For real equality, we must look to Northern Ireland

The Guardian, Monday November 14, 2005
The Sex Discrimination Act was passed 30 years ago this month, in a year when it was very heaven to be alive – 1975, the UN’s International Year of Women. It was in the sway of the women’s liberation movement and its delirious tumult, a year when the beautifully unruly mingled with the great and the good.

I recall a gathering of women at Lancaster House with the minister who got the equality legislation through a reluctant cabinet – the glinting Red Queen, Barbara Castle – being bewildered by all these women wearing badges saying “Director, Women’s Liberation Movement”. Could they all be the director? Oh yes.

That was the year when something truly historic happened: the state took the side of women. The equal pay act and the sex discrimination act converged with another epochal gesture: a Labour government and a labour movement, for the first time in their history, designed an economic strategy that didn’t do in women. The social contract awarded a national flat-rate pay rise. Low-paid women felt like they’d won the pools. That convergence did more than anything before or since to address discrimination and shrink the gender gap.

But it didn’t last. There was a counter-revolution. Within a couple of years the men resumed normal bargaining and we ended up with a Tory government.

The SDA’s impact on education and the professions, though slow, was exponential. Women are now the majority in professions from which half a century ago they were exiled. But instead of seeing women’s movements as natural allies, New Labour gave birth to itself as a project unencumbered by feminism, which it blamed (along with gays) for losing Labour elections.

That lack of rapport leaves us with the prospect that the gender revolution fizzles into an amended patriarchal settlement. So women are allowed to work, get into debt, get a PhD – but on condition that they do what they’ve always done: take care of men and children; pay a forfeit for motherhood; put up with porn in the office; and, over a lifetime, even if they’re as good as a bloke, get paid, promoted and pensioned less. It costs women millions to be women. And if they get a bit of power, they’re told to use it wisely – never make a scene.

So, what are we celebrating? It should be a source of national shame that we suffer a law that was past its sell-by date when it was enacted. While our government restlessly improvises new legislation by the minute to deal with purported enemies within, it seems oblivious to the large and small humiliations that smite the average woman as she journeys through an average life.

This is not to say the SDA was a waste of time. But it forced an individual woman to take an individual action to prove conscious discrimination, in a culture that is unconsciously, as well as knowingly, saturated with sexism. What to a woman is an affront is still, to our culture, normal, just a laugh.

When this law was enacted, it was legal to discriminate against women. All institutions did it. To place the burden of proof on a woman to show that there was something wrong demanded the impossible. We don’t have a national sensibility that has assimilated what gender discrimination means: harm, humiliation, poverty; it saps the will to live, it makes people ill.

The effect is that despite every statistic showing that discrimination is endemic and the pay gap is growing, our equality legal system is stuck. It conjures up Jarndyce and Jarndyce; it is interminable, extravagant, weird and useless. Charles Dickens’s exposure in Bleak House, currently a gorgeous BBC serialisation, changed the law.

So can we. We know our equality laws have not enlightened and changed our society. But there are alternatives.

The institutions should have a duty to be no-discrimination zones, safe from sexism. We will help them. Unison lawyer Peter Hunter points us to the Health and Safety Act, implemented 31 years ago and says: “that law should have been an incubator”. It generated a universal system of safety practice, inspection and prosecution. Employers have no excuses. The government sponsors monumental compensation schemes.

The same principle should apply to women’s wellbeing. “Why do we see a falling object as worse than the male brain?” asks Hunter. “You can’t recover from a lifetime of discrimination and poverty. Why shouldn’t a woman be able to say: that man is a health hazard in my workplace, I want him out?”

The government says it is sorted: public authorities must promote equality. But it is a tick-box duty, sequestered in administration. And then they spend fortunes resisting women’s cases.

By contrast, in Northern Ireland the Good Friday agreement made equality – on grounds of religion, race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation and caring responsibility – a constitutional duty. All public bodies must promote it, measure it, monitor it. More than that, they must enlist those with a stake in it – the disadvantaged – to participate in producing equality as an outcome of the policy-making process. Civil society has the opportunity to be not merely an audience but a partner.

This approach transforms how you do equality, and what it might mean to be a citizen. If the most brutalised place in these islands can do it, why can’t we?

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