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Help! I can’t read Bad Penny’s gender equality roadmap


IN her role as Minister for Women and Equalities, Penny Mordaunt has set out her vision for ‘gender equality in the UK’ with the publication of ‘Gender equality at all stages: A roadmap for change’.

Talk about reinforcing the notion that women are victims. Her press release announces: ‘This inequality is faced at every stage of a woman’s life – from how she is treated in the classroom, to the caring roles she often takes on, and the lack of savings or pension she accumulates. This road map is intended to define and guide how we tackle the barriers women face as they journey through life.’ The bit of this that annoys me the most is the comment about the classroom. This insults every teacher in the land. I have never met one who isn’t committed to treating all kids equally and fairly. Where is Mordaunt’s evidence for inequality in the classroom? 

If her evidence is simply that men and women end up, statistically, doing different things with their lives, has it occurred to her that this might be the result of active informed choice? Studies show that even babies show a gender difference in their interests, with girls being more people-focused, and boys more ‘thing-focused’. Is this any wonder? If you believe in evolution, women evolved to be good at caring for their children. Men evolved to be good at caring for women and children. It was a good division of labour. We don’t need to stick with that division of labour now, but we should be able to make our own decisions without the government hectoring us about our choices.

Gender differences in career choices also tend to be larger in more gender‐egalitarian societies. In other words, the more freedom and opportunity women have, the more they tend to do things differently to men. For example, as societies get richer, and individual families get richer too, women may choose to spend less time in the workplace and more time at home caring for young children. What greater joy and pleasure? How wonderful for the mother and the children. Why on earth would a government want to hector us out of that opportunity?

We also have an adult social care crisis. As we grow richer as a society, more women might find they can afford to take time off work to be with elderly parents. How on earth is this a bad choice? Do we prefer to become bed-blockers while our adult children narrow the gender pay gap?

Here is something else: ‘Sixty-seven per cent of girls aged 11-21 think that women do not have the same chances as men’. Now where do you think they might have got that idea? Do you think it might be because people like Penny Mordaunt repeatedly tell them it is so? To undo the damage, the Conservative government will ‘pilot different approaches to education about gender roles, spending £2million so children will learn about different careers at primary school age and invest in programmes to increase participation in STEM subjects’. I wish the money could be spent on teacher pay or more teachers.

The actual report is 28 pages of describing differences between men and women, and assuming they have to be tackled. ‘Having a child has a substantial impact on women’s economic outcomes. Taking time out of work or limiting work hours, often for caring, can have a big impact on pay and progression: differences in labour market participation between women and men are the biggest single driver of the gender pay gap.’ Who guessed that having children would ever be described in such dismal terms?

You know what I would like? Why don’t we have a report that assumes that all the things that women do are good? And that we need a ‘raft of measures’ to bring men’s behaviour more into line? Men should not have to spend so many hours on long tiring commutes. Or work so late in the office. It’s unfair. Why should women have all the fun with the kids?

‘Unobserved factors account for 25 per cent of the UK gender pay gap: this is likely to include things such as discrimination; bullying and harassment or bias; social norms and gendered attitudes.’ Who says so? Where is the evidence? Why is ‘active choice’ not in the list? If anyone has time to track down the source of this assertion, apparently it is here: ‘W. Olsen, V. Gash, S. Kim and M. Zhang (2018), The gender pay gap in the UK: evidence from the UKHLS. Government Equalities Office’. (We have an Equalities Office!)

Here is my favourite bit in the whole report: ‘We will deliver a programme of work later this year to tackle stereotyping in media and advertising, including: The creation of a barometer to measure the prevalence of harmful gender stereotypes in UK advertising. This will help provide insight and if necessary drive further change to support the recent introduction by the Advertising Standards Authority of a rule in the Advertising Codes aimed at eradicating harmful gender stereotypes in adverts.’ Get your heads around that. The barometer was invented in 1643 to measure atmospheric pressure. Now we invent barometers to measure hot air.

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Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government, served two terms as a Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham and is currently a full-time mother. She tweets as @carolinefff

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