The UK Doesn't Need a Minister for Women

15/07/2011 16:57 BST | Updated 13/09/2011 10:12 BST

Theresa May, as UK Home Secretary, has one of the most important jobs in government. Many grand men have held the post before her, however, by virtue of her being born female she also has another role, Minister for Women (and Equalities). The 'women' part of this supplementary role is nonsense and should be done away with as soon as possible. A cursory look will tell us why.

Firstly, there is no correlative Minster for Men. The reason being most men would find the very concept bizarre. What sense does a Minister for Men make when the very category of men is so wide and diverse? What on earth would a Minster for Men do, what purpose would he serve? Aren't men's interests already covered by the departments that deal with the economy, education, defence, energy, transport, etc? Yes of course they are. And we have a range of political parties that men can chose from in order to express their particularly nuanced view on each of these issues. The notion of having a Minister for Men over and above this is redundant.

So why does this common sense not apply when we are dealing with the female of the species? The category 'women' is in fact larger, when seen purely in numbers, due to women comprising the majority of the population. There is a stunning range and diversity of women; old, young, tall, short, intelligent, not, right wing women, left wing women, Lib Dem women, apolitical women, to name a few. In fact in the UK women even make up the majority of graduates so we can't say they lack diversity in academic interest. So why a Minster for Women?

The answer can be found by looking in two places. Firstly, as feminists have noticed, when there are no women in positions of power the needs of women get overlooked. They have argued that we need someone specifically tasked with paying attention to these issues to ensure that resources get adequately channelled to support these needs. There is some truth to this as it applies to women qua women (rape centres and battered women shelters for example) but for the most part what they are really pointing to is women as mothers. And herein lies the problem.

Not all women are mothers but we've been solely defined by that role for so long that culture still can't conceive of us in any other way. There are substantial issues faced by mothers in our society such as access to childcare, an ability to return to work after childbirth, etc. But these issues are parental issues not women's issues. Anyone taking time out to care for children will face these challenges and increasingly our men have a desire to step into this role. They often find that they can't because parenting is largely still seen as women's work. Just look at the disparity between maternity and paternity leave. It tells men that society does not condone them being at home with their children.

If we want to open up the home to more men, to allow them to participate in the raising of their children, which allows women to give up some of the burden of childcare so they can participate in business and politics, we need to move these 'issues' from the purview of the Minister for Women and into a department that deals with parenting. Get men involved because when we apply the tag 'women's issues', we exclude them.

The second place we can look to see why a Minister for Women is a dumb idea is in the concept of in-groups and out-groups. Those working in the area of diversity and inclusion are all too aware of the inevitable forces of power dynamics. There are in-groups and out-groups everywhere we look and we are all part of them. In government and business, in most positions of power in fact, men are the in-group and women the out-group. (It's actually white men that are the in-group but that's another post.)

The in-group, whatever demographic holds the power, has a set of norms which it adheres to and a set of nuanced distinctions it understands. There is meaning conveyed in the colour and pattern of an old school tie, a crest pinkie ring, an accent. These norms need not be voiced but the in-group understands them only too well and takes action based upon them.

The in-group doesn't have the same level of distinctions with regard to the out-group. They think the out-group are all the same. They can't read the out-group and see the complexity and range that exists within it, hence the stereotyping that occurs around race, gender, class and religion. 'All Muslims are..." "The Tories are all evil", etc. It's wrong and it's explainable by in and out-group dynamics. We all make judgements based on our lack of distinctions of groups that are 'other' from us.

Whilst that might be understandable in our private lives it's certainly not acceptable that it's enshrined in our government and that is just what is happening when we appoint a Minister for Women. The in-group (men) assume that all the full range and diversity of the needs of women can be covered by this role because they have no sense of what is actually contained in the category. Most so called 'women's issues' could be covered by other departments. And they should be, with powerful, political women in those departments alongside men ensuring that resources are allocated.

What does need to be addressed in our society though, is the status of women. Women are still not held as equals to men, in any area. The pay gap reflects this, as does the lack of TV coverage of women's sport and the fact that female politicians clothes are reported on more often that the contents of their minds. These things all point to the lack of understanding of the distinctions in the category 'women' and the status that is given to it. This is partly because we have been solely identified with being mothers for so long that the public world still does not know how to recognise and value the contribution of women as people.

Of course some may suggest that if we get rid of the Minster for Women role we will be putting the course of women's empowerment back 20 years. Possibly, unless we replace it with the role such as the one they have in Canada and Australia: a Minister for the Status of Women. This Minister could be male or female, as there are plenty of men interested in increasing the status of women. Under a banner like this all people could participate; together we could make a difference and work to bring the talents of women to the political and business table. This would take a radical shift in thinking on behalf of government, moving from seeing women as a special interest group (the women's vote?) to being another category of person, capable of intellectual rigour, creativity, public service as well as childbirth. Bring on a Minister who can usher in the time of women as human beings, in all their complexity.