Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Boris and women: Equality of opportunity or an opportunity for equality?

Jul 29, 2019 | News

In his opening speech as PM, among the expected priorities of Brexit, policing, health, education, the economy and even the promotion of the welfare of animals, Boris Johnson noted that the “awesome foursome” – in reference to the component parts that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – is admired around the world for the equalities on which we insist – whether race or gender or LGBT. But what exactly does equality look like under the new leadership?

Securing 92,153 (66%) of the 159,320 conservative party membership votes saw the American-born Johnson, former journalist, comedy news show presenter and member of UK parliament since 2008, elected as party leader and therefore prime minister. The profile of those party members who have handed Johnson the premiership is estimated to be mainly male (70%), old (nearly 40% are above 66 years of age) and wealthy, according to the ESRC Party Members research project. It remains an estimate since the Conservative party do not release demographic data of their membership other than its male-female ratio of parliamentary candidates, which is even more skewed than its party membership with 21% women candidacy . Educationally, Johnson becomes the 20th Etonian and 42nd (of 55) Oxbridge educated prime ministers.

In short, this is a man of the establishment treading in historically familiar footsteps to which he has peculiar patriarchal entitlement that do not intuitively nor politically suggest a champion leader in women’s rights. And indeed, his composition of cabinet office (74% men to 26% women) whilst not especially radical, reflects a conservative party approach that stretches back in time.

And so, the argument runs, the women who seek shall be rewarded in the competitive market that sees the best rise no matter from where they came

Equality – in contrast to equity- will likely soon be tempered by the suffix “of opportunity”. To understand equality of opportunity depends on what an opportunity is and what it means for the opportunity to be equal. Defined in political philosophy in the late 1980s , opportunity refers to the eligibility of members of society to compete on equal terms. In other words, those who seek will gain. And so, the argument runs, the women who seek – those who overcome the stereotyped lack of confidence, imposter syndrome anxieties or, as Cheryl Sandberg argues, “lean-in” – shall be rewarded in the competitive market that sees the best rise no matter from where they came .

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Has the battle for women’s rights been “largely won”? The Iron Lady had little time for feminism

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister, in her meritocratic envisioning of societal change and economic growth saw equality of opportunity coupled with individual aspiration as the ingredients for success. In this ideology, there are no structural barriers, no gendered institutions, no conscious or even unconscious bias that work to discriminate or oppress the position of women. “No, I am not a feminist…each person is different. Each has their own talents and abilities”. “The battle”, she later said in 1982, “for women’s rights is largely won”.

This line of thinking is problematic on so many levels for feminists like bell hooks, who note the often intersectional privilege of these individual women who experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same privilege and class – as evidenced by the two Conservative women prime ministers to date – both also Oxford educated.

At what point in the life course do opportunities that are equal cease to exist?


The equality of opportunity approach to women’s equality and rights too often obscure the structural ways in which power operates through the system to discriminate against some and privilege others in the deep substructure of patriarchy. Johnson’s new cabinet has more Oxbridge educated members (45%) than it has women, and two-thirds received a private education. At what point in the life course do opportunities that are equal cease to exist? How far can, what some feminists might describe as “co-opted”, women invited to the cabinet table instigate a transformative agenda on women’s rights?

There are plenty of women’s rights issues that could be prioritized on the domestic and the international agenda, but here are two suggestions. The United Kingdom ratified the International Labour Organizations (ILO) 1951 Equal Remuneration Convention in 1971 that ensures “the application to all workers of the principle of equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value”. Yet it has taken until 2017 for Britain to conduct an analysis of its sex-disaggregated pay data. The result as of June 2018: an 18.4% gender pay gap. A robust approach to dealing with this basic inequality between women and men needs prioritization in this new government.

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Internationally, post Brexit, there is talk that Britain will engage with the World Trade Organization and operate under their rules. The WTO has undergone its own feminist upheaval in recent years with the recognition that trade policy can be used as a tool to empower women, ensure gender equality and insist on the upholding of women’s human rights. All 118 WTO members signed the Buenos Aires Declaration of Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment in December 2017. Several member states, notably Canada, have broken new ground by including gender chapters in all their new Free Trade Agreements (FTA).

Post-Brexit Britain will likely have to engage in gender-responsive trading provisions as it starts its negotiations on FTAs, making the Johnson government a leading light in ensuring gender justice in global trade

Post-Brexit Britain will likely have to engage in gender-responsive trading provisions as it starts its negotiations on FTAs, making the Johnson government – perhaps unintentionally – and if they so desire, a leading light in ensuring gender justice in global trade. Perhaps post-Brexit Britain might take a second and third leaf out of Canada’s trailblazing action on women’s rights through international affairs and revise its international development assistance with a feminist strategy and appoint a Women, Peace and Security Ambassador to support the work for another former Oxford educated conservative party leader (William Hague) in his international gender activism.

There is plenty to work with on women’s rights and the men, women, and non-binary members of Johnson’s cabinet should pick up the gantlet and make a post-Brexit Britain admired around the world not only for its inventiveness, humour, universities, scientists, armed forces, diplomacy – but also for its global leadership in ensuring the rights of women and gender justice. Let’s move on from the old-time Tory rhetoric of equality of opportunity and see if this significant transition in the history of Britain on the 31st October 2019 can be the opportunity for equality.

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