Two reports published in September 2013 – one from the World Bank and one from the UK’s Office for National Statistics – are timely reminders of the extent to which gender continues to shape the opportunities, experiences and life chances of women and men around the world.
The World Bank report Women, Business and the Law 2014 draws on data from over 100 countries to examine legislation, and also considers how women’s access to institutions and property have changed since the 1960s. Overall, the report shows that although inequalities between women and men have reduced globally, progress has been uneven around the world. Regions of the world that have made the least progress include the Middle East and North Africa, and Saudi Arabia is the country with the most laws that limit women’s experiences and opportunities. In Saudi Arabia, for example, whilst there is no law banning women from driving cars or other vehicles, the locally issued licences necessary to drive legally are not available to women. In May 2011, a Saudi woman called Manal al-Sharif filmed herself driving a car in Saudi Arabia, posted the video on YouTube, and called for other women to take up driving. She was later arrested and spent nine days in jail. In 2013, activists began another campaign to lift the Saudi ban on women driving with a women’s driving day planned for 26 October. In some African countries, though, women are making significant breakthroughs including into formal, parliamentary politics. For example, women are reported to hold the majority of seats in the Rwandan parliament, whilst Malawi, Liberia and Senegal have women head of states or Prime Ministers.
In the UK, of course, there is formal, legislated for equality between women and men which in theory allows for their same access to opportunities, experiences and life chances. Women in the UK are allowed to drive cars and other vehicles, even though jokes about women drivers are a routine part of popular culture. But, jokes and legal equality aside, gender still matters in the UK and so we should not be content and rest on our laurels. Women may have had the vote on the same terms as men since 1928, but it was 1979 before the first (and so far only) woman Prime Minister took office and even in 2013, women are just 22% of MPs in the House of Commons. In paid work, a report on Women in the Labour Market published by the UK’s Office for National Statistics in 2013 shows that gender continues to matter both in terms of the type of jobs women and men do, and in terms of the pay they get. More women are in paid work compared to the middle of the last century, but they remain concentrated in lower-paid, traditional ‘women’s occupations’ such as care services and secretarial work. For example, 82% of workers in ‘caring, leisure and other services’, and 77% of administrative and secretarial workers are women. Despite equal pay legislation, there remains a 10% gap between the pay of full time women workers and full time men workers and men make up the majority of workers in the top 10% of earners for all employees.
Women in the UK do have more opportunities than their counterparts in, say, Saudi Arabia. But gender continues to matter in the UK in a myriad number of ways, affecting careers, living standards, prospects, and experiences throughout the life course.