Britain has slipped again in the international league table for gender equality. The authors of an acutely embarrassing report from a leading think-tank have described the position of professional women in the UK as "stagnant", showing little or no progress for the best part of a decade, and with significant setbacks in some areas.
As the Minister for Equality Harriet Harman pushes the Government's latest Equality Bill though Parliament, the World Economic Forum (WEF), a body best known for its annual economic conference in Davos, claims that Britain has fallen dramatically down the international rankings for closing the gap between men and women in the following key respects: wage equality; the number of women in senior positions in business and politics; and even women's relative life expectancy.
Overall, the UK has dropped from ninth position in the world in 2006, and 13th place last year, to 15th now.
Other advanced economies, such as the Nordic states and top-ranked Iceland, have made impressive ground in continuing to narrow the gender gap across the spectrum, but Britain has only held its own on many measures, and is startlingly backwards in others, shamed by the performance of some emerging and developing nations. For example, while in absolute terms British girls can expect high standards of health care by international standards, there is still a greater discrepancy between the life chances that British girls and boys are offered compared to, say, their counterparts in Benin or Uganda. Those African children may be poorer and sicker than their counterparts in Britain, but the differences between male and female rates of sickness levels are actually not as pronounced in those poorer nations as in the UK. Britain has its worst showing on this score – down to 89th place.
Perhaps the most alarming slippage has been seen in the field of wage equality. Although the first legislative steps to end unfair inequality were taken as long ago as the Equal Pay Act of 1970, Britain has fallen to 78th in the world on this measure, behind the likes of Egypt, Malawi, Tajikistan and Malaysia.
Britain scores better on the educational opportunities available to women – joint first with 40 other countries – which helps it secure a moderately respectable ranking for "economic participation and opportunity". Its overall performance there – 35th place – is dragged down by wage inequalities.
The general pattern seems to be that opportunities for British women become narrower the older they get – especially if they aspire to senior positions in politics, the professions and business. The UK has a shockingly poor ranking of 74th for gender equality between professional and technical workers, and has slumped to 46th place for the number of women in ministerial positions – a point Gordon Brown was pressed on in his appearance before a Commons Select Committee this week, and where has faced accusations of tokenism by former colleagues. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, has talked about the possibility of women-only short lists for his party's parliamentary candidate selections.
Ms Harman, who once remarked that Lehman Brothers might not have failed had it had more women executives – suggesting "Lehman Sisters" – told MPs recently: "If you want to make sure you don't have the nightmare of men-only boards, you actually have to change the terms on which men and women participate. You have to change the culture and working practices."
South Africa and the tiny enclave state of Lesotho came in for special praise from the report for their improved performance. The worst places to live if you are a woman are Pakistan, Chad and Yemen.
Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the WEF, said: "Girls are still missing out on primary and secondary education in far greater numbers than boys, thus aggravating poverty, the spread of HIV/Aids, and maternal and infant mortality. Women still remain vastly under-represented in political leadership and decision- making. The combined impact of these gaps entails colossal losses to the global society and economy."