Melanie Phillips

30 December 2005

Having it all

Published in: Daily Mail

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When David Cameron was elected Conservative leader three weeks ago, he made clear that his top priority was to get the party to bump up its measly number of women MPs. The absence of female faces on the Tory benches was an acute embarrassment and glaringly out of kilter with modern Britain.

Thirty years after the arrival on the statute book of the Sex Discrimination Act, it seems therefore that the under-representation of women in public life is still an unresolved issue.

So how far has this Act improved things for women? Alternatively, how far has it created a climate of impossible expectations by which women themselves feel they have not been well served?

The Sex Discrimination Act was a pioneering measure which did not merely try to level the playing field for women. As the first anti-discrimination measure of all, it introduced the idea that was to revolutionise the whole of British social and political life - that the state had a duty to impose equality between groups.

It may now seem hard to remember, but thirty years ago the public sphere was dominated by men. Before 1975 there were few bank loans or mortgages for women without a male guarantor and no legal redress against sexual harassment.

There were 15.4 million men in work and only 9.5 million women. The expectation was that married women with children would stay at home, and the man would play the role of breadwinner. Three decades on, there are still 15.4 million men in work, but the number of working women in work has risen to 13.2 million. Excluding the Scandinavian countries, Britain has the highest proportion of working women in Europe.

Attitudes to working mothers have been changed out of all recognition, and financial independence for women has transformed their relationships with men - not necessarily for the better, as those relationships have become more transient as a result.

Britain's workplaces have become feminised. Equal Opportunity Commission court actions have extended employment protection rights to part-time workers, outlawed sexual harassment and improved legal protection for pregnant employees, while its campaigns have helped achieve better maternity rights and paid paternity leave.

Yet a recent survey a survey by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation found that three out of four companies would rather break the law than employ a pregnant woman or one of childbearing age. So how have we managed -- despite all these manifest improvements -- to end up almost where we started from in this crucial respect?

The first problem is that an Act designed to end unfairness towards one sex has institutionalised it towards the other. Determination to boost the number of women in the workplace has meant that too often women have gained jobs or promotion not on merit but simply because of their sex. Not only is this profoundly demeaning to women and against the very spirit of equality, but it also entails discriminating unfairly against men.

Ironically one of the government's most strident feminists, the current Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, herself admitted breaking the Sex Discrimination Act when, as the former Trade Secretary, she overruled advisers and appointed a woman to an influential job on the South West Regional Development Agency over the head of a better-qualified male candidate.

Next, employing women has placed more and more burdens on employers. Ever-longer periods of leave have been followed by new sex discrimination regulations which require firms to ensure that the workplace is free of discrimination and harassment. But these terms have been defined so widely that they threaten to become deeply disruptive.

A change in working hours or location or a refusal to allow employees to work from home, for example, could mean that employers are hauled up for indirect discrimination. And a new definition of sexual harassment makes it an offence to create an 'intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment' that violates a woman's dignity, a provision that potentially opens the floodgates to vexatious claims.

But a deeper problem is the premise upon which the Act was based. This was a desire not so much to create fair treatment for women as to deny the very notion of differences between the sexes altogether.

It confused equality with what might more appropriately be called 'identicality'. Equality is about fairness. It hold that people in the same situation should not be treated differently because of prejudice towards them on account of their gender, race, sexuality or disability.

But this has been interpreted instead to mean that everyone must have the same outcomes regardless of what may be radically different circumstances or behaviour. This is not only profoundly unfair but often very damaging. Look at education. The evidence suggests that boys and girls learn in different ways. Boys get more satisfaction from competing with each other, while girls prefer to understand the work they are doing.

Nevertheless, education policy denies such differences in the cause of 'equality'. For the past two decades, feminist teachers have tried to change a school system they held to be hostile to girls. The assumption was that since boys tended to opt for science, maths and technology and girls for languages, humanities and domestic science, this was evidence of discrimination against girls.

Like so much feminist thinking, this assumed patronisingly that girls were incapable of doing things differently because they wanted to. The result was active discrimination against boys.

The curriculum expanded into 'soft' subjects like general studies, sociology or drama; textbooks, topics and tests were rewritten to prioritise female references; and the emphasis on coursework benefited girls but not boys, who tend to prefer 'sudden death' exams.

