progress for women

Pushing for Progress for Women in Wales

Dr Emma Schofield writes that speaking out about inequality and progress for women can only be the beginning. By looking at the arts industries of Wales, what can we learn about the role of women in decision-making roles, and how can Wales rise up to be a global leader in equality?

#MeToo #TimesUp #everydaysexism #heforshe – these are just four of the hashtags which have been at the forefront of some of the biggest campaigns for women’s rights over the past year. It’s becoming a familiar pattern: one woman speaks out about her experiences of discrimination, inequality or harassment; more come forward, each with their own story to tell; everyone agrees that the discrimination, inequality and harassment are unacceptable, celebrities come forward to support the cause; politicians make impassioned speeches about how the situation must change. The discussion is endless, the progress limited.

It’s not enough.

It’s not good enough that in 2018 we’re still having these conversations and it’s not good enough that society is still facing the same problems that we’ve been trying to combat for so long. I say society because, like it or not, this is a problem which is facing everyone, not just women. It affects us all, whether directly through our own experiences or through events which have had an impact on women we know and love. None of this is to say that these stories are not important, or that they do not need to be heard, but the time for discussion is over, something has to change and real action is required.

If you are yet to be convinced by the overwhelming evidence, both factual and anecdotal, that there is a problem with inequality and discrimination against women, I suspect that further stories will not convince you. It is, therefore, time to turn our focus to how progress can be brought about. There is no reason why Wales should not be at the forefront of this change, leading the march and making real progress to improve the lives of women; we should be leading it, but we’re not.

Real support for progress for women and a genuine desire to eradicate inequality and discrimination against women has to start at a young age and be consistent across all sectors. The theme of the 2018 International Women’s Day was ‘push for progress’; this year it is vital that we do that, across all areas of our political, cultural and education systems in Wales. A closer study of these three sectors shows a considerable variation in how women are represented. A glance at the current Welsh arts world shows a world in which women are taking a front seat in leadership:

Chief Executive of Literature Wales.

Managing Director National Theatre Wales.

Managing Director Welsh National Opera.

Director University Wales Press.

President and Director of Pen Cymru.

Six of the top jobs in the Welsh arts world, heading up five of the biggest and most influential arts organisations in the country, and all six positions are presently occupied by women. Moreover, they’re not alone; women hold an array of positons in publishing, music, drama and arts companies across Wales. Seeing these positions in Welsh culture occupied by women is fantastic and should be celebrated, but it should also prompt us to consider why the same level of equality in leadership cannot be seen across all sectors in Wales. The question we need to ask is how we can translate the examples of female leadership we see in the arts world into the education system to promote equality at all levels from an early age.

In so many ways, Welsh politics may appear to be leading the way in the fight for equality. Since Welsh devolution the proportion of AMs who are female has been one of the highest percentages in the world when compared to other, similar legislative bodies. The Assembly did actually achieve equal representation back in 2003, although the number of female AMs has fluctuated and declined a little since then. In spite of this fluctuation, 26 out of 60 seats in the Senedd are currently held by women, a figure which remains encouraging, even though there is still room for improvement. Working to promote and maintain this balance is important and having an equal government for Wales is, without doubt, something to strive for, but what matters most are the decisions which are being made at ground level.

The number of female AMs is irrelevant if those in the Senedd are not fighting to ensure that future generations of women are not caught up in the same struggles which we women are fighting today. The same balance also needs to be replicated across Wales at local Government level, which currently is not the case. Laura McAllister, Professor at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, recently blogged about the fact that ‘in Wales – like virtually everywhere else – around 80% of all powerful, decision-making roles are held by men’. As McAllister points out, this figure has to change if these roles are to become genuinely representative of the women who make up 52% of our population in Wales.

The challenge is that making a real change means committing to support women in every phase of their lives. Just recently Rhondda Cynon Taff voted to become one of the first councils in Wales to provide free sanitary products to all school girls. The vote was a massive step forward in the fight to end so called ‘period poverty’ in Wales, and yet the very fact that in 2018 such a problem exists is astounding. We cannot consider ourselves to be a fully civilised and compassionate nation while we still have girls suffering the indignity of struggling through their monthly menstrual cycle without access to sanitary products, in some cases also missing out on valuable days of their education as a result.

