SILENCE can be deadly for women.
That’s a pretty timeless lesson, but it’s one we’ve learnt all over again in the last few months, when the women Time magazine calls “silence breakers” – their nominees for Persons of the Year 2017 – began telling their stories. Speaking up changes things, exposing injustices that can only flourish in the dark. But telling stories isn’t the only way of breaking silence. Sometimes numbers talk pretty loudly, too.
And that’s one reason the Labour MP Stella Creasy has just launched a campaign for what she’s calling “ladydata” (and, yes, the name’s meant to be ironic). She wants the government to commit to running all its budget decisions through an independent assessment of their gender impact, which would publicly reveal any differences in the way they affect men and women – illuminating, say, the fact that raising tax thresholds is disproportionately good news for men (who tend to earn more), while welfare cuts are disproportionately hard on women and hardest of all on women of colour. Or, that two-thirds of those affected by the public-sector pay cap are women, what with more women working in the public sector to start with. All Creasy is doing is suggesting that we think harder about who the system works for, exactly, and who it doesn’t – and about why the answer to that is more complicated than “it works for the rich and not for the poor”.
And, nerdy as it sounds, statistics matter quite a lot here. Firstly, because what officialdom bothers to collect evidence on is a pretty good guide to what officialdom cares about. And, secondly, because without tangible proof that a problem exists, it can all too easily be made to magically disappear.
Right back at the beginning of the #MeToo movement, an odd glitch emerged: everyone suddenly seemed to have a story about sexual harassment, but hardly anyone had data.
Right back at the beginning of the #MeToo movement, an odd glitch emerged: everyone suddenly seemed to have a story about sexual harassment, but hardly anyone had data
There were no government statistics. It wasn’t considered worthy of a single question in our national crime survey. Apparently, nobody in Whitehall had been interested enough in sexual harassment to gather evidence on it, which made it exceptionally hard to say with any confidence – enough confidence to stop the harrumphing about how this was just a Hollywood thing or maybe a millennial thing – how widespread it really is.
We didn’t have the numbers to say definitively whether it’s got better or worse over the years, or when and where during their careers women are most likely to encounter a sex pest (which would be the first step to tackling it effectively). And because the government never had to publish annual numbers – as it does for, say, the pay gap – it never had to say what it was going to do about a problem that didn’t officially appear to exist. The accidental genius of #MeToo, with its trackable millions of shares on social media, was that it gave us both stories and some crude numbers. Do the maths and suddenly the problem swims into sharper focus.
Ladydata won’t always work in women’s favour, of course, because not all policy decisions work against women. Raising the minimum wage benefits more women than men, for example. So does subsidising childcare (largely because there are more single mothers with custody of their children than single fathers). It’s women who overwhelmingly suffer when funding for domestic-violence refuges is cut but, because middle-aged men have the highest suicide rates, underfunding suicide prevention services would hurt men most. At times, gender audits could make uncomfortable reading for both sexes. There are difficult choices to be made and big arguments to be had.
But the point is those choices are already being made all the time, in practically every tax and spending decision made in Whitehall – it’s just that all too often nobody quite realises it’s happening or grasps the cumulative impact. The tax system wasn’t expressly designed as a secret tool of the patriarchy. Philip Hammond’s budget wasn’t part of a devilishly cunning plan to put women back in their boxes. So, if nobody actively intended these consequences, there should be nothing to fear from publishing the data that might help ministers make fairer decisions in future. It’s time to let the numbers do some talking.