Knocking equal opportunities

People think women are equal now - so why won't feminists believe them?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Women are equal, men are maligned, and feminism is an embarrassing hangover from the past. The focus group has spoken, and the equality industry has howled in outrage. Why?

Columnists and commentators react to small-scale surveys in one of two ways. If the survey’s conclusions support one of the many prejudices of our times, it is hailed as yet more proof that nobody trusts the government/GM food is deeply unpopular/children eat, drink, smoke, have sex, and worry too much. If, on the other hand, the survey goes against the grain, the methodology is ripped apart, the author’s credentials derided, and the findings reported with a hefty dose of counter-commentary.

This perhaps helps to explain why a little study by the Future Foundation, which found that today’s men and women view the struggle for sexual equality as behind them and beneath them, was quickly derided as so much bollocks. One paradox of our times is that the more equal women become, the more columnists and commentators talk up their continuing subordination.

On one level, of course, the Future Foundation study, ‘Talking Equality: What men and women think about equality in Britain today’, which was commissioned by that venerable British institution Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and published last week, is so much bollocks. When the authors claim that this is a ‘small-scale study’, they are not kidding: its research findings are based on ‘four focus groups, each of up to eight people, and in-depth interviews with four pairs of people’ (1).

As Guardian columnist Zoe Williams scathingly pointed out, this is less a survey than ‘Research As Conducted By Columnist (“I went to a dinner party, asked all my chums, and this is the way life is”)’ (2). In response, the study’s co-author, Sue Tibballs, hotly defended her methodology: ‘We recruited single mothers, black and Asian men and women, lesbians, affluent city workers, working-class Glaswegians, working and non-working parents and so on, so this was not like talking to your friends at a dinner party.’ (3)

Whatever your choice of dinner guests, it’s fair to say that ‘Talking Equality’ is not representative of anything or anybody very much. But nonetheless, it yields some interesting insights – and this is what has really upset the likes of Germaine Greer (4). For what the study indicates is that men and women like each other far more than they like the industry of equality professionals constantly seeking to point up the differences between them. Which is not, presumably, the kind of study that the EOC wanted to commission.

The central finding of this study is that men and women today see the traditional ‘equality agenda’ as being ‘out of touch’: in the sense that they see women as equal to men, and that they ‘see inequality as specific to individual circumstances, so there is resistance to group claims – for example, all women, or all ethnic minority people experience inequality’.

As a consequence, the authors claim to have found ‘evidence of a backlash against the perceived public equality agenda’, which, some people feel, ‘is not recognising the inequalities experienced by other social groups – for example, the difficulties men experience, or the problems experienced by the indigenous communities that asylum seekers join’.

The small study uncovered a certain suspicion that ‘attempts to redress inequalities have become too politically correct, or “PC”’ – in the sense that ‘people feel that equality is being imposed or artificially engineered, to the point where today’s equality measures have
themselves become discriminatory’. There is a view that ‘political correctness has driven prejudice underground’: summed up by a quote from a ‘Southern young woman’: ‘It’s like being a smoker in a non-smoking environment – you know you can’t smoke but you still want a fag.’

And so it goes on. People think inequality is something that you might experience as an individual, and you should deal with on an individual level; feminism is an outmoded ideology, almost a dirty word; nobody has ever heard of concepts like work-life balance and sexual harassment is something that men and women do to each other. The authors conclude that there is a massive gulf between the ‘professional and public views of sex inequality’ – indeed, as a nifty graphic sums up, individuals’ view of life often runs opposite to that held by professionals.

No wonder the EOC apparently had doubts about publishing some of the findings (5); no wonder feminists have objected. No wonder the study’s authors – themselves members of the equality profession – view their findings as an example of how the public has got it wrong. But what if – admittedly, more by accident than survey design – the individuals talking to the Future Foundation have got it right about women and equality in the new millennium?

Before getting into the woolly stuff about attitudes, ‘Talking Equality’ presents a rather laboured summary of ‘the reality of inequality between men and women today’, from the pay gap (‘women working full-time earn on average 19 percent less per hour than men working full-time’), to childcare roles (‘73 percent of women with children work and 53 percent of women with children under five work – but women spend three times as much time as men on caring for children’) to disparities in who holds the reigns of power (‘women hold less than 10 percent of the top positions in FTSE 100 companies, the police, the judiciary and trade unions’).

