International Women’s Day and Britain’s gender gap of shame

Sunday sees the 107th celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD), and for the 102nd year on March 8. It’s a longer history than is often supposed and, reflected in its still occasionally used Leninist title – International Working Women’s Day – a more socialist one. There were conspicuous exceptions, but the West as a whole didn’t really latch on to it until, following International Women’s Year in 1975, the UN proclaimed March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace and started increasingly to badge and orchestrate it.

That’s fine for those countries where it’s a public holiday, and for those who don’t celebrate Mother’s Day until early May. We, though, link that American creation to Mothering Sunday and the traditional Christian practice of visiting one’s mother church on the fourth Sunday in Lent (March 15 this year). There’s the risk, therefore, particularly when you throw in Valentine’s Day, of IWD morphing into another of those fluffy Spring days when women get a bit of a day off, like domestic servants of yore, and maybe a meal out.

With this in mind, I thought I’d do a quick check on who was doing what in furtherance of the cause. First – partly because they’re doing it literally as I’m typing (Thursday 5th a.m.) – MPs (well, some of them) are debating IWD-related matters in the Commons Chamber, thanks to an initiative from the Backbench Business Committee. Less fleetingly, the Commons Library has produced one of its invariably informative Briefing Notes on IWD itself and women’s equality generally, with some excellent data and references, including some examined later in this blog.

I then googled ‘IWD local government’ and immediately discovered that the first week in March was ‘Women in Local Councils Week’ – which sounded really admirable, until I realised it was in Northern Ireland; oh yes, and in 2012. Not this year apparently, and nothing either on the LGA website. So it was up to individual councils, of which the most prominent (if you live in Birmingham, you’d almost guess this) was Manchester.

You have to admire them: first Combined Authority, by a distance; centre of Chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’; a specially tailored, top-of-the-range Devo Manc devolution package; and only last week a ground-breaking health and social care spending deal.

For IWD, the city council’s website has a classy-looking IWD page, its own IWD theme – ‘Breaking Through’ (snappier, certainly, than the UN’s ‘Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!’), its own annual IWD awards, plus a comprehensive listing of events.

But then, in addition, it has the chutzpah to claim itself as “the birthplace of women’s suffrage in the UK” – yes, of the whole suffrage movement, rather than, presumably, of the Women’s Social and Political Union at the Pankhursts’ Manchester home as late as 1903. Even the Manchester Suffrage Committee (1867) was preceded by Sheffield’s (1851); and what about Jeremy Bentham’s persistent advocacy, the 1832 and 1835 Acts that gave at least some women the actual right to vote, etc.? So, come off it, Manchester, don’t be greedy!

There was another surprise on the IWD website itself – that, of the 1,000+ IWD ‘events’ already registered, the UK will be contributing virtually twice the number of any other single country, the US included. Not all are happening this weekend; indeed, in the date-ordered listings the first actual IWD event doesn’t appear until page 17 – “A Gathering of Goddesses, celebrating ourselves, all women and Mother Earth” at The Hurlers stone circles in Cornwall.

Sadly, one thing the Goddesses won’t be celebrating is this country’s narrowing gender gap – because it isn’t. Over the past decade, according to the best comparative data available, the UK’s overall gender gap hasn’t closed at all in absolute terms. Judged alongside some 120 other countries, the relative gap has widened, as it has on all major sub-indexes, on some of which it has widened absolutely.

The instrument that measures these things is the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index, the 2014 report of which is its 9th annual edition.

Being an index, its principal interest is less in actual levels than in the gaps between men and women in four main categories (sub-indexes). Economic Participation and Opportunity records labour force participation rates, remuneration, and career advancement. Educational Attainment is about access to primary, secondary and tertiary education. Health and Survival combines sex ratios at birth – to capture internationally the phenomenon of ‘missing women’ – and healthy life expectancy. Political Empowerment compares the ratios of men and women in ministerial and parliamentary positions.

In all indexes, the highest possible score is 1 (equality) and the lowest is 0 (inequality), although in my own adaptations I prefer to lose the decimal points and percentagise the proportion of the possible 100% gender gap that’s been closed.

And the UK’s embarrassment, particularly on International Women’s Day, is that since 2006 our overall gender gap hasn’t closed by a single percentage point. In my graph, 74% of the gap was closed in 2006, and in 2014 it was still 74%, our ranking having dropped from 9th to 26th.

gender graph

Meanwhile, all sorts of countries had overtaken us – not just the US and the volatile French, but from parts of the world one wouldn’t necessarily expect: Nicaragua (6th), Rwanda (7th), the Philippines (9th), Latvia (15th), Burundi (17th), Bulgaria (22nd), Slovenia (23rd) and Moldova (25th).

As already indicated, there’s not much to celebrate in any of the indexes, but naturally some make less embarrassing reading than others. In education, for example, we have a rare sub-index measure of more than 1.00 – a 1.36 female-to-male enrolment ratio in tertiary education – although it’s more than cancelled out by a 0.94 ratio for primary education.

Two sub-indexes are particularly gloomy. On none of the five Economic Participation measures is the UK ranked even as high as 45th, with ratios for career advancement of 0.52, for estimated earned income of 0.62, and wage equality for equal work of 0.69. And a Political Empowerment graph would look very similar to the overall one, the key difference being that the UK’s purple line of shame this time would signify an actual widening of the gender gap, with our ranking plummeting from 12th in 2006 to 33rd.

