Toilet talk

Today I wrote to Ms Kate Varah, the executive director of the Old Vic following its announcement yesterday that its new refurbishment now provided 42 toilets, but none of  which were for women only.  In the letter I set out the specific background to this announcement before asking some questions.

In 2018 the Old Vic announced loudly and proudly that it would be doubling the number of women’s toilets  and stars including Joanna Lumley, Glenda Jackson and Bertie Carvel  backed the campaign, and appeared in a video in which they plea for more women’s toilets.

The Old Vic launched a £100,000 public fundraising campaign to help it carry out major works, including doubling the number of women’s toilets.

Yesterday, October 2nd 2019, the theatre announced that the numbers had indeed increased. There was now one facility with eighteen toilets which also have urinals, making it unlikely that women will go in there, and then another set of 24 cubicles which are mixed sex.  So in fact it announced a removal of all women only loos – the opposite of the campaign in fact.  Men have access to all 42 whereas the 24 that women can use are also open for men to use.

“Our loos now offer ‘self-selection’ rather than being labelled male or female. This takes a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach following advice from surveys conducted with focus groups,” it said.

Who does this actually work for? The problem was a lack of women’s loos in the first place, that was all.

The announcement said that there had been consultation with focus groups but failed to say which ones. Indeed it failed also to provide any concrete reason at all for removing women’s sex segregated facilities. All previous surveys show that women prefer  women only toilets. On the positive side the theatre has asked for feedback – if only this had been asked for before the decision to do this.  I had a few questions for Ms Varah:

What happened…?  It is clear that you changed your mind on provision of women’s only  loos over the course of a year.

Why was this?

There is a mention of focus groups – what kind of focus groups?

Were you advised by any external consultancy?

What percentage of your theatre audiences is male?

What percentage of your theatre audience is female?

Did you consult your theatre goers?

Which of these wanted mixed sex toilets?

Who did want mixed sex toilets?

Why do you think sex segregated toilets existed in the first place? Are those reasons not applicable in 2019? What has changed?

There is an insufficient number of toilets for women generally throughout the UK because many were built at a time when women were more confined to the private sphere.  I suggest that the Old Vic was presumably very familiar with the reasons women require more toilets than men otherwise it would not have pledged to provide more.   Yet the reasons for the sex segregation of toilets are exactly the same today as they were fifty/hundred  years ago. A Parliamentary Committee Paper over ten years ago (on which Emily Thornberry sat) sets out the rationale and the recommendations – that women require twice the number of toilets than men do – which the Old Vic ( even though not a local authority, the advice should still apply)  has seen fit to disregard (particularly page 18 and 19)

And the reasons that mixed sex toilets do not work for women were more recently given in an excellent blog .

Someone who may have provided some advice to the Old Vic is Professor Clara Greed, Professor of Inclusive Urban Planning at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and a specialist in toilet provision with particular emphasis upon women’s needs. You can watch her here.

Any organisation that has been advised by Stonewall will know that they can earn extra brownie points by changing their toilet facilities to mixed sex. This is not done because of demand but because it looks progressive. This was not something even considered five years ago. But for whose benefit are these changes?  Fewer than 1% of the population are trans and that is on the widest definition given (this includes cross dressers, non binary etc.). Most organisations will have fewer than 1% of trans people for whom using a male or female toilet is problematic. Personally I have no problem sharing female toilets with a MtF trans but I, like many women don’t want to share them with men generally. And some women for reasons of past trauma, or for religious reasons do not want to share a facility with biological males, whether they are transgender or not. There is no point pretending biology is irrelevant – hence men use urinals.   So is there another way to include the potential trans person who may be embarrassed? Why not have one separate cubicle that is mixed sex? This is not always possible in old buildings but it certainly is in new developments such as the Old Vic. A year ago the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith made the downstairs toilets mixed sex but kept sex segregated ones upstairs.  So I am eager to hear the rationale for the decision to remove all  women only toilets whilst retaining men’s.

Sometimes and increasingly in this case, one very small minority group’s demand for rights disproportionately impact another’s in a negative way.  But women are half the population and their needs and concerns for sex segregated spaces are currently being dismissed and ignored in a shocking and distressing way.

Notes from a group dynamic gender, sex and power workshop in 2005

 Bristol 2005

Group dynamic work is a great way to explore gender relations… and here was an opportunity for a whole weekend of it.  What a pity for all of us that there were so few men there. But just like in all work on gender, and arguably very often in our relationships it is women who do the work. As the gender that is least privileged it is obvious that we want change more than men. How many events have I spoken at or attended when I think – I wish more men were interested in this.

I do understand how difficult it is for men to participate and be ‘themselves’ in this pro feminist environment. It is as if they too are quite unsure as to what constitutes a man or manliness apart from the body. How is a man different from a woman in a positive way – and here let’s move away from the physical. Many of the ‘masculine’ traits are deemed negative or ‘othered’ to the feminine, which is often valorized in these ‘feminist’ or woman- centred gatherings. What masculinities are useful, good, do we women like /love?  What aspects of masculinity or being a man do men like? What tends to happen is that there is an expectation that the ‘good’ men will display all the feminine traits but what happens to the masculine ones?

What was interesting in this weekend was that whilst on the surface men were empathising with women, some stereotypical masculine traits still emerged through this dialogue with women. There were some difficulties and differences in how ideas were communicated… the men still fought shy of the personal whereas the old feminist adage of the personal is the political still resounded for most of the women. In this context men will often be quiet rather than risk displaying too controlling a role in the debate and being called out for it.

It must be hard to be a pro feminist man when it is men who are mostly responsible for so much violation and violence in the world. But men must speak out about it. Just as women are having to work out what parts of the traditional feminine they own or not so men need to do the same. No man or woman is the same as anyone else but the weekend showed me that there is still a long way to go before we understand each other. Women’s anger has been quite subdued in the past fifteen or so years as social theories have focused on the individual and emphasis has been on self improvement and indeed other disenfranchised groups in society. But it is still there and somehow has to be faced by men.

I see this repressed anger _ there is a feeling that we should not feel it, life is so much better for us than it was for our mothers – in organizations. But I am also seeing resignation, an acceptance that perhaps this is as good as it gets and that at least we have entry into the public world of work and can sniff the scent of power. Many women are even harbouring the possibility that perhaps there is a natural order of things and men will always dominate. This would be a dangerous conclusion leading to a social impasse plus a betrayal of the thousands of women who fought hard at great personal cost to give us this ‘freedom’ to still come second.

Although awkward at times the group succeeded in maintaining a consensus until the second day when one woman talked about an incident involving a man following her on her way home the previous night.  She was telling us about it and became really angry about the ‘normality’ of this fear of being followed at night and this resonated with most of the other women in the group. This then was the opportunity for the men present to discuss what if felt like to be linked to the ‘predatory’ male either in reality or symbolically. However what happened instead was that all the men in the room felt attacked and got extremely defensive and aggressive – indeed one stormed out of the room, saying he felt victimized. This left everyone left behind rather shaken and I do not think I am alone in feeling that familiar mixture of anger and guilt (shame) that we (women)  had done something wrong and we should have contained the situation. Oh how often do we women do that, taking responsibility for and managing men’s feelings. These feelings run deep. We owe it to one another to explore them.

