Last Sunday on March 8th people in the UK and around the world gathered to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year’s International Women’s Day also represented the start of events scheduled to mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, which in September 1995 brought together the world’s governments to acknowledge that inequalities between men and women have serious consequences for all people, and that the rights of women and girls are an "inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights".
Much has changed since 1995. In the UK alone the Employment Rights Act (1996) and the Equalities Act (2010) have entered the statute books aimed at reducing sex and gender-based discrimination. Today, nearly six in ten Britons (58%) believe Suffragette campaigners from the 1900s would be proud of the progress we’ve seen in women’s rights and issues of equality.
British women may face fewer legal and social barriers to full participation now than most women across the world in part due to such legislation. However, that doesn’t mean they see no problems in Britain. In fact nearly eight in ten women (79%) believe that inequality between men and women still exists in British society.
And women are not alone in their view of these issues: six in ten (62%) men also think there is still inequality between men and women in Britain today. However, women are more likely than men to believe there are no real strong role models for young women (37% vs. 28%), that there are not enough female MPs in Parliament (55% vs. 39%), and that it is right to use positive discrimination to increase the number of women MPs in Parliament (17% vs. 12%).
But it is not possible to generalise about the views of “women” quite so neatly, however much parties and pollsters might try. As in all things, on the issue of (in)equality women are not an homogenous group - just 17% of women agree that it’s right to use positive discrimination to increase the number of women MPs, with almost two thirds disagreeing (64%). The idea of positive discrimination also appears to have greater resonance with younger women – women aged 18 to 34 are twice as likely to agree it is right, compared to the older generation of women aged 55 and over (22% vs. 10%).
Much of the media coverage for this year’s International Women’s Day focused on the UN WOMEN ‘He For She’ campaign, fronted by Emma Watson and designed to widen the reach of campaigns to encourage more men to advocate for equality. However, campaigners might be interested to note the same ComRes poll suggests men and women see the areas in need of progress a little differently. While women are more likely than men to prioritise pay equality and easier access to childcare for working mothers in coming years, men are more likely than women to prioritise equal coverage of male and female sports, and improving paternity rights for fathers.
But there is plenty of promise here for those seeking common ground between men and women in Britain while campaigning for greater equality; men and women are broadly equally likely to prioritise equality in career opportunities and progression, and stronger legislation against female genital mutilation.
Women will undoubtedly be a key constituency for all political parties in this election as Labour’s pink bus debacle highlights. But all parties should be wary of appealing through traditionally “female” topics only – women’s priorities for progress are far broader than these issues alone. Managing the NHS, controlling immigration, and growing the economy for everyone are the top three overall government priorities for both men AND women.
And just in case you were wondering - chaps only need to wait until November 19th for an international day all of their own. Although some might say they also have most of the times that elected officials, FTSE 100 Directors and editorial boards meet in between now and then...