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A WEEK may be a long time in party politics; in equality politics, twenty years is no time at all. In 1975, the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act and the coming into effect of the provisions of the Equal Pay Act marked the effective inauguration of a British sex equality policy, as distinct from those policies which Ignored gender or actually promoted sex inequality. That policy took as its main focus the importance of the employment prospects and conditions for women. Education and training were seen as supporting elements in a general attempt to establish equal opportunities for women in need of employment protection, as well as the chance to establish a measure of economic security. Those legal changes were criticised for threatening the very financial survival of businesses both large and small, not to mention undermining the family. At the same time, they were derided by some equality campaigners as mere legalistic sops to liberal conscience. Neither fast nor dramatic changes in the situation of women were immediately forthcoming, but a process was begun that is much easier to appreciate two decades later. British sex equality policy has developed into an interesting and complex phenomenon. It has an identifiable and settled core, based on an entrenched legislative base, as well as a burgeoning set of policy measures with national and European dimensions, and an extensive and varied periphery enlivened by debates touching on most areas of the public and private realms. As a result, the policy arena is now broad rather than marginal and ghettoised, and `gendered' analyses of public policies are much more likely to be given a hearing. Nevertheless, it is by no means a fixed phenomenon. It is now possible to document some of the practical impacts of an evolving conservative agenda and policy amalgam on sex equality.
We first review general developments in equality policy, then explore the contradictory nature and Impact of government policies in the labour market, after which the active and passive parts of the government's approach to sex equality policy in general. The British government presents itself as innovatory and dedicated to the achievement of equality for women. It claims to deliver greater opportunity for women by forcing systemic changes in the operation of various reaches of the labour market. However, the results do not support the chosen policies and bring into question the government's understanding of and commitment to sex equality. Finally, the implications of these developments for the policy environment are discussed.
Equality for women has not been the uniform or evident consequence of the development of sex equality policy, despite a number of changes beneficial to women as a group and some individuals. The institutionalisation of anti-discrimination measures is the principal outcome, but more interesting are the secondary outcomes: the widening of the political opportunity structure for women; the emergence of evidence of the efficacy of policies and their implementation; the experimentation with new methods of introducing change; the shifts of foci for action; and the identification of new areas of inequality or resistance to change.
The development of equality policy
Analysts of the situation of women over the last twenty-five years are frequently struck by the paradox of a welter of progressive changes combined with the almost total rigidity of global patterns of inequality between women and men. Within the women's equality movement, a range of indicators point to the efficacy of efforts to produce substantive change, including, for example, the spread of expertise, the creation of new institutions, the successful application of new approaches, the integration of more women into all reaches of the public and private sectors, the sensitivity to difference and the exploration of new ways to deal with it, mainstreaming and the formation of links with other oppressed and disadvantaged groups. It can also be pointed out that, in legislative terms, the ferment of the 1970s has been followed by the quiet but widespread `seeding' of all manner of legislation with equal opportunity causes, such that the principles have become prescriptions embedded in the entire breadth of policy arenas. However, twenty years of equal pay demands, backed by legislation, have produced only marginal changes, and these may be explained by a worsening of employment prospects for men rather than a product of an equality policy. Small and large-scale labour market studies comparing women and men have consistently found the same glaring inequalities, the same patterns of disadvantage, the same structural obstacles. Not that such findings are confined to Britain. Perron's comparative assessment of equal opportunities in employment indicated that there was no great improvement in any of the countries of the European Union in the 1980s.(1) Even so, the United Kingdom came low on her index, despite having the kind of regulatory framework that can be conducive to greater gender equality.
The gains of the last twenty years have generally followed long and lively campaigns to introduce a new issue and move it up the policy agenda. These issues have often reflected their origins in the feminist analysis of the public/private split. In the 1980s, for example, the campaign for gender equality in the public realm was heavily concentrated on employment and pay issues. A large number of women became actively engaged and then employed in implementing equal opportunities policies. At the same time, the private realm was receiving a great deal of attention. Issues such as violence, rape, harassment, abuse, sexual orientation and censorship were forced on to and up the political agenda. The experience in the 1990s, however, is quite different. In the public arena, the gains for women are proving vulnerable. Part-time work for women is increasing, but more as an economic necessity than a route to independence. Low-paid jobs are also increasing, breadwinner women are suffering unemployment, gender segregation is growing within and between occupations, and the class divisions between women are increasing. In the private realm, the radical agenda is under severe pressure, exemplified by a renewed pro-family campaign, tightening of the abortion law and pressure on single mothers from government and its agencies. The effect of this changed climate, the threat to fundamental gains for women, is to reinforce that which came under some challenge in the last twenty years -- the notion that employment is the bedrock of women's equality.
The broadening of the equalities movement, encompassing cross-cutting forms of social and political exclusion, has now been met by a challenge to the historically progressive nature of that movement. In the 1970s and 1980s it was possible to conceive of just two modes of equal opportunities implementation -- the radical and the liberal. Arguments among theorists and practitioners were largely based on differences deriving from theoretical perspectives associated with Millian liberalism and varieties of socialism and marxism. However, as the departure from the postwar consensus toward the New Right agenda become more evident in the 1980s, so this simple liberal/radical dichotomy became increasingly inadequate to the task of explaining equality policy. The missing dimension stems from the increasingly influential application of a conservative approach to equality of opportunity. This approach, in combination with the development of New Right models of public policy implementation, has led to the emergence of an equality policy with distinctive features. At base, the concept and desirability of equality itself came under sustained attack, and a New Right approach to justice challenged the large measure of agreement between …