Is it time for a new debate about gender equality?

I’m delighted to have my piece on this issue published on the Society Women at the topCentral blog at the University of Essex. It is reproduced here:

‘Check your privilege’ is a phrase that increasingly crops up in equality debates and no more so than in feminism. It aims to hold to account the white, educated middle class women who spearhead the feminist movement, asking them to consider their narrow breadth of experience before speaking on behalf of ‘all women’. It has been a divisive concept, but the idea that feminism is only for the elite is nothing new.

A report from Institute for Public Policy Research  (IPPR) suggests that recent feminist campaigns are on the wrong track and the movement should, in essence, ‘check its privilege’ in order to change things for the many rather than the few.

The report, Great Expectations – Exploring the Promise of Gender Equality argues that a focus on ‘women at the top’ – that is to improve female representation in politics and on corporate boards – will not produce the changes needed to empower all women. Campaigns such as the Fawcett Society’s ‘Women and Power’ focus on getting already educated and privileged women into powerful positions rather than transforming the economic and social landscape that keeps most other women lagging behind.

Flexibility should occur at the bottom as well at the top of the labour market and we should aim to raise the status and pay of the jobs that women do, especially care work.

The report combines statistical analysis of the National Child Development Study, the British Cohort Study and Understanding Society with interviews of women in 50 families to examine progress on women’s equality across three generations.

Through this, the researchers examine the barriers to equality that women in the UK still face and conclude that legislation can only go so far. Women have gained legal equality in most areas and whilst this has helped reduce discrimination in the workplace, for example, there are other hurdles it won’t address.

Research released in July from the Economic and Social Research Council concluded that despite the increase in female breadwinners, women still do most of the housework and IPPR’s own research discovered that the burden of children and the elderly is still very much the female domain.

How fairly care work is organised is heavily correlated with women and men’s educational and class background. The more educated a woman is, the longer she waits to have children, which tends to result in a more equitable split of housework and childcare. Fathers too are increasingly spending more time with their children but these fathers are also more highly educated.

Listen to a podcast about the research with Glenn Gottfried, IPPR

Little has changed for women with no higher education or who work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. These women tend to have children earlier, in their teens and twenties, but the impact this has on their potential earnings is actually worse than for the previous generation of women. Those born in 1958 who had children early would expect to earn 17% less than women without children. For those born in 1970. the figure is 20%. Read more