Updated: Jul 17, 2019
In the gladiatorial arena known as the fight for equal rights, something has gone wrong for women. The execution of equalities legislation appears to have turned into a free for all. Fair rules of engagement provided by the 2010 Equalities Act are being overlooked or mismanaged. Modern day theories about the causes of sex discrimination are increasingly becoming disconnected from the reality of women’s lives. Sex, a protected characteristic in equalities law, has become a dirty word. Motherhood, the single most important cause of economic injustice for women, is unmentionable. Equality has gone wrong.
When older women complain about unfair treatment, we are usually told, ‘You women wanted equality and now you have it, so yah boo sucks.’ The truth is a wealth of data exists to illustrate the stark inequalities experienced by women in Scotland today. Over the last six months alone, major reports published by EHRC, the UN Special Rapporteur and the Institute of Fiscal Studies state unequivocally women do not have equality.
Such inequality is not in Scotland’s interests. It is not in the interests of men, marginalised communities, our families or employers. The Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy sets it out quite clearly: ‘Creating a fairer society is not just a desirable goal in itself, but is essential to the sustained, long term prosperity of the Scottish economy’. It is in all our interests to fix this.
So, where did it all go wrong?
In 2010, two things happened. The UK Government passed a new Equality Act but also launched a programme of draconian austerity measures in response to the financial crash of 2008. The two were never really going to sit well together. Nine years later, we know austerity measures have had a disproportionate impact on women. Women had less to begin with but have taken the brunt of cuts in public services.
The 2010 Equality Act did attempt to set out fair rules of engagement through mechanisms called public service equality duty and equality impact assessments. In an arena where inevitably there are competing interests, the idea was that robust processes would ensure fair play for all. This did not work out too well. A mere two years later in 2012, the Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron, told a CBI conference that equality impact assessments were bureaucratic red tape and no longer necessary. He said that a consideration of equalities should be ‘left to smart people in Whitehall’.
Women born in the 1950s have direct experience of equalities being left to the ‘smart people in Whitehall’. In 2011, the UK Government unexpectedly accelerated the age of state pension entitlement for fifties-born women by two years, in addition to a five year wait caused by an earlier act from 1995. The reason given for this sudden change was ‘equality for men’. The true reason, of course, was not high-minded equality principles for men but a quick-win austerity measure where women were seen as disposable resources.
Officials at the Department of Work and Pensions did produce an equality impact assessment. Not surprisingly, this concluded that changes were ‘proportionate’ for women. DWP’s killer argument was ‘women live longer’ and so would be compensated for any financial loss compared to men. This argument would be credible if set against a robust economic analysis of women’s financial losses over a lifetime because of motherhood. A close examination of evidence used by DWP to support the proportionate argument reveals obfuscation, personal opinion, cherry picking and omission.
Worst of all, the whole analysis was based on the assumption that there are no differences in the economic participation and life experience of women and men as they approach retirement. The equality impact assessment was sex blind which somewhat defeats the purpose of the whole exercise. The ‘smart people’ weren’t that smart after all.
Feisty Women, a Scottish charity that exists to advance equality and economic justice for women over the age of 60, has been trying to find a way to challenge the lawfulness of 2011 changes to the state pension age. We are discovering there is no straightforward way to make a complaint. Our case has been described as a ‘case of interest’ and ‘unique’ but to us it is just the usual, common or garden sexism we have experienced our whole lives.
After a lifetime of sex discrimination, and now age discrimination, Feisty Women has two ideas to fix the problem of inequality for women in Scotland.
First, in this confusing, and at times hostile, world of equal rights, the proper observance of public service equality duty could bring legitimacy to policy decisions and accountability to tax payers. Investment in due process may be time consuming and bureaucratic but it will pay off in the long run.
Second, we need innovation in social policy. Prevailing world views and received wisdoms about the causes of sex discrimination need to be challenged. We have to broaden and democratise knowledge, grass-roots up, harnessing the experience of women of all ages. If we don’t diagnose the problem correctly, the solutions will never work. A new women’s movement is emerging across Scotland. This is the ideal time for the Scottish Government to review its investment in equalities work and to encourage organisations that think differently.
At the time of the first 1975 EU referendum, my mother voted differently to my father. He was furious and told her she had wasted his vote and she should vote the same way he did. My mother replied she was a person in her own right and said, ‘I am not a doormat’. Good advice for policy makers and opinion formers. Women are not doormats.