Equality or discrimination?

By Lauren Shaw

The Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum has shown “a strong correlation between gender equality and a country’s prosperity and economic competitiveness.” The report, which combines five years of data examines the gap between men and women in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

Once again the Nordic countries top the list with Iceland remaining in first position since the last report in 1999 and second and third position going to Norway and Finland respectively. Out of the 134 countries included in the report the greatest inequalities between men and women were seen in Pakistan (132), Chad (133) and Yemen (134). The co-author of the report Ricardo Hausmann has stated that “Progress will be achieved when countries seek to reap returns on the investment in health and education of girls and women by finding ways to make marriage and motherhood compatible with the economic participation of women.” It is, however, difficult to say how this investment could be achieved in countries marked by instability, violence and regional confrontations. Even in developed countries such as the UK (15) there is still work to be done. While it ranked highly in the categories of education and health, there is a great disparity between men and women in political empowerment and economic participation. In fact, the UK ranks 78 in the area of wage equality for similar work.

If it is true that gender equality and a county’s prosperity are linked, should a policy of positive discrimination be imposed in the UK and Ireland? The report points out that in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, political parties introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s leading to a large number of female political representatives. Sweden has one of the highest percentages of women in parliament (47 percent). The other Nordic countries also rank highly and have the same positive record when it comes to women in ministerial level positions (Iceland 45 percent, Norway 53 percent Finland 63 percent, Denmark 42 percent, Sweden 45 percent).

However, the idea of imposing positive discrimination to increase female participation in politics and the workplace could in fact fail in its mission to promote gender equality. Firstly is opens up the possibility for a more able man to lose out on a job or promotion in order to achieve quotas. Secondly, it devalues the achievements of women who may be seen to have reached a certain position on the basis of their gender rather than through personal merit. Take for example the “Blair Babes”. These were the women that New Labour pushed to the front of their election campaign. The idea was to promote a New Labour agenda of gender equality. The reality was in fact a cynical and fundamentally patronising treatment of women. In the Labour party, eight women were voted into Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet. This appears to be a sign of a changing attitude until it is highlighted that under the new rules introduced by Labour this year, MPs were required to pick at least six women and six men for the shadow cabinet. Even when women do make it in politics they are often faced with discrimination and sexist remarks. Therefore, whether it be Blair’s Babes, Gordan’s Gals, Cameron’s Cuties or whatever title is chosen for the Miliband harem, it is not enough to push women into positions of power in order to satisfy a statistical requirement. Rather, greater education and a change of attitude are necessary so that the genuine achievements and potential of women are recognised.