Are women climbing up a broken ladder?

Progress has been made in many areas of public life when it comes to equality but there are still glass ceilings that need to be shattered. Grace Hammond reports.

Margaret Beckett was the first woman to serve as British Foreign Secretary. (JPress).
Margaret Beckett was the first woman to serve as British Foreign Secretary. (JPress).

It’s ironic, perhaps, that on the eve of International Women’s Day, Labour frontbencher and Grimsby MP Melanie Onn should feel compelled to hold a debate in Westminster Hall urging Parliament to make sexist abuse in public and catcalling at women against the law.

The fact that her call for misogyny to be made a hate crime provoked a backlash of “vile fury” is a depressing reminder that for all the progress in tackling sexism and harassment that has been made, there’s still an awful long way to go.

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It’s a sign, too, that genuine gender equality in this country remains a distant dream. For although we’ve seen several notable female appointments to high public office in recent years we are yet to see a female Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, or leader of the Labour Party.

These are three of the most important positions in public life yet they have never been held by a woman.

Politics is an area often held up as a beacon for the rest of us to follow and last year’s election saw a record number of women (208) elected to the House of Commons, representing 32 per cent of all MPs.

But when you consider that only 489 women have been voted in as MPs since 1918 - significantly less than the 650 constituent seats that exist today - then the scale of the imbalance becomes startlingly clear.

Dr Julie Gottlieb is a Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield whose research focuses on women in British politics.

“Yes, we have a female Prime Minister and Home Secretary, but politics is one of the areas where women are still behind their male counterparts despite all the gains over the past century following women’s suffrage,” she says.

Dr Gottlieb believes there are several reasons for this. “We have seen a gradual movement of women into the field of diplomacy but progress has been significantly slower for women at the level of international affairs, even if Margaret Beckett was in the role of Foreign Secretary for a year.

“There has yet to be a woman as Minister of Defence or a woman Chancellor. Women have gradually been accepted as leaders in home affairs while the other posts are still very male-identified. So there’s still a glass ceiling when it comes to politics if you look at the statistics.

“This is a high point for women in British politics but it’s still insufficient if we’re talking about the issue of gender equality,” she says.

“We are in danger of thinking that everything has progressed slowly but steadily and that we’re moving towards some ideal of equality, and that’s wrong. When you look at it over a longer time span, and my research covers the last century, you don’t see an uncomplicated upward trajectory.

“The story of women’s emancipation goes in cycles. In these last few years populist leaders on the rise have threatened or attacked what once seemed like a solid consensus around sexual equality.

“The response to that has been a new wave of the women’s movement, certainly in politics and the media. It’s no mere coincidence that this new wave coincides with the centenary of women’s (partial) suffrage.”

The reality is that we live in a world where men continue to outnumber women in senior leadership roles, and where many women still face inequality at work or have to contend with sexual harassment.

For all the pledges to tackle the gender pay gap in this country, men still earned 18.4 per cent more last year than women.

It raises the question of whether women are not only being left to bang their heads against a glass ceiling, but are they also having to clamber up a broken ladder?