All men were created equal ... but what about women?

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

We now have female bishops and cabinet members, but why is it such a struggle to get women into the upper echelons of power?

Cameron reshuffle

What is it about females in high-ranking positions that is so threatening or wrong? 

A decade and a half into the 21st Century surely we are past the view that boys are better than girls and accept that success based on skill level and competence trumps whom you went to school with or who your father was?

Yesterday David Cameron wore the Conservative party's tattered family mask for the first time in three and a half years: packed away in a box in the attic of number 10 gathering dust, it was brought out of mothballs for a female-friendly cabinet reshuffle.

The General Election is 10 months in the future but this reshuffle is little more than the coming together of a war cabinet designed to retain power come next May. What it gives away though, is a lack of trust in female MPs to operate at the top table of politics - in spite of the understanding that the party needs to, at least be seen to, be inclusive, and have a representative cabinet.

How long these women last beyond the election is an open question. There is no doubting their talent or ambition but they are being introduced at the wrong time and into the wrong roles. If David Cameron had been serious about having a cabinet that was based on an equal balance of male and female ministers, he would have done so mid-term. Indeed, if Cameron had based his selections on talent rather than quota, it is likely that many of the political lightweights that have bobbed along for the past three years would have been replaced in government by female colleagues long ago.

The brief for these female ministers, on the face of it, is not to mess things up rather than use their brains to drive the country forward and free of recession. They’ll provide good photo opportunities on the campaign trail and new chief whip, the drone-like former Education Secretary Michael Gove, will ensure they stay on message about how progressive and modern the Conservative party has become.

However, nothing in politics happens by accident and it does not take a genius to understand the careful stage management of the reshuffle announcement; or that it came on the same day as the Church of England voted on the issue of women bishops. Quelle surprise!

This was a win/win day for Mr Cameron and co; had the C of E voted against the creation of women bishops, the government would have presented itself as a beacon of progress and equality. As it turned out, the church, after consulting higher authority (for the second time in two years), voted in favour of welcoming women bishops into the Anglican church, thereby ensuring that the prime minister is completely in-step with public attitudes to women in work. 

Reaction to the cabinet promotions and the Church’s belated acceptance that women might actually make good bishops is a curious mix, which illustrates that it is not simply male reluctance to remove the glass ceiling that is a barrier to female advancement, there is also significant resistance from other women.

Kathy Gingell writing for Conservative Woman was far from impressed with the promotion of women to the cabinet at the expense of more experienced MPs. She writes, the “‘discovery’ and promotion of this fabulous new source shrinks the genuine political talent pool even further.”

“Now the last surviving such MPs (primarily middle aged and male) are coming under attack again, as once more they are disbarred from Cabinet in favour of a new female force who, despite their elevation, have yet to prove themselves politically or administratively.”

While contributors to the letters page of the Daily Telegraph boomed:

"SIR – Just where do the underpaid and largely female nursery workers, nannies and child-minders who care for the infants of “powerful women at the top of their game” fit into Isabel Hardman’s vision of gender “equality”?"

Anglican orthodoxy was also evident on the comments page of the Daily Express: "God created Adam, a man, and a woman from the man as a companion, so woman was not created to lead. It is not good for a man to be alone, god said.”

While Ricardos followed with the: “I was christened Church of England, went to a Methodist Sunday school, married in the Congregational church and my children were not were christened as Congregationalists but on a personal level I think the Orthodox Faith is the original and best but the bottom line is; I don't care who pontificates at my funeral as long as it is not a woman.”

Progress has been made and as limited as it is, it is a shift that promises more enlightened attitudes ahead.

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