Women: are we equal now?

And if so, so what?

‘It’s time to get even’, runs a recent campaign slogan of the UK’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) (1). The focus of this campaign is equal pay - and the fact that, 30 years on from the implementation of the Equal Pay Act (2), there is still a sizeable gap between the wages that men and women earn. ‘You were cheap from day one’, reads one of the EOC’s posters. ‘You don’t know what your mother sacrificed for you. Neither does she’, reads another. A promotional beermat provides an illustration of a weekly pay packet, with deductions for tax, national insurance and ‘being a woman’. ‘Something to talk about when you’ve covered sex, religion and politics’, reads the slogan on the back. 

If the idea that people still talk about politics and religion in the pub seems strange enough, the notion that they will get exercised by the gender pay gap is frankly bizarre. The experience of today’s young women is light years away from the dark days of institutionalised sexual discrimination, when getting pregnant really was enough to lose you your job; the very fact that, as a woman, you might get pregnant sometime in the future was enough to stop you getting a half-decent job in the first place; and ‘women’s work’ outside of the home was considered either a frivolity or a luxury, with low pay and status in both respects.

The generation of women now coming through education, work and political life simply does not experience the lack of equal opportunities that gave rise to bodies such as the EOC. Indeed, the EOC’s new campaign against the pay gap was launched to coincide with statistics headlined, by the Office for National Statistics, ‘Gender pay gap: April 2003 difference smallest on record’ (3). This indicates that, whatever the barriers facing women’s advancement in society now, the trend is in the direction of equality.

But there is a problem. While today’s young women have the independence and opportunities that previous generations could only dream of, they don’t seem all that keen to have them. From running the country to climbing the career ladder, from taking the world by storm to living life to the full, the choices opened up to this generation tend to be experienced more as problems and pressures. When the twenty- and thirtysomethings of the late 1990s came to choose the figure that best represented their lives, they plumped for Bridget Jones: that neurotic, hapless singleton, unhappy with her weight and obsessed with calories, alcohol units and cigarette intake, wanting nothing more ambitious than to find the right man. Hit TV series depicted successful, attractive women with apparently nice lives but profoundly ill at ease, engaged in a constant battle for self-definition with themselves, their friends and, above all, their lovers.

In the event that these young professional women finally get to the life-stage of marriage and motherhood, life, apparently, only becomes more fraught. No longer is the discussion about the benefits of combining work and motherhood and ‘having it all’; now, it’s all about the stresses of juggling bits of all of it while maintaining a sex life and conversation with one’s partner and ensuring he does exactly half the household tasks. Men, meanwhile, are portrayed either as troubled victims of a fractured masculinity or unreconstructed abusers, who deal with their many inadequacies through beating their wives, preying upon small children, or just being generally ‘emotionally illiterate’. 

The dominant presentation of women today is certainly not the picture of confident independence once envisaged; and we are as far from a utopia, feminist or otherwise, as it is possible to be. So what has happened? How did we get from the ambitious dream of women’s equality to the Noughties reality of thwarted hopes and lived insecurity? In order to understand what has gone wrong, it is worth first reminding ourselves of the positive developments that have taken place.

  • Indicators of equality

Even compared to our mothers’ generation, young women in the UK today take for granted a raft of freedoms, opportunities and choices that did not exist for women in the past. Take any statistical indicator of women’s role in the public world of education, work or politics, and it is clear that today’s generation of women can and does participate to a far greater extent than any generation before. Furthermore, when the extent of their participation is contrasted, not to yesterday’s women but to today’s men, the argument that women’s inequality persists is increasingly hard to justify.

In education, girls, who were once considered less worthy of a decent education, now outstrip their male counterparts at almost every stage. In UK schools in 2002, a greater proportion of girls than boys were at the expected key stage level at all ages in all subjects. Over half of girls achieved five or more GCSE qualifications at grades A to C, compared to under half of boys; and a higher proportion of girls than boys achieved two or more A-levels or equivalent. A greater proportion of young women than men is in full-time study aged 16 to 18, and there are more female undergraduates than male in higher education: both full and part time. Even in those abstract, specialised areas that were once dominated by men, to the chagrin of those who championed women’s equality, women now seem to be doing as well if not better than their male counterparts: maths and science, medicine, professional and managerial vocational qualifications (4).