Sarah Rutherford

Football thoughts during Women’s World Cup 2019

In the past I have too easily associated football with pubs packed with noisy men drinking pints, men dominating streets on football nights, and when I was younger warnings not to go out after the end of a  match. Alcohol, men’s voices and violence…not an altogether positive picture!  Although it was central to the lives of boys and men around me, and indeed the nation, I looked at it and felt it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Looking back again now I think I felt  excluded.

I have been watching some of the Women’s World Cup and find myself smiling, shouting them on and just enjoying watching women play football at this level.  I can see a sport requiring skill and team work that excites spectators.  I have also been thinking about some of my own more affirming football memories.  And there are some.

As a child playing football was just out of the question. It was a boy’s game. Even though I was quite a tomboy I never played. At school I played hockey, on the left wing and enjoyed it. My introduction to football was, like for many women, through my son and his father who both loved it. So it was frequently on the TV in our house and I learned the rules and enjoyed watching when I knew the players! On our annual holidays in the UK a big group of us always had a game of football on the beach, kids and parents and when I played I loved it! I thought then what a shame I hadn’t had an opportunity to play when I was growing up. I think I may have been quite good.

My kids went to a very progressive primary school which at the time believed that boys and girls should play sport together if they could, until secondary age. Not all parents agreed. But under eleven, there is little physical difference between the sexes and if anything girls are stronger.  Similarly, there were a few girls who played on Saturday mornings in the park with the boys. My daughter played there. She had two brothers and was sporty and didn’t think anything of it. This must be the same story perhaps of the many talented players we are now watching on our television screens.

As a nine year old my daughter had a painting accepted into a big children’s art exhibition and a cartoonist, Andy, was there on the opening night drawing many of the children. The cartoonist asked my daughter what she wanted to be drawn as.  ‘As a footballer’ she said. I truly had hope at that time that within a few years I would see as many girls as boys playing football in the public parks.  But it just didn’t happen. The push behind it didn’t seem strong enough.  Gender stereotyping increased and parents seemed happy to reinforce these … boys do football and girls do ballet.

One of the delights of having women’s football on the TV is of course that the footballers are offering fantastic role models to young girls today. I was dismayed when I learned only relatively recently that women actually women played more football a hundred years ago than they do today. It was extremely popular during the First World War, when women in munitions factories were encouraged to play for their health and fitness. This developed in factory teams and their games started to draw big crowds.  A Boxing Day match at Goodison Park in 1920 attracted a crowd of 53,000. Then in a similar vein to pushing women out of the workplace and back into the home after the war, the FA banned women’s football in 1921, not to lift the ban until 1971. If I had known this legacy perhaps I might have had the courage to say as a child, I want to play. Many of us may have. Perhaps my daughter and the other girls in our local area would have felt it was just as much their right to play rather than being treated as mascots or token boys.

However I am so pleased that the hard work of men and women promoting girls’ and women’s  football  did keep going and has resulted in where we are now. But I would still like to see girls playing football in the parks and schools offering football as a sport to girls.

 Blog on a project collecting voices on women’s football over a sixty day period in, over and around the World Cup.

Hard Talk  ‘Is Stonewall in danger of tearing itself apart?’ Sarah Montague interviews Ruth Hunt

Interview 2. Hard Talk  Sarah Montague 

A few days later a second more challenging interview followed, the interviewer being, World at One presenter Sarah Montague.  Her researcher had provided her with some good questions but I didn’t feel she took the opportunities she had to really grill Hunt on her position. Perhaps she personally didn’t feel confident on the topic and when faced with an ‘expert on a controversial subject’ only too readily accepted whatever response she got. How unlike her questioning of politicians on the Today programme or now World at One! They don’t get let off the hook so easily. So an opportunity rather wasted but still some interesting responses from Hunt on which to comment.  I wanted to ask my own questions which I will occasionally insert in this piece, probably out of frustration!  For those that haven’t the time to listen to it here is my take on it.

The context of the interview was different from the above one which was pitched as a interview of an outgoing chief executive.  This next one was about the contention that Stonewall was in a problematic situation and the headline title shows this with ‘Is Stonewall in danger of tearing itself apart?’

Montague began with asking Hunt – why self ID?  Her first response was quite surprising as she said well other countries are doing it. Really – was that the reason? She cites a few including Iran!  Have we as a country always been so keen to follow Iran in their social legislation?  Some of these countries have enabled trans to be legalised because it is more acceptable than homosexuality which is outlawed as Hunt will only be too aware. Proceeding with the discussion on self ID here in the UK Montague asks about the proposed GRA 2004 reforms and the demands to make it easier to get a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and legally change sex.  In an effort to play down the importance of this, Hunt then says that actually getting a GRC doesn’t really make any difference as people are self id- ing anyway!! No one she says gets asked for their GRC.  So one may well ask why the fuss to repeal the 2004 Act?  But Montague doesn’t ask this.  Or ask the obvious next question which is ‘So what legal rights are trans activists actually wanting then that they haven’t got that will make a difference?’

Montague failed to drill down here but did raise the issue of women’s safety and women’s fears re special provision for sex segregated spaces. She cites the case of Karen White who sexually assaulted women in a women’s prison, having gained access as a trans woman. This is batted off with Hunt saying safeguarding is already done on a case by case situation and will continue to be. That case was just one failure in the process.  However I have read several policy documents of organisations, which were advised by Stonewall and there the policy is to accept trans people’s word without question. In this culture staff do not feel empowered to question or refuse entry to a trans woman as they fear retribution. Hunt knows full well that this is the advice she and her team have been giving organisatons for some years now even though the law (Equality Act 2010) does provide for the possibility of  barring a trans woman from women only spaces.  So to my mind SM could have then made the point in this first part of the interview  that ‘it seems that you have already achieved what you want by changing policy and practice without any further change in the law.. what exactly are you arguing for now?’ But she didn’t.

The next  question was hard hitting (all the good ones were where SM could rely on someone else’s quote or an actual report)  SM quotes Kristina Harrison saying that what Stonewall is  doing is changing what it means to be a woman (my paraphrase) and what did Hunt have to say in response to this accusation. Her response shocked me and should have prompted a counter question from SM but didn’t… “Oh “ she said in a rather superior, didn’t you know way, “the debate about what constitutes a man or a woman happened in 2004 when it was discussed at length.” SM obviously didn’t know what that meant so failed to ask for further elaboration. Mistake. Hunt must have been referring to the lead up to the 2004 Act. As far as I am aware no women’s groups were involved nor was there any public debate. This was because as the consultation papers show the Committee all believed they were discussing and passing legislation to help fewer than 5000 people, who were unable to marry because this was when same sex marriages were  illegal.  It was this bill that sowed the confusion between sex and gender and there was some concern expressed by certain committee members this at the time.  However again because of the small numbers they decided to create a legal fiction whereby someone could get their birth certificates changed after certain conditions were satisfied and this became the GRA 2004. Outside of this committee I found no public debate about what it meant to be a man or a woman but these conversations were perhaps taking place among the trans lobby. Perhaps this is what Hunt was referring to. In a paper written by Professor Stephen Whittle and Lewis White the authors considered the insertion of the word gender in the bill to be a success. One now can see why. Gender was on its way to being prioritised over biological sex. .

