No more whataboutery — it is time to make Wales a truly feminist nation
There are few things more viciously stultifying in political and public discourse than the phenomenon of ‘whataboutery’. The habit of failing to deal with an issue at hand, and throwing back a question about an entirely separate subject: “Yes, that’s all very interesting and difficult, but what about…?” And International Women’s Day, coming up on Friday 8th March, always gives rise to some of the more tedious examples — most obviously “What about the men? When is International Men’s Day?” Well, yes. There is an International Men’s Day — it is on the 19th November. So let’s shut up about that for at least six months, please?
When it comes to the Welsh Government’s stated aim to follow Sweden, and become a proudly feminist Government, there are some more serious examples of “whataboutery” to overcome. Or, so you might think. In education for example, white working class boys might be the ones who are falling behind and need a specific programme of intervention. Suicide amongst older boys and younger men is as real an example of societal crisis as you are likely to find. And when it comes to tackling prejudice and the difficulties facing our BAME communities, things even seem to be going backwards. So, what about all these valid areas of concern? Doesn’t opening a new front, and demanding a feminist Government risk undermining all of these crucial policy areas? No, of course it doesn’t. If we can’t as a society secure equal outcomes for women and men — really the absolute basic ground-floor example of inequality — then how on earth do we expect to have the wherewithal to tackle those other issues?
It was absolutely right for the Welsh Government to undertake a Gender Review last year, to get to the heart of what is still holding Wales back twenty years into the devolution project. I was really proud to work on that agenda in my last few months in Government. And whilst there will be very many potential changes once that work is complete — Julie James, who previously had responsibility for the Review, got to the heart of the matter early on. She recognised that rather than trying to retro-fit policy to make sure it didn’t have a negative impact on gender equality, that thinking needed to happen at the start of the policy-making process. If you think about policy as a factory floor, then an equality impact assessment can only really pick up the faulty products — but, to achieve a better product you need that critical gender thinking in the design process itself. We’re a way off that yet, but we should all be passionate about making it a reality because the gains to society are huge, and obvious.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better” — and in those three words you have the basic building block for what Government, and the country, needs to do to achieve a properly equal society. People (not just men) still seem scared by the word “feminist” and seem twitchy about using it about themselves, or as a desired political outcome. But, why? All we are really talking about here is equality and fair play — being committed to creating balance. As Laura McAllister pointed out in this newspaper on the weekend, how can we have a Wales that really achieves its full potential if you don’t have a Wales that is proudly feminist? As this year’s IWD campaign material says:
Balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. The race is on for the gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth, gender-balanced sports coverage. Gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive.
I really don’t think that any amount of whataboutery can deny the basic truth that runs through that message.
According to Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, employing more women and tackling sexism in the workplace is the key to making our economy more equal and less prone to devastating financial collapses. Equality in the work place has long been proven to have economic benefits, but the latest IMF research says even that has been underestimated in the past.
With Brexit — some form of Brexit — looming large, Wales needs to fight harder than ever to really make an impact on a global stage. And doing that has always been about more than talking up our skilled workers and a rapidly improving infrastructure. To get people interested in Wales, we need a story of ourselves that we are proud to tell others. We need to show the world that we put values into action, and that is what makes a nation. And whilst half our country still goes underpaid, undervalued, and underrepresented then we still have much work to do before we can tell that story about ourselves.