Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Taxman is a Woman!

Last night at dinner I sat opposite Dame Lesley Strathie, chief executive of HMRC (revenues and customs). She was visiting Nuffield College to participate in a conference held in honour of International Women's day, which celebrated its centenary on March 8th. As well as debunking the myth that the taxman is a man, the day's presentations and discussions explored the role and position of women today in the context of the criminal justice system, the economy and politics.  

I wanted to share some of the topics that were raised...

Spot the red top and find the taxwoman!

Women continue to be under-represented in our political system, which is supposed to represent the UK democratically. Just 21% of members of parliament are female. The situation is similar in the private sector: 12.5% of FTSE 100 board directors are women. Professor Sarah Childs (Bristol University) and Anna Bird (Fawcett Society) support quotas to solve this, which require that a certain number of places on party candidate lists, or on board committees, are taken by women. They argue that quotas are the only measure that will work quickly to increase female representation. Others, like Dame Strathie, prefer to set less rigid targets alongside measures that encourage women to apply, for example by ensuring that job descriptions/ advertisements are not gendered. Janet Beer, Vice Chancellor of Brookes University, spoke of how when she became a mother, the fact that she was able to job share meant that she could continue the trajectory of her career, and she aims to ensure this flexibility is on offer to her colleagues today. 

Whilst we should aim to treat men and women equally, it can be problematic if their differences aren't acknowledged. This is particularly relevant in the criminal justice system. When Vivien Brandon, now on the women's criminal justice team, was starting out in the civil service she was set the task to forecast how the prison population would increase, so that the right number of prisons could be built. In doing so, all prisoners were treated as 'men', and she believes that this was in part to blame for the current situation in which women's prisons are located in the middle of nowhere, where the often single mothers are far from any access to their children. 

The criminal justice system in the UK is so disturbing. Women are a small minority of the UK prison population (just 5%) and so maybe they are easy to forget, but these women are the most deprived in society, and are the most likely to have experienced abuse or great trauma. Chucking them into prison for short sentences has proven not to work, and is completely inhumane. The evidence shows that good day care, and helping those women learn how to cope are the most effective ways to reduce crime.

As a young, middle class and well educated woman in 2011, I can't say I have personally had much trouble. The little sexism I have directly faced, mainly from old male academics, was easy to laugh at or shrug off. In fact, it can sometimes work to my advantage. Yesterday, however, reminded me that inequality persists markedly in our society.

Inequality can lie deeper and be less visible too; it can reside in our language, or in our expectations. I was highly recommended the work of Cordelia Fine, who strives to show that many female/male differences we assume to be innate are actually socially created.

Solidarity x

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