Article by Jonathan Baxter, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD). IWD was established in the early 20th Century. It followed an agreement at the 1910 International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. The United States had previously held its own national women’s day (it now devotes the entire month of March to celebrating women’s history), but it wasn’t until 1911that Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland celebrated IWD as a result of the Copenhagen initiative. Other countries then followed. IWD isn’t the responsibility of a single government or organisation, but an international movement. The global theme for IWD 2016 is Pledge for Parity. The aim is for individuals to take a concrete step to help achieve gender parity more quickly. This could be by pledging to help women and girls achieve their ambitions, challenging conscious and unconscious bias or calling for gender-balanced leadership. Some organisations, including the United Nations, will adopt their own theme for IWD. This year, the UN has adopted “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” as its theme. The idea of this theme is to consider how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. Although it wasn’t until the 1970s that the UN started observing IWD, its founding charter, signed in 1945, was the first international agreement to affirm the principle of equality between women and men. IWD isn’t just about highlighting the acknowledged imbalances across social, economic, cultural and political arenas, but about celebrating the successes of women in all those spheres. On 9 March, Assembly Members will have an opportunity to make their pledges for parity, but also to celebrate the many achievements of women in Wales as they debate IWD 2016. There will be a number of events in Wales to mark the day, including those organised by the Women’s Equality Network Wales in Aberystwyth, Swansea and Cardiff.
Women in public life
IWD was established before any woman in Wales had the right to vote. Now, of the 60 Assembly Members in Wales, 25 are women – that’s 42%. In 2003, the Assembly was the first legislature in the world to achieve gender parity. Between 2006 and 2007 more women than men sat in the Assembly. Although current representation by women in the Assembly is lower than in the past, Wales would still rank as the 9th most gender-balanced legislature in the world if it were an independent country according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The United Kingdom currently ranks 40th on the IPUs index, with just under 30% of Members of Parliament being women. Building on the Assembly’s reputation for equality, the Presiding Officer, Dame Rosemary Butler AM, has led her Women in Public Life campaign throughout the Fourth Assembly to encourage more women to get involved in public life. The work she has undertaken has been recognised internationally, resulting in invitations to visit the Icelandic parliament, the Canadian parliament, and to regional parliaments in South Africa and Lesotho to exchange ideas and best practice in relation to women’s representation.
The challenges facing women in Wales
There have been many programmes and schemes to tackle gender inequality in Wales. The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government (PfG) and Strategic Equality Plan (SEP) outline the actions that the current Welsh Government has taken to address this issue. In terms of the representation of women in public life, the PfG included specific commitments to deliver a more representative pool of decision makers and to seek to introduce Norwegian-style gender quotas for appointments to public bodies. A recent call for evidence on appointments to public sector boards was issued by the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, with a summary of the findings now available. The Welsh Government’s Annual Equality Report 2014-15 details progress on the objectives set out in the SEP. It notes that in 2014-15:
- 48.5% of new public appointments were women;
- 41% of applicants for new public appointments were women.
Of course, it isn’t just in the public sector that we can see examples of gender inequality as campaigns like 50/50 by 2020 have highlighted; the private and third sectors also have issues to address. Economically, we regularly see statistics that highlight the gender imbalance. Latest statistics from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings show a gender pay gap in Wales of 7.8% in 2015, meaning that median hourly earnings excluding overtime of men working full-time were 7.8% higher than those of women. This is lower than most English regions and the UK average but higher than the gender pay gap in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There’s more information about women in the Welsh economy in this In Brief blog post from last year. The Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR) 2015, produced by the World Economic Forum, provides some stark statistics on the challenge faced by societies and governments across the globe. With global average earnings by men almost double that of women, the report suggests that it will take the world another 118 years, or until 2133, to close the economic gender gap entirely.