In work, too, women have made significant strides forward. In 2002, the working-age employment rate for women in the UK was, at 69.6 per cent, at its highest level ever. The rate for men was 9.7 percentage points above this, at about 80 per cent; however, the gap between the two has been narrowing steadily over the decades (5). When it comes to getting to the top of their professions, women are still a minority - but they are doing better than ever before. A document boldy titled ‘Women pass a milestone: 101 directorships on FTSE 100 boards’, produced by the Cranfield University School of Management’s Centre for Developing Business Leaders in 2003, trumpeted the fact that there are more women directors than ever on the boards of leading companies. While female-held seats comprise only 8.6 per cent of the total, there appears to be a steady, if slow, increase (6).

In other areas of life, women’s increased participation is obvious. The reins of power are no longer held by men alone: Britain has had its female prime minister, and following the New Labour general election victory in 1997, there are more women in Parliament than ever before. Still, less than a fifth of all MPs are women, but this is double the proportion even 10 years ago, and more than quadruple the proportion that existed from 1918 through to the early 1980s (7). From the church to the intelligence services, it is not a surpise to see influential institutions and sections of society headed by women. Women are in the army, in the police force, and even in that bastion of Male England, Lords Cricket Club. When it comes to formal segregation, the only glaring example is the persistent refusal of St Hilda’s college, Oxford, to let in the boys.

These indicators all show a clear trend in the direction of women achieving equality with men. Of course, they also show that there is not a 50/50 gender split - that women who outsmart men in education seem to lose out later down the line. This is often taken as evidence that gender discrimination persists, and as basis for calls to fast-track women to higher positions. As the Cranfield School of Management concludes, ‘Girls are achieving the best results in schools and universities, but that is not reflected in their careers…. We urge companies to develop women executive directors as well as appoint more female NEDs [non-executive directors]. Gender diversity on the board makes sound business sense’ (8). But a look at the broader reasons why there is a continuing disparity between men and women at the top of their professions, and between their pay at work, indicates that the kind of positive discrimination strategy proposed by Cranfield and others may be neither warranted nor effective.

What statistics that attempt to show the position of all women in society compared to that of all men tend to miss is the difference between generations. Women at the top of their profession today tend to have started their careers 20, 30 or 40 years ago, when there were many more real barriers to their advancement in society, from women’s relatively low levels of education and qualification to the cultural norm that expected them to take a career break to raise their children.

Today’s young women, by contrast, are starting their careers on an equal footing to men, and moving through their careers surrounded by a very different set of social norms and attitudes. The rise in availability and acceptability of contraception and abortion has taken place alongside a more flexible attitude towards women’s sexual behaviour; cohabitation or even single living have become respectable alternatives to marriage; lone parenthood is not condemned and it is not taken for granted that women will grow up to become mothers.

Even the ‘gender pay gap’ is not so clear a disparity as it seems. As the Department of Trade and Industry’s Women and Equality Unit explains, the pay gap of 18 per cent is based on mean, or average, earnings, which is easily distorted by very high and very low earnings (9). As the Office for National Statistics points out, the differences in the average hourly pay of men and women ‘does not necessarily indicate differences in rates of pay for comparable jobs’, as it reflects different occupations, the length of time in jobs, and the amount of overtime worked (10).

Women do tend to be concentrated in lower paid occupations, which reduces their relative pay. But in an age of educational parity and anti-discrimination legislation, the extent to which women choose to be, say, nurses and teachers rather than doctors and lawyers, cannot be ignored. There are clearly some broader pressures that affect women’s career choices - the most obvious being the need to look after children. Yet the situation regarding working mothers has changed dramatically in recent years (11), and the question of choice remains key. As one analysis of the 2002 Labour Force Survey explains: ‘The majority of women work full time but they are more likely than men to be working part time or in temporary jobs. However, only a minority do so because they cannot find a full-time or permanent job’ (12).

The pay gap is also calculated without reference to generational differences. When these are stripped out, the picture is far less stark than the 18 percent figure implies. For women aged 40 to 64, the mean pay gap in 1997 ranged from 20 to 27 per cent, and in 2003 from between 15 to 24 percent. For women aged 18 to 29, by contrast, the pay gap in 1997 ranged from three to nine per cent, and by 2003 from three to five per cent (13). For young childless women today, it is hard to see the gender pay gap as an issue of major concern. And as those women have children and grow older, we can expect to see the pay gap for thirty- and fortysomethings shrinking further, as the hangover from past inequality continues to recede.

