Employment

Government has made 'scant progress' towards gender equality in Westminster

The Fawcett Society also found that women of colour are missing entirely from the highest roles in sectors across society.

Progress towards gender equality in Westminster has been described as “glacial” in a new report by women’s equality charity The Fawcett Society.

“Over the last two Westminster elections we have seen scant progress,” reads the report, finding that the proportion of female MPs increased by just two per cent between the 2017 and 2019 elections.

At the height of the pandemic just two out of 56 government press briefings were led by a female politician, while women were underrepresented across all Covid-19 advisory groups. 

“It begs the question then, what if more women were at the table and making key decisions, would women across our society have felt the impact of political decisions throughout the pandemic so severely?” said Jemima Olchawski, CEO of the Fawcett Society.

“Men continue to dominate most senior roles. That’s not only bad for the women who miss out on opportunities to thrive, but it’s bad for us all, as we miss out on women’s talent, skills and perspectives,” she continued. 

The House of Commons is currently 34 per cent female, with women making up 52 per cent of Labour MPs, and 24 per cent of conservative MPs.

The Scottish Parliament is close to seeing equal representation between men and women. Image: Fawcett Society, Sex & Power report

The Scottish government, on the other hand, has made “swift progress” with women’s representation getting closer to parity, achieving 45 per cent female representation. Unlike Westminster, the Scottish parliament uses all women shortlists which allows only women to stand in particular constituencies for particular political parties. 

“I think what’s needed is almost positive discrimination. I think when women’s representation is so lacking, we need to take those clear and focused approaches to address imbalance,” Catherine Marren, co-author of the Sex & Power report, told the Big Issue.

When it comes to working in Westminster or local government, there are “lots of issues around long working hours, a split week partly in London and partly in constituencies, we need to think about accessible childcare as well,” she continued.

“And we need to address those barriers and make it a more attractive place for women to work… There’s no reason at all why we can’t do the same for our government in London.”

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Outside of politics, eight per cent of FTSE 100 companies are female. Women make up 31 per cent of university vice chancellors, 42 per cent of national newspaper editors and 15 per cent of sport governing bodies.

The report also found women of colour are missing entirely from the highest roles in sectors across society, which Marren called “appalling”.

In top roles including Supreme Court justices, metro mayors, police and crime commissioners, FTSE 100 chief executives and general secretaries of the largest trade unions, there are no women of colour represented.

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Boris Johnson commissioned an inquiry into racial inequalities. The commission found that “overt and outright racism persists” but rejected suggestions that Britain is institutionally racist.

A Conservative MP on the Women and Equalities Committee recently called ethnicity pay gap “meaningless”, and asked ““Why are we so obsessed with this thing about white people versus non-white people?”

The Fawcett Society is calling for intersectional ethnicity pay gap reporting, and mandatory for companies to publish action plans to address the imbalance. It’s currently a legal requirement for organisations with over 250 employees to report their gender pay gap, however the Fawcett Society is campaigning for this to be reduced to all organisations with 100+ employees. 

“We also want to see flexible working as a default for all job roles where possible. We know that without opportunities for flexible working women can be excluded from the labour market or trapped below their skill level,” said Marren.

In September the government brought in proposals to make the right to request flexible working a right for all employees from day one, however such requests can still be declined by employers for reasons including projected negative impact work quality or employee performance.

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