Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Our struggle for equality has just become more difficult

Female job losses are calculated to be happening at twice the rate of men's
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The Independent Online

Who is responsible for the bloody, economic mess we are in today? Who navigated our ships into rocky, turbulent seas? And who still got magnificently rewarded for stupidity, arrogance, atrocious judgements and foolhardy projections? Here are some of the skippers; Lord Stevenson and Andy Hornby (HBOS), Sir Tom McKillop and Sir Fred Goodwin (RBS), Adam Applegarth and Matt Ridley (Northern Rock). Then there are the gentleman who run other familiar banks and the City of London. Their regulators who spectacularly failed to notice the piling wreckage, also men of a certain caste and stature. The Prime Minister and Chancellor, the US banking giants all sailed with gay abandon and no foresight. This recession was man-made, made by men, white men to be precise.

Imagine if this list was comprised of only Marys, Antonias, Samiras, Leilas and Victorias, or if Lehman Brothers was laid to waste by a pregnant woman? Just what calumny would be piled on our gender. As it is powerful men, not much has been remarked upon, save for their inborn male recklessness and hard drive. There are over-ambitious women working in these sectors who play the game recklessly. Not one, though is at admiral level as far as I know.

Now guess what? It is women who are paying the price as the recession deepens. According to latest official employment figures, over the last quarter the number of women in full-time jobs fell by 53,000, while the number for men was 36,000. As vastly more men than women are in full-time work, female job losses are calculated to be happening at twice the rate of men's. We know the relatively new laws giving mums more maternity leave and flexible working have been irksome in the extreme for employers. It doesn't take a degree in feminism to see the obvious: bad times are good for sneaky practices. Bosses are using the recession to push out child-bearing women, those pesky breeders who will insist on working, unlike the kept, fragrant, Jaeger wives and mothers who would never be so unseemly, so inconsiderate.

Just three months ago, the indefatigable Fawcett Society warned that women had plenty of talent but were held back by "unjust hurdles" throughout their careers. Sex equality was "at best stagnating, at worst backsliding". Now it is in freefall. If our legislature was divvied up fairly between men and woman, perhaps more progress might have been made, though Margaret Thatcher's indifference to the issue is a reminder that it isn't necessarily so. Eighty years after universal suffrage, only 20 per cent of MPs are female, women of colour almost invisible. And when women like Harriet Harman and the Solicitor-General, Vera Baird, attempt to redress this gross imbalance within Parliament and without, they are set upon by that gang of wolfish male political hacks.

I personally don't believe that women must always be chosen over men – Hillary Clinton would not have been the US President needed at this time in world history, and Jacqui Smith is proving to be a worse authoritarian than any man who took over the Home Office, even the monstrously autocratic David Blunkett and John Reid. What is unforgivable is that positive discrimination is used to favour masters of our universe, even the most useless, while negative discrimination keeps out others, however able.

That inequality plays out in the home too. When times are hard, divorces rise. So what do we find after the marriage? The income of the husband rises by a third while wives suffer "severe financial penalties", according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research. Commenting on this latest confirmation of what many lone mothers already knew, a family lawyer, Ruth Smallacombe, says: "The general belief that men get fleeced by their divorces while women get richer living off the proceeds ... is a pernicious myth". Countless dads will do anything to avoid paying for the children they created and punish the women who once dared to love them. Even when couples stay together and raise their young, most fathers take less responsibility than mothers. Employers still think it a women's job to bring up children.

British women have more life chances than ever before. I am immensely thankful I live here and not in countries where women are slaves. Across Europe, female entitlements are now enshrined in law. We have lived to taste some sweet fruits of equality thanks to suffragettes and feminists and enlightened male supporters. But our equal rights are still conditional. They depend on men of power. When their boats start to sink, those men instinctively hurl women first into the furious sea. And for us to swim back and recover from that will take a generation.