So then, are we equal now? The statistical trends indicate that, in the UK at least, yes we are. A combination of legislation surrounding issues like equal pay and maternity rights, an opening up of the labour market and social institutions to women’s increased participation, the ability to manage our fertility, and a shift in the cultural norm that sees women as economically independent individuals rather than as wives-and-mothers-in-waiting all contributes to a situation where there are few formal barriers to women taking over the world.

But formal barriers and statistics do not tell the whole story. The ‘women question’ has never been reducible to women’s relative position to men, but is a broader question about how society organises itself around the competing pressures of waged work, politics, childcare and leisure time. While recent years have brought increased flexibility and equality for women, this is in a context where social, political and economic ambitions are at an all-time low. This has raised the broader question: what does equality actually mean?

  • Public v private

The 2003 edition of the respected British Social Attitudes survey finds that, over the past two decades, ‘attitudes to working mothers have become more positive’. In 1989, it states, ‘over a quarter (28 per cent) thought that a woman’s job was to look after the home; now only 17 per cent think this’ (14). The Equal Opps lobby would be shrill in its condemnation of the sixth of the UK population that still subscribes to that arcane notion that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. But this old adage represents the very basis of the modern family, traditionally referred to as the ‘bedrock’ of capitalist society. It is quite remarkable that so few today hold this view - and still fewer dare to articulate it.

Modern industrial society has been characterised by a stark division between the public world of work, politics and social life, and the private world of domestic tasks and family nurturing; and this division happened for a reason. Not, as a certain strand of feminist thinking would put it, because of some kind of patriarchal conspiracy designed to perpetuate male feelings of superiority by keeping women down; nor because society has seen women as physically incapable of hard work or intellectually incapable of social participation.

Rather, this situation emerged because it suited the demands of the market to have a space outside of the direct discipline of the market in which the workforce can keep itself healthy and reasonably happy, and raise a new generation. A whole web of arguments and social norms grew up to justify the ‘natural’ and desirable state of the family, and women’s role in running it while men went out into the world and earned the bread. Religion, science, morality, politics and culture gave an exalted status to a pragmatic reality: that as a mode of social organisation, the family served its purpose; and the way to ensure that it kept on working was to keep women in a subordinate position.

But the modern family is not ‘natural’, women’s inferiority is not given, and capitalist society is not capable of preserving social stability in the face of other priorities. The tensions caused by disenfranchising large sections of society resulted in women being given the right to vote, and a de facto stake in the public arena; the pressures of the first and second world wars resulted in mass female participation in the labour market, to be subsequently chased back into the home as stereotyped 1950s housewives; secularisation and contraception were byproducts of scientific progress, both of which had significant consequences for the way women’s role was seen; and the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s lauded the virtues of sexual liberation and non-traditional relationships at the expense of the nuclear family and the stay-at-home mother.

Throughout history, society has had to show itself capable of adapting, albeit in a piecemeal fashion, to new political demands and social priorities, which have impacted upon women’s position. Back in the 1970s, fewer women had a higher education, fewer mothers of young children worked, and fewer women were in positions of power - but it was not unheard of, and that generation of women experienced significant gains compared with the generation before. By a similar token, it is important to note that while today’s family structures are more diverse, the family is still the basic unit of society, and women still tend to take most responsibility for childcare.

But something has changed in recent years that means it would be wrong to see women’s current position in society, and the tensions within that discussion, as a straightforward progression. For a society that still relies very clearly on the privatised, domestic role played by the family, the extent to which women’s relative equality to men has galloped ahead raises some wider questions. How can society hope to accommodate to men and women alike pursuing their public ambitions while maintaining a stable domestic life? Has not something got to give?

Yes, it has - but it’s not to do with women’s relative position to men. What has given, and what allows men and women to participate fully and equally in today’s society, is any large social vision that makes such participation desirable. Today’s women are faced with the opportunities traditionally offered by equality, and finding that these opportunities are not up to much. Every experience in the public world that previous generations of women fought to be a part of has become somehow diminished, both for women and for men.

