8 March 2021

The G7 is a chance for women to take their seat at the top table

By Sarah Sands

The acceleration of science and technology can lead to a new Enlightenment. The future is being designed and shaped and, at the G7 in June, world leaders will discuss their vision for it. It is time to step forward, sisters, and grab a share of it!

That the future is as much a matter for women as for men sounds an obvious point, except that women often get overlooked. Not this year. There was no Gender Equality Advisory Council at the G7 in the United States last year, so it is a bold statement from the UK, as host nation, to make gender equality core to its global vision, building on the work of the Canadian and French presidencies of 2018 and 2019.

The principles of choice, opportunity and dignity must be available to women as they are to men. They can be, if we remove the hurdles that prevent their reaching them. To do that, we need to talk about violence and education and empowerment.

There is a well-worn narrative that we already have equality in the so-called developed nations. Except that lockdown acted as a kind of social census. There was no law to say women would do most of the domestic work and home schooling while also holding down jobs. Yet this seemed to become the societal expectation , reinforced by a stay-at-home advertising campaign that pictured a woman mopping the floor, ironing, home schooling and finally making nice with her husband on the sofa. Thank goodness she seemed to be getting help from her daughter. What a shame there was no sign of what the man had been doing all day.

Lockdown has had women throwing in the towel, and not just into the laundry basket. The jobs that women tend to dominate – retail, entertainment  and hospitality – took the worst hit. It felt at times as if we were heading back to the 1950s. And, inevitably, not all women were being cuddled by husbands on sofas – some experienced appalling domestic abuse. If we are to remove hurdles for women, the violent exercise of power against them must be one of the first things to go.

As we look around the world, things get worse. When William Hague was foreign secretary he teamed up with Angelina Jolie to help put violence against women during conflicts on the international agenda. He was mocked in political and media circles for doing so. Surely there were more important things to talk about? His critics revealed two things: their axiomatic downgrading of subjects that concerned women and a failure to understand the wider consequences.

Violence against women, wherever it happens, destroy lives and wrecks communities. It is a deadly effective weapon of war, not a side issue. Women are not an addendum, they must be at the heart of the story.

Why do some men still fear clever women? If we are to design a future that brings women to their proper place, education is key. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist, was shot as a schoolgirl by Taliban sympathisers for demanding the right to go to school. She was brought to Britain and she graduated from Oxford, a life-affirming story of triumph over ignorance.

Yet still girls are being kept out of school, for ideological, economic and social reasons. There are girls who cannot go to school because they cannot afford elementary sanitary protection, for heaven’s sake. Why is it going on? Perhaps because there is a residual belief that the education of girls is less important.

Before we get too self-righteous in the UK, we should pause to think about the encouragement we are giving girls. According to analysis by Dr Rhys Morgan, Director of Engineering and Education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, girls are still lagging behind in science, tech, engineering and maths. Last year, only 18% of successful university applications for engineering were from women. Sixteen per cent of women took up degrees in computer science. Martha Lane Fox has warned consistently over bias against women in the tech sector. If programmes, algorithms, artificial intelligence are all left to men, where is the enriching diversity of perspective and creativity?

How can we make a society designed for, and run by, men a little more supple? Levelling up needs to be circumstantial as well as geographical. Equality must be visible. Atmosphere, ideas, perspective and policy are all enriched by diversity. The pandemic has encouraged us to believe that women can be the future superstars of this scientific superpower. Sarah Gilbert, who created the Oxford vaccine with an original thought followed by tireless confirmation of her hypothesis, is a role model. 

By opening up education, encouraging women into new fields, we also unleash economic empowerment. I mentioned to the Equalities Minister that you could not make computer science compulsory for girls. “Why not?” she asked. At the very least, you could certainly gear up mentoring. Incidentally, it is a very good thing that the Equalities Minister is also the International Trade Secretary, for it puts equality at the heart of our export culture. 

How is the Government promoting female entrepreneurs? Alison Rose’s review, published in March 2019, suggested that women could add up to £250 billion to the UK economy if women started and scaled businesses at the same rate as men. Women flourish outside institutions, perhaps because so many of those institutions were designed by men. The biggest issue holding female entrepreneurs back is the lack of funding available for them, so invest in women!

Yet there is still a patronising attitude towards those businesses in which women pay big roles. When I edited the Today programme, I was criticised for dedicating a chunk of one programme to British fashion and design, and how it would fare with Brexit. A former editor of the programme protested that this £30 billion industry did not count as news. News and business apparently means hard hats and high-viz.

G7 is an opportunity to back all the businesses of the future, and for women to take their place at the top table. I am delighted to chair the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to give the women of the world the chance to compete as equals?

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Sarah Sands is chair of the Gender Equality Advisory Council and a former editor of the Today Programme.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.