[published in CounterPunch, 3 June, 2016]
Several weeks back a group of seventeen female French ministersbanded together to fight sexual harassment they had experienced throughout their careers. Their joint statement published in Journal du Dimanche states: “It’s not for women to adapt to these environments. It’s the behaviour of certain men that needs to change.” Certainly, any woman reading their statement can relate to the sentiment—a mixture of anger and relief from years of having to remain silent for fear of losing one’s job and still that palpable fear that one can lose one’s job for merely speaking out. A 2013 study done in the UK shows that six in ten women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment in the UK is part of a larger problem that speaks to sexual inequalities in public life, in both private and public sector employment, and in the media. And in the US some professions report far higher rates of sexual harassment for women with data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) showing 6,822 claims from 2015 and a poll demonstrating that only 30% of women come forward to complain about sexual harassment for fear of retaliation, economic instability should they fired, office gossip, and the difficulty of finding a new job.
As sexual harassment is being addressed in the public and private sectors, sexism is rife within other sectors to include the equal representation within most professions, recognition of merit, and equal pay. Most shocking are the statistics for the imbalance in media. In March 2016 The Guardian reported the incredibly skewed data on those in media stating: “The issue of equality and diversity in journalism came under the spotlight last month when 94 men and 20 women were shortlisted for this week’s British Press Awards.” And worse, on the matter of economic security—which is where equality is truly felt—“City’s [University of London] research indicates that women are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Nearly 50% of female journalists earn £2,400 or less a month compared with just a third of men.” The study goes on to show the almost 50% of the women who have worked in journalism between six and ten years are not promoted whereas men with the exact same experience had been promoted into management positions. (And the statistics on race are even worse.) And just last month Stephen Follows published a studywhich shows the devastating sex inequality within the British film industry: over a ten-year period (2005-2014 inclusive) only 13.6% of active film directors were female. And this percentage has not vastly improved over the years, moving from 2005 at 11.3% to 2014 at 11.9%. Data on film crew was just as troubling: “Of the main key head of department roles, only two had greater than 50% female representation with the rest ranging between 6% and 31%. Similarly, only casting, make-up, and costume departments have a majority of female crew, meaning of the seventeen crew credits we studied, fourteen had fewer women than men.”
All this comes as no surprise to women who have been dealing with pay and promotion inequality for their entire lives with the added bonus of sexual harassment. But what are the costs of pay and promotion inequality in addition to sexual harassment? We already know that girls who routinely experience sexual harassment are significantly more likely to attempt suicide, but little is said about these repercussions on women who suffer “widespread and often serious health, emotional, and economic consequences.” And the economic impacts for discrimination and harassment are little explored in the media which are often the major factor playing into the future mental and physical health of women.
According to data published by the Equal Opportunities Commission (now part of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights), “the average woman working full-time could lose out on £330,000, in comparison with men’s earnings, over the course of her working life.” Similarly, they investigated similar inequalities within the financial sector specifically where the pay gap was explained in terms of: stereotyping in the recruitment processes, the sector’s extremely young age profile proves a challenge to those with children, the sector’s long hours’ culture also affects those with children, the intractability of senior leaders to take action on sex inequality and the lack of enforcement of good practices. Also according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, female graduates earn up to £8,000 less than males who studied the same subject.
If the Fawcett Society’s 2008 report on women’s pay inequality wasn’t shocking enough then their 2013 study is enough to bring one to tears: “New figures from the Office of National Statistics published in December 2013 show the pay gap widening for the first time in five years.” And the reasons the Fawcett Society gives for this widening gap are the same reasons for sex-based oppression of women throughout recent history: women’s work is undervalued, more women work part-time, the “motherhood penalty,” and more generally that sex-based discrimination has not gone away. Because of their decreased earning power, women use their money quite differently: they invest in their children, the home, and they save over investing. RateSetter carried out research which showed that men are significantly more likely to own investment products (66% of men compared to 48% of women). Data suggests that women do not tend to move towards long or short-term investment products simply because, according to this report, they have 50% less of disposable income at the end of each month. And when one examines those countries with a closer economic parity between the sexes, one thing is painfully evident: that salary equality is maintained in countries where there is a balance of political representation of females and males.
Recently there was a petition, 50:50 Parliament, to request a 50% representation of women in Parliament because shockingly, in 2016 in the UK as well as other western countries, females are not fairly represented. With less than a 30% female presence in the House of Commons, one can only wonder if the more equitable presence of women in Parliament might not begin to effect real social change. And in the US, the representation of women in the 114th Congresses is lamentable with only 20 female senators out of a total of 100 (a 20% presence) and 84 female congress members in the House of Representatives out of 535 (a 19.4% presence).
I have recently written my MP, Mark Field, to request that he take action to ensure a 50% presence of women in Parliament. The larger question remains: how to effect this change?