  • A diminished public sphere

The world of work once represented a genuine opportunity for women to play an independent, public role in society. Women’s ability to support themselves financially, as opposed to being dependent upon their husbands, was viewed as a crucial step forward in enabling women to make their own life decisions, and control their destiny on the most basic level.

Work also enabled women to form social solidarities, make a public contribution and channel their ambitions into something bigger than their family and children, all of which contrasted sharply and favourably with the narrow, privatised world of domestic life. During the 1980s, women’s mass entrance into the labour market and their slow rise through corporations and other institutions of public life gave rise to the image of the smart, ambitious career girl, with a whole world to play for, and the female boss showing that women could lead society just as well as - if not better than - men.

Now, however, the world of work is popularly viewed as that bit less exciting. Everybody is expected to work - indeed, the current government is engaged in a continuing project to get everybody from single mothers to disabled people to early retirees to middle-class stay-at-home mums back into the labour market, to minimise perceived social isolation and ensure that individuals make a quantifiable contribution to society. But back in the real working world, ambivalence about work is expressed from the toppest of bosses to the lowest of temporary workers.

Companies - egged on by the government - worry over ‘work-life balance’, and the need to ensure that their staff have personal lives too. The notion of the for-life career has been replaced - in image, if not quite in reality - with the idea of the ‘portfolio career’, consisting of a series of short-term temporary jobs. Popular culture, from the hit UK sitcom The Office to the professional apologism of This Life and Teachers, highlights the petty pointlessess of work and the heightened preoccupation with personal life and leisure time. Social solidarities, from trade unions to informal bonds between long-term colleagues, have become transformed into tenuous, temporary relationships between disparate individuals, mediated through the boss or a workplace counsellor.

A similar transformation has happened at the level of education. Women, once effectively excluded from higher education and the places that led to, are now arguably better educated or qualified than men, and have full access to the highest education that society has to offer. But as the annual discussions about grade inflation, ‘dumbing down’, and the lack of academic rigour indicate, higher education is no longer the holy grail that it once was, and educated women find themselves wondering what their degree actually means.

Politics - once an effectively all-male club - has opened up dramatically to women, with the first New Labour government heralding in a record number of female MPs. But who is inspired by these politics? Who wants to become a Blair’s Babe, elected on a women-only shortlist and destined to campaign against fox-hunting and top-up fees, or for yet more legislation dealing with sexual perversions or domestic violence? As the world of politics has opened out to women, the world itself has shrunk.

Even the less worthy side of the public world seems like a pale imitation of its former self. With women’s independence comes a far greater opportunity for individual enjoyment than ever. Women can publicly drink, smoke and take drugs; they can party all night, shop till they drop, sleep around and have platonic friends of both sexes. The single woman can experience a full bachelor-life and the married woman hangs out with her partner as an equal - a far cry, indeed, from the days of segregated leisure-time.

But while women can live life to the full, both women and men find themselves guilt-tripped to the hilt. Every moment in which playtime is enjoyed is recycled as a problem, of drinking too much or smoking too much or spending too much or laying oneself vulnerable to a sexual disease. Furthermore, with work exposed as unfulfilling, play becomes the site for self-improvement and personal ambition, whether that involves going to the gym or travelling the world to expand one’s horizons. As we have become more open to playing around, we find ourselves confronted by therapeutic warning signs all over the playground.

  • The feminisation of society

A useful term for describing the diminishing of the public sphere is the ‘feminisation of society’. Women’s changing position in society has been accompanied with a major shift in the values of public life, away from the traditional ‘masculine’ values of reason, ambition and the stiff upper lip, towards what are understood as more ‘feminine’ values of emotion and empathy. It is important to understand, however, that these new ‘feminised’ values are not so benign as they seem; and society’s espousal of them do women no favours.

From the promotion of the natural environment over industrial development to the inexorable rise of therapy over the positive promotion of individual resilience, the kind of virtues lauded by society today seem to be the exact opposite of those a few decades ago. The grand visions of the past, to do with scientific progress, economic growth, political ideology and individual conquest and achievement, are viewed today as indications of Man’s historical arrogance, for which we now have to cope with the consequences. So our newly feminised world teaches us humility, caring, compromise, respect for nature and making do with our lot: ‘juggling’, as Cherie Blair would put it, the problems of the modern world.

