“Are you excited about becoming our first girl president?” Hillary Clinton remained stony faced when interviewed by Zach Galifianakis parodying an obnoxious talk show host. Until the American Electoral College chose Donald Trump as their 45th President, 2016 seemed like a golden era for representation of women in political life. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel presides over her European empire, Britain has just inaugurated its second female PM in the form of Theresa May, and Nicola Sturgeon stands at the helm of Scotland, a country that is central to the future of the United Kingdom.
When women aren’t ruling today’s power blocs, they are becoming increasingly visible leaders in medicine, business and institutions. In 2015, 62% of those enrolling in law courses were women.1http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/law-careers/becoming-a-solicitor/entry-trends/
Things have really changed, haven’t they?
But progress towards greater gender equality remains slow. To mark International Women’s Day, we surveyed over 1,000 British adults for the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival. We found that seven in ten people expect to wait longer than a decade to see equal numbers of male and female judges, chief executives and engineers – and around one in four expect to wait until at least 2036 for the gender gap to close. Today, only 23% of MPs are women. At the current rate of progress, it will take over a hundred years for gender parity in the House of Commons. This is far from surprising when a startling 87% of working women with children in their household reported difficulties with balancing work and family life.
Moving away from the workplace, the perception is still bleak. Some 48% of women think there are more advantages to being a man in our society (compared to just 35% of men) – only eight percent think there are more advantages to being a woman. The unwanted advances described in Donald Trump’s now-infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tape are not alien to most women – seven in ten women say that they have received unwanted comments in a public place, with 22% reporting it happened often. Half said that they had experienced unwanted contact or advances.
The data paints a dark picture, but not one entirely without hope. People are generally more positive about the prospects for young women today compared to older generations. Some 60% of millennial men and women think that women will have a better life than those from their parents’ generation.2http://www.ipsos-mori-generations.com/#gallery[m]/0/ Furthermore, only 17% of people still believe that a woman’s place is at home (and they are mostly older people).
Whether or not things are getting better for women, it is important to note that the conversation about gender equality has changed in recent years. Only 27% of women think that men are sexist – this compares to 64% in 1995. The renewed discourse on gender equality – with markers like the publication of Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Be a Woman’ and the launch of the Everyday Sexism Project – feels like it has moved away from the 80s power suits and an ‘anti-men’ perception. Donald Trump’s defence of ‘locker room’ talk has been met with scathing terms like ‘normalisation of rape culture’ – language that would be alien to the capitalist post-feminist of the 90s. Similarly, when the Conservative leadership election was in danger of straying in to a Tea Party-style debate on motherhood, a vocal consensus from across the political and gender spectrum reminded us that parenting skills are not a competency in the PM’s job description.
The visibility and position of women in all spheres of public life in 2016 is evidence of things getting better, but it is certainly not proof that the battle is over. Sexist language and behaviour is still widespread in our society. This year the father of a convicted sex offender attempted to use his son’s swimming achievements as defence against his sexual assault of a young woman at a college party. The British tabloids are are still littered with scrutiny of women’s appearance. One recent high-profile example was Prince Harry’s accusation of “racial undertones” and “outright sexism” of the papers towards his new girlfriend Meghan Markle. There is still a strong undercurrent of undermining behaviour and language towards women, not least from the US President-elect. All of this should serve as a vital reminder that things haven’t improved for everyone and there is still a long way to go in pursuit of equality.
What do we want? A lot more.
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