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My five next steps to equality

Guest editor CAROLINE CRIADO PEREZ picks her five feminist wishes for a better Britain

1 Decriminalise abortion

Most people think women in Britain have easy access to abortion. This is untrue. Abortion in the UK is still illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. ‘Every woman, being with child,’ reads Section 58 of this archaic law, ‘who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent… shall be guilty of felony.’

The 1967 Abortion Act only provides for exceptions to the Act. If a woman can convince two doctors to agree that continuing with her pregnancy involves ‘a risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated’ of injury to her physical or mental health, she can get an abortion. Otherwise, she can’t. And if she buys some pills to do it herself, she risks being ‘kept in penal servitude for life’. So. Not so easy.

The 1967 Act was revolutionary at the time and it has saved the lives of thousands of women since – every year at least 28,000 women globally die from unsafe abortions.

Ever since the landslide Yes vote in last week’s Repeal the Eighth referendum, eyes have been turning to Northern Ireland as the only location in the region where abortion is still illegal in almost all cases.

But we can do better than that. In the 21st century, we can trust women to know their own bodies. We can trust them to make their own decisions, without needing the approval of a finger-wagging doctor. It’s time to take abortion out of the criminal justice system, and put it where it belongs: in the healthcare system. For women across the entire UK.

2 Close the gender data gap

There’s a frightening amount we don’t know about women. From medical research to car safety to economic statistics, the vast majority of the world’s data is based on men; male bodies, and male lives.

Sometimes, this is mainly annoying, resulting in smartphones that fit neither in our hands or pockets, and ‘comprehensive’ health apps that can track your molybdenum (nope, me neither) and copper intake, but not your period.

Sometimes it’s more than annoying. Women do 75% of the world’s unpaid work, and estimates suggest that this work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries, and as much as 80% of GDP in low-income ones. But all we have are estimates, because no country is systematically counting this kind of work and it is not included in official GDP figures. The result is that when countries try to reign in their spending it is often women who end up paying the price: in the UK, 86% of government cuts since 2010 have fallen on women.

Sometimes, the gender data gap kills us. When women are involved in a car crash they are 47% more likely to die than a man. Why? Because car crash test dummies have been historically designed around the male body. We still don’t have a pregnant female crash test dummy in regular use.

But while this is shocking, it’s child’s play compared to the impact of the data gap in medical science. The vast majority of our medical knowledge is based on studies done on the male body: male humans, male animals and male cells. And this matters, because the more research we do, the more we find sex differences right down at a cellular level.

The result is that medication is less likely to work for women and is more likely to cause (more severe) adverse reactions. And that’s if women are getting diagnosed at all: a lot of diagnostic tests developed around the male body simply aren’t working for women.

It remains the case in the UK that a woman is more likely to die than a man following a heart attack, and 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed.

3 Free universal childcare

Closing the economic gender data gap would lead naturally to my next two feminist wishes. The first of these is free universal childcare, which would benefit both women and the economy. In 2015 McKinsey estimated that global GDP would grow by $12 trillion were women able to engage in the paid labour force at the same rate as men. But they aren’t. Twenty-five per cent of women in the EU cite unpaid care work as their reason for not being in the paid labour force, compared to 3% of men. In the UK, women with young children are employed for shorter hours than those without children, while for men it is the other way around. In 2014, 41% of mothers of children under four were employed full-time, compared to 82% of childless women and 84% of fathers. This is unsurprising: the UK has some of the most expensive (and yet somehow also most inadequate) childcare in Europe.

The excellent Women’s Budget Group has calculated that investing 2% of GDP in the caring industries would generate up to 1.5 million jobs in the UK, compared to 750,000 for an equivalent investment in construction. It would create almost as many jobs for men, and up to four times as many for women – and the investment it would need is much smaller than the annual tax giveaways introduced since 2010 that have disproportionately benefited men.

Investment in universal childcare has also been shown to reduce education spend overall, as less remedial education is needed, and to increase the productivity of future generations. There is simply no argument against doing this, and doing it now.

4 Properly paid use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave

It is a truth universally acknowledged (come on, I had to get one Jane Austen reference into this issue) that it takes two people to create a baby. But all too often, it is seen as the responsibility of only one of them to do the majority of the care work. This is not simply a case of individual choice: it is literally built into our laws.

In the UK, women are entitled to 39 weeks of paid maternity leave at an average of 30% pay (placing us 22nd out of 24 European countries in a recent analysis). But this seems like abundant largesse in comparison to what is available to men: a paltry two weeks of paid leave. The government did, in 2016, introduce shared parental leave – but 12 months later, only one in 100 men were applying for it.

This should have come as no surprise. Evidence from Sweden, Iceland and South Korea all shows men don’t take their leave unless there is an allowance specifically reserved for the father that the mother cannot take, and which is lost from the overall allowance if he does not take it. Prior to the introduction of the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ leave for fathers, only about 6% of men in Sweden took paternity leave, despite the fact that it had been available for them since 1974. Today, nine out of ten Swedish fathers take an average of three to four months leave. And Sweden has the highest female employment figures in the EU.

5 Electoral reform

My last feminist wish is also my most ambitious. There is no doubt that female representation in parliament makes a difference to the laws that get passed. Decades of evidence from around the world have shown that an increase in female MPs results in higher investment in education and care. Female MPs also speak more about women’s issues.

But our current electoral system is biased towards electing men. Don’t believe me? Look at the disparity between female Labour MPs versus female Conservative or Liberal Democrat MPs. In the 2017 UK general election, 41% of the candidates the Labour party fielded were female. The Tories and the Lib Dems fielded 29% each. The difference? Labour used all women shortlists (AWS). And no, quotas don’t raise up incompetent women: all the evidence shows that what they actually do is, in the words of one LSE study, ‘weed out incompetent men’.

The difficulty is, though, that while AWS are in fact no more than a corrective to male bias, they nevertheless feel unfair – hence why only one major party uses them. The solution to this is simple: full electoral reform. Switch to a party list system, where every party draws up a male and female list of candidates per constituency. These lists get ‘zipped’ together, so you end up with one list, alternating male and female candidates. The more votes a party wins, the further down their list they get. And that is how you end up with a gender equal parliament. Just like that.

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