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What is the most pressing issue for British women today?

On International Women's Day, Class asked its all-female staff what the most pressing challenge facing women today is. Here's what they said:

Rachel Yates, Coordinator and Commissioning Editor

At the moment, work is not flexible enough for women to get the most out of their home lives and their careers. Women are more typically lower paid and in part-time work, and have borne the brunt of cuts to benefits and public sector jobs. According to the charity Gingerbread, 92% of single parents are women and single-parent families are twice as likely to live in poverty. At the moment, the economy is not designed in such a way to ensure women can live comfortably, have children if they want to, and undertake decent work at the same time. While men are undoubtedly suffering under the current living standards crisis, the restrictions on women seem more deep-rooted and permanent.

Last week Class featured a blog by Matt Hawkins from Gingerbread, which stated: “many parents in Britain are now paying more for childcare annually than the average mortgage bill.” For single mums, who are even more reliant on childcare than couples, these kind of costs can shut them out of the job market altogether. Broadly speaking, women are routinely forced into choosing between secure work and raising in children in a way that men are not.

The problem begins before children are born as well. The charity Maternity Action estimates that as many as 60,000 women are pushed out of work each year as a result of being pregnant.  Even simply having the capacity to bear children is enough to exclude women from the workplace. Alan Sugar, a Labour Peer, famously defended the rights of employers to ask women of child-bearing age if they were planning on having children: “"If they are applying for a position which is very important, then I should imagine that some employers might think 'this is a bit risky'.

The upshot of this – combined with an increasing gender pay gap - is that women are more likely to be trapped in insecure, poorly-paid work. Often the most viable route out of poverty for women is to become dependent upon a male partner, which as well as being entirely unreasonable in the twenty first century, is – as my colleague Ellie notes – is dangerous for the thousands of British women who experience domestic violence each year.

It is a scandal that, despite legislation, the gender pay gap remains, women are still forced out of work for being pregnant, and are to a greater or lesser extent reliant upon male partners. In order for women to be able to enjoy their full potential, free from violence and poverty, we must be economically independent.

Ellie O'Hagan, Media and Communications Officer

For me, no conversation about women’s social position can be complete without a discussion of male violence against women. According to Home Office figures, 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse in 2012 in the UK, including half a million victims of sexual assault. This is patriarchy at its sharpest and most dangerous, and it urgently needs to be addressed.

In my mind the root of male violence against women is how women are viewed in society more generally. The World Health Organisation says sexual violence against women is “to a large extent rooted in ideologies of male sexual entitlement.” Too many men still see women, not as human beings, but as receptacles for their desire, or as objects that can be owned and controlled. Perhaps that’s not surprising given how women are portrayed publicly: as sexual objects, child-like dolls, or – if they do have the audacity to display any kind of autonomy – as suffering from a form of madness (how many times have you heard a man describe a woman who won’t do what he wants as “crazy” or a “bitch”?). Of course this assumes women are portrayed at all: as my colleague Roisin writes, all too often the problem is that women are simply invisible in public life altogether.

The low social status that women occupy, not just in the UK but across the world, is woven into all parts of society: from health, to work, to relationships, to the media. It’s a mistake to think a lack of female MPs is unrelated from the fact that over a million women experienced domestic violence in a year: it’s all part of the same tapestry of women as socially inferior. It’s a spectrum, and its most extreme end is killing us.
We can’t pretend violence against women is a thing of the past, or a phenomenon reserved solely for countries we view as less enlightened than ours. We can’t pretend violence against women isn’t related to gender, and that it’s just a coincidence that 80% of people who experience domestic violence are women. People’s lives depend on us facing this subject honestly.

Roisin McDermott, Projects and Events Officer

Last month the BBC announced with pride that there would be no more all-male panels on their programmes. BBC’s Director of Television, Danny Cohen, claimed “TV panel shows without women are unacceptable” as if these magic words of condemnation would suddenly wipe out the long-established tradition of male domination on our screens. Move over Emmeline Pankhurst, Danny Cohen is the new feminist crusader in town. Or maybe not. I’m sure the BBC would genuinely like more women on their shows, and quite frankly needs them, as national television channels cannot operate under a system where women act as an afterthought. However, I’m less convinced by the approach. Just because a change has been announced, it does not mean the problem has been solved. The under-representation of women is the product of a society where men have set the rules from television programmes to board rooms to Parliament and all the good will in the world can’t change that overnight. Women cannot simply slot into pre-existing constructs, which clearly favour the patriarchy, and more importantly – why should they be expected to?

Worryingly enough, though, this attitude is the norm. It’s that pesky glass ceiling getting in the way again. Clearly, women face a barrier, denying them the same access as men to a multitude of top jobs but it isn’t as simple as smashing the glass ceiling, we have to start with the foundations. Take a look at Parliament, where the top jobs are occupied by the alumni of male public schools. It’s no wonder women feel excluded. All women shortlists, permitting women, and women only, to stand as candidates in certain constituencies, are definitely a step in the right direction but are currently only adopted by the Labour Party. This means the under-representation of women in Parliament is an issue left untouched by both parties in our current Coalition Government.

And it’s not just in Parliament. Working women are generally worse off than working men – to the tune of £5,000 if they’re in full-time employment.  ONS statistics in December revealed that the gender pay gap had widened for the first time in 5 years. 

Something has to be done but there’s no quick fix to the problem. We need to eradicate gender stereotypes and this will take time. The recent controversy around the Government’s response to Jenny Jones’s success at the Sochi Winter Olympics provides food for thought. Is it not enough that she is a successful, professional snowboarder? Is it not enough that she won a bronze medal at the Olympics? Is it not enough that this was Britain’s first ever Olympic medal in a snowsport? Apparently not. Sports and Equalities Minister and Tory MP, Helen Grant, thinks the real way to inspire young girls to get active is through “feminine” sports like “cheerleading” and “roller-skating” where they can look “absolutely radiant”. Deeming sports, or jobs, to be “feminine” or “masculine” is clearly a substantial part of the problem. Men aren’t always better snowboarders so what about snowboarding makes it “masculine”? Nothing. It’s the same with jobs. And we shouldn’t let society dictate otherwise.

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