5 July 2022

ByHelenSachdev

Our Views

diversity, equality, mothers, women

Who has the Power to call Diversity Absurd?

A few weeks after a report from the House of Commons Library concluded that ‘mothers and women from minority ethnic groups were especially (negatively) impacted’ during the pandemic, Jacob Rees Mogg cancels all Whitehall diversity courses, describing them as ‘absurd’. He goes on to say, that only “intelligent, sensible” courses would be offered to officials in future.

It is not clear whether Rees Mogg believes the courses to be absurd, or the people who commissioned or used them. If there are more effective ways of improving diversity and he had proposed alternatives, I for one, would have been interested to hear his thoughts. But as he cancelled the courses without replacing them with something better, or in fact with anything else at all, I’m tempted to surmise that Rees Mogg thinks that either diversity is ‘fixed’, or I and people who share my views and believe in the benefits of moving to greater diversity, are ‘absurd’.

Well, diversity certainly isn’t fixed, and has only got worse through the Pandemic, for example:

  • By May 2020, mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since March, and were more likely to have been furloughed (Institute for Fiscal Studies).
  • 35% of working mothers have lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare support during the pandemic (Fawcett Society).
  • About 28.5% of economically inactive women are not working in order to look after the home or family, compared with 6.9% of men.

I am becoming increasingly uneasy by what is starting to feel like a national and international intolerance of, tightening and erosion of women’s rights. Take as an example what is happening in the US.

In June 2022, it was reported that half of U.S. states are expected to ban abortion or impose heavy restrictions following the Supreme Court decision to overturn a 1973 landmark ruling that legalized pregnancy terminations nationwide. I spent the first twenty or so years working in Retail, where there was a saying, ‘what happens in the US tends to come over here’. I certainly hope that in this instance, that’s not the case. But given that abortion is strictly and technically still a criminal act1 in this country (yes really), who can say?

Further afield, in May 2022, the Taliban ordered female Afghan TV presenters and other women on screen to cover their faces whilst on air. Before COVID 19, it would have been hard to imagine that things that happen on what feels to be on the other side of the world could happen here, but now I’m starting to wonder.

Now let’s step into real fantasy land.

Is it absurd to observe parallels between story of The Handmaid’s Tale, and what is happening around us? The IMDb synopsis describes the Margaret Attwood novel as ‘the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was the United States. Gilead is ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state and is faced with environmental disasters and a plummeting birth rate.’

The author suggests that environmental disasters and dropping fertility rates fuel the storm that in a frighteningly short period of time, totally removes basic human rights from women.
So the parallels – we do have increasingly frequent environmental disasters2 and birth rates are on the fall. In October 2022, figures released by ONS showed that:

  • There were 613,936 live births in England and Wales in 2020, a notable decrease of 4.1% from 2019.
  • The total fertility rate (TFR) reached a record low in 2020, decreasing to 1.58 children per woman.
  • Fertility rates decreased across all age groups.

I do however think there is cause for cautious optimism. In the heart of power, gender diversity has shown steady progress, with reported improvements in the Civil Service. 47.3% women made up the workforce in Q1 2021, compared to 35.2% in Q1 2010. UK businesses, generally, are recognising and making efforts to improve equality.

So why does it matter that UK courses on diversity, equality, tolerance, empathy etc are cancelled? Well, the point here, made very well by my business partner Alison Green, is there are still embedded, systemic, society wide issues that are holding back the economic activity of women.

If we take our eye off the ball now, that would truly be absurd.

1 In UK law, the Abortion Act 1967 allows for access to abortion if permission is granted by two doctors. The ’67 Act provides protection from prosecution under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, meaning abortion in the UK is still technically a criminal act. MPs have long argued for a new law that fully decriminalises abortion, a provision that was included when abortion rights were recently extended to Northern Ireland.

2 Scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany have warned that the acceleration of ice loss and other effects of climate change have brought the world ‘dangerously close’ to abrupt and irreversible changes, or tipping points.

Image from SBS.com.au