When the Women’s Equality Party (WE) revealed that Sophie Walker would run against Philip Davies in the forthcoming general election, the MP for Shipley accused her of a “publicity stunt”. This seemed a little rich, coming from a man whose parliamentary career has been pockmarked by stunts devised to signal his support for regressive “meninism”.
Davies has tried to derail vital equality legislation, and joined the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee only to demand that it drop the word “women” from its title. He also once declared that “feminist zealots really do want women to have their cake and eat it”.
That choice of words was revealing. Davies represents and magnifies a strain of confused thought that misunderstands equality as a zero-sum game: if women get a slice of the cake, there will be less for men. All the evidence shows the opposite is true: more gender equality means more cake.
Increased female participation in labour markets boosts growth. Gender-balanced institutions outperform the male-dominated variety. Mental health outcomes and relations between the sexes are better in societies that have made progress towards gender equality. That’s right: men would be wealthier and happier if women got to have their cake and eat it.
Sophie would make a great MP for Shipley, dedicated to serving every resident in the constituency. If her candidacy also raises awareness of wider issues, that isn’t so much a stunt as a necessary public service, because a lot of people seem to think things are just fine – or at least motoring along in the right direction.
Equality under the law is mistaken for equality, but even this is under threat: Brexit risks rolling back rights and protections for women through secondary legislation. Other barriers are less visible: we are all marinated in cultures that normalise women’s second-class citizenship. Men often cannot see the problems – or comprehend that these are their problems too.
Recently, Stephen Hawking was interviewed on Good Morning Britain by self-proclaimed feminist Piers Morgan. Hawking may be “the most intelligent man in the world” (as his hosts enthused), but there’s a black hole in the theoretical physicist’s understanding of gender inequality, judging by his claim that there has been “a seismic shift for women to accede to high-level positions in politics and society”.
I watched this exchange in a BBC green room, while waiting to appear on Good Morning Ulster to talk about my new book on gender inequality, and how to fix it. Eventually a male researcher ushered me into the studio to join a male presenter, a male newsreader, two male guests and a male sportscaster, whose lengthy bulletin mentioned not one single woman.
When this litany of male achievement concluded, the presenter turned to me: “Lots of people would point to many good things happening when we’ve got Theresa May, we’ve got Angela Merkel, we’ve got Hillary Clinton within a hair’s breadth of becoming the first woman president of the United States of America …”
A universe resides in that supposed “hair’s breadth”. I crunched a few numbers for the book and found that, including May – who rose to the top job in UK politics on the cloud of noxious gases emitted by the implosion of male vanities – female leaders comprise just 7.61% of the world’s elected presidents and prime ministers. May is now testing her premiership at the June election – and the likely outcome will see her continue as before, presiding over a parliament teeming with men, not only in both houses but in the backrooms where policies are shaped.
In the UK and the US, there are still more men called John running big companies than women of any name. The situation is similar in Australia, although down under it’s Peters and Daves who have the upper hand.
And leadership is only part of the picture in pretty much every field and institution. The Metropolitan Police recently appointed its first-ever female commissioner: in a conspicuous case of nominative determinism, Cressida Dick will run a force in which more than 70% of constables and 80% of all ranks above that grade share the attribute of her surname. They deal with crimes of violence and harassment against women and girls that are part of our daily reality.
All of us live with the constant tinnitus hum of low-level sexism, and one in five will experience sexual violence in her lifetime. Yet men prosecuting the fight against this scourge are thinner on the ground than female leaders.
This is one of the reasons my friend Sandi Toksvig and I co-founded WE in 2015. We despaired of the resolve of the old political parties to tackle their own deep-rooted problems with women; much less to apply fierce and consistent pressure for the policies necessary to bring real progress.
The arguments marshalled against WE – that it will take votes not only from politicians such as Davies, but from parties dedicated to advancing gender equality – might hold water if any other such parties existed. In fact, WE remains the only party you can vote for out of naked self-interest and still help everyone else (it now has 65,000 members and registered supporters, including many men – but not enough).
I’m often asked if there’s a silver bullet to slay the patriarchy – there isn’t. WE has seven core objectives, because the mechanisms that keep women down are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. One example: fathers who would like to share parental leave with female partners often cannot afford to do so, because the gender pay gap means those female partners earn less.
But men can and should be part of the solution, and the forthcoming election provides a rare opportunity to speed change, by backing WE and pressuring other parties to do more for women.
You need only look at the country that routinely tops global gender-equality rankings to see the potential benefits. Iceland didn’t avoid the 2008 crash that wiped out its three largest banks, but it rebounded faster than might have been expected. Other nations respond to financial downturns by cutting state-sector jobs and prioritising capital investment – effectively supporting typically-male jobs at the expense of sectors employing and serving women. Iceland, under a female-led government, was careful to spread and minimise the impact of the cuts.
When women thrive, the entire population benefits. When women have their cake and eat it, there’s more to go round.
Catherine Mayer is an author and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party. Her new book, Attack of the 50ft Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World!, is published by HQ (Harper Collins)
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