Equal Wales: Sex Discrimination – Women

(Title Image: glamour.com)

Anti-female sexism mansplained

^I’m not taking the mickey with that, it’s just I was expecting some backdraft for “mansplaining” and I’m just demonstrating self-awareness at having never been on the receiving end of misogynistic abuse and having no authority to speak about it in the first person.

It’s perhaps an understatement to say women have had a rough time of it since antiquity, with prejudice ingrained through religious beliefs and patriarchal cultural traditions – such as in Ancient Greece and Rome, where women were often on the receiving end of harsh criticism of their behaviour or treated as “owned” possessions by their fathers and/or husbands.

For centuries, women were believed to be incapable of leading, ordered to be submissive, denied basic rights granted to men of the same social status, confined to domestic duties and treated as glorified baby factories.

Things have improved, but the active hatred, prejudice towards or contempt for women (misogyny) still exists in forms not too dissimilar to those of the past.

Misogyny & Wales

I would argue Wales has a soft matriarchal culture (patriarchal in structure, matriarchal culturally). “Mams” are often head of the household if not always the main bread-winner and this is perhaps unique in northern Europe.

The archetypal “Welsh Mam” was conservative, houseproud and kept their husband in check. Is it an overly-romanticised, “domestic slave” stereotype though? Maybe it goes a bit deeper than that and you could argue that, historically, women had it a bit better in Wales than they otherwise would have elsewhere.

Under the Laws of Hywel Dda, a woman could be compensated if their husband committed adultery and following a divorce was entitled to an equal share of the domestic estate….but it also included “reasonable circumstances” for a husband to hit their wife and a number of clauses relating to dowries and being “given away” by their father. So, while progressive for their time, the Laws didn’t facilitate what we would now consider gender equality.

Where are we now? It would be hard to argue against the notion that the status of women has dramatically improved over the last century, fittingly 100 years this year since some women were granted the right to vote – though even then not on the same terms as men.

“Equal, but not quite on the same terms as men” is perhaps the best way of summing up the position of many women in Wales these days as, despite the rapid acceleration of women’s rights during the 1960s and 1970s, full equality always seems to move a few steps in front of women whenever they make advancements elsewhere.

Where are the problems?

The Gender Pay Gap

In October 2017, the median weekly earnings for full-time male employees was £525 compared to £458 for women – a gap of £68 a week. This was the second-smallest pay gap of the UK’s nations and regions beaten only by Northern Ireland. Progress has been made – in 1997, the pay gap was £91 a week.

Based on the rate of gap closure, it’ll take until 2076 for it to be closed entirely. Also, despite Wales’ relatively “good” national showing, within Wales – based on a BBC analysis – there’s both the biggest pay gap in favour of women (+23%, Gwynedd) and men (+32%, Blaenau Gwent) in the UK. Also, in 16 of Wales’ 22 local authorities, on average men earned more than women in full-time pay.

There are a number of complicated reasons why a gap exists: the lack of women in senior/high-earning positions, men being more successful in negotiating promotions and salary increases, women taking career breaks, women taking more sick leave – on average – than men and men working – on average – longer hours than women (including more over-time which skews the figures). Also, as women are more likely to take-up part-time work (jobs which often pay, on average, less than full-time work) they’re hit by that too.

It can’t be entirely based on systematic gender discrimination because if it were then more women would be hired across the board to save on pay.

The Glass Ceiling

Wales has a good track record of electing women Assembly Members, while all of the top jobs in the Welsh Government (with the exception of First Minister) have been held by women in the past. The Assembly authorities have also been led for the last 11 years by women and we’ve had two women Presiding Officers.

In 2006, following the election of Trish Law, the National Assembly became the first legislature in the world with a female majority. That didn’t last and in 2016 the proportion of women AMs fell to 42% – still good by UK and international standards, but going backwards. In the same vein, just 32% of Wales’ MPs are women and only 28% of councillors were women as of May 2017.

The reasons for this are, again, complicated but it also extends to the world of business. The situation with regard women board members in FTSE 250 companies has improved, with 22.8% of board members being women in 2017 and 21.2% of FTSE 250 companies having at least 1/3 women board members. With women making up a majority of the population though, there’s still a long way to go.