This value shift is often perceived as a good thing; as a result of women shaping the world the way that they want it to be. But in a different interpretation, the fact that women seem better able to adapt to this new value system is something of an irony. Women have been liberated into a society that lauds the very values traditionally associated with subordinate wifedom - humility, self-denial, dependence, passivity - and wants these to apply to everybody. Men are instructed in emotional intelligence, young adults are encouraged in their infantilism, and women’s historically shaped grasp of petty interpersonal tensions is promoted as invaluable people skills. So much for making it in a man’s world - in the prevailing ethos of our times, we’re all little women now.

This value shift is not a positive move forward; and it is no more ‘feminine’ than ironing skills or bad driving. Rather, it represents the exhaustion of old traditions, institutions and ideologies without their replacement with any dynamic new social project. In policy terms, this feminisation became apparent in 1997, and the election of New Labour - the party of emotional literacy and political correctness, which immediately tailored parliamentary debate to family-friendly hours and whose prime minister shed tears for Diana, dead Princess of Wales. In real terms, the feminisation of public life, its institutions and values, is a consequence of a far more profound change: the collapse of competing visions of society, and the growth of the politics of There Is No Alternative.

Without the clash between distinct visions of how society should be organised, represented in the historic battle between the politics of left and right, the core institutions and values that traditionally defined public life have become rootless and apparently irrelevant. What is Parliament for, when society’s big debates have already been decided? What do trade unions do, when there is no workers’ movement for them to lead or represent? What is the purpose of higher education, when it is assumed that the key questions have already been answered, and it is often thought that a key problem of modernity is that we have too much knowledge?

Lacking any bold, future-orientated purpose, the institutions of public life become instruments of effective management. Higher education becomes skills training for work, trade unions become mechanisms for addressing individual grievances between personnel, and politics becomes focused upon managing people’s relationships with one another within a society that, it is assumed, will never change fundamentally. Soothing, healing, controlling and interfering - the activities of the authorities come to mimic those traditionally associated with wife- and motherhood, as their focus comes to rest upon getting people to behave in the here and now. Public discourse, meanwhile, comes to mirror dinner-party etiquette, with anger and argument outlawed in favour of empathy and polite consensus. As the public world becomes more ‘feminised’, the private world seems to become more problematised.

  • The problematisation of the private sphere

The feminisation of society means the lauding of many of the values associated with the private, domestic sphere. It does not, however, mean the celebration of the private sphere itself. The emptying out of the public sphere has not been accompanied by a retreat into the private. Rather, privacy, intimacy, and self-reliance - once core values of the nuclear family - are greeted with increasing suspicion. One paradox of our modern times is that, at the very time when sexual equality allows for more freedom and choice in personal, intimate relationships, based on equal love more than subordination and economic necessity, personal relationships have come to seem highly problematic.

The fictional character Bridget Jones became an icon, not just of thirtysomething women, but as thirty-something single women. Her plight illustrated the strange predicament of individuals seeking partners in what is fast becoming a singleton society - a society where people grow into adulthood equal, but alone; where being single is no longer some kind of pathology, but an acceptable lifestyle choice. People are marrying later and later, if at all: the number of marriages in England and Wales in 2001 was the lowest since 1897, and the average age of first marriage has increased to 31 years for men and 28 years for women (15). The proportion of one-person households in Britain increased from 18 to 29 per cent between 1971 and 2003, while over half of men aged 20 to 24 and over one third of women were still living at home with their parents (16).

The fact that the number of marriages is declining, and the number of one-person households is rising, indicates that it is not just the institution of marriage falling out of vogue here, but the for-life relationship. Across the Western world, the fertility rate is declining at a startling pace: indeed, between 1971 and 2002, the number of children aged under 16 in the UK fell by 18 per cent (17). The burgeoning ‘Childfree’, or ‘Childless by choice’, movement indicates that the drift away from parenthood is not altogether accidental, or viewed as a negative thing.