This has been the number one goal of the trans movement. To replace sex with gender as a category. If they could never actually be physically a woman or man then they would change the meaning of being a woman or a man so that they could be. Of course none of this is admitted by Hunt nor does SM challenge her. It is interesting that in the earlier interview Hunt said that Stonewall took on the trans rights brief because it had the resources available that Press For Change (Whittle is the founder) which had been going for years did not have. The influence of Whittle is obvious.

When SM repeats that some feminists and lesbians are upset/angry Hunt’s stock reply is to ignore that question and say well I am also a feminist and a lesbian. End of.

Next SM tries, as the other interviewer did, to tackle the toxicity of the debate. But this is familiar ground for Hunt. She can express surprise and blame all sides as she did in the earlier podcast interview, placing Stonewall firmly in the ‘we are doing the right thing and have received hostility for it’. Or the furthest she goes to conceding that trans activists hostility has played a huge part is that there is incivility on all sides.

SM does push her on Stonewall’s refusal to debate with those critics.  Hunt then goes on to say that a debate is going on all the time, conversations are going on all the time and difficult ones at that. Much of the frustration for gender critical feminists has been the trans lobby’s refusal to debate so it isn’t clear with whom Hunt is debating.  A possible embarrassment brought up by SM was the public criticism of Stonewell’s refusal to debate by Simon Fanshawe, one of the original founders of Stonewall. Hunt dismisses this in one sentence… his time was a long time ago sic he doesn’t understand the issues.  As to not debating with critics, she uses the safety of her trans staff as an excuse not to. But only 6% of Stonewall’s staff are trans and this doesn’t explain why she herself who is not trans cannot sit and debate the issues.

SM then asked her the direct question “Is it transphobic to disagree with the concept of self ID?” ‘No’ she replies categorically, ‘Nor have we ever said that’.  This is the biggest concession she has made yet  but she still does not condemn those activists who accuse feminists who do question self ID of transphobia and worse. Almost as if she is expecting  SM to  have come back with,  then what is there to fear in a debate about self ID?, Hunt gets there first by pronouncing that “It is not Stonewall’s role to host that debate” thereby closing off that part of the questioning.

And to justify Stonewall’s position which this interview entrenched further she said that it (position) was arrived at through a survey of 700 plus trans people.  She also rather disingenuously says that Stonewall’s position has been influenced and informed by all its diversity champions. This is an area I know and the reality is that these corporate champions have taken their stance and developed policy through Stonewall’s advice and training not the other way round. But Hunt insists that these employers ‘have been asking us to do trans work for decades’. Again I find that hard to believe.

Hunt maintains that Stonewall’s approach is ‘thoughtful, considered and measured’ which does provoke SM to ask ‘Why then are so many feminists and lesbians angry with Stonewall?’ Hunt dodges the question like before and replies ‘What we are seeing is lots and lots of support. Many, many of our supporters are very supportive.’  Montague’s response should/could have been  ‘of course they are but that wasn’t the question’. But it isn’t. Hunt sensing she has the floor continues to declare  that the organisation is a much bigger one today than it was, much richer ‘since we thought about things differently’.  So here she acknowledges that the trans work has made Stonewall more successful. The work is lucrative.  It has a new strand of income and the subject matter is so niche only Stonewall can provide the advice and training organisations have been led to believe they need.  It is their ideology wrapped up in rights and discrimination and organisations want to do the right thing. They have created the demand for a service only they can provide. Hunt still has not answered the question as this has nothing to do with anger from feminists.

So Ruth Hunt has acknowledged that pretty much all the recent growth at Stonewall has come from trans issues. An obvious question at this point would be ‘How have you grown so much on the back of promoting rights for a tiny, tiny fragment of the population? Why do so many people and organisations want to fund this?’ I have my own thoughts here but that is for another piece.

Or why not ask the question ‘What percentage of your income is directly attributable to work you do on trans rights and policy advice compared to that for lesbian rights or gay rights? Of the £7.5m income from training, advice, donations etc… how much can you attribute to trans work, or funding for trans issues.’

Hunt continues saying that some people didn’t want or believe that trans people should be part of that movement (what movement?) but lots and lots did. Again instead of addressing the specific concerns of lesbians, a group Stonewall was set up to protect, she dismisses them, citing that there was bigger support for trans as her rationale.

Sarah Montague has another gem of  a challenge to put to Hunt(and her researcher has been good, pulling out reported criticisms). This time it is the report  that Maureen Chadwick, a  well- known  Stonewall supporter and her partner pulled their funding citing Stonewall’s militant trans rights crusade as the reason. Montague quoted some of their concerns, like the teaching  ‘that a bearded man with a penis can be a lesbian’ and  the couple’s criticism of  the fact that Stonewall was using the gender norms of the 1950’s as signs of being girls or boys.’

Hunt dismissed the criticism by merely responding with ‘I don’t agree that that is what is happening. I am a lesbian myself’ before repeating that an increase in donors is proof that Stonewall is doing the right thing.  She merely says again that some people don’t want them to work on trans issue, an easy rebuttal without acknowledging the specifics of the criticisms.  Montague had a real opportunity here to press in on the ideology that Maureen Chadwick objected to and ask more about it. But she didn’t.

Alluding to the fact that Stonewall was coming in for public criticism SM asked Hunt if she was leaving to protect the organisation. Interestingly she didn’t exactly deny this. But she says there is a board which is 100% behind their policy, defensively adding that Stonewall is supported by all political parties and other organisations like the Army and Barclays. Again this is because these organisations have relied on Stonewall , the self-appointed expert, to tell them the rights and wrongs of how to treat trans people and have swallowed the ideology hook line and sinker.

SM’s best challenge comes near the end. Having gained so much for the LGB community in the UK, she said, some people feel that Stonewall should campaign in countries which still carry the death penalty for same sex relationships ‘rather than focusing on identity and semantics’, she conjectured. Hunt responds quickly with ‘it is not semantics for trans people who experience hate crime daily’ and the viewer feels by this stage that Montague is just looking forward to finishing what has seemed to  be an uncomfortable interview. A few minutes of quite banal conversation follow before time is up.

As a reasonably well informed observer I think Ruth Hunt was also uncomfortable with this interview and just used a few tactics to avoid any challenges or indeed engage with any of the difficult issues. She either ignored criticism of others, and referred to being backed up by supporters, then repeated her own experience as a lesbian and feminist to trump any feminist/lesbian criticism and lastly used donors and clients as justification for policy. She actually failed to take ownership and responsibility for the policy or put forward a really persuasive argument for the work Stonewall is currently doing that is making them quite rich.

Analysis and comments on two Ruth Hunt Interviews – 1

Interview One

Anushka Asthana of the Guardian interviews the outgoing Chief Executive of Stonewall, Ruth Hunt.