Hardly surprisingly, the result has been a calamitous decline in boys' performance, with the education world wailing in despair but quite unable to see that so much of the cause lies in its own 'equality' agenda. In the workplace, the denial of sex differences has meant a refusal to acknowledge that women's preferred way of working would cause chaos if it was imposed on the basis that there was no difference from the way that men worked. This has particularly affected the medical profession, where more than 60 per cent of new doctors are now women.

Since so many of them choose to work part-time, GPs' surgeries are struggling to cope because there aren't enough doctors to cover the patients' lists. Higher up the professional scale, where relatively few women choose specialities such as cardiology or gastro-enterology which require them to work long hours, fewer and fewer doctors will be available to take on such posts at all. The country will therefore increasingly be forced to recruit doctors from abroad to make up the deficiency.

The cause of such chaos cannot be acknowledged, however, because of the assumption built into anti-discrimination law. This encourages women and other groups to think of themselves as victims of society, and so anything they cannot have is by definition evidence of discrimination.

It follows, therefore, that they cannot be held responsible for causing a problem to others since all the responsibility is loaded onto society to redress their disadvantage. This principle, which is applied to other 'victim' groups based on race, sexuality or disability, has produced an ugly climate based on grievances and demands dressed up as 'rights' which destroys the notion of personal responsibility.

Earlier this week, a former Church of Scotland minister won the right to claim compensation for sex discrimination for being, she says, forced out of her job after being accused of having an affair with a married church elder. She says a male minister who had an affair would not have been treated in the same way. Does such a claim really advance the sum of civilised behaviour?

The anti-discrimination culture has also encouraged the idea that women can have it all - work, children and equal pay. Although the pay gap between the sexes for full-time work has dropped by some 13 per cent over the lifetime of the Act, the fact that a 17 per cent gap still remains is causing concern. A government-appointed commission on women and work is expected to recommend ways to tackle this gap early in the new year.

But the idea that this is yet another example of the way women are oppressed by men at work is simply wrong. Once again, this presents women - falsely and insultingly - as helpless and passive victims of life.

For while no-one would argue that women in the same circumstances as men should be paid less or denied promotion opportunities, 'identicality' takes no account of what women actually want. And this is often very different from what men want.

In particular, women's aspirations tend to change dramatically once they become mothers. Some want to continue working; many do not, at least while their children are small.

If they take years off work, it is inevitable that their chances of promotion are reduced. It would be unfair -or, in some jobs, even dangerous -if they were regarded as on the same level of achievement as men having been away for so long. That reduces their earning power.

That's not unfair - it's their choice to live their lives in a different way from men. What is unfair is to expect to get the same pay for doing so.

'Identicality' also ignores the fact that, when at work, women tend to behave differently from men. Women are less interested in getting to the top of the tree. They are often passed over for promotion at work because they are less willing to put in long hours.

The reason is that many women put home and family first. The Government is gripped by the delusion that it can change this so that men and women will share equally tasks at home and at work.

Well, some already do and maybe more will; but many more will not, and it is women as well as men who dislike that idea. The idea of a 'glass ceiling' preventing women from advancing is simply misguided, and the whole basis of the government's 'family friendly' policies is therefore an illusion.

As researchers Anne Moir and David Jessel pointed out in their book Brainsex, notions of work, success and ambition simply mean different things to the different sexes.

So most women tend not to want positions of power and responsibility. They have other priorities in life. That's why there are so few women in politics. Yes, there is undoubtedly some prejudice going on here as elsewhere; but in the main, women aren't in the political front line because they don't want to be.

That's why attempts to boost artificially the number of women in Parliament are not only unfair to men but are doomed to failure. The current Cameron plan seems to be to ask local Tory associations to choose from an A-list of candidates of whom at least half will be women.

Whatever system is chosen, however, it will do women no favours at all because it will force into the system women chosen not on merit but purely because they make up the numbers. That's why the 'Blair babes' bombed so badly, because shoe-horned women tend to be second-rate women. This in turn gives women a bad name and makes prejudice against them more rather than less likely.

Women themselves are indicating more and more that 'having it all' exerts too big a price. Juggling work and motherhood can leave women shredded with exhaustion.

Ministers have noticed. Now a rethink is going on in Government, not least because of the imminent arrival of the new Equality Commission which will subsume the individual sex, race and disability bodies.

Unfortunately, however, this is unlikely to herald a new realism. Instead, it will probably signal an even more determined effort at social engineering, to force attitudes and behaviour into a new universe of unisex, multicultural lifestyle choice where no-one is allowed to admit any differences in value.

Whether as a result we will all live happier lives in a fairer, more tolerant and civilised society is very much open to question.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie