As part of George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review last week 192 quangos were abolished. One of these was the Women’s National Commission [WNC] – an independent advisory body on women’s issues in government.
I had never heard of it.
But does its lack of profile indicate a lack of worthwhile contribution to politics?
Quangos such as this one are easy targets in a spending review of this sort. They have vague names that don’t really tell you very much about what they do. They sound expendable, and when most people haven’t heard of them nobody is going to fight very hard to retain them.
So is the WNC worthwhile?
Chair of the WNC, Baroness Joyce Gould said:
“The decision to dismantle an independent and cost effective mechanism to give women a direct voice in government is yet another blow for women across the UK at a time when the comprehensive spending review is likely to hit women and families disproportionately.”
It is certainly a worry that by culling this quango, there is a message that money spent on this issue is a waste, that women’s issues are not serious enough to merit specialised attention. And yet progress in this arena seems to be grinding to a halt; after decades of hope and expectation a substantial pay gap still exists, glass ceilings are as present as ever and there are shameful levels of domestic violence endured on a daily basis.
If the government does not hail progress as a priority then who will?
The work of the commission is to be taken over by the Government Equalities Office, a body responisible for equality legislation and policy in the UK. It clearly has a wider mandate than the WNC but does this mean that it will fail to take adequate account of women’s needs? Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Fawcett Society, Anna Bird seems to think so. She said:
“The abolition of the WNC will make it that much harder for government to devise informed policy that reflects the unique position of women in the UK. This decision also gives a clear indicator of the priority the new coalition attaches to furthering equality in the UK.
“When times are tight it becomes more, not less important to ensure the vulnerable in our society are supported.”
There are of course advantages for women in having a women-orientated body that has the opportunity to influence the political agenda.
Perhaps however the move can be seen as an opportunity to move away from the current discourse we have in this country about equality. There are definite limitations to sticking to the ‘women need equality’ mantra.
An equality commission rather than a women’s commission will be able to address a wider range of gender issues. In this broader context of equality, it may become less about the rights of women but the rights of everyone to equal treatment.
By acknowledging that in some areas it is men that face inequality, we can perhaps more easily address the culturally embedded ideas of gender roles that are still limiting women today.