendly modern reinvention of the debutante ball, whilst masquerading as a confidence-building exercise, hammers home the point that this is the exact world the girls are expected and expecting to enter.

The focus on gender equality amongst the British elite provides easy headlines, but what is its actual impact? As Alison Wolf points out in her recent book, The XX Factor, women’s place in society and the world of work has begun to level out at the very top of the labour market, but for the remaining 80% of women, it’s another story.

Again and again, we have seen how quotas of women in elite and prohibitively competitive professions will not open the floodgates. Take two examples: Marissa Mayer, on becoming CEO of Yahoo, scrapped telecommuting, after working from home towards the end of her pregnancy, rather than protect a flexible working arrangement that could benefit employees with caring responsibilities. Maria Miller, the Minister for Women, is happy to spin the news that more women are out of work now than any time since 1988, and that unemployment has risen for women while falling for men, while participating in a government that is disastrous for women.

It is poor women who are bearing the brunt of the cuts meted out by Maria Miller and her colleagues, as austerity policies widen the gulf between the richest and poorest. Hikes in unemployment, attacks on labour rights, and the failure of the private sector to create the jobs the government promised would materialise to offset the assault on the public sector have all led to a vastly more precarious workforce at the lower end of the market, with women bearing the brunt of the slump. Yet very little space is given to the barriers to social mobility facing women outside of the professional classes. Given the media hype around whether women can “have it all”, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that women without these opportunities exist.  

Training privately educated girls in networking and dressing it up as positive action is symbolic of a wider trend. This has far more to do with cementing the children of the rich’s place in the elite than overcoming barriers, or righting wrongs. An exercise that bolsters a sense of entitlement, while masquerading as a great feminist endeavor, is as hollow as it seems. Meanwhile, as austerity bites, the proportion of women in the UK finding their prospects diminishing grows apace.

About the author

Dawn Foster is a London-based journalist, interested in European politics, class, work and women's rights. She works for the Guardian, and has previously worked in politics and higher education.