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How about equality of respect?

Last week the UN CSW54 was accused by the European Women's Lobby of being a 'step backwards' for women. As it grinds on into its second week Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith says the women’s movement needs a new twin strategy around equality of respect and quality of experience

Women UN limited logo and linkThere are lots excuses for a big party this week – International Women’s Day; 15 years since the UN Beijing Platform for Action, and 40 years since the beginning of the “second wave” women’s movement in the 70’s. We all seem to be on a nostalgia kick, including me.

I became a fully paid up feminist for life when I joined the women’s lib consciousness-raising group in 1972 in my first year at university. At only 19 years old, I proposed a motion to the student’s union at Leicester University: “This house is against sexism.” Sexism was a new word at the time, imported from America. 1,000 students heard the word “sex” and crammed into the Students Union hall just to find out what it meant - including the Student Rugby club who had incensed us feminists by holding a “grapple and strip show” for rag week. Things looked rough at the Student union meeting; I have faced some tough audiences in my time, but that was the biggest and the scariest. I was surprised to get a standing ovation at the end of my speech, just for saying aloud the new word for what society has been doing to women from time immemorial.

But we’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? At least everyone knows what sexism is now; the problem is, as always, trying to put a stop to it. Women are still 64% of the world’s illiterate population and 70% of the world’s poor. 1,500 women a day worldwide die unnecessarily during childbirth. These statistics have hardly changed in 40 years.

Here in the UK, in spite of the Equal Pay Act, and the efforts of the Women’s Movement over 40 years, things for women are taking an interminable time to shift. We still have only 2 black and minority ethnic women MPs; women earn on average 17% less than men for full-time work, and only five FTSE 100 companies have female CEOs.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, listening to John Hill’s report as Chair of the UK Equality Panel: “An Anatomy of Inequality in the UK.” It was great to hear that most of his statistics had a gender breakdown and that individual as well as household incomes are recognised as separate things. At last, some progress! We’ve been lobbying for 40 years in the international women’s movement to get the message across that distribution of wealth within families, and who controls the family resources, is a key issue for women’s equality.

Two things struck me about what John Hill had to say about equality in the UK today. The first is the widening gap between the 10% of people at either end of the wealth scale. But even more challenging is the fact that inequality within groups (race, gender, disability etc) can be greater than that between groups. Between the poorest and richest women, for example, there’s a gap of 250% and growing. That’s a startling statistic. In the women’s movement, we redouble our energies into the fight for equality between women as well as between women and men.

The second point is to challenge the assumption that we can tackle inequality just through the twin strategies of access to education and getting people into work. As women we know that equal opportunity in work and education only gets us so far. Women still encounter pay gaps, glass ceilings, lack of support, and lack of childcare.

And this state of affairs is not likely to get any better in the next few years – it may well get worse. Women and the poorest sections of society worldwide have been hit hardest by the impact of the worldwide economic crisis.

People in power are all going to have to do some hard thinking about who will pay for the bail out of the banks. Despite the recent resurgence of the bonus culture in the city, I get the sense that in general people don’t have the same appetite for “business as usual”. Unemployment and recession among both women and men may present us with an opportunity to create a whole new way of working. The fall in the job market is leading to radical new thinking, such as a 21 hour working week becoming the norm. Men will have to start demanding a work life balance with the same energy that women have.

It’s time to resurrect those old feminist mantras “the personal is political” and “Equality? No thanks! We have something better in mind” - the transformation of the whole of society, no less.

Post CSW54, I think the women’s movement needs a new twin strategy around Equality of respect and Quality of experience. Equality of respect means recognising the different contributions and perspectives that women bring to the table. Women politicians, for example, have moved issues of family, parenting by men as well as women, women’s representation in parliament, and violence against women, to the top of the political agenda. On the plus side that means all the politicians want to get on to Women’s Hour and Mumsnet before the general election, because we are seen as a crucial constituency.

But apart from winning our votes are we really being taken seriously?

Even when women enter the workforce, there is still a day-to-day undermining of confidence and our sense of self through discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping. These interactive factors discourage women’s leadership and participation at all levels. Many entrepreneurial and dynamic women prefer starting their own businesses rather than going into companies and institutions, because we need to feel that our lives are under our own control. This is an indictment of the world of work – ways of working will have to change if we want to make the most of half the world’s talent.

Quality of experience is about life enhancement, and work-life balance. Equality is not just about money, status and qualifications. Just think about the recent resignation of Gaby Hinsliff, the Observer political editor. She reached the top of her profession, but you may have read her recent article in the Observer explaining that even with a relatively sympathetic employer, the demands of the job are still too difficult when you have children. That’s not to say women aren’t up to the job; the point is, the jobs aren’t up to the women. We are constantly torn between giving the best of ourselves to our jobs, our families, our children and ourselves.

A system that does not deliver Equality of respect and Quality of experience for women and men will always be an institutionally unequal system. That’s the message to take us all into the future.

There is still a worldwide women’s movement; and it’s still alive and kicking 40 years on. NGOs and individual women have done amazing work to make that happen: we should be proud of ourselves. If we put the same energy into the next 40 years, we should just about crack it.

About the author

Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith has been actively involved in the women's movement for over 30 years as an independent facilitator. She was a member of the UK Government delegation to the UN Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, and is a former chair of the Fawcett Society and member of the Women's National Commission


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