The Fawcett Society knows a lot about perseverance. Not for nothing does the recently erected statue of Millicent Fawcett bare the words Courage Calls To Courage everywhere. But it took Caroline Criado Perez to challenging the lack of women’s statues in the UK, for Parliament Square to finally have its first female statue erected on 24 April 2018, a truly memorable event that I had the privilege to attend.
Recently, statues have generated a whole new level of awareness and debate about their symbolism. Not just through the Black Lives Matter campaign, but more broadly questioning why we have statues at all – and whether or not they accurately reflect the history that their presence in our towns and cities seek to depict.
The fact there are so few statues of women – simple illustrates who has traditionally had the power, what they did with it, and how they then wrote about it in our history books. Sadly, not always a true reflection of the lived and shared experiences of both men and women, in shaping our history.
The Millicent Fawcett statue is not just a historical marker, but also a real time stark reminder that today we are all still having to question why, on so many levels, women in our society are so under represented at every level.
But back to the Fawcett Society and their 2020 Sex and Power Index charts the extent of male domination in positions of power, politics, the law, civil service, media and business etc. The Index also reveals an alarming lack of women of colour across the top jobs in all sectors. It also reflects the dismally slow pace of change – with stark inequalities continuing to prosper and thrive in the UK today.
100 years after some women won the right to vote, 50 years after the Equal Pay Act and 20 years after the Equality Act and it’s become an increasingly compelling argument that this “evolution process” may need a very big helping hand.
Because at every level of our society where change can be affected, where legislation and policy can be made, where real power sits, it is still men who dominate those spaces.
In the House of Commons only 34% of MPs are women, and while women of colour now make up 17% of the women MPs, which is in line with the population as a whole, there are huge geographic disparities. The House of Lords has just 27%, and only 2% of all peers are women of colour. In our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies there are no women of colour in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly. After 20 years of our Scottish Parliament 36% of MSPs are women, but there has never been a women of colour elected.
COVID-19 has been a life changing experience. As we move out of lockdown, our attention shifts to economic recovery. There is real life changing choices to be made. On one hand, recovery from COVID-19 presents a further – but positive – life changing opportunity – but also a very real danger that the quest for equality get’s bumped down the priority list – maybe even entirely removed.
But this is not just some issue of the heart – it is also – and should be a simple matter of logic. In today’s increasingly led technology world no country, no industry, no business will thrive if it keeps discounting over 50% of the talent pool in the critical STEM led industries. (2)A collaboration of 30 energy industry players highlights that 27% of the workforce is likely to retire in the next decade, with the baby boomer generation now all over the age of 55. This is a large contributor to the sector’s need to recruit or retrain 48% – or 227,000 – of the current workforce by 2030. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation argues that every type of engineering is in short supply as are IT coders, programmers and developers.
But while there are signs of progress it is the pace and consistency of change that is disappointing. (1)The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report, Tapping All Our Talents 2018, highlight that the proportion of female STEM graduates in the UK working in the sector has increased by only 3% from 27% in 2012 to 30% in 2017. In industry, UK-level figures indicate that the proportion of women in core STEM professions rose from 13% to 23% in the same period. In most STEM subjects across colleges and universities, the proportion of female students has seen, at best, incremental improvement (e.g., from 11% in 2012 to 13% in 2016 in undergraduate engineering) and, at worst, further decline (e.g., from 54% in 2012 to 43% in 2017 in college-level IT frameworks).
Given the overall lack of progress on equality, representation, equal pay, gender pay gap, women in STEM, women in power, what is the tipping point for change?
The evidence. Is compelling. The issues keep being stated and acknowledged. The commitment to fix it keeps being given. But for too many women, their lived experience is still a daily struggle to find the recognition and opportunities that they have earned, and for many deserved.
The big, life changing opportunity that Build Back Better out of COVID-19 presents is to seize the opportunity to really turn the up the dial on the pace of change in relation to equality – across the board.
For governments to now use their considerable soft and hard power – to incentivise the right actions and behaviours. To be a power for good, and legislate to make long overdue changes happen. Because it is not just women who would benefit – our economy would benefit, and our society would be the better for it.
At this time, with choices opening out before us, courage still calls to courage – everywhere.