Women Coming on Top: is the government taking gender seriously?

David Cameron formally announced last week that he will recruit a Special (woman) Adviser to carry out a gender impact assessment of Government policy. This announcement is on the back of reports in the press at the end of 2011 that he was seeking a woman’s perspective on key Government policies. So, is this a sign that the Government has taken on board the criticisms put forward by the Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society over the last two years about the impact of the emergency budget and cuts?

Apparently the main motivation for this shift in policy is recognition of the impact of inequality on economic growth. This is a very effective argument to justify policy change and gender mainstreaming, as many feminist and gender scholars have recognised in the last couple of decades. However, it comes at a cost: the focus remains economic growth and little is said about the need to change social, political and economic structures to promote substantive equality. The real danger of this approach is that once the economic rationale is removed, so do the incentives for gender mainstreaming. This is not what the advocates of this strategy have been campaigning for since the mid-1990s.

In relation to the current crisis, the opportunity for greater inclusion is the not outcome of a considered revaluation of policy approaches following the campaign by the Fawcett Society and/or the Women’s Budget Group. Rather, it seems to respond to media reports that that the financial markets’ preference for traditionally masculine traits, such as risk taking, might have been one of the reasons of the crisis.

It is at this point that we need to consider what the role of the special adviser is going to be. Her role as representative of women’s interests/issues is very ambitious for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest challenge she will face is reconciling the needs and interests of disparate groups of women, unless of course, the working assumption is that women are a homogenous group, something that has been widely criticised by both feminist scholars and activists. Given the deeply gendered ideology espoused by the current Government, it will be interesting to see if the Special Adviser will work to challenge the dominant gender discourse entrenched within the concept of the Big Society or will be used to justify wider economic policies, therefore making mainstreaming even more remote than it currently is.


The Women’s Budget Group: http://www.wbg.org.uk/

The Fawcett Society: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/