While these statistics are doubtless true, it is equally true that, as the EOC states, ‘Society has changed enormously over the last 75 years’. The proportion of women in work, the position that certain women hold in society, and the shifts in the management of private tasks such as childcare and housework show a major transformation from the dark days of women’s oppression, in which a mother in full-time work at all was an anomaly and the idea of a high-powered female investment banker was unthinkable.

There is also a generational dynamic that needs to be taken into account. Young women entering the labour market today start on a much more equal footing than their mothers, and as they get older the balance is likely to shift even further in the direction of equality.

Even at the level of statistical reality, it is getting harder and harder to argue that structural inequality still persists. When the broader attitude to such differences in pay and power are taken into account, claiming the persistence of inequality is more difficult still.

As well as showing how society is still ‘deeply “gendered”’, the Future Foundation says, the rest of its report shows ‘ambivalence among British people to the importance and impact of these differences or inequalities’. Such ‘ambivalence’, the authors suggest, is down to trends like consumer society, heightened individualism, and the growth of psychology and therapy as explanations of, and solutions for, social problems.

I would put rather a different spin on it. It’s not that society has acquiesced to inequality. It is more that the meaning of equality, and the importance attached to it, has changed. We have gone from the old aspiration that women play an equal role in a man’s world to a society in which much that was associated with a ‘man’s world’ is denigrated, and aspects of life once associated with women’s oppression are celebrated: not only for women, but for men too.

There is another paradox of our times – at the moment women have access to the choices and opportunities that were historically offered only to men, neither men nor women seem particularly keen to take advantage of them.

For example, one of the major problems facing women in the past was the expectation that they stay at home and look after the children: now, many women actively want to be stay-home moms, leading to headlines telling us that ‘six out of seven women’ would rather be at home looking after their children than pursuing a full-time career. Men, too, increasingly express a preference for the kinds of lives and priorities traditionally associated with women: so more headlines tell us that one third of fathers-to-be would like to stay at home and look after their children.

Political parties use every means (legal or illegal) at their disposal to recruit women into Parliament, while membership of political parties plummets. It is hard to take feminist concerns about glass ceilings and old school ties seriously when companies are scrabbling to meet their diversity quotas and wittering on about the need for a better work-life balance.

It is no longer a man’s world, in the sense that nothing is now stopping women from playing as much of a role as they want to. Trouble is, they don’t seem to want to. Women have gained their equality at a time when the public worlds of work and politics, the grand ambitions of power and control, have been emptied out of their positive content, and re-presented as stressful, destructive and ultimately pointless. Who would be a politician when they are all seen as untrustworthy bastards; a company CEO when they are all seen as unscrupulous fat cats; somebody who dedicates their life to their work when they are told off for neglecting their kids? Who would be a man in this world?

What society has managed to do, it seems, is allow women’s equality – but only on the basis that both sexes are provided with lower horizons, narrower ambitions and more limited choices. In this world where everybody has equal opportunity to do not very much, the antics of the equality industry often seem to baffle people.

People have learnt how to mind their language at work, because of the laws surrounding sexual harassment, but they don’t know why it should be important. People think there should be equal pay, but don’t understand why anybody should think that women do not choose the jobs that they do (as opposed to having been invisibly socialised into them). Women might moan about their lot, but they actually feel just as sorry for men, constantly at risk from a clobbering by the equal opps lobby. All in all, while people are aware of many problems with society today, they do not see men as the problem.

Sue Tibballs and Melanie Howard conclude their report with a series of recommendations for how the equality industry can operate better in these circumstances – assuming, of course, that the public has got it all wrong, and simply need more persuasive arguments. But again, what if the public has got it right? I cannot think of many more positive recommendations than abolishing the Equal Opportunities Commission and leaving men and women to work out their minor ‘inequalities and differences’ themselves.

Read on:

e-quality – why hyphenate?, by Jennie Bristow

Modern motherhood: isolating problems, by Joanna Williams

Sisters doing it for themselves?, by Josie Appleton

(1) ‘Talking Equality: What men and women think about equality in Britain today’, Melanie Howard and Sue Tibballs, Future Foundation, July 2003

(2) What women want, Zoe Williams, Guardian, 1 July 2003

(3) Feminism by any other name, Guardian letters, 3 July 2003

(4) ‘Equality is dead: long live feminism’, Germaine Greer, The Times (London), 4 July 2003

(5) Feminism: outmoded and unpopular, Lucy Ward, Guardian, 2 July 2003

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Topics Politics


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