In this podcast Ruth Hunt, outgoing Chief Executive of Stonewall is asked about the challenges Stonewall have faced by – and Asthana used the phrase  ‘some people who call themselves feminists’ seemingly declaring her own view and Hunt’s responses are telling. She claimed wrongly or mistakenly that these critics had framed the debate so as to make it impossible for Stonewall to take part. She accused her detractors of making  blanket statements like ‘trans women should not do sport’ and that ‘all trans women are men masquerading as women so that they can enter women’s prisons and abuse them’ which she then used to justify why Stonewall would not engage in any debate with its critics,  because, she said  they were not starting out on the premise that trans people have human rights. This is totally wrong and it is extraordinary that someone with Hunt’s intelligence would say these things.

I have never heard anyone make statements like the two examples that Hunt used. In fact as Hunt well knows it is feminists who have been the most supportive of trans people in the past. It is not women who trans people fear entering the wrong toilet or being picked on in the street. It is men. Pointing out the dangers to women’s safety by allowing biological males into their protected spaces is not the same as saying all trans women have ulterior motives.   Concern about the male bodied people taking part in women’s sports is not the same as saying ‘trans women shouldn’t do sport’. This is of course what happens when you refuse to discuss, you don’t hear what your critics are saying and you are free to imply what you want as there is no comeback.

Is it that this trans ideology is so flawed that it cannot merit scrutiny for fear of it being exposed. So the solution for those that promote it is to repeat it endlessly ‘trans women are women,’ and not engage with critics apart from calling them unpleasant names and getting them sacked. Historian Timothy Snyder calls this technique of misstatements and reiteration which Trump, among others, uses  ‘shamanistic incantion’, as they depend upon endless repetition designed to make the fictional plausible.

It is actually Stonewall and others who have framed the debate to be about trans rights and anyone with any objection is cast as opposing trans rights, which as we know in this rights obsessed time we live in, that makes you the baddy. The question is not should trans people have human rights but should those  declared human ‘rights’ remove some of the human rights from half the population? Is it indeed a human right to self -declare your identity as a woman when you have the body of a man.  Who said it was? There is as yet  no agreed consensus and it has not until now been widely discussed.

Hunt also said that the current situation regarding trans rights reminded her of how people treated gay and lesbians thirty years ago but the two groups are not the same. Gay and lesbian rights never impinged on any other groups’ rights. Some people may have objected morally but that is a different matter. Merging the two is disingenuous but highly emotive, and again casts any opposing view as anti progress.

Hunt began the discussion saying that society was going through an obsession with gender. Well I wonder why? It is not actually trans people who have caused this ‘obsession’, but the political ideology and demands being made in their name through organisations like Stonewall that have. They have pushed for several years to impose and instill an ideology in which sex is no longer a priori our category for distinguishing men and women. Most of us did not have any idea of the breadth and depth of the influence of this global movement. Nor are we yet fully comprehending of exactly what it is they are trying to achieve.

In response to the question on why  Stonewall took on trans rights, Hunt said that it made sense for Stonewall to use its huge resources to push for trans rights in 2015. Until then, she said it was only a small underfunded trans pressure group Press for Change that worked solely for trans rights. This was founded by Professor Stephen Whittle who was instrumental in influencing the passing of the GRA in 2004.  A reading of some of his work will enlighten you as to how the trans ideology has developed over the past twenty years, taking root in the academic discipline ( a word I am using lightly) of queer studies. The powerful network of government organisations and big corporates that saw Stonewall as the specialist in LGB were quite open and responsive to new policy suggestions and training on trans people about which they probably knew very little. Below in a second interview Hunt actually says it was these clients that have pushed her into taking on trans. I discuss that later.

When Asthana asked about the focus of Stonewall’s current debates being on trans Hunt replied that ‘we are just responding to what’s in the media”.  This is not so. The media like the rest of society was ignorant of the huge swathe of changes that were taking place behind the scenes that would impact the lives particularly of women and girls. The media is still for the most part too frightened to talk about what is happening.  Commentators who detract from the trans ideology are subject to vile abuse. On this Hunt merely says there is a lack of civility ‘on all sides’ which is a very Donald Trump type of comment. By refusing to acknowledge that there are very real conflicts of interests Hunt stands accused of betraying women and in particular the lesbian community that Stonewall represents.  She has not responded to the concern expressed in the huge rise in young girls being referred gender clinics, another social impact of the trans ideology. She did not acknowledge that this was a topic that was complex, impacted women and girls or that the definitions that society  were used to of transsexuals had been changed without any public debate and that the goal has been to redefine what being a woman means. Hunt was never really challenged at all in this interview by Asthana, reflecting perhaps the Guardian’s own reluctance to enter the debate in any meaningful way.

The history of women’s equality and feminism should be part of the school curriculum

In February this year Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced that there will be compulsory lessons in Relationships Education for primary-aged children and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for secondary students from 2020. LGBT issues will be part of this, as will honour marriages, dangers of online abuse, FGM and domestic violence.   In the light of this surely it is surely both relevant and appropriate to introduce feminism and the history of women’s equality into the curriculum?  For without understanding that until relatively recently women here had few rights and did not enjoy the same status as men (and still do not in many parts of the world), it is impossible to explain the ongoing discrimination and abuse that continues today. And why we still have inequality.

Women’s lives in the West have changed enormously over the past hundred years, and despite the marking of women’s suffrage last year, there are many men and women who do not appreciate that their current freedoms have been hard won by earlier feminists. Domestic violence, rape, child abuse, sex trafficking, pornography all show that women are still too often not treated with respect as human beings.

I believe that all schools should teach the history of women’s liberation so far – perhaps going back as far as Mary Wollenstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Women in 1792. This would help provide some context and understanding for both boys and girls and their relations today. What is the point in teaching them about sex and relationships without an understanding that it was not until the feminist movement of the mid-sixties plus the advent of the contraceptive pill that enabled women to have sexual relations outside marriage without risking pregnancy or being rejected by society.  We should set down when women first got the vote in different countries round the world (e.g.Switzerland 1973);  and here in the UK when women were able to own property for the first time (Married Women’s Property Act 1882); when they were allowed to be educated and go to university for the first time and when each of the professions finally allowed them entry. Then when and why the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination were passed in 1975, before which it was legal to pay women half of what men earned for the same work. That rape within marriage was legal until 1991.

Women’s freedoms today have been hard fought for. In a comment during the Treasury Select Committee on Women in the City in 2009, one of the two women members, Sally Keeble commented that not one aspect of women’s equality had ever come about without a law being passed. That means that there has been ongoing resistance from men and this must also be addressed.

The course could detail how women worked in men’s jobs in the First World War and what happened afterwards and then again in the Second World War. This would include the stories of women whose lives and achievements have been neglected, forgotten, or worse, written out of history.  There is so much talk of role models in our work in diversity and inclusion. But we have many, many women role models, we just don’t know about them.

Issues like sexual harassment and the #Metoo phenomenum make sense when seen in the light of women’s history. None of this is new and there have been many women campaigning for an end to sexual harassment over the years. Learning that there are many cultures in the world  in which women still do not have basic human rights is important for our young people to know. The challenge is to teach and discuss this without alienating or blaming boys. It is about social progress and I want girls and young women to be proud of their history and past, how far we have come and yes to know that there is so much more to be done. Feminism is the reason that women and girls in the West have the lives they have today and we should acknowledge that, teach it and celebrate it.

