It was refreshing to see a room full of women. Ten out of thirteen people at the first meeting of the CPI People’s Panel were women. Not something my eye has been accustomed to in the past year. Doing research at the University of Hong Kong, I was surrounded by women in the hallways of the university but less so on conference panels. In fact, the last event I attended at the university was so painfully lacking in women that I had to sit down and actually do a count. It turned out that only 18% of the speakers were women. Still, this is quite a common occurrence in conference rooms across the world. What I encountered at CPI in London was the real anomaly.
As the night went on, the panel discussed the challenges and pitfalls facing the UK’s public service, having agreed to leave the elephant that is Brexit out of the conversation and the room. No matter what social background or age group we represented, we all agreed that in order to step positively into the future we had to rethink how we do healthcare and education.
But there was one more thing that everyone seemed to accept. The UK gets a thumbs-up for its work on gender equality. “If there’s anything that government is doing right, it’s bridging the gap in gender parity,” one said. If this were coming from male colleagues, I would be sceptical. According to a 2017 Ipsos survey, two-thirds of men globally believe that women already have equality with men. But this was a room full of women! With all this Brexit talk, have we missed something special that’s worth celebrating?
What I wanted to understand was not how the UK ranks in comparison with other countries, but what has changed my fellow panellists’ perception of the government’s work on gender parity.
The answer seems to lie not so much in actual progress, but in our drive for change.
The overall data that I looked at has not been promising. The private sector, for example, has seen no progress at all. Many large companies are either sliding into a bigger pay gap or remaining unchanged. Airlines have the biggest disparity, which can be explained by the wage differences between pilots and flight attendants. Pilots – predominantly men. Flight attendants – predominantly women. The educational sector looked just as discouraging. Overall, 78% of companies in the UK have a pay gap that favours men, with every single industry paying men more.
Women are also still struggling to crack that elusive glass ceiling. There are now just 30 women in full-time executive roles at FTSE-250 firms, down from 38 last year.
But there is one shining star amid all the gloom. Surprisingly, it’s to be found in the public sector – in the representation of elected officials. UK citizens have been electing more women to represent them. There are now 208 female MPs in the House of Commons. At 32%, this is an all-time high. The National Assembly for Wales is 47% female. As for local councillors in England, 34% are women. And so are 40% of members of the London Assembly.
Sadly, this is not representative of the public service as a whole. Only 27.5% of permanent secretaries are female, and the number of women from ethnic minorities in senior civil service roles are far lower.
It seems that what my fellow panellists are cheerful about is something they’ve done for themselves. Voting and achieving change in representation. Electing more women to represent them in parliament and on local councils.
Some say it’s too early to celebrate. First, we are clearly under performing – to put it mildly – in the private sector as well as the civil service. Second, there is a sense of complacency among many people that we’ve come far enough. Along with 67% of the men, 51% of women in the UK believe that women already have equality with men.
But I say, in the age of bad news on top of bad news, we ought to celebrate all the wins that we can get. And better representation in parliament and local councils is no small win.
I cheered when, in 2015, my adopted home of Canada achieved the first gender-balanced cabinet. I cheered when my interview for a government position included questions on diversity and inclusion. I cheer every time fictional female characters break box-office records (woohoo to Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel!) and every time real-life characters break glass ceilings.
It’s estimated that equal pay will not be achieved until 2117. I believe the only way to get there faster is to celebrate every win along the way.
Vera is a member of the CPI People’s Panel, a group of people who are passionate about the impact that government can and should have on people’s daily lives. We meet regularly to discuss issues that are front of mind for the group, and to gather insights that can feed into our work with government. Read more insights from our #PeoplesPanel.