8 March 2014
International Women’s Day has been celebrated on 8th March since the early 1900s. From 1975, the United Nations has named a theme for International Women’s Day. For 2014 the theme is "Equality for Women is Progress for All”. But what would equality for women mean?

Economic Inequality

Since the second world-war, European governments have led citizens to believe that neoliberalism would effect a new market-driven egalitarianism. However, the reality of neoliberalization in the global north is deepening economic inequalities between the richest and poorest in society and between men and women.

In Britain income inequality between men and women is among the highest in the developed world. Indeed, progress in closing the gender pay gap has stalled across all the OECD nations. Furthermore, the recent economic down-turn and ensuing fiscal austerity measures are having a disproportionate effect on women. Previously hard-won laws and protections are being steadily eroded, in effect ‘turning back the clock’ on gender equality. Some headline figures include:

  • Women in fulltime employment experience a pay gap of 14.9%
  • 64% of low-paid workers are women
  • 40% of ethnic-minority women live in poverty
  • Women’s average personal pensions are only 62% of the average for men
  • 92% of lone parents – a group more likely to live below the poverty line - are women
  • The costs of childcare in the UK are among the highest in the world, heavily limiting women’s choices to take up paid work (Data from The Fawcett Society, 2012)

In austerity Britain women face a “triple jeopardy”: hit hardest by cuts to public sector jobs and cuts to public benefits and services, they are also often called upon to fill the ‘care gap’ as state provisions are eroded.

Inequality in positions of Power and Leadership

In order to understand why these economic and labour market inequalities persist in the face of the introduction of legislative rights, we need a better sense of the broader social and cultural environment that reproduces and fosters gender inequalities.

It is notable that in 21st century Britain, the numbers of women in public positions of power and responsibility has stagnated. It is shocking, for example, that in 2014 only 23 per cent of MPs are women. Karen Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham United, star of the TV show, The Apprentice, and the Conservatives’ “small business ambassador” recently described being a female MP in Britain today as the equivalent to working in “football in the 1990s, where women are outnumbered and the culture is set up against them.”

“Masculine work cultures” that are hostile to women leadership are not confined to Westminster. In academia, while 58% of UGs and 45% of academic staff are women, only 22% are professors. At The “Missing Women” in Higher Education conference at Lancaster University in 2013, Dame Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, highlighted the deeply entrenched cultural belief that men are “more natural leaders”. King argued that this idea is reproduced through employment practices such as the increasing use of headhunting firms led by men, and male-led academic appointment committees.

In a recent essay on ‘The Public Voice of Women’, Cambridge Professor of Classics, Mary Beard, argues that in order to challenge inequality we have to change the way in which women are heard in public. Reflecting on her own experience of being subjected to hate-speech and death threats after appearing on BBC’s Question Time, Beard examines the far-reaching historical roots of practices which silence women:

  • "We have got to think much more deeply about why we don't hear women as authoritative, how we hear them speak, what we think public debate is for and why we demand such a high price from women who want to enter it" (Beard 2014).

In order to develop practical policy change that can enable the next generation of women to access positions of public leadership and influence, we must heed Beard’s words.

Challenging Inequality through Research and Teaching

If, as the UN claim through this year’s theme for IWD, "Equality for Women is Progress for All”, then we need to better understand the root causes and histories of inequality. We need to educate young people and each other about the negative social and economic impacts of inequality upon us all. The Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Lancaster University conducts interdisciplinary research and teaching in order to explore the powerful interests that prevent meaningful progress towards gender equality. As social inequalities deepen we have witnessed a resurgence of undergraduate interest, and higher volumes of MA and PhD applications in gender studies at Lancaster. Student-demand has led to a series of events this year including:

Forthcoming workshops include:

  • Gender-Based Discrimination within Higher Education (March 10th 2014, contact e.kocabicak1@lancaster.ac.uk)
  • Is the Personal still Political? Young Women and ‘Sexualisation’ (May 7th 2014, BNSR6, 10am – 1pm contact a.cronin@lancs.ac.uk)

In the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day theme these events are free and are open to all staff, students and the wider public.

International Women’s Day 2014: "Equality for women is progress for all” is co-authored by Dr Imogen Tyler and Brigit Morris Colton; Brigit Morris Colton is a Teaching Fellow in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. She co-convenes Feminist Movie Mondays with Kate McNicholas-Smith and writes a regular newsletter for CGWS mailing list subscribers.