Dethroning Poststructuralism

‘Divide and rule’ is an effective strategy for controlling any group, from family to country and nowhere is this truer than with women. When I first engaged in feminism in the early eighties it was laughed at in much of the media (Guardian excepted) and feminists were scorned for not being proper women,  called lesbians, ugly, fat, dungaree wearing. It was quite daring to announce that you were a feminist in my work circles (journalism) then. Arguably in certain sectors of work and society it still is.  The strategy was to distance the women who challenged patriarchal power from the vast majority of women who were acquiescent and it worked.  But strategies change and now many of the demands second wave feminists campaigned for have come about or at least are acknowledged as being social issues and not fanatical or fanciful ideas. It is now acknowledged in this country at least that women are just as capable, just as clever as men even if social arrangements often prevent them from fulfilling their potential. However the divide and rule has now been applied in a different way – to split feminists. A lack of education of feminism means that there is now little gratitude from the young to the earlier feminists who campaigned so hard for change.  Indeed some older feminists  have been cast aside by the young for being ideologically unsound evidenced by the no platforming of feminists like Linda Bellos, Jenni Murray and Germaine Greer. Today lots of young women describe themselves as feminists and the ‘I am not a feminist but….’ start to a sentence is not as common. But political movements need theory and much of feminist theory has been diluted or rejected. Feminism or even feminism(s) as some prefer to say, is much more tentative than it was.

Twenty five years ago some feminists myself included argued that the project of feminism would be damaged if we went too far down the poststructuralism path.  We feared a political and moral relativism that would lead to the fragmentation of the class of women and would ultimately result in their disempowerment. Academia continued on the path anyway and the human subject became ever subject to scrutiny – unstable, partial, changeable, relative. Once you remove the ability  to name a subject the theorising of discrimination and violence becomes pretty impossible. Material reality was critiqued, deconstructed endlessly, power existed in and through discourse and was continuously shifting. Truths and experiences  were limited to ‘partial’ truths. The feminist research focus on violence, rape, inequality and pornography i.e. the everyday reality for many women, was redirected to ‘sexier’ theoretical subjects of linguistics, identity and intersectionality. Yes the early feminist work was white middle-class centred but then so were many of the  first wave suffragettes. That does not mean that their work and theory should be discredited, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whilst these postmodern theories may sound much more inclusive, each theoretical proclamation could be critiqued, undone and disrupted leaving no solid foundation for a cohesive political theory at all. Much of it is built on linguistics and is hard to understand, therefore distancing itself from women’s lived in experience. That itself is a different sort of privilege and means its ideas are inaccessible to the majority of women.   Feminism is built on the concept of a universal womanhood, however deep the differences in experiences inevitably are. We need to remember how well  divide and rule  has worked  well in the past to paralyse women’s progress.

In the great poststructuralist sweep ‘grand narratives’ like feminism and patriarchy were condemned as simplistic, universalistic and culturally biased. Poststructuralist ideas were and still are useful in allowing a more nuanced analysis of power and how it operates at different levels and in different locations. It is not a zero sum game. However its limits in relation to the analysis of women’s lives  must be acknowledged. Writer Dorinne Kondo   concluded pessimistically and correctly with reference to the power women have to change relations with men,that applying  only poststructuralist concepts of discourse ultimately means that ‘they (the women in her study) and we will never be able completely to  dismantle the master’s house’ (Kondo 1990).

No truths, no big ideas, no commonality, no material power – we can see so easily how this was leading to the near destruction of a feminist theory and the political movement for which it provided the foundation. Its ‘grand narrative’ theory was dismissed as middle class and white after all. Women’s studies became gender studies in the nineties, although we knew it meant women – perhaps gender was more sophisticated and academically acceptable, and we were interrogating what it meant to be a woman at specific times, gender as a social and cultural construct. It also opened the door to studying men and interrogating masculinity. And men there were, analysing masculinity and power within a feminist context. Then queer studies and queer theory, the ultimate in post-structuralist theory of sexuality and identity seeped in to the academy, co-opted poststructuralist feminist theory and ballooned.  Materialist feminist theory all but vanished. Queer studies popularised the concept of gender identity, which before feminists could blink seemed to have replaced the feminist reading of gender in everyday language. Judith Butler’s book ‘Gender Trouble’ has a lot to answer for, paving the way for a trans ideology which dominates this space in a way that early feminists and even early feminist poststructuralists would never have envisaged. Womanhood deconstructed to such an extent that even a man can now be a woman and, some women even agree, particularly the younger ones. An ideology held to be a reality which prioritises a notion of gender identity (whatever that may be) over biological sex. (Discussions of what is so wrong with trans ideology and how it harms women and girls are in another post here.)  Is it a coincidence that the poststructuralist philosophical landscape has coincided with an ebbing of women’s progress, as gender pay equality progress stalls, sexual violence increases and we already see a backlash to the #MeToo movement. Women sense that the concept of patriarchy is needed but we need to rediscover the theory that provides an explanation as well as solutions.

These observations may sound conspiratorial but historically there has always been resistance to women’s progress towards equality. All our rights have been fought for and challenged, not given freely and cultural and social conditions provide a myriad of ways to resist further change. It is not a group of men standing arm to arm but men are colluding with oppression through their silence. My work has looked at backlash and the unexpected ways resistance to women’s equality is manifested. It was ideology that encouraged a particular type of mothering which alongside structural barriers contributed to educated women staying at home in the fifties, sixties and seventies. My gut told me twenty five years ago that post structuralism was ultimately no friend to feminism. We know historically that violence is not  needed to keep people in their place when ideas will do it. And today women’s voices are being silenced and women punished for exposing the threat that an ideology that says you can think yourself a woman to be one, poses for women and girls everywhere.

Just when women’s reality was being acknowledged a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as reality. Just when women’s truth was being spoken and perhaps heard, a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as truth. Just as women started to become the human subject for the first time in history, a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as the human subject.

Poststructuralism is a useful analytical tool, but in essence a nihilist theory that by its nature could never provide the foundation for a political movement and nearly brought feminist activism and theory to a standstill. For women’s sake it is time to dethrone the poststructuralist crown.


Tech industry’s gendered history: from women’s work to men’s work


“You have to know the past to understand the present.” Carl Sagan

Whilst I was reading the Global Gender Gap Report 2018 section on the lack of women in AI I began to think about women and tech generally. My own experience of tech has been limited to running an online retail business and through doing that I quickly saw that there were not many women on the web development side of things. I strongly encouraged the young women who worked with me to go on coding courses. I then remembered that the girls’ school I went to in the early seventies had taught computer science and we learned the basics of binary coding. When I mention this to people today there is surprise and praise for the school that seemed so progressive for the time. But now that I have researched the topic I realise that it wasn’t that it was progressive to teach girls computer science. Until the mid-sixties computing programming was considered a female occupation. What was unusual was that my school could afford a computer at that time not that it taught computer science to girls.  Many more girls studied computer science then than now. Today only 7% of UK computer science A-level courses are female. Just half of the girls that study IT & Tech subjects at school go into a job in the same field. Only 17% of people who are working in the tech industry in the UK are women. It is a similar situation in the US. In 1984 women made up 37% of those doing computer science degrees. Today it is 11%.