Many aspects of singleton society are a product of the social and morality shifts of the 1960s, and as such represent new freedoms. The ability to sleep around, to live together outside marriage, to live as a homosexual couple, to avoid and end an unwanted pregnancy, even to be able, as a woman, to procure and afford a mortgage in her own right are unequivocally positive developments. In this context, it would be expected and welcomed that people live the single life for longer before settling down with their life partner, or that they actively choose a different lifestyle that suits them better.

But it is one thing for the traditional framework governing personal relationships to be discarded as repressive, and replaced with a more relaxed and rewarding approach to intimacy. It is another for every aspect of that framework to become re-presented as increasingly difficult, even dangerous; and that is what is happening today. Whether it involves marriage or not, long-term commitment is presented as horrendously complicated, requiring professional monitoring and counselling.

Marriage is viewed as a site for domestic violence and emotional abuse; long-term relationships are almost expected to fail the moment any new pressure, from a job loss to a bereavement to the birth of a child, is put upon them. Parenthood has been turned into a profession, by an army of experts dedicated to pointing out the pitfalls and producing blueprints for perfect parenting. Even the new freedoms that we do have are thwarted by fear and mistrust, as we are warned that casual sex leads to AIDS and casual dating leads to rape. Far from being relaxed about sex and intimacy, today’s society often seems to view sex as a disease and relationships as toxic: a danger to individuals’ health and self-esteem.

This generalised culture of mistrust, coupled with a basic human desire to fall in love, means that the Bridget Jones generation is torn between rejoicing in its choices and freedoms and rejecting the loneliness of singleton society; between fearing the consequences of commitment and desperately seeking The One to whom it can gives its heart for life. Combine this with the frustrations of a narrow, shallow public world that provides few obvious outlets for individuals’ ambitions or alternative focuses for their passions, and the upshot is a public obsession with personal life. Ironically, nowhere is this clearer than in the debates about sexual equality.

If women have finally achieved equality with men, it is not because society has made radical structural changes to remove the basis of this inequality, but because it has been able to exploit the current period of political stability and economic flexibility to allow for large-scale, but low-grade, participation by both sexes. This means that while the tensions between women’s and men’s roles, between the demands of the public and private worlds, are less stark than in previous times, they have not disappeared entirely. Fraught debates about childcare provision, ‘work-life balance’ and the ‘second shift’ of housework following paid work all indicate the extent to which society has not yet ‘got it right’ on the question of how the demands of home and work are best managed.

In the past, the recognition of such tensions would lead to a scrutiny of society, and social policy - with demands for such things as 24-hour childcare, employment rights and greater socialisation of private tasks. Now, however, there is no such social vision - if there is no alternative to society as it currently is, there is considered to be little mileage in placing demands on society as whole to transform. Consequently, the cause of the tensions between men’s and women’s expected roles are posed in personal, private terms; and the solutions are considered to be changes in individual attitude and behaviour.

So, for example, the heat is on fathers to show that they are truly involved in their children’s parenting. Survey after survey finds that women think they do more than men around the home, from which the conclusion is drawn that men must change their behaviour. The fact that generations of power imbalance and tension-causing living arrangements can cause couples to have bitter rows is discussed as widespread domestic violence; the fact it can cause problems in the workplace is treated as the major new concern of sexual harassment.

When society can no longer be considered at fault, because it is considered impossible to change it, the identification of problems and solutions is boiled down to the question of relationships between individuals, and their inability to play nicely. In this way, the debate surrounding sexual equality today is actively destructive. It exaggerates the extent of the problem, misdiagnoses its cause, and by way of a solution it sets up barriers between people that need not exist at all.

  • Moving on

On balance, it is fair to say that today’s younger generation of women, and those who follow them, have achieved equality with men. Whatever the limitations and frustrations of this experience, it is something to celebrate. No longer does half the population have its opportunities limited and its creativity denied simply because of an accident of nature; no longer are personal, intimate relationships warped by subordination. These shifts are welcome not least because they show the limitations of feminism - a divisive, short-termist ideology that pitted the sexes against each other, and limited its ambitions to relative equality for women rather than qualitative improvements for all.

But for more radical thinkers, the promise of women’s equality was never reducible to an equal participation in a mundane world. It was part of a more transformative demand - for a society that could absorb the creativity of all its adult members in the public world, effectively care for and socialise new generations, and throw off the social restrictions and conservative moral conventions surrounding intimate and interpersonal relationships.

