The composition of the Lib Dem – Conservative coalition begs a clear question: where are the women? There were more Etonians than women on David Cameron’s shadow front-bench, the most active woman during the election was Sam Cam and now the Minister for Women is also the Home Secretary. Theresa May’s appointment implies that the needs of 50% of the population are a part-time job.
The coalition’s policy is just as dismissive. Of the £8bn of cuts announced in the emergency budget, £5.75bn affected women and the CSR is worse: of 500,000 public-sector job cuts 65-80 per cent are likely to be women and housing cuts will hit a million more women than men. The Fawcett Society is campaigning to have the emergency budget declared invalid because no gender audit was done before its announcement. It’s an unpleasant truth that cuts will always affect low-earners more because welfare is targeted at them, but why are so many women in low-paid jobs in the first place?
In education, the girls beat the boys hands down. If you count the number of Firsts and 2:1s together, we are still ahead at university, even here at Oxford. But after that, women lose out so much that there is a pay gap of 16.4 per cent and a pension gap of 40 per cent. Why? I blame the children – and ‘women’s work’.
Women dominate careers with a high social value but low financial rewards. Cameron’s Big Society is set to shift many of these professions from the public sector into the voluntary sector, and this is not necessarily bad if it means services are cheaper for users. But the plans contain nothing to increase womens’ employability elsewhere and nothing to encourage more men to get involved, which will be essential to break the existing link between gender and social responsibilities. The policy seems to say, “Keep doing what you do best, but don’t expect to be paid for it.” Mad Men eat your heart out.
Women are also more likely to leave work for significant periods to have children and, if they do come back, it’s often part-time. Large firms operate ‘up-or-out’ career ladders designed to put women off having children until their late thirties. It’s open discrimination that reflects the reality – men only get two weeks of paternity leave compared to up to 52 weeks for women, and they rarely take it. The coalition offers some hope here – when mandatory retirement is scrapped, with 50 year careers, and rising pension ages, taking 1, 2 or even 5 years off to have kids should be less of a blow but parental leave needs to reflect fathers’ responsibilities.
But Cameron should do something bigger to stop women leaving the workplace at all. In 1992, Sweden endured a credit crunch and, in response to government cuts, a coalition of female MPs campaigned to ensure pre-school childcare was available to everyone. It is now means-tested up to a cap of about £200 a month. In the UK, childcare costs an average of £250 a week. It’s unsurprising that 90% of Swedish mothers with children under five return to work, leaving their kids in kindie.
The results speak for themselves. Although educational attainment is only slightly higher than the UK, Sweden has one of the highest rates of intergenerational social mobility in the world, and the proportion of women who work full-time is higher among those with young kids than those without. Of course, some women prefer to stay at home even if they can afford childcare. In Denmark in the 1980s, before kindergartens were widespread, 43% of mothers worked part-time saying they wanted to stay at home with their children. In 2000, 83% worked full-time. In one generation, well-staffed high-quality childcare provided a way out of mother’s guilt and back into the workplace.
Cameron has an opportunity to change the future for generations of children, and millions of women. So far the coalition has only shown women their limits; now, it is time to push them.