A glance at the big tech companies shows that their gender makeup does not reflect their users in any way. This is a cause for concern and they are increasingly being scrutinised and many are trying to improve the representation of women in their workforce.

Percentage of tech roles by women 2018 

Uber  5.4%

Facebook 17%

Apple 23%

Google 19%

Twitter 15%

Microsoft 17.5%

The lack of young women going into the industry will have a societal long term adverse impact, including the perpetuation of the gender pay gap as the power of tech grows.  Apart from missing out on broad pool of talent, technology is being developed for solutions across many fields without the input of women at the outset. The feminist analysis of science (e.g. Harding 1986) has highlighted the need for women to not only do the science but to make the decisions on where science should focus its efforts.

Adding women into the picture at a later date is not mainstreaming gender equality. We are in the process of repeating the same mistakes of the past (in science) allowing mainly men to determine where a new technology  is applied which will impact the lives of both men and women. Who knows if the problems the big social media companies are now having could have been lessened by having more women in the top teams at the outset?

I have talked to several women who have worked in Silicon Valley and they all say that the culture is macho and difficult to work in. Unlike more established industries tech does not have a history of excluding women and therefore has not had a long time frame for the development of a masculine culture (in this sense I mean one that suits men more than women). We have very few rational explanations for why so few women are in tech apart from ‘male culture’ and sometimes citing women’s lack of science qualifications and/or the  essentialist  fall-back position of women being less suited to that kind of work. Women have made inroads into almost all professions which were formally barred to them in the past  for social, educational and cultural reasons. However in computing   women’s representation proportionally is smaller now that it was forty years ago. This decline goes against the trend of increased female representation in almost every other work sector, including science sectors. How has this happened?

Programming is women’s work 

We are familiar with work becoming feminised as women enter a field and sadly often the status of the work declines. But not so much the other way. However computer programming started off as women’s work and was made masculine – a process of masculinisation through the intentional development of a professional status and masculine culture. It is necessary to understand this specific and conscious gendering of the computing industry – how it was made masculine- in order to understand the current gender imbalance today.

At around the same time as the Gender Gap report was published I saw the obituary of Grace Roman (1925 – 2018) who was instrumental in the development of the Hubble telescope and I also noticed a social media post about  the American Evelyn Berezin ( 1925 – 19   ) who designed the first word processor. So women were in there at the beginning on the frontline.

It didn’t take much digging about to find stories of many women who had been at the forefront of the computer industry but whose influence and input was left out of history until recently. (Tessa Dunlop’s  book The Bletchley Girls and  the  2016 film Hidden Figures  which shows the story of  how three black women were  key mathematicians at NASA during the Space Race years in the 1960’s both brought women’s forgotten efforts into the public mind).

A female mathematician, Ada Lovelace, is widely recognised now as history’s first computer programmer when in 1843 she published an algorithm to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli (a Swiss mathematician famous for his pioneering work in probability and statistics) numbers intended to be carried out by Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  She was followed by many highly influential women.  A wonderful article giving the brief stories of seven early women pioneers of programming (coding)  can be found  here along with the names of many other influential women.

These women were ground breaking computer scientists specifically in language development. But many other women worked specifically in the development of computer systems. “For decades, the work of many of these female computing innovators has been overlooked. However, every time we use our computers, phones or tablets, we are using tools that may not exist only for them” says  Marie Hicks, author of  Programmed Inequality.

Indeed all the early computer programmers were women. Women were the largest trained technical workforce of the computing industry during the Second World War and on through to the mid-sixties both in the UK and the US.

Women had made up the majority of the first programmers during the Second World War; Early on war efforts  like the Colossus in the UK (codebreaking ) at Bletchley Park , 8000 of the 10000 employees were women.  Women were recruited into these projects in large part because of the shortage of masculine labour during the war and also because much of the work was considered monotonous and therefore more suited to women’s ‘skills’. The work, particularly as part of the war effort, attracted many educated women who had little hope of gaining any other fulfilling work.

After the war, in the early years of the development of computers men worked with machines, the mainframes, the hardware; women programmed them, the software. Back then programming had no cachet. It certainly wasn’t seen as inspiring work.  Every company that made or used computers hired women to programme them. The excitement and initially the money was in the mainframes, men’s work. Before computing became electronic, women were tapped as the ideal workers for what was considered rote, mundane calculation work. The skills required were considered ‘female’ dextrous, attention to detail, repetitive work.

Even though at a higher level which women were able to gain entry to, this work required advanced mathematics knowledge – everything from spheroidal trigonometry, to calculus, to accounting, to codebreaking – it was perceived as nonintellectual and, because women were doing it, largely unimportant. These women were actually called ‘computers’: before a computer was a machine, it was a job classification, like ‘accountant’ or ‘baker’. When electro-mechanical and then electronic computers began to automate this work, women carried over: operating, programming, troubleshooting, and even assembling the hardware of these new machines.

The gendering of work and skills

We tend to think of skills as objective and neutral whereas in reality they are socially constructed and require a continual input of cultural resources to maintain their status (or lack of it). What does or doesn’t constitute  skilled  labour?

“Social judgements often determine which job related capabilities are seen as necessary and which become optimal or even invisible” says   Janet Abbate in Recoding Gender .. and this includes how skills are gendered for as Judy Wacjman said in 1991 “ the classification of women’s jobs as unskilled and men’s jobs as skilled frequently bears little relation to the actual amount of training or ability required for them. Skills are saturated with gender bias”

Women’s emotional labour was taken for granted as ‘natural’ and hidden until Arlie Hochschild revealed and named it as such in her book The Managed Heart. Several years later  this was turned into  emotional intelligence in management  jargon,  a recognised skill and one that men could learn. It is a now a ‘skill’ applauded and valued in men but arguably still seen as natural and expected of  women. Ascribing lower value to women’s work combined with occupational segregation are arguably the strongest cause of the gender pay gap.

How the tech industry was made masculine

It was not until the mid-sixties that perception started changing both here and in the US. Computers, instead of being seen as intimidating behemoths that were only good for technical work, were now becoming integrated into every part of the work of government and industry.  As their great power became more apparent, low-status women workers were no longer seen as appropriate for this type of work, even though they had all the technical skills to do the jobs.

The computerisation of the nation advanced, with computers becoming more important to the functioning of government and industry, and all the while this growing feminised machine underclass formed the infrastructure for many critical activities, from taxation, to scientific research, to economic forecasting.  In the Civil Service women programmed and operated computers that ran the new VAT and ‘pay-as-you-earn’ taxation systems that enabled the welfare state and the NHS to be funded. Women also wrote software for prestige cutting-edge, international projects like the Concorde.  Within government and the public sector, these women formed an underclass of highly technically trained and operationally critical technology workers – dubbed “the machine grades” within the civil service. As computers grew in power, having an underclass of highly-trained technical workers who were not aligned with the interests and goals of management was a potentially disastrous situation. At the time it was highly unusual for women to get to management grades. So Hicks argues that the British government began a decade-long effort to remove women workers from these newly-important technical positions and replace them with management-minded young men: people who could go from the boardroom to the machine room and manage computers as easily as people.

