Sexism is back in the news. The Sky Sports scandal has coincided with the implementation of Harriet Harman’s Equality Act, and savage tongues are talking. Poor old Theresa May lives anything but a charmed life. Having just been delivered from Ed Balls, she finds Harriet Harman’s innumerable detractors arraigned against her. May is urged to abolish the ‘diversity tests’ that would cost employers hundreds of million pounds to enact. (The government’s response is masterful in how far it misses the point, ‘The Equality Act 2010 replaces nine major pieces of legislation, making it simpler and cheaper for people to comply with the law. From 2012 we expect the Act to save the economy as much as £87 million a year.’)
Dominic Raab is May’s most visceral critic. In an article for PoliticsHome, he argues that the Equality Act is the expression of a society that discriminates against men. The article is broad in its condemnation and livid in its tone, but there is tremendous depth to it. Sexism is a side-issue. What Raab actually identifies is a society that denigrates middle class families. He writes:
‘In other areas, we might be pleasantly surprised. Making maternity leave transferable (without increasing it, to avoid extra burdens on business) would give men greater equality, and free up women to share their career-family compromises with their other halves – if they choose. The phenomenon of young couples on middle incomes both doing a four day week, to save on childcare, looks set to rise. It makes economic, as well as egalitarian, sense.
Likewise, family-friendly policies could help exhausted families struggling to strike a sensible work-life balance. Critics mocked the idea of transferable tax allowances for couples as socially regressive and financially insignificant. Yet, transferable tax allowances for parents with children under five would support women who choose to stay home, when their children are young, while helping them save for childcare, if and when they choose return to work. A little tax relief would go a long way.
Young British couples are tired of the equality bandwagon, dreamt up in the 1960s, pitting men and women against each other. We need consistent equality for men and women, an end to ‘soft’ feminist bigotry and support for hard-working families trying to juggle competing priorities in their hectic daily lives.
Equality and opportunity cannot be mandated by law. Aside from the obvious need for education reform, there are reasons to seek a new approach to pay, work and child care that supports the aspirations and circumstances of both partners, and the needs of employers.