Abuse, Objectification & Harassment

As I wrote in Vice Nation: Sex II – Sex & Crime, while sexual assault rates are falling, around 19% of women have been victims. Women are also far more likely to be victims of domestic abuse (27.1% women v 13.2% men), more likely to be killed or sexually assaulted by their partners and more likely to be victims of stalking behaviour. This predominantly affects younger women.

In 2017, Amnesty International said 37% of women have received abuse online, with 27% of them saying the abuse included a threat to commit a sexual or physical assault – 59% said this came from complete strangers. While men are generally just as likely to be abused online as women, research from the Pew Centre in 2017 found more women (11%) thought they were abused because of their gender than men (5%) and 53% of women aged 18-29 said they have been sent a sexually explicit image they didn’t ask for.

Women are also, in general terms, more likely to be sexualised in advertising and the media. The pressure to “look good” places a significant mental health toll on girls and younger women (older women too in some fields). Loose Women surveyed 5,000 women in 2016 and 74% said they were uncomfortable with their physical appearance.

Where are the improvements?


Girls consistently out-perform boys at GCSE and A-Level. In 2016/17, 58.8% of girls achieved 5 A*-C grades at GCSE in 2016-17 (including English, Welsh and maths) compared to 50.7% of boys. At A-Level, 78% of girls got at least 1 grade A*-C compared to 72% of boys, with girls particularly outperforming boys in humanities subjects (performance in physical sciences and maths are similar).

The female workforce is, also, better educated overall than men. In 2017, 40% of women of working age had a degree-level or equivalent qualification compared to 34.8% of men, while women were also more likely than men to have at least the equivalent of 5 A*-C GCSEs.

In 2017, 37.1% of 18-year old women were expected to start a university course compared to just 27.3% of men. This all could be down to the fact that many career sectors traditionally dominated by women – nursing, teaching and increasingly medicine and dentistry – require a degree.

Gender Roles & Expectations

There are strong indications that attitudes have changed significantly over the last few decades on what a women’s role should be – though it’s not a complete shift.

The 2013 British Social Attitudes survey (pdf) revealed only 13% of people thought women should remain in the home and men should be the main earner (compared to 49% in 1984), 33% thought a mother should stay at home when there’s a child below school-age (64% 1989) and less than 30% believed what women want was a home and children.

80% believed a working mother could provide as good a home life for children compared to less than 60% in 1989. Only 2% believed women shouldn’t return to some form of work – full or part-time – once a child reaches school-age, though a slim majority (52%) still chose part-time work over full-time (28%).

“Trailblazers”: More women reaching the top of their field (and being recognised)

As mentioned earlier, women’s representation in politics and on company boards is poor, but that’s changing fairly quickly and the long-term trend is perhaps more positive than today’s statistics suggest – so the Glass Ceiling hasn’t been smashed yet, but there’s a trapdoor that’s letting some women through.

Although women only make up 6.4% of the Fortune500 CEO list (and only 7 women CEOs in the FTSE 100), some of them are in charge of the world’s (or UK’s) largest companies: Pepsi, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Youtube, GSK, Royal Mail.

There’s a growing acceptance that the role of women in historic scientific and technological development has been overlooked. Everyone knows Marie Curie, but the likes of Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Friedman, Rosalind Franklin and the Bletchley Park women are now getting the sort of recognition they deserve and may serve as role models to encourage more women and girls into science and engineering.

Women athletes are gradually gaining more respect – women’s football has grown exponentially over the last decade, for example – but there’s still work to do to catch up to men’s sport in terms of sponsorship money, professionalism, coaching and media coverage.

Policy options to tackle misogyny

Gender quotas – Expect to hear a lot about this in the next few years with regard Welsh politics. It was a key recommendation of the McAllister Review that the Senedd’s electoral arrangements should change to promote gender balance. The issue is whether gender balance – in all walks of public life – should be legally enforceable (in a law – as done in several countries such as Argentina, Rwanda, Norway), or left to individual companies, public organisations and political parties.