As we approach the election, our ratios of women in parliament and in ministerial positions are 0.29 and 0.19 respectively – compared, for instance, to Denmark 0.64, 0.83; Finland 0.74, 1.0; South Africa 0.81, 0.59; and Rwanda 1.0, 0.65. Of which the best that can be said is that at least the bar for the next lot to try to jump is set pretty low.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

All eyes on Manchester

Catherine Needham

If you live in Birmingham, like I do, you could be forgiven for feeling slightly green-eyed at what is going on in Manchester at the moment. After the unprecedented devolution package that the city secured at the end of 2014, it has today been announced that Greater Manchester will be given complete control of its £6 billion NHS budget.

This means that Greater Manchester, led by a directly elected mayor, will have control of the budgets for social care; GP services; mental health; and acute and community care, as well as public health. There is clearly enormous potential here for the Manchester region to make integrated health and social care a reality. Whilst the dust settles on the details of the new arrangements, there are a few issues to consider:

  • There are increasing calls for integration to be at the level of the individual rather than the system, to avoid some of the problems of previous attempts at structural integration such as Care Trusts. Further structural reorganisation will also be resisted by local NHS bodies, still recovering from the Lansley reforms. Can the region be imaginative in its approach to integration, and learn lessons from what has worked and not worked in the past?
  • A new Greater Manchester Health and Wellbeing Board is being created to oversee the budget. Health and Wellbeing Boards are increasingly seen as the host for tackling all sorts of complex health and social care issues, and researchers at the University of Manchester have warned of placing ‘unrealistic expectations’ on the ability of boards to deliver on these agendas.
  • Will the notoriously centralised Department of Health really be willing to let go control on such a grand scale? Who will bear the reputational risk when problems occur?
  • The success of directly elected mayors has been distinctly mixed where they have been tried elsewhere in the UK. In the Greater Manchester context, where a mayor has been forced on the region by Whitehall, how likely it is that there will be sufficient public interest and support for the role to make the holder of the office a dynamic political force?
  • Does the announcement signal the end of the National Health Service, and if so should we mourn its passing? Local political control is very attractive in what has previously been such a centralised state, and is clearly in line with what is happening in Scotland and Wales already. However fragmentation brings the inevitability of postcode lotteries and the need for a robust political response to such differences, but it may also create new entry points for other political agendas, such as an increase in privatisation.

It must be a very exciting time to live in Manchester, although the role of pioneer can also be a rather exposed and risky place. Let’s hope that Birmingham and the other core cities can watch, learn from what’s worked and what hasn’t, and be ready soon to work with their own near neighbours to secure more local control.


Catherine Needham is Reader in Public Policy and Public Management at the Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham, and is developing research around public service reform and policy innovation. Her recent work has focused on co-production and personalization, examining how those approaches are interpreted and applied in frontline practice.  Follow Catherine on Twitter: @DrCNeedham.

This blog can also be found here on the Health Services Management Centre’s website

Doing local politics differently: learning from an inspiring community campaign against the cuts

Catherine Durose

For the second time in as many years, the south Manchester neighbourhood of Levenshulme where I live, has faced the closure of vital public facilities. This time, the library and swimming pool have been targeted. Both these facilities are community hubs which bring people in a diverse, and in many ways disadvantaged, community together. To continue to build cohesion and understanding in our community, we need these spaces. In an economic context, where literate, educated, skilled people are the key to our future growth as a city, closing the library seems a perverse decision. In an area with some of the worst health outcomes in the city, where health services are stretched and we desperately need to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health, closing down the swimming pool seems obscene. The context of these closures is that Manchester is facing one of the toughest and most unfair financial settlements for local government which has been compounded by the loss of substantial deprivation linked funding. Many in Levenshulme feel that the proposal to close our local facilities is not only short-termist, but is self-defeating.

The anger in the community has been directed in a sustained, vibrant, thoughtful and provocative campaign to save our facilities, which has engaged hundreds of people. Yesterday, a flash mob of dancers from Levenshulme wearing masks of council leader Sir Richard Leese’s face performed a routine outside Manchester Town Hall proclaiming a ‘Lev-olution’. Last week, local people held a ‘beach party’ protest outside the pool before occupying it into the night. These actions followed months of well-attended demonstrations, occupations, vigils, petitions, fundraising events and public meetings which have attracted extensive local and national media coverage. These actions reflect the importance not only of persistence – a similarly vital community effort saved the swimming baths and sports hall in 2011 – but also of a sense of humour in mobilising people. We documented similar approaches in our recent INLOGOV pamphlet, ‘Beyond the State – Mobilising and Co-Producing with Communities’.

Today sees both – in a timetable which has generated a somewhat cynical interpretation in the community – the ending of the consultation by Manchester City Council on proposals for a new community hub in Levenshulme to open in Autumn 2014 and the debate of these proposals in full council. These proposals now have an amendment, tabled by local councillors following local pressure, to work with community groups to explore whether a viable business plan can be developed to allow our existing facilities to remain open until replacement facilities are available. Teams of local people are actively working to find a way to make this happen.

The council has been unable or unwilling – until demanded to by the community campaign – to communicate with the communities in Levenshulme and unable to – until led by the community –find a way to work in collaboration to find community-based solutions to dealing with unprecedented cuts to public services. Hopefully, the inspiring community campaign in Levenshulme adds another example of how local authorities can begin to learn to do local politics differently.


Catherine Durose is Director of Research at INLOGOV. Catherine is interested in the restructuring of relationships between citizens, communities and the state. Catherine is currently advising the Office of Civil Society’s evaluation of the Community Organisers initiatives and leading a policy review for the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme on re-thinking local public services.