To legislate or not to legislate

Laws have banished smokers outside - image © Hemeroskopion

To legislate or not to legislate

Governance | 1 May 2012

Men will not readily surrender the advantage they enjoy in the world of work, says Chris Piggott – we need laws to speed up equality.

I seem to have heard it so many times – someone in a position of privilege and position telling me to wait for progress to evolve my situation. A ‘have’ telling a ‘have-not’ to respect what Julian Barnes calls ‘genteel social Darwinism’. Or as the Fawcett Society puts it: ‘100 years until we get equal pay?’

Of course there has been massive advance – I can vote, I can read and write – you are reading what I am writing – you might also be female! Of course there are haves and have-nots on both sides of the gender divide but the world is predominantly patriarchal – in some areas viciously and vehemently so – and the privileged, of any persuasion, historically do not renounce their advantage willingly.

My concern is that we all too readily are seduced by the seemingly urbane, civilised mantra of not creating extra laws/rules/regulations when we are all seamlessly moving in the right direction. Let’s not address woeful gender-balance numbers in decision-making positions, let’s not look at work and pay conditions for women as, somehow – because we are all (note the inclusivity of the argument) civilised rational people, these questions are addressing themselves!

What’s civilised or rational about a pay gap that will not go away? What is wrong with legislation that society takes no notice of? What is wrong with a society that ignores its own legislation?  What’s civilised or rational about the numbers of talented, skilled women who never really fulfil their potential in the wider work world after having children?

These are yawning inequalities that must be addressed and it seems to me that, as we are still dismally failing to act, a little light legislation (or action on existing legislation) might speed us all up...

Work/life balance still a pipe dream

Thirty years ago when I was having my first child, I tried fruitlessly to achieve any kind of work/life balance and as a family we had to concede that one of us would have to give up work.

Thirty years later that first child, a daughter with her own young children, is having to address the same questions of how to do it – how to find a route back into the working world that reflects her skill and expertise, how to find the finance to pay for the situation, how to cope with the impossibility of school-holiday childcare.

Surely if the situation was so vastly changed for the better I would have noticed!

My attempts to assist my daughter in her situation – and I love being a granny – have been delayed by my pension not being available to me at 60 as the ‘inequality’ (I had thought it was a/the gender perk) in pension law that allowed women to retire before men in the UK was addressed by the application of European legislation on the protest of a male individual. Strangely, we didn’t wait to evolve this one.

Of course this is also a complex and multi-layered issue of economics and ageing populations - but you get my drift…

Laws work

We might still all be functioning in smoke-filled rooms or being flung from moving vehicles if it weren’t for legislation. Women might still not be able to vote!

The culture change that accompanies this type of legislation seems not to be able to kickstart, self-engender, evolve.  Yet the change is profound – smokers are banished from warm offices to rain-sodden alleyways, the motoring majority now feels naked and vulnerable without a seat-belt. Before the legislation our mindset had been entirely different and we didn’t like to be bullied or coerced – we were making our own minds up and evolving. The evidence told us - just not quickly enough.

Of course, legislation that deals with areas of inequality is in place but as is its nature, challenge to it must come from the unequal – a tall order. Rules that are set up and then comfortably ignored can act as a smokescreen and a pernicious barrier to their original aim.

I recall being truly excited by UN resolution 1325, adopted in 2000 after the Beijing Platform for Action. It is all about gender balance in decision-making, particularly in the aftermath of armed conflict. The text ‘expresses concern’, ‘reaffirms’, ‘recognises’, ‘emphasises’, ‘notes’, ‘urges’ and ‘encourages’, ‘calls upon’, ‘invites’ and ‘requests’ action. Finally, it ‘decides to remain actively seized of the matter’. I do not know what that final sentence really means. I do know however, like everyone else, the devastating force of an applied UN resolution where political power exists to make it happen.

Gender-inequality legislation must look at a fundamental issue of gender treatment in our patriarchal society – we are nowhere near work equality as our society still penalises women for having children. They left the pitch so cannot come back in to join the game, so to speak!

We posit the work world as the norm, then make it virtually impossible for the portion of society that reproduces to participate fully. Let’s get this straight - and population number theories aside – we, as a ‘civilised’, rational society of people tolerate this crass inequality towards those in society who make more people – our own species!

Perhaps we need to kickstart a few areas and then we might realise how developed we really are.

Chris Piggott is chief executive of the Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight


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