Article07 Mar 2018

On Gender Equality, Is the Public More Progressive Than Political Elites?

Citi GPS Opinion Article
The global theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. It comes at a time when gender issues have moved to the top of the current agenda. Hashtag activism, such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, has intensified the focus. But will this last? And is there sufficient momentum to bring about a “tipping point”?

What of the wider economic and social ambitions of striving for gender equality? Can we apply the #PressForProgress theme to the task of broadening the political debate, accelerating progress by advancing women’s economic empowerment, a key component of the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals?

As our previous studies on Women in the Economy (Women as Global Growth Generators and Women’s Economic Empowerment) have highlighted, the potential economic gains from removing barriers to female labor force participation are significant. Citi economists have estimated growth could be increased significantly over the medium- to long-term, far exceeding the impact of other policy levers such as tax cuts. And the wider benefits of reducing gender inequality also converge to produce a multiplier effect, including better health and education outcomes for children when their mothers have access to financial resources.

There is no shortage of policy ideas. In a way, that is the problem. To fight for everything all at once is to risk achieving nothing. A century ago, the focus of gender activists in Britain was votes for women. Half a century ago, it was the legal right to equal pay for equal work. What should the focus be today? And how have public attitudes toward gender issues evolved?
To shed light on this question, YouGov has conducted a special survey of British views ahead of International Women’s Day and in the spirit of 2018 marking the 100th anniversary of (partial) suffrage for women in Britain.1

We draw three clear lessons from our survey.

1. For most people, gender equality is desirable but not a priority.

YouGov asked a representative sample of 1,650 adults throughout Britain how they viewed the outlook for men and women growing up in Britain today. Only 14% think men and women “have broadly equal pay and career prospects; there is no need for further action by the government or employers”. A large majority believe that inequalities remain, but most of them regard further policy measures as “desirable but no longer a priority” (47% of the whole sample), rather than “a priority for government and employers” (27%).
The views of men and women differ – especially on whether equality has arrived (22% of men but only 6% of women think this). But there is broad agreement on both sides of the gender divide that further action is desirable rather than essential (by a two-to-one margin among men, and three-to-two among women).
These figures suggest that the quality most needed these days by decision-makers in politics and business is determination rather than courage. Few people oppose further progress, but not enough regard is as urgent. How can the drive to improve gender equality be pushed up the political and business agenda, particularly given that public attitudes seem to be supportive?

2. Gender equality should be framed as an economic and not just a moral imperative.

Research by Citi has shown that measures to increase women’s economic empowerment could boost average advanced economy GDP by as much as 6%, or
£100 billion a year over time. In the UK this would be equivalent to ~£100 billion a year. Given the pressures on the National Health Service (NHS) and other public services, as well as the potential for UK growth to be constrained post-Brexit and the remorselessly rising costs of state pensions, these figures are not to be sneezed at.

           Figure 1. Putting It in Perspective

            Source: Citi Research, European Commission

Yet attention to the linkage between increased female labor force participation and related issues such as improved financial inclusion measures seems limited in most advanced economies, with some notable exceptions such as Japan, where increasing women’s employment was a key component of Prime Minister Abe’s “third arrow”, and Canada, where measures to boost women’s participation in the labor force were introduced three decades ago, delivering a measurable impact on growth.

In the United States, which fares next-to-last in OECD rankings on gender equality, similar measures — such as tax reforms ending the “second earner penalty” — have only been discussed recently, while other measures implemented by Canada such as tax-free direct transfers to parents and initiatives supporting social infrastructure and early childhood development seem unlikely to move to the top of Washington’s radar in the current political climate, although some measures were initially part of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform.

           Figure 2. Canada, and the U.S., Rank Poorly Among Similarly Highly Developed Nations for Gender Equality

             Source: OECD and Citi Rsearch

YouGov’s figures suggest that voters could well be receptive to the women’s economic empowerment argument — and that at present there is a low level of awareness of it. YouGov asked what people thought the impact would be of “tough action by the government to ensure equal pay and opportunities for men and women”. This was asked about British prosperity as a whole, the career opportunities of men, and “the income of your household”.

Around half the public think measures to secure equal pay and opportunities will make little or no difference to national prosperity, pay, and career opportunities for men. Of the rest, both men and women side clearly with the view that equality will be good for the country AND their own household. Just 10% of men and 5% of women think equality would be bad for the economy as a whole; even fewer — 6% of men and 3% of women— think it would dent the incomes of their own household. These figures are so low that the propositions behind them can no longer be regarded as controversial. The task is not to fight the handful of out-and-out opponents of equality as to move the dial among those who think it would make little difference.

What, though, about the people who might fear change? How many men feel threatened by measures that might deny them the lion’s share of career opportunities? Even we were surprised at how attitudes have changed. Just over half of all men – 52% – say tough action to secure equality would make no difference to men generally. The rest divide fairly evenly, with 15% saying it would be good for men’s pay and career prospects, while 19% say it would be bad. (12% say “don’t know”.)  This  negative balance of only four points (19% minus 15%) suggests, once again, that there would be little resistance to a determined push for greater gender equality – especially as it is clear that some of the 19% saying “bad” acknowledge that their own household would benefit from such measures.

