Gender Inequality Harms Us All. But We Have The Roadmap To End It.

Women may still have to fight against many barriers to equality, but how much better it would be if our daughters didn’t have to? Conservative MP Helen Whately writes
Feodora Chiosea via Getty Images

“Mummy, can men be MPs too?” my seven-year old daughter recently asked me. Growing up with an MP for a mother and a woman as prime minister mean, to her, politics is a woman’s job. In Britain we have shown that there need be no limit to a woman’s ambition. But that’s not enough.

We already know that gender inequality impacts every aspect of women’s lives – from the classroom to retirement. Take a read of the Government’s Gender Equality Roadmap here, which was published last week and it’s a stark reminder that simply being a woman makes life so much harder.

No one can deny that women are often held back by the inequalities they face, which accumulate from childhood. The problem often starts before we even realise it. When I drop off my kids at their primary school, the playground is half full of girls who are already being influenced in ways that will hold them back in life. Aged 7-11, already boys are more likely to say they want to be scientists (on their way to higher earning careers) while girls say they are ‘better at doing chores’.

Head down the road to the secondary school and, though girls do better at STEM GCSEs, boys are almost twice as likely to do maths A-level and eight times more likely to do computer science. Women are more likely to enter the workforce with higher qualifications than men, but will tend to earn less throughout their careers. We are also more likely to take on unpaid work and three times as likely to be working part time. As a result, we have fewer savings and far less in our pension pots.

The government’s roadmap starts at the beginning with work to understand the what makes girls and boys have such different attitudes and aspirations and then looks at ways to improve the opportunities for women throughout our lives.

However, gender inequality doesn’t just impact women – it also prevents men from being able to balance caring, whether for young children or elderly parents, with a rewarding career. In the same way that women can face structural inequality in the workplace, men face old-fashioned and out-dated perceptions about spending time with their children and families.

What is more, recent research has shown that the number of men taking paternity leave has fallen because many cannot afford the time off. The same research noted that since men make up 69% of gig economy workers and 74% of self-employed people, taking time off for the birth of a child can be seen as an unaffordable luxury.

Look to Scandinavia and Iceland and you’ll see they are leagues ahead of us when it comes to giving dads the chance to care for their children. In Iceland uptake of paternity leave has increased since they introduced ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ leave for partners. Mums and dads are now each offered a dedicated three months of leave, with an additional three months to share are they wish. Around three quarters of dads take advantage of this leave, which is partly why Iceland is consistently ranked as one of the most family friendly countries in the world. But most importantly, it has had a dramatic effect on equality with studies showing that parents in Iceland now divide paid work and domestic chores more equally since these new laws were introduced.

Giving men a chance to take on a bigger role in caring for their children, balancing work and parental responsibilities, has to be key to our answer on addressing gender inequality in the UK. This requires both a cultural shift away from seeing women as the assumed care giver in families but also more support for an accessible parental leave system that balances the gender division of parental leave and caters for all parents – including those who are self-employed or work in our gig economy.

Women may still have to fight against many barriers to equality, but how much better it would be if our daughters didn’t have to? If we are to ensure everyone can reach their full potential, then we urgently need to address the gender inequalities that both men and women face – so that we can all thrive in a country in which no one is limited except by their ambition.


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