Women still blocked from corridors of power

A century after the first International Women’s Day, the achievements of women’s rights movements are impressive. But even today, there is no doubt that men still hold the balance of power.

Today is International Women’s Day. Across the weekend, countries all over the world will hold over a thousand marches, festivals, lectures, conferences and competitions to celebrate the progress that women have made towards equality.

And there is plenty of progress to celebrate. A hundred years ago, only a tiny smattering of states and colonies allowed women to vote in major elections. Today, the only countries that ban women from political participation are Saudi Arabia and the Vatican.

A hundred years ago, a large proportion of British girls did not attend secondary school, and female literacy rates were still 10% below men. Today, almost 60% of university students are women. For the first time in history, UK women have legal equality in marriage and divorce, equal rights in the workplace and entry into all but a handful of professions.

With all these successes, is an International Women’s Day really still necessary? Absolutely, campaigners insist: we may have come far, but women are still disadvantaged in many unacceptable ways.

Shockingly, British women still earn an average of 15% less than men – in spite of laws designed to guarantee equal pay. Over 80% of the UK Cabinet are male, as are 90% of top CEOs and 77% of judges. Clearly the scales of power are heavily weighted even today.

And it is not only in the workplace. Turn on a television and you are likely to see twice as many male faces as female ones; on the news and documentary programmes often perceived as ‘serious’ viewing, the number is as low as one in three.

Women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual abuse: one in five has experienced some form of sexual violence and 85,000 are raped each year. Even a country like modern Britain is less safe for a woman than a man.

Even so, the UK is a beacon of gender equality compared to much of the world. Globally, just 17% of politicians are female, and 41 million girls are denied a primary education. And in spite of doing 40% of the world’s work, women are estimated to own just 1% of its wealth.

Onwards and upwards?

‘What a downer!’ say many. This barrage of negativity is a distraction from the overwhelmingly good news that for women the world over, life is better than ever before. A simple snapshot of the current state of gender equality is misleading: recent history leaves little doubt about which way the wind is blowing now.

Don’t be complacent, reply others. Even if things are looking up, endless progress is far from guaranteed. Not one of the gains made by women over the past century has been achieved without a fight; those who believe that men and women are equal must keep on fighting until reality matches that ideal.

You Decide

  1. What are the most important achievements of women’s rights movements so far, and why?
  2. Will women and men ever be totally equal?

Activities

  1. Pick a historical period and (after doing some research) write a description of a day in the life of a typical woman or girl.
  2. Make a timeline of key events in the women’s rights movement, starting from 1900 and ending in the present day.

Some People Say...

“Nobody has ever discriminated against me because of my gender.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m all for gender equality, but what’s the point of devoting a day to it?
Partly it’s a celebration to mark the progress of women’s political, social and economic rights; in fact in some countries March 8th is a national holiday. But it is also about raising awareness. What does that mean in practice? For a start, it is the reason you are reading this article! And if you want to get more involved, there is bound to be an event in your area.
How do I find out?
Visit the official page for International Women’s Day, where there is a thorough directory of events!
I’m a boy. Why don’t I get an ‘International Men’s Day’?
You do, as it happens: November 19th. But this is far less widely celebrated, for the simple reason that men have always been the more powerful gender.

Word Watch

Saudi Arabia and the Vatican
Both of these countries are monarchies of sorts, but they still allow elections of sorts. In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from both voting and holding political posts. The Vatican is ruled by the senior members of the Catholic Church led by a pope whom they elect, and these positions are only open to men. There are other countries where nobody can vote, and where political participation for women is restricted rather than banned.
Professions
Some frontline army jobs are still barred to women. Religious organisations such as the Anglican Church reserve senior positions for men. And many team sports still lack a professional league for women.
Equal pay
In the UK, it has been illegal for companies to discriminate on the basis of gender when setting incomes since 1970. But there are currently around 45,000 women in Britain pursuing compensation for discrimination in pay levels.
Cabinet
In the UK, key government decisions are taken by a group of 22 ministers called the Cabinet. These are then voted on by parliament before they become law.
Top CEOs
CEO stands for Chief Executive Officer, the top position in a big company. This statistic relates only to companies in the FTSE 100 – that is, the 100 richest corporations in the UK.

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