“Most businesses went out of their way to ensure that gendered hierarchies always put male managers on top, and the supposedly meritocratic civil service itself was the worst offender, carefully re categorising women and men workers into different job categories even when they were doing the same work. Irrespective of skills, job categories ensured that more men remained in positions of power while most women remained in functional roles, regardless of how they might have shown themselves to be capable.” (Hicks 2018)

As well as structural controls like grading and segregation, the professionalization of the industry and the development of an idealised and male computer worker added to further barriers to women’s entry in the same way as happened in the US.

The US computer industry at the outset also had an ambiguous gender identity, starting out requiring feminine skills and was also deliberately transformed into a masculine and high status profession. Women were very much a part of the early development of computers in the US.  Six women were recruited to assist with the development and operation of the University of Pennsylvania’s ENIAC machine (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) which was one of the first and most famous early electronic computers. These women were the first programmers (although they were not called that then) and all went on to have influential careers. Despite being instrumental in its development they were subsequently eliminated from the historical record until records of them were retrieved in recent years.

After the war there was an explosion in computers and in what they could do and companies were unable to recruit enough staff.  An industry doubling in size every year could not afford to discriminate against women and besides the ‘qualifications’ required were still being negotiated. This was a similar situation in the UK. There had been no time to create an industry/sector/profession with boundaries to keep women out as existed in other science and management fields.    People assumed that because women were doing this work, and the apparatus looked like a giant switchboard, that it was simple, concealing the reality that this work was highly technical and complex. This illusion lasted for many years.  As in the UK these positions were kept low grade despite the fact that the operators were becoming more and more skilled in programming design as well as operation.

As time moved on, academic Nathan  Ensmenger suggests that men began to recognise the importance of programming in the new age of information economy and edged into the profession. In order to elevate the importance of their work the first generation of male programmers began crafting a professional identity that effectively excluded women.  By the late 1960’s already the tide had turned and companies sought out men not women as the work grew in status. Despite the tide turning large numbers of women relatively continued to study computer science until the mid-eighties. In the US women doing computer science at university peaked at 37% in 1984 and since then has steadily declined and is now only 11%.

Academic Nathan Ensmenger in his chapter ‘Making Programming Masculine’ in the book Gender Codes says “computer programming was gradually and deliberately transformed into a high status, scientific and masculine discipline. Men from established fields like physics mathematics and electrical engineering making the leap to a new field that had no history, no barriers to entry.” In the 1960’s the job title of computer programmer was switched into software engineer and in the process this embodied a more masculine vision of programming. Engineering was even more male then than it is today with approximately 1% of engineers being female in the 1960’s. Programming became coding, the former associated with women as they had done most of it but the latter now associated with men.

Some commentators have attributed the decline in women doing coding in the US with the advent of computer video games which appealed to men. “When Women Stopped Coding” The popular myth of the ‘accidental’ role of the male almost adolescent computer nerd at home in the development of computer industry is still fuelled by popular culture. However Ensmenger  contends that this ‘type’ of masculinity was present decades before the personal computer. Early associations of programming ability with maths puzzles and chess playing were reinforced through dubiously designed aptitude tests and personality profiles and then embodied into the hiring practices of the commercial computer industry.  These became more a masculine ideal as time went on and as more men became programmers that fed into the stereotype that we have today. Studies were done to find out the attributes of the ideal programmer. What emerged was a male figure who was very  good  at problem solving and not very good at working with people (many of the women had fitted this description in the studies too!). The establishment of this male ‘nerdy’ rather antisocial stereotype who is brilliant but not very communicative continues to feed into hiring patterns today.

This re positioning of computer work was done on both sides of the Atlantic. As men entered the new computer sector, a lot of effort was made to develop it into a profession, including the development of formal programmes in academic computer science, the creation of societies, professional certificates and professional journals. The purpose of professionalization is to increase the work’s social status, improve opportunities for advancement and better pay. A profession also implied managerial authority. All of this like the professionalization of other occupations taking place in the sixties had the effect of marginalising and or/excluding women for whom a public life was still very restricted at that time e.g. like an emphasis on a four year degree course at a time when women were underrepresented at college whereas before aptitude tests allowed non college women to enter the field.

The professionalization of computer programming also involved the work being segmented into low status and high status levels. Segmenting work leads to segregation of workers and into a hierarchy of status and pay. Women who were still present in the computer workforce increasingly found themselves at the lower grades and stuck there, like in the UK, unable to cross into the managerial ranks. So while computer work had been open to anyone who could pass an aptitude test over the course of two decades 60’ – 80’s the development of a more professional status brought this to an end.

Another barrier women cite today as excluding them to the tech industry is the long hours culture. In the early years when computers were large and expensive, shift work was done to utilise the twenty four hour day and very often a nocturnal culture developed.  In some companies women were often precluded from working in the night for safety reasons, hence erecting a structural barrier. Even after technical requirements for this night work disappeared the working through the night culture persisted and in some cases celebrated.

So in the space of only three decades the UK and the US computer industry shifted from low status work to a high status profession and in the process from a sector with a reasonably high representation of women to one where they are scarce. Women who were once welcomed into the sector now find themselves marginalised or excluded by a hostile culture and anti-social work practices. A combination of professionalization, and segmentation leading to segregation and the development of a masculinised work culture ensured that women despite having been on the front line of coding at its inception were demoted and eventually excluded. The development of an  idealised ‘male’ version of a computer programmer  was embodied into hiring practices as men took over the computer industry and made it their own.

Today many of the formal barriers are no longer there but neither are the women! However  informal barriers in the form of culture can be just as powerful in their exclusion and /or marginalisation of women in the workplace and this includes the culture of long hours.( Baggulely 1991, Witz 1992,  Rutherford 2011)

What this short history shows is that the excluding culture we associate with the tech industry was not there at the beginning in the 1940’s and fifties. Like all cultures it had to be created and recreated over the course of decades, replicated through the development of practices and institutions. For cultures to change they require resources and it is always the dominant group will create a culture that suits them best. Therein lies the paradox at the heart of all our diversity programmes, which these days focus on culture change. They do not work if men don’t back them. The positive from this story is that it is possible to change cultures  over time and in those early years despite the social climate for women being much more prohibitive than today women were able to carve out interesting careers for themselves.

In 2017 a Google engineer was sacked for saying in a leaked memo that one of the reasons that there was so much disparity between male and female tech engineers could be explained by genetic differences, thus perpetuating and repeating stereotypes which even this short article proves to be historically incorrect. Maybe instead of just sacking the 28 year old man the company could have educated the whole workforce on the historical, social and cultural reasons as to why there are now so few women in those roles in Silicon Valley. And take it from there.

Some notes on the Global Gender Gap Report 2018 – progress in women’s equality at a standstill

Just before Christmas the World Economic Forum published its Global Gender Gap Report 2018 showing that progress in women’s equality almost stalled last year. This index measures much more than just pay and is a useful report for global companies aiming to promote their D & I policies globally as well as providing a timely reminder that in certain areas the UK and the US could do with improvement.  As with the UK Gender Pay Gap Report, the numbers act as a broad signifier and further country analysis is required to explain some of the results. Behind the headline figures are a complex picture of advance and regression in different areas of public life for women globally.

