THE BLOG

International Women's Day - No More Flowers, Please: Time for the UK to Put its Own House in Order

05/03/2014 11:07 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 10:59 BST

International Women's Day is an official holiday in Azerbaijan, amongst 27 countries. Unfortunately, it is also an unofficial one for many women in the UK, those who would prefer to be working but cannot afford to do so, largely because of child care issues.

Nobody doubts the value of drawing attention to women around the world, or resents marking it with a holiday. Indeed, the UK leads the world in its enthusiasm for celebrating the day, with 355 events planned, nearly twice the number expected in the United States.

But there are issues worth drawing attention to here, and the enthusiasm disguises a rather awkward truth: the UK still stacks the deck against women, making it hard for them to hold down worthwhile jobs and build careers.

In the week of International Women's Day we learned that many families are now paying more for part-time childcare than they spend on their mortgage. The Family and Childcare Trust report even suggested that some were spending more on childcare than on food.

A family with two children in full time childcare pays out about £11,700 a year for the privilege. Inevitably, the second earner, usually the mother, will end up giving up or restricting her work to care for the children or pick them up from school. In this way the cycle of under-achievement is perpetuated, and a professional patriarchy remains entrenched in many of the better paying careers.

If the Government was serious about the national aspect of International Women's Day it would give free nursery and after school care for all.

In addition it could tackle the insidious cultural prejudice, also recently brought to light, that girls feel discouraged from pursuing maths and physics at school. Where are the role models to show them the potential they are denying themselves and our economy?

As we properly focus on hardship and achievement abroad we really must not ignore the needs of women for whom the basics are, mercifully, more certain. The opportunity to work at a decent job with the freedom that most men take for granted is also surely a human right?

The theme for International Women's Day this year is "inspiring change", which sounds like one of those carefully confected public relations slogans designed to soar into the aspirational stratosphere. Somehow it falls utterly flat.

This is probably because words, year in and year out, are proving a poor substitute for actions. Indeed, International Women's Day is in danger of letting the words become the action. The time has come to turn the woolly, we-are-the-world worthiness on behalf of women into something tougher, something with a little more staying power than, at best, an annual holiday.

The other problem with International Women's Day is that it tends to be women talking largely to each other, with little outside engagement.

The answer is for the United Nations to take the lead. It is well placed to grasp what the idea the day is supposed to embrace, recognising that it has a mandate to represent half the global population at a basic level.

The UN may lack legislative power, but it has moral authority and is experienced in setting firm goals by which others can be judged. It could do this for women's rights. These will include basic human rights, because women remain of such degraded status in parts of the developing world, but others should be more sophisticated and ambitious.

Even for UK women who have made their peace with parenthood and erratic schedules and risen through their career, problems remain. As a result, the country still has too few women in top jobs, whether running higher education institutions or sitting on the boards of our leading companies.

The answer is temporary quotas, not the all-women shortlists that Vince Cable is apparently currently considering to redress the balance. The very last thing that needs to be added to the neuroses that seems to govern some male attitudes to women in executive roles is resentment. There are plenty of well qualified women waiting for executive recruitment companies to call, usually in vain. The recruiters should also be put under pressure.

Whilst it is wonderful that International Women's Day has achieved enough awareness for the florist on Brighton railway station to be promoting "International Ladies Day" (sic) this Saturday, the time has come for more than flowers.