Gender Equality in Britain: A Battle Not Yet Won?

Women are said to be living in a post-feminist era, having made significant steps in achieving legal, social and economic equality. But although we have come a long way, many areas require significant improvement. Discussions over women’s rights in the UK are still relevant, and for good reason: the fight for gender equality is not over yet.

Before British women can achieve complete equality with men, there are several hurdles to overcome. A distinct lack of respect for women as human beings in their own right still exists. Women are dying in droves at the hands of scorned men, domestic abusers or ex-partners: the Guardian reported in 2018 that a staggering two women a week are being killed by men. The 22-year-old Raneem Oudeh and her 49-year-old mother Khaola Saleem, for instance, were murdered by Oudeh’s ex-partner, even though she had repeatedly told the police her fears concerning him. Men are frequently encouraged to feel sympathy for these victims by imagining that it could be their daughters, mothers or wives. But they should be able to sympathise on a basic human level. Women should not need to have a romantic or familiar relationship with a man for him to perceive her as worthy of respect or compassion.

Moreover, women’s accounts of abuse continue to be met with disbelief, while a protectionist culture defends men. Several high-profile celebrities accused of horrendous assaults at the height of the #MeToo campaign had been shielded by those who either knowingly allowed them to continue or deliberately chose to ignore the plight of the victims. Film producer Harvey Weinstein, for instance, is allegedly responsible for a series of sexual assaults against women he worked with and mentored. Due to his influence and power, he was able to prevent victims from speaking out due to the untold damage it would have on their reputations and careers, as seen in an expose by journalist Ronan Farrow.

When it comes to dating, women also need to take precautions. And when things go wrong, there can be disastrous consequences. The murder in February 2019 of Grace Millane, a British woman in New Zealand, who’s Tinder date turned out to be a violent murderer, demonstrates the risks women face. The huge stigma surrounding rape and the process of reporting it also endures. In 2018, during the case of a 27-year-old man accused of raping a 17-year-old girl in Ireland, the accused’s lawyers used the alleged victim’s underwear to argue that it suggested she wanted sex. The lawyer, also a woman, stated: ‘You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.’ This prompted an outcry from rape survivors and women’s rights campaigners, viewing it – correctly – as victim shaming. This is still a powerful deterrent that prevents many women from reporting rape, sexual harassment or assault. This, coupled with depressingly low conviction rates (just 32% for men aged 18-24 in 2017-18, compared with 46% for men aged 25-59) sends a strong message to women that society does not care enough about them to take necessary action. These statistics also demonstrates how younger men are more likely to escape a rape conviction. Overall conviction rates for rape in the UK in 2018 were at 58.3%, only a tiny increase from the previous year, while the number of cases brought to trial plummeted by 23%. This will ultimately mean fewer potential sexual criminals will be punished for their crimes.

Women still lag behind in terms of equal pay. Despite the gap having narrowed, it was still at a rate of 8.6% among full-time employees in 2018. Some reports have suggested that at current rates, the gap will not disappear for two centuries. Shockingly, the publicly-funded BBC proved to have its own issues with the pay gap. Although it purports to be a standard bearer for equality and diversity, in 2017 two thirds of stars earning more than £150,000 (and all of the top seven earners) were male.

There are some grounds for optimism, however. In 2017-18, women held four of the most powerful political positions in the UK: Theresa May as Prime Minister, Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland and Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Such influential roles are more accessible to women than ever before, demonstrated through increased female participation in politics. 32% of MPs are female, still a low number, but an all-time high.  Compare this figure with when Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979 and the following three Conservative governments, when the number of female MPs grew at a very slow rate, reaching just 9.2% in 1992.

Jacqui Smith became the first female Home Secretary in 2007 | © DHS Photo/Bahler
Jacqui Smith became the first female Home Secretary in 2007 | © DHS Photo/Bahler

But does this translate into greater equality lower down the political ranks? After the 2017 election there were 208 women in the Commons, up from 191 in 2015, indicating that things are changing for the better (if only slightly). This is also better than in the US, where only 20.6% of the seats in Congress are held by women. Perhaps surprisingly, the country leading the way in female political participation is Rwanda, where 49 out of its 80 parliamentarians are women, thanks in part to a quota system. These changes in political representation need to be reflected across society. The vitriol aimed at many female MPs (often in the form of vile rape threats and, in the case of MP Jo Cox, murder) proves that getting women into politics, even gaining leadership roles, is only a step in the right direction ­– not the end of the road.

Outside of Parliament, there are many women in prominent, influential positions that were previously out of reach. In 2015, Laura Kuenssberg became the BBC’s first female political editor. Jodie Whittaker gained the iconic role of Doctor Who in 2017 and amassed average viewing figures of 8.55 million, compared to 5.45 million for the previous season with Peter Capaldi. Baroness Hale of Richmond has led the Supreme Court since 2017 and has consistently supported gender equality. From initially being the only woman on the Supreme Court, she now sits alongside two other women, but believes a 60/40 split either way is the ultimate goal.

Equality in education means increasingly more girls are attending university and have been consistently achieving higher than their male counterparts at GCSE level. The education attainment gap between girls and boys in particular has risen rapidly; 30,000 more girls than boys went on to higher education in 2018. Improved educational outcomes has led to more women taking better paid jobs and achieving greater economic independence.

Access to contraceptive care has also made vital improvements. Abortion is free and available on the NHS (except in Northern Ireland), along with condoms and the contraceptive pill. As a result, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a historic low, with 18.9 out of 1,000 girls under the age of 18 falling pregnant in 2016. This not only protects young women from the risks of pregnancy and being forced to remain in unhealthy relationships, but also means they can secure a more stable future before deciding to have children.  

A pro-choice poster, protesting the policies regulating women’s bodies | © ZeWrestler
A pro-choice poster, protesting the policies regulating women’s bodies | © ZeWrestler

Perhaps because of feminism’s numerous successes, many believe that the battle has already been won. Those still fighting the cause are therefore viewed as militant and extreme. The derogatory term ‘feminazi’ has gained traction and ironically uses the Nazi trick of word control to manipulate public reactions. People are instantly alienated by the concept and apply that illogically to all forms of feminism. Among the most vocal critics of the new movement are successful women themselves. Journalist Jessica Crispin’ s 2017 book  Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto illustrates how some young women feel alienated.

This skepticism is particularly felt by an older generation. Former MP Ann Widdicombe described the #MeToo movement as ‘trivial whinging’ and called herself a ‘feminist in a 1970s sense’. In the 1970s, women were fighting for very basic equality: the right to continue in employment once married, the right not to have children, the right not to be raped by their own husbands. Feminism in 2019 has a different focus, with many young women using physical appearance in a way that older women find demeaning and exploitative. Germaine Greer, for instance, an icon of the second-wave feminist movement, is terribly unimpressed by the clothing worn by Beyonce. Men can be alienated by modern feminism too, with social media propelling their anti-feminist sentiments. The ‘Incel’ movement now actively encourages violence and resistance against feminism, inspiring in 2018 a horrific killing spree in Toronto. This is surprising given it was initially conceived as a website for single men and women to share ideas. The movement’s founder is horrified at how it has warped into a forum for misogynistic men to attack women.

Previous legislation designed to improve gender equality now means there are record numbers of women in higher education, elite professions and positions of power. But this is not the end. Although British women are reaping the benefits of women’s rights campaigners, they still face monumental challenges. The exponential rates of femicide and domestic abuse, the rise of online hatred against women and the prevalent gender pay gap makes it impossible to call this country truly equal. This cannot be a ‘post-feminist’ era when vast improvements still need to be made.