The Global Gender Gap Index was first introduced at the World Economic Forum in 2006 as a framework for monitoring gender based disparities among a large group of countries. The number of countries is added to each year and only countries that can provide the relevant data are included – this year there were 149. The report sets out country as well as regional rankings and there are four key sub-indices which make up the Index.

  1. Political Empowerment
  2. Economic Participation and Opportunity
  3. Health and Survival
  4. Educational Attainment

There was extremely slow progress this year with the overall gender parity gap being reduced by only 0.03%. Whilst some of this could be explained by the entry of fairly underdeveloped countries being added to the index each year, individually some Western countries have stalled as well.

Top Ten Countries

  1. Iceland
  2. Norway
  3. Sweden
  4. Finland
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Rwanda
  7. New Zealand
  8. Philippines
  9. Ireland
  10. Namibia

United Kingdom was 15th

Globally the average (population weighted) gender gap is 32% but there are huge disparities among the different sub-indices. Gender parity in Western countries has slightly reduced while the progress is ongoing on average elsewhere.

The Political Empowerment index showed the greatest gap of 77%. The measurement currently only includes offices at national level and so this may not reflect the picture at regional level but it is still a substantial gap. There were improvements in 89 countries this year but the disparity between countries is vast. There are 17 countries that have women as heads of state while only 18% of all minsters and 24% of parliamentarians are women.

The country with the best political empowerment ratio was Iceland which has a 33% gap but one quarter of all countries have a gap of 90% or more and four countries have one of more than 97% – Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Yemen. The report says that the progress in political empowerment made over the past decade has started to reverse.

The huge gender gap in the political empowerment index skews the results even though the researchers have weighted each sub-index. This seems to favour countries with good representation at national government level which may have very poor indices elsewhere (e.g. Rwanda, Namibia and see below for discussion of a specific example, Bangladesh). There are also many aspects of women’s lives which are not measured but could be thought central to their equality and respect – typically sexual violence and domestic violence, and rights to birth control.

The Economic Participation and Opportunity index showed a global gap of 42%. It was the only sub-index to show a reduction in the gap and that was 1%, however within that index the participation in the labour force element has seen a widening of the gap and there are as expected wide country discrepancies. Globally 34% of managers are female across countries where data is available and less than 7% in the four worst performing countries’ – (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan). The estimated income gap is 47%. In terms of broader economic power, gaps in control of financial assets and in time spent on unpaid task continue to preserve economic disparities between men and women. Women have as much access to financial services as men in just 60% of countries assessed and to land ownership in just 42% of countries assessed. For the 29 countries that have relevant data women spend on average TWICE as much time as men on housework and other unpaid activities. In Japan this is fivefold!

The Educational Attainment gender gap is significantly smaller at only 4.4%. The worst performer is Chad at 57%, and there are still 44 countries where over 20% of women are illiterate. In Chad just 13% of women can read and write. And near parity in higher education enrolment rates often mask low participation of both men and women. Only 65% of girls and 66% of boys enrol in secondary education globally. The figures have also been criticised as using enrolment rates when in reality in many countries girls drop out significantly earlier than boys. So although the global gender gap is small, again the figures mask huge disparities and show overall very underdeveloped human capital in many countries.

Health and Survival gender gap is small at 4.6% with 74 countries having a gap of only 2%. In almost all countries women tend to live longer. The gender parity on sex ratio at birth is also very advanced. It is as it should be (a natural 94.4%) in 113 countries with almost all countries showing above 92%. Four countries’ (India, Azerbaijan, Armenia and China) measurement is below 91%, highlighting the ‘missing women’ statistic. These countries show strong preference to boys and girl babies are known to ‘disappear’ or in more recent years to be aborted.

 The limits of the index

An example of why the top line rankings need closer scrutiny is Bangladesh. Bangladesh cemented its position in rankings as the top performing country in South Asia, climbing to No.48 on the global list from last year’s ranking of 72. Despite ranking in the lowest 15% of countries for equality in economic opportunities, Bangladesh ranks seventh in female political empowerment. This puts the South Asian country one spot above Sweden in political gender parity. Yet the conditions and lives for women in the two countries couldn’t be more different. Bangladesh has a female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina and since 1991, a woman has held this office for all but three years. Women are politically empowered at the highest levels. This is because the country has implemented a gender quota system in parliament, automatically reserving 50 of its 350 seats for women. This move enabled it to decrease its gender gap in political empowerment without waiting for societal norms and attitudes about women in leadership to change first. The country performed poorly in other areas and was ranked only 124 in labour force participation, 104 in wage equality, 108 in earned income, and 106 in legislators, professionals/technical workers (sub-indices of economic performance) “If the report is based on the Prime Minister, opposition leader, and speaker of the parliament, or a minister of one or two ministries, then it does not reflect the reality on the ground,” BNP’s Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Rumeen Farhana said. So this top line result masks Bangladesh’s continued struggle with violence against women, wage disparity, high dropout rates among female students in primary and secondary schools, and the absence of women in top bureaucratic positions.

The Philippines boasts of being one of the most gender-equal countries in the world for the past years,  despite slipping three spots from 7th place  to 10th in the Index.  The Philippines legislature passed the Magna Carta of Women Act in 2009, which promotes gender equality in government by mandating quotas for the proportion of women in government jobs. It also empowers the state to take measures to encourage gender diversity in the private sector, though it stops short of mandated quotas. The relative equality there is attributed to that as well as with a strong history of matriarchal ethos in the society going back centuries. But some studies show that there are limits to women’s participation and equality in the workplace. The Philippine Institute for Development Studies states   that the unemployment rate is not always reflective of the working conditions of women, especially since it can make it seem that “women in the Philippines who join the labor force have similar economic opportunities as men.”

In a different report by HR in Asia, it was also found that 76 percent of female respondents in the Philippines deal with inequality and prejudice in the workplace, with 17 percent admitting to being questioned about their desire to have a family during the interview process.


The magnitude of gender gaps in countries is the result of a mix of socioeconomic policy and cultural variables so regardless of political intention, religious and cultural restrictions on women’s equality mean that certain countries perform very badly on the index – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan. The report also highlights the strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its economic performance and the connection between women’s equality and poverty – women’s labour participation and the economy.

This is ongoing active work; gender parity will not be gained automatically. It requires consistent commitment and effort at the highest levels. Just like in organisations a change of leadership, a change in economic fortunes can lead to a lessening of focus on gender. Sometimes a crisis can result in a positive move (Rwanda, Iceland) as most change happens when there has been a conscious and consistent decision to do so. Certainly some countries’ good results have come about through the implementation of political quotas (Bolivia, Rwanda, Philippines, Bangladesh). However government policy and indeed political quotas on their own do not yield the best results as the examples above show.


The limits of poststructuralism


Just when women’s reality was being acknowledged a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as reality.

Just when women’s truth was being spoken and perhaps heard, a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as truth.

Just as women started to become the human subject for the first time, a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as the human subject.

Poststructuralism – a useful analytical tool, but in essence a nihilist theory that by its nature could never provide the foundation for a political movement and nearly brought feminist activism and theory to a standstill.