Need growth? Start with gender justice

Written by: Ivana Bartoletti on 19 March, 2012
Filed under Economy, Identity and Immigration

The Fawcett Society says that we are at a watershed moment for women’s rights. Women are being pushed out of the workforce, with childcare costs soaring, and cuts to legal aid making women more vulnerable to violence.

Female unemployment has reached its highest level in two decades; beyond the 1.1 million mark. 65% of public sector workers are women, and that is where the Government has made the biggest cuts. Research published by Aviva last summer showed that, since the third quarter of 2011, 32,000 women have already left their jobs to look after their children, because they cannot afford to work. And things will get worse.

In it within this context that we need to place the discussion on the Budget.

The Conservative-led government is cutting over £7,545 from direct support to children (through cuts to child tax credits, maternity allowance and the child trust fund), making it even more difficult for for mothers to work.

It is clear that Labour will not be in a position to reverse all of the Coalition’s cuts, as Ed Balls has stated on several occasions. Indeed, Labour’s greatest challenge will be how to deliver social justice in tough financial times.

Now, if that’s the context, how can Labour develop a narrative about women and for women, which goes beyond the traditional approach to welfare (as a process of transferring resources), when resources are no longer available? And how might that appeal to women? In simple terms, how can Labour create a credible, but radical, agenda for gender justice?

We must acknowledge that women do not vote automatically for the Left because they feel betrayed by the Conservative agenda. Yes, women are paying the consequences of an ideological approach to our finances; an approach which confuses rigour with bleak austerity, and hits them hardest.

Yet despite this, many women remain unconvinced by Labour’s offering.

European history shows us that the Left wins when it produces visionary ideas. Unlike the right wing, which is more or less in favour of the status quo, the Left needs a vision, and to identify the agents which drive change. When socialist leader José Zapatero came to power in Spain, it was on a political platform which posited the expansion of civil liberties and freedom as the key to unlock potential and talent, and thus the key to economic growth.

I believe strongly that Labour can develop a new narrative for the economy and growth, with women at its very heart. But what should this entail?

The discourse must focus on welfare reform, and the need to focus the system on the right targets. The aim of the welfare state is to support those in need, and to unlock people’s talents so they can contribute to society.

Seventy years after Beveridge, the welfare state needs to change, not only because there are not enough available resources, but also because our society is different – in both its demographics and attitudes. Traditional welfare does not respond to the requirements of the people it is supposed to sustain. Simply saying that we will not reverse all the coalition’s cuts is not enough.

We need a strategic approach focused on the long-term. Evidence shows that affordable childcare is key to enabling women to work and, therefore, to bring money into households. Considering that the gap between the rates of female employment and maternal employment (women with children under the age of fifteen years) is higher in Britain than in other OECD countries, enabling women to work could constitute a real boost for the economy. It is reassuring that Stephen Twigg and Liam Byrne have stated they are in favour of developing a European-influenced model of childcare provision.

And we need a clear and supportive message to accompany our vision: that in order to unlock the enormous potential of Britain’s women, we need to remove the financial constraints that keep them out of the workplace. Research published by IPPR shows that ‘universal childcare pays a return to the government of £20,050 (over four years) in terms of tax revenue minus the cost of childcare for every woman who returns to full-time employment after one year of maternity leave’.

There are many ways to create welfare reform, and we need to move beyond the large state-led programmes of the past. People’s attitudes have changed, particularly between genders and within generations. Labour should explore more relational forms of welfare provision, which can encourage people to take ownership of the solutions to their needs, particularly through cooperatives and other forms of social enterprise.

Getting more women to work will also help make the case that we need more women at the top, which I believe can only be achieved through a quota system. Research published by management consultancy McKinsey showed that those European companies with the most women at the top outperform their sector, in terms of return on equity, operating results and share price growth. More women in senior management roles is, therefore, a business imperative, but leaving it to companies is clearly not enough.

The financial crash showed us how the concept of risk is inextricably connected to finance: the excessive risk-taking of some boards of directors was a key factor. Research shows that women are much less likely to take high-risk bets than men, and are less susceptible to being influenced by others than men are by their male colleagues. Rethinking our attitude to risk is crucial, as we need a much better, more human financial system, able to contribute to wealth and sustainable growth.

Finally, the UK has one of the most celebrated industrial histories in the world, and has led scientific progress internationally. We need to restore its ambition. A report by Imperial College, London, found that cutting investment in research negatively affects GDP by a factor of ten; that is, a cut in £1 billion a year in science spending results in a £10 billion drop in GDP. While other countries are increasing their investment in science and research, we are too complacent, and Labour needs a long-term plan to help the science community flourish and boost private sector investment.

But we must also acknowledge the vast under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology jobs. In 2010, women made up only 12.3% of all employees in the sector. As the shadow minister for innovation, Chi Onwurah MP, said in Fabiana: ‘creating barriers for training and employment for half of the workforce is bad for the economy, and hinders our ability to lead on a global scale’.

I believe that all the above points show one key element: there is an inextricable link between gender justice and economic competitiveness. A new deal for women is crucial not only in terms of generic fairness, but in forming a credible narrative on Labour’s economic alternative.

Ivana Bartoletti is Editor of Fabiana magazine and former policy adviser to the Romano Prodi administration.