The battle for a better future

Furloughed, bogged down in home schooling and mainly focussing on putting one foot in front of the other at the moment it’s hard to get motivated for much beyond the day to day.

But there’s a battle coming. Anyone, like me, who believes in gender equality and yearns for a better world of work is going to have to get busy.

A couple of things started me thinking about this battle of ideas.

Last week’s New Statesman found its way into my house. It’s full of good and interesting writing as ever (apart from that drunk man at the back). But it gave off a little too rosy a glow. The editorial claims that the current pandemic has “demonstrated some of our best qualities: kindness, altruism, community and resourcefulness.” Maybe I’m just having one of the bad days that inevitably occurs during this experience but that doesn’t ring true.

I see too little kindness in the daily Downing Street press conferences. I see a revolving cast of men peddling optimism and statistics and giving off the stench of the sort of toxic masculinity that dictates that to not know is to fail. What is called for is honesty and empathy. That’s leadership. (Jacinda Ardern being the preeminent practitioner of that brand of leadership at the moment).

There’s plenty of altruism knocking about. People directing money at an old man walking round his garden was a spectacle as brilliant as it was bizarre. But I wonder to what extent Colonel Tom became a focus for our charity because he was tangible and an individual. Does the sort of altruism demonstrated in response to his excellent act run counter to a sense of community?

Stuck inside and making lunch for my home school pupils I’ve been listening to Jeremy Vine. Maybe not a good idea. I’ve tried to avoid it since a caller claimed badgers were eating his sheep. I sometimes wonder just what you’d have to say to get cut off from the nation’s most listened to new show. If I phoned in and claimed a tulip bit my toe would that do the job?

Earlier this week his topic of choice was re-opening schools. Caller after caller stated they wouldn’t send their children back because it was too risky. None of them was an epidemiologist or expert of any sort as far as I could ascertain. No-one spoke of what their children want. (Mine are desperate to get back in the classroom, see their friends and pick up a routine – all things all kids need.) And the question of inequality didn’t arise. Our community suffers the longer schools stay shut. A few weeks off won’t make much difference, but the research shows that while middle class kids are frazzling their parents with the demands of homeschooling and further up the scale private school pupils are enjoying a Rolls Royce service the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children lag behind. The inequality that already exists is being entrenched and stretched. The longer schools are shut the more hard baked that inequality becomes. Children falling behind now may never recover what they’ve lost. That’s bad for them and consequently for the community we are all a part of. Of course I would never knowingly put my children in danger and schools must open carefully and with due regard to public health. But I’m equally aware that I have a duty to try to be a part of a fair society.

Polling suggest the public back the lockdown overwhelmingly. I haven’t seen any that asks why people support it. (That’s not to say that polling is not out there of course). To what extent do people back the national quarantine in order to save others and to what extent because they want to save themselves? I hope the answer is the former. But I couldn’t say so with any certainty.

And it’s those questions that concern me going forward.

There’s a suggestion the government will make the right to work from home a law. Why? If the coronavirus experiment with home working has been a success business will embrace it. For business exists for one reason only – to make money. Could it be that with the economy tanking workers will find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous employers in the name of getting or keeping a job? Where demand for work outstrips supply bosses can dictate terms.

This sort of stuff is going to be the battleground.

I’ve written a whole book about why it makes sense economically and socially to overhaul fathers’ experience of work. Last year the government caught up and conducted consultations into increasing paternity leave and reimagining the world of work. Wither those findings? 

They matter because such steps aren’t just good for dads, most importantly they make life better for women too by facilitating further gender equality.

We know government and industry will find it easy to point to a grim economic, social and health picture and say they’ve no time for fripperies. 

We know because they already have. The government suspended gender pay gap reporting this year. We must not let them quietly forget to bring it back. The reasoning this year was that it was an extra burden on business struggling with the Covid maelstrom. Life isn’t going to be any easier for companies in the depths of economic depression next year. But gender equality isn’t an optional extra or a ‘nice to have’, it’s lived experience for men and women every day and it doesn’t improve on its own.

Those of use who want change are going to have to demand it, make the case for it. To that end surveys and research like that undertaken by Jasmine Kelland and Nadia Nagamootoo will prove invaluable in underpinning our arguments.

I intend to be out there writing, talking, campaigning for paternity leave and rights at work, gender equality and feminism. I hope others will join me.


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