One way it might work would be to, for example, grant the Electoral Commission the responsibility to randomly draw vacant seats at local government and national level to determine whether they should be mixed-gender seats (where anyone can stand openly) or that all parties (or independents) will need to select a woman candidate. The number of women-only seats would depend on how many seats women would need to win to reach parity or near parity (for argument’s sake a floor of 45% of all seats in a council/Senedd). The same principle could apply to public boards.

On-site childcare and employee childcare vouchers – This perhaps will only work for big public employers and for single parents, but providing some form of childcare for pre-school age children on big worksites (or shared collectively between multiple employers – like on an industrial estate) – which already happens to an extent, may make working women’s lives (and single male parents too) easier and perhaps encourage women to return to work faster after maternity leave so they don’t miss out on promotion opportunities. All employees (male and female) could pay a levy on their salaries to centrally fund childcare – whether on-site or via vouchers.

Shared parental leave as the default – Post-birth maternity and paternity leave could be scrapped and both mothers and (where applicable) fathers could pool a combined 52 weeks of paid parental leave between them, divided up in a manner of their choosing. This might make it easier for mothers to return to work during critical periods (i.e. for a week or fortnight at a time) to prevent falling behind and being turned down for promotion, as well as encouraging/forcing fathers to take up greater responsibility for childcare.

Ban presenteeism and pool overtime? One of the main causes of the gender pay gap – other than a lack of women in managerial/supervisory roles – is that men work more overtime and, therefore, are more likely to earn on average more per hour worked than women. One solution would be to properly share overtime between men and women by pooling it. Forcing men to take up paternity leave, family leave and sick leave may also help close the gap slightly. Ultimately though the quickest way to close the gap will be to promote women of merit to more senior positions within private companies, which could be done via….

Anonymous/blind recruitment system for senior roles – This is going to feature in quite a few of these posts. In essence, when people apply for senior roles (particularly in the public sector, but perhaps also added as a condition for private companies to receive Welsh Government funding), all distinguishing characteristics (race, gender, disability) are anonymised in job applications so unconscious bias based on name, ethnicity, gender etc. is eliminated and the best candidates are shortlisted regardless. This system could be extended to other types such as university applications and insurance policies.

Force ISPs and social media companies to clampdown on online abuse – There are already laws in place to protect people from harassment online, though there are legal tests that need to be met before criminal or civil action can be taken. Wales won’t be able to tackle this in isolation, but could – with other governments – put pressure on social networks and ISPs to properly moderate consumers and take action (i.e. issuing formal warnings, permanently banning or even fining serial offenders). Anything involving a direct threat to a person should at the very least prompt a police enquiry if the social networks don’t do it themselves. Perhaps social networks themselves should be fined for every case they don’t investigate properly.

Recognise misogyny as a hate crime? – There’s currently debate on whether misogynistic abuse should be counted as a hate crime alongside racism and homophobic abuse. I don’t think it would necessarily stop it, but it would provide governments and the police with a much better idea of how often it happens and to what scale. As for what would count as misogynistic abuse (as opposed to sexual assault which is counted anyway): rape threats, unwanted sexually explicit messages/comments and outright denigrating someone solely because they’re a woman (not because you disagree with them).

Make more noise about women’s sport – There are many things to criticise the BBC for, but their recent move to streaming more sport online – with a particular focus on women’s sport like the English Women’s (Football) Super League, Women’s Six Nations, basketball, netball tournaments and even roller derby – is a big step forward. As mentioned earlier, the big problem at the moment is a lack of professionalism and, without that, you don’t get the sponsorship money or full-time coaching. Central contracting of international-standard women athletes for Welsh national teams (so they can go full-time) might be one way forward as would refusing public funding to clubs that don’t make a conscious effort to develop women’s teams or women in sport (i.e. staff, coaches).

Gender-neutral Unisex school uniforms – Gender stereotyping needs to be nipped in the bud as soon as possible and one way to do this would be to, while acknowledging differences between genders, requiring boys and girls to wear the same uniforms at school – all trousers, all the time. This policy has already been backed by the Scottish Government and has been introduced at some English schools – I’m not sure about Wales.