No such transformation has taken place today. Just as the washing machine meant, not that women were liberated from domestic tasks but that clothes were washed more often, women’s large-scale participation in the workforce alongside a system of expensive, inflexible daycare and flexible employment rights has not lessened the tension between public work and private life. Now, both mothers and fathers find themselves irresolvably torn between the demands of work and family, distracted from fulfilling their potential in the public world while guilt-tripped out of the fulfilment of parenting. For that growing proportion of non-parents, caught up in the angst-ridden culture of singleton society, it is not as though society has thrown off the restrictive conventions surrounding intimacy so much as that is has developed new ones guarding against the dangers of long-term heterosexual coupledom.

What these developments indicate is that, while there are many problems facing men and women in today’s society, relative sexual equality is no longer one of them. That society has overcome this barrier at last proves the point that feminism always denied: that men and women have more in common than that which divides us. Whatever stops women from achieving their goal today, it will not be the existence or behaviour of the men next to them; and whatever problems we face are not resolvable at a personal level. This awareness gives greater scope than ever for a discussion about where we, as a society rather than a sex, want to go.

However, that society seems to have overcome the barriers to women’s equality, not by enabling women to play a fuller role so much as by allotting a narrower, more meagre role to both sexes, is not a welcome situation for anybody. It limits our horizons, narrows our imaginations, and encourages an obsessive preoccupation on the personal and petty aspects of our lives. Rather than accepting that this is progress, for which we should be thankful, we should be developing a broader debate about how to make the most of our lives as they are, and society as it could be. We’ve got even - so what next?

Jennie Bristow is author of Maybe I Do?: Marriage and Commitment in Singleton Society, published as part of the Institute of Ideas’ Conversations in Print series. Respondents to her essay include Fay Weldon (novelist), Yvonne Roberts (author), Ed Straw (Relate), Eddie Gibb (Demos), and Bel Mooney (author).

To order a copy, email info@instituteofideas.com, telephone 020 7269 9220 or see the Institute of Ideas website.

(1) It’s time to get even , Equal Opportunities Commission

(2) Equal pay act 1970 (as amended) (.pdf), Equal Opportunities Commission

(3) Gender Pay Gap: April 2003 difference smallest on record, Office for National Statistics

(4) Facts about Women and Men in Great Britain 2003, Equal Opportunities Commission

(5) Trends in female employment 2002, Labour Market Trends, Office for National Statisics

(6) Women pass a milestone: 101 directorships on FTSE 100 boards (.pdf), Cranfield University School of Management

(7) Women in the House of Commons (.pdf), House of Commons Information Office

(8) Women pass a milestone: 101 directorships on FTSE 100 boards (.pdf), Cranfield University School of Management

(9) For the past two years, the pay gap has also been presented by using the median - the level at which 50 per cent earn more, and 50 per cent earn less. Using this form of measurement, the gender pay is 12.9 per cent. See The gender pay gap in Great Britain, Women and Equality Unit

(10) Gender Pay Gap: April 2003 difference smallest on record, Office for National Statistics

(11) In 2001, only 21 per cent of women with a child under the age of 10 worked full-time, with 40 per cent working part-time: compared to 50 per cent (full-time) and 23 per cent (part-time) of women without children. This clearly has an impact upon women’s relative incomes, and their progression through their chosen career. Again, though, broader factors need to be taken into consideration. Compared to the past, when a working mother (particularly full-time, with young children) was a rarity, the fact that one quarter of today’s mothers of young children work full-time - rising to 38 per cent of mothers with children aged between 11 and 15, and 42 per cent with children aged betwene 16 and 18 - indicates a clear shift in the social norm. See Women in the labour market: results from the spring 2001 LFS (.pdf), Labour Market Trends, Office for National Statistics

(12) Trends in female employment 2002 (.pdf), Labour Market Trends, Office for National Statistics

(13) The gender pay gap in Great Britain, Women and Equality Unit

(14) British Social Attitudes: the 20th Report (.pdf)

(15) Marriages and divorces in 2001, adoptions in 2002, Office for National Statistics, 15 July 2003

(16) Social Trends 34 - a portrait of British society, Office for National Statistics 29 January 2004

(17) Social Trends 34 - a portrait of British society, Office for National Statistics 29 January 2004

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