Women Cut Deep: How planned cuts to the public sector will disproportionately affect women

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Whilst the Conservative Party may not be actively sexist, the public service reforms by the Con-Lib coalition government could certainly have a sexist outcome; research by The Fawcett Society indicates that women are going to be disproportionally affected by the cuts in public services. Women, along with those reliant on state support, making up sixty-five per cent of the state workforce, will suffer most. Of the £8 billion raised through taxation to support welfare provisions, seventy-two per cent will come from female pockets, in comparison to 28 per cent from their male counterparts. Single parent families, inevitably mothers, will be disproportionately affected as they rely on government hand-outs to support their children, and the increasingly difficult job market means that, with other priorities, mothers are more unlikely to be actively looking for work.

Whether one believes these policies have a sexist outcome or not, The Fawcett Society has requested judicial consideration as to whether the Comprehensive Spending Review, as released by the Chancellor earlier this year, complies with the 2007 Equalities Act, which requires executive decisions in public and certain private spheres to consider their approach to readdressing gender inequality. Whilst The Fawcett Society has not enjoyed significant success in the Courts, it is interesting to see attempts to challenge Conservative Party rhetoric with regard to ‘cutting back the state’. When the state is rolled back, one must certainly consider whether the private sector is fully capable of managing such important aspects of British society.

Attempts to readdress gender inequality can be seen as an example of how state intervention can have a positive effect, and indeed perhaps it could be argued that public services, beyond basic welfare provisions, should be supported through both private and public investment. Whilst investigating the issue, I spoke to a seventy year-old woman who was afraid to walk away from an abusive relationship as she did not have anywhere else to go; nor did she have any idea how to establish a fully independent life. Irrespective of the horrors of domestic violence, it most definitely emphasises the point that in the non-distant past, women were not expected to control many aspects of their own lives: jobs would be more menial, prospects of promotion and a highly-paid salary were almost non-existent.

Indeed, a great success of socialist and liberal-feminist campaigns has been to advance the freedom of women, in economic and legal affairs, to shift and change as they please. Such changes have also challenged elitism whilst promoting pluralism; trying to change the white middle-class male dominance of public and private life. It can be argued, with some validity, that it is the role of the state to direct such changes.

I would argue that there are two key responsibilities of the state to continue to rebalance gender inequality: firstly, it must protect the most vulnerable people in society; arguably made up by a disproportionate number of older women. Whilst the younger generations of females enjoy more opportunities than ever before, older women, in many circumstances, still rely on state-provided benefits such as housing and pensions. Quite simply, should the state be ‘rolled back’, these women would suffer; and if such people have nowhere to turn to have enough money, they are likely to turn to the dark corners of society, such as loan sharks or perhaps even worse.

Secondly, the state must counteract sexist and patriarchal views which exist, regarding women’s ‘place’ in society. Thus the public sector must employ women; creating women-only safe seats in Parliament would do much to project a positive and versatile attitude toward the self-agency of women. However, this could be an unachievable idyll, as it is hard to see how it would be implement in a political system dominated by neo-liberal ideals. The Fawcett Society has made modest progress through its legal campaigns; maybe it is time for the opposition Labour Party to take a tougher stance on feminist issues and give some indication on how it would tackle problems such as prostitution and even discrimination against homosexuality.

Article by Siobhan Bligh. Edited by Sam Neagus.

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