2020 has laid bare the stark inequalities that still exist in British society and has awoken many to issues that some had felt were done and dusted. The coronavirus pandemic which has swept the country has not impacted on everyone equally.
Black and Asian people have a much higher chance of dying from Covid-19 than white people. Mothers are 47 per cent more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs or resigned. Older LGBT people are more likely to be socially isolated. Disabled people have been further marginalised and excluded with disabled parking spaces being turned into queuing areas and guide dogs not able to understand social distancing. Many young people trapped at home with only the internet for company have turned to conspiracy theories, misinformation and extremist websites and been radicalised from the supposed safety of their bedrooms.
And whilst people’s attention was consumed by Covid-19, the Windrush review was published which concluded that the UK’s treatment of the Windrush generation, and approach to immigration more broadly, was caused by institutional failures to understand race and racism. In addition, the murder of George Floyd sparked a global movement further highlighting embedded in social, economic, and political systems, and ‘gender critical groups’ have used money sourced from the Christian right in the USA to finance attacks on hard-won transgender rights.
Yet, it is this year that our Minister for Women and Equalities has decided that there is *too* much focus on tackling race, sexual orientation and gender inequality and that this, she argues, is at the expense of tackling geographic and socioeconomic ills.
Or course, geographic and socioeconomic inequalities have also had a huge impact on people’s wellbeing and welfare over the pandemic. Research by the Sutton Trust found that in the most deprived schools one third of pupils are not able to access online resources. The Independent Social Metrics Commission estimates that 4.6 million children are living in poverty. Areas of the country with elderly populations, a reliance on tourism and socio-economic deprivation, which are often on the coast or in the north, have been disproportionately hit by the virus and much of this harm may not be revealed well into next year.
Geographic and socioeconomic issues vitally need to be tackled. We welcome that recognition from a government who has implemented 10 years of austerity, cutting more than £30 billion from welfare payments, housing subsidies and social services, which has led to the closing of hundreds of libraries and youth clubs, record youth unemployment, a steep rise in the dependency on food banks, and has meant for women in poor areas life expectancy has fallen.
However, these inequalities do not exist in isolation from the others. When the working class is spoken about in politics, as in this speech, it is often prefaced with the word ‘white’, but nearly half of black, Asian and other minority-ethnic households live below the poverty line compared to 19% of white families and one in 10 adults from a BAME background are unemployed, compared with one in 25 white British people. Women are more likely to be in poverty than men, and almost one in five LGBT people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
The Minister’s speech focusses on social mobility:
The best way to reduce unfairness in our society is through opening up opportunities for all…The British story has been driven from its earliest days by the desire for liberty, agency and fairness. In the simplest sense it is the notion that in Britain you will have the opportunity to succeed at whatever you wish to do professionally…The Data Programme will… support levelling up ambitions”
As someone who has worked in the field of equality for over 16 years, this is not a departure from previous government initiatives. All too often they have focussed on the individual as the problem when it comes to inequality, with mentoring schemes and talks of increasing aspirations being rolled out as the solution.
But, if the system is stacked against you, it doesn’t matter how many qualifications or business skills you acquire. A 2018 survey found that 1 in 3 employers admitted they are ‘less likely’ to hire a transgender person. People from BAME backgrounds have to send, on average, 60% more job applications to get an interview. Almost a quarter of UK employers said they would be less likely to hire someone with a disability. Unpaid internships remain a key way into well-paid careers including politics, media and fashion, but young people who can’t afford to work without payment, or don’t know people in the industry remain locked out of these professions.
The Minister alludes to some of these barriers in her speech, but the approach of market forces “freedom, choice and opportunity” does nothing to address them.
If the Minister is serious about tackling socioeconomic inequalities, Section 1 of The Equality Act contains a duty which would compel public sector institutions to act:
“An authority to which this section applies must, when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.”
However, the government has as yet refused to enact it as law.
The Minister is right that cosmetic acts such as the Chancellor lighting a candle for Diwali or The Prime Minister wishing Muslims ‘the very best for Eid al-Adha’ do nothing to effect change, however, she is wrong in her attacks on education and training as an important tool in creating progress.
In no other area of life do we deny education and learning about a subject as an important route into understanding and overcoming a problem. If employers are carrying prejudice and misinformation and do not understand the structural and institutional barriers which prevent the creation of diverse and cohesive workforces, then expecting them to create opportunities for people who have historically been locked out of the workplace without external intervention is unrealistic.
Unconscious bias and equality training are not an answer in themselves, but they are part of a wider solution. The purpose of such training is not to impose guilt and victimhood, but to raise people’s awareness of issues and support people to implement change, of which an important part is collecting and analysing monitoring data and looking at the evidence to identify where the issues exist.
It is absurd to suggest that workshops on issues of racism and sexism for young people have been delivered at the expense of literacy and numeracy. Schools have a legal duty to promote young people’s social, moral, spiritual and cultural development. A robust programme of PSHE alongside the core subjects is vital for young people’s growth and development as rounded citizens. Workshops on equality issues help young people to better understand each other, foster good relations and reduce identity-based bullying which blights the life of so many young people and impacts on their behaviour, wellbeing, achievement and attainment.
The speech talks about how those fighting for equality see people as groups, rather than their individuality, but that is precisely the opposite of what true equality work is striving for. Equality is not about ignoring difference and treating everyone the same but recognising each person’s different lived experiences and adapting our interactions accordingly. By avoiding the issue and not examining the biases that are carried and embedded into society, not interrogating policies and procedures, not considering the workplace environment and culture ,we allow assumptions, stereotypes and exclusionary practices to flourish.
I look forward to the day when race, gender, LGBT+ and disability equality are fashionable and every organisation and individual is devoted to embedding equality, diversity and inclusion and creating meaningful change. Sadly, that day is not yet with us. We do need to fight, not only for fairness, but to ensure that we are not slipping backwards to a situation where those with privilege and power can wash their hands and look the other way.
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