The decision of the council in Rhondda Cynon Taff is a bold one and it must pave the way for similar decisions across all councils in Wales. At the end of March the Welsh Government announced an investment of one million pounds to help tackle period poverty, aimed at providing access to sanitary products to girls and young women in communities where period poverty is at its highest. This kind of investment must be maintained. If we really want to ‘push for progress’ for women in Wales then that progress has to cover all areas of women’s lives and not ignore the problems which may be difficult for men to talk about, or those which make for uncomfortable conversations.

Yet the education system itself in Wales makes for another area of difficult reading, particularly when it comes to the syllabus being recommended for Welsh schools. The Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) overhauled their GCSE syllabus in 2015, updating it to include the option for students to be taught contemporary Welsh prose, drama and poetry. For the poetry element students use poems drawn from Meic Stephens’ edited collection, Poetry 1900-2000, which includes a range of male and female poets, but the prose element is more problematic. Only two Welsh texts are included, both have male authors: Owen Sheers’ Resistance and Dannie Abse’s Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve. How can we expect to inspire a new generation of female writers in Wales if we devalue women’s writing by refusing to include it as part of the GCSE literature curriculum studied by the majority of school pupils across our country?

There is no shortage of inspiring and topical prose works by female authors in Wales and the GCSE syllabus would be the perfect opportunity to showcase that to young and impressionable women. Reading only male-authored prose, however good it may be, limits the scope of female pupils and, in 2018, that is not acceptable. It’s time for such inequality to be addressed, to ensure that future generations are given the opportunity to read brilliant texts from Wales by both male and female writers. So doing may encourage more young women to start writing and will help to encourage young men to develop a respect and understanding for the tradition and culture of women’s writing in Wales.

Change may need to start at school level, but progress towards equality must also be made across the Higher Education sector. While female undergraduate students outnumber their male counterparts in Wales, this figure declines rapidly the further up the scale you move. Available HESA data revealed in February that while women make up just over 50% of the academic staff employed in subjects including Education, Humanities and Medicine in Wales, the figures for subjects such as Engineering and Technology were much lower, with just 18% of academic positions in these fields being held by female members of staff. Indeed, the joint largest proportion of female employees was in the Administration, Services and Facilities category, where women achieved 60% of the workforce.

These figures make for depressing reading, with considerable progress required across many of the more traditionally male-dominated subjects such as Engineering and the Biological and Physical Sciences. More worryingly still, the higher up the scale you go, the less women are represented, with female academics holding very few of the top leadership positions in Welsh universities. There is no justification for this and it has to be addressed seriously; we will always struggle to recruit more women to these areas without further opportunities for women in these fields and examples of high-profile female leaders in post.

It’s worth noting that there are already plenty of brilliant groups in existence who are fighting back against these kind of inequalities and pushing for progress for women. The University of South Wales is home to one such example; the Women in Academia@USW network acknowledges that women make up 40% of the staff at the University, but only 20% of the Professoriate. The network aims to combat the latter figure by providing a forum for support, discussion and shared experience among female members and is a model of the kind of network we need to see rolled out across other universities and sectors in Wales.

The creation of a Women’s Ambassador role, made up of not just one woman, but a team of women from throughout education, arts and politics in Wales might be an excellent starting point for progress for women. A team of women prepared to fight for, promote and speak out about the rights of women across Wales, a team which could advise and inspire progress to ensure that equality, respect, and progress for women is achieved in all areas. This team would need Welsh Government and cross-platform support to be fully successful, but could be the step needed to monitor progress towards the promotion and support for women’s rights in Wales. Similar models are already in place in Scotland, where there is a Women’s Enterprise group which works to champion the progression of women in business. The model is there, the effort simply needs to be made to create and instil a relevant body for education, culture and politics in Wales.

Writing this I feel compelled to add that I am not suggesting for one moment that everything in the arts world is fair and equal in Wales; it’s really not and, as Gary Raymond’s recent article noted, there is still a long way to go to ensure that Welsh culture is equal and diverse. Just because there are women in leadership roles does not mean that there are not cases of discrimination, or worse, at all levels. Having women in these roles is a positive step, but ultimately it is just that – a single step. If we genuinely want to achieve equality and gender parity in Wales we need to turn our attention to solving these problems at all levels and we can all make a difference in that respect. If you’re out there and you feel like we need to do better in Wales, share your ideas, speak up, shout out, question any decision which doesn’t seem as it if it has the best interest of our young women at heart. Equality is in everyone’s interests and if we are to achieve it, we need everyone’s interest and everyone’s support.

Dr Emma Schofield is a researcher in the areas of literature, culture and politics in post-devolution Wales at Cardiff University, and is an Associate Editor for Wales Arts Review.