That said, the framing of the broader social and economic case for equality needs to be handled with care. To some extent, gender stereotypes persist. Around half of the public think working men and women are equally decisive, co-operative, calm under pressure, logical, and effective communicators. Among the rest, however, there are some clear divisions – and men and women view these qualities differently. Among those who take sides, each gender thinks their own is more logical than the other. Both agree, though by different margins, that working women are more co-operative and better communicators.

The differences in the views of men and women make it clear that some attitudes are subjective, even distorted – albeit, perhaps, unconsciously. This is one reason why, for example, interviewing panels to hire or promote an employee should contain both men and women. Increasingly, corporations regard diversity as not just an issue of gender, but broader “thought diversity” in hiring and promoting people from a range of backgrounds, helping to mitigate against the risks of “groupthink”, among other benefits.

3. Practical measures to achieve equality in daily life are more popular than measures to achieve equality at the most senior levels in national life.

YouGov asked people to select two or three policies from a list of ten that they would support most. Top of the list, among both men and women, was “employers allowing working parents to work flexible hours, to fit in with their childcare arrangements”. The two runners-up were tougher laws against sexual harassment, and schools doing more to encourage girls to pursue ambitious careers and to study subjects such as science and engineering.

While the focus on the consequences of sexual harassment of women has been primarily moral, for obvious reasons, increasing attention has been given to the  economic and business consequences as well. Indeed, several CEOs have been forced to resign in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, and shareholder activists have begun to demand disclosure about any costs companies may bear for settling lawsuits related to these issues. On March 5th, IMF Chief Christine Lagarde wrote an article entitled “Ending Harassment Helps the Economy Too”, highlighting the link between financial access and laws protecting women against sexual harassment; in the emerging world, the link is especially strong.

Targeted policies would also go down well with particular groups: men under 40 are  keen on equal parental leave rights and pay for both parents, while older women give top priority to boosting the state pension rights of those who spend some years caring for relatives instead of having paid work. This finding is consistent with the recommendations of the United Nations High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which proposed “gender neutralizing” family-friendly policies. These  need no longer be presented as a concession to women, but a critical component in retaining Millennial males and females in the workforce.

As significant as these high-priority issues are those that few people picked out. Only 11 percent chose action to appoint more women to top jobs in business, politics, and the professions. This does not mean that such action would be unpopular; but it does suggest that advocates have yet to persuade the public of the link between equality in the boardroom and the wider cause of closing the gender gap. Here again, there is a strong reason to make the economic, resource-allocation case for gender equality.

Relating gender equality at the top of organizations to their ability to attract and retain top talent, improve their reputation with female consumers, and, most of all, increase their profitability, could help to push this issue up the public’s agenda. Here we expect the private sector will continue to drive changes that increase gender equality internally, although government-led measures such as the UK’s groundbreaking Gender Pay Act, which requires employers to disclose pay discrepancies between men and  women before the end of April 2018, can help accelerate existing efforts.

Nor is there much demand for “more financial support for mothers who choose to stay at home with their young children”. Only 15% name this in their top three policies – and the figure for the most affected group – women under 40 – is virtually the same: 16%. As this was the only “traditional” policy on offer, it is striking how low the figures are. It’s another example of why the need in the 21st century is for determination to press forward on a progressive strategy for ensuring that women have equal pay and career prospects, rather than for courage to fight lingering 20th century attitudes about “stay-at-home- moms”.


If one wants a reminder of how far we have come, not just since (some) British women first achieved the vote a century ago, consider these words, spoken by one of Britain’s parliamentarians well within the lifetime of anyone over 60 today. In December 1957, when the House of Lords debated the Life Peerages Bill, which would lead to women peers for the first time in UK history, Earl Ferrers said this:

"I believe that there are certain duties and certain responsibilities which nature and custom have decreed men are more fitted to take on; and some responsibilities which nature and custom have decreed women should take on. It is generally accepted that the man should bear the major responsibility for life. It is generally accepted, for better or worse, that a man's judgment is generally more logical and less tempestuous than that of a woman. Why then should we encourage women to eat their way, like acid into metal, into  positions of trust and responsibility which previously men have held?"

Such a comment is virtually unthinkable today. (Indeed, Earl Ferrers changed his own mind – and ended up as a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher.) The argument for the principle of gender equality has been won. The challenge now is to decide how to use that victory.

The message from our research into public attitudes, economic prospects and  the actions of other countries is clear. Women’s Day this year should be more than an occasion for celebratory toasts and photo opportunities. It offers the golden chance to commit to specific measures to boost growth, realize the “multiplier effect” for families and communities that come with women’s economic empowerment – and, just maybe, help to restore public trust in the decision-makers in politics and business.

Women’s right to vote was granted in 1918 in Germany and Canada, 1920 in the United States, 1944 in France, 1945 in Japan, 1946 in Italy and 1971 in Switzerland.

Global Politics

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