Women: The anomaly in Cameron’s debate on fairness?

The unprecedented cuts proposed to the public sector will have a harsh and deeply unfair impact on women, reports Fabian Society intern Sarah Barber.

Our guest writer is Sarah Barber, an intern at the Fabian Society

David Cameron used his conference speech to demonstrate his pro-social credentials by announcing that it is now time for a “new conversation about what fairness really means”. A far cry from the harsh anti-social rhetoric of the Thatcher era, this should be treated with some trepidation.

The issue of equality between men and women is one of many fairness debates currently dominating the headlines, with the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report ‘How Fair is Britain?’ claiming that progress on equal pay between the sexes is ‘grinding to a halt’. But to what extent will gender equality play a serious part in the prime minister’s thinking about fairness?

The signs are not good. George Osborne’s emergency budget in June was the first opportunity for the coalition to make a priority of equality between the sexes. Alas, it did anything but. The unprecedented cuts proposed to the public sector will have a harsh and deeply unfair impact on women.

As shadow welfare secretary Yvette Cooper told the Guardian:

 “Women are bearing nearly three-quarters of the Tory-Liberal plans, while men are bearing just a quarter.”

Research shows that of the close to £8 billion net revenue to be raised by the financial year 2014-15, nearly £6 billion will be from women and just over £2 billion from men.

Ms Cooper goes on to point out that this is “despite the fact that women’s income and wealth are still considerably lower than men’s”. The cuts in service provision will hit women too, not only as users of services, but also as public sector employees. As the Fawcett Society has revealed:

“As 65% of the public sector workforce… it is women who will bear the brunt [of the cuts].”

Such points are integral to the discussion of women’s vulnerable position in Mr Cameron’s ‘big society’. Not only are women being targeted to shoulder a much larger proportion of the cuts soon to be imposed, but women’s financial leverage is significantly lower than men’s in the first place.

As the Fawcett Society says:

“Reducing women’s economic security in this way risks rolling back women’s independence in every way.”

Rather than reflect any real concern about fairness in British society, this attack on women’s financial and social security shows that Mr Cameron’s vision is much closer to Mrs Thatcher’s than his rhetoric might suggest.

The EHRC’s revelations that progress on the pay gap is ‘slowing’, currently standing at 16.5 per cent but rising to 27 per cent as women reach the age of 40, is perhaps the most important mark of gender inequality in Britain as it stands today. The reality is that urgent attention must be paid by everybody – women, men, businesses and government alike if real progress is to be made.

If not, the current debate on fairness will be seen not simply to be inauthentic, but also deeply damaging to any and every debate on equality that may follow.

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