By Jacqui Smith, Chair of Empower,
Progress is not the same thing as success. An increase is not the same thing as a peak. Yet, the way we talk about gender equality seems to be measured by minimal gains. The strangest thing is those incremental advancements are touted as massive accomplishments. They are not. They are steps in what has proved to be an exclusively uphill battle.
So, to say that a ‘record number of women’ sit on UK FTSE boards today assumes a far larger margin of success than the reality. In 1997 when I was elected to parliament, that famous photo of the 101 Labour women MPs suggested that the job of more equal representation was done when, in fact, there were fewer than 1 in 5 women MPs. In other words, if women make up 50% of the population, why are 29% of UK boards female? And a better retort to the supposed equality women have achieved is this: why are we still struggling to get women into the board room, the Commons, and on the trading floor?
Those marginal increases that seem to always make headlines lead us to assume that we’ve ‘solved the women issue.’ For example, it’s certainly true that electing 200 women to Parliament in 2017 is progress. But rarely did it pop up in the media that over 140 women died from gender-based violence in the last year alone. Not to mention the obvious: women are still the overriding minority in politics.
An image of ‘equality’ in one arena doesn’t eliminate true marginalisation in another. In other words, the rhetoric that women are finally equal thanks to light increases in attention on a few issues builds a fog around the sexism women still face every day. It also confuses representation with Impact. Being in the room isn’t the same as rebuilding it.
It’s often exclaimed (by men and by women), ‘thank goodness we’re done with occupational sexism!’ We’re not. There are more women in senior roles in business and politics, but we face a seemingly intractable gender pay gap; we keep hearing of organisations failing to address sexual harassment; women lose promotions or even get sacked when they get pregnant; flexible working is the exception not the rule and it is women who bear the brunt of combining work and caring. There’s much talk of collaborative leadership styles and the importance of emotional intelligence, but few walk the walk when it comes to what really earns the big money or gets the admiration.
Am I a cynical old feminist – sometimes! But I’m also an experienced and successful woman who understands the challenge of getting into the room, but the significance of changing things when you get there. We desperately need a radical shift in thinking from gender equality to gender empowerment. It’s time to hit the gas. Hard.
It’s time to stop thinking about change as evolutionary, but revolutionary. As campaigners we know how to balance the perfect combination of pressure, persistence, and publicity. We engage several social arenas all at once. From the politicians and the industry experts, to the grassroots community leaders, we know how to be a campaign engine, fueling women’s empowerment from inside and outside the institutions people care about most.
One third is not the same thing as one half. Opportunity is not the same thing as participation. Equality is not the same thing as empowerment. Accepting the bare minimum and celebrating it as total success must cease to be the acceptable rhetoric. Instead, communicating women’s rights and their contribution needs to be done with a strategic look to the future, asking what the ultimate goals are and how we can drive them forward to effect real, revolutionary empowerment.
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is the chair of Higginson Strategy’s Empower, a strategic communications campaign designed to accelerate the pace of female empowerment.