The Rise, Fall and Rise of Feminism

9th Oct, 2015

The twelve day London Film Festival began two days ago. The film chosen to open the event was Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep among others. Watching the film reminded me how far the rights and roles of women have advanced in the last 100 years.

Its progress has been slow particularly in some countries with the right to vote arriving in 1918 in the UK (for women aged over 30), 1920 in the United States, 1931 in Spain, 1945 in France and a rather surprising 1971 in Switzerland. Of course, in some parts of the developing world it has been slower particularly Muslim ones.

This presumably is part of the reason why women in developing countries gain more from access to IT and the internet as noted in our report for BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT:

“Women gain more than men from access to and usage of technology. This is particularly true for women in developing nations. One reason for this might be that in many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East women have socially controlled roles which may lead to a lower sense of freedom and autonomy and hence well-being.”

Of course, sexism and sexual prejudice still exist in many countries, the UK included, and the momentum towards true equality has fluctuated over time. For example, in the early part of my working life in the1970s and 1980 feminism was a major political issue. But this seemed to wane in the 90s and 00s. The term ‘lady’ (used at one’s peril in the 80s) started to be used again rather than ‘woman’. Women accepted being called Chairmen rather than Chair. While trivial, these examples seemed to exemplify the changed mood. We can hypothesise why there was a period of seemingly lost momentum but there is no question that it is back at the forefront of the political and business agenda again.

To return to the world of film, numerous actresses have been campaigning for equal pay in Hollywood while receiving their acting awards

While there is an important moral and ethical element to this there is also an economic one. As always, money talks. Companies are starting to realise that in the knowledge economy it makes no sense to waste the skills of half the workforce particularly when that half is better educated nowadays. A Higher Education Policy Institute report shows that women are more likely to get places in the top universities and go on to get better grades. Women also outnumber men in high status subjects, such as law and medicine.

You know this must be a critical issue when McKinsey starts making a song and dance about the strategic importance of gender equality. In a special series of articles under the banner ‘Making women’s equality a priority’, the consultancy argues, amongst other things, that advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. Yes, money talks and the implication is clear: to be competitive companies need to take gender equality in the workplace seriously.