george ecktonIn the first half of a two-part article, George Eckton looks at the way we measure gender equality, and calls for a longer term, more qualitative approach.


A year ago today, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s Economic Strategy, with its focus on inclusive growth and the economic benefits of making economies more equitable. This is a laudable objective, particularly in terms of gender equality, to take a long-term view of transforming the economy towards more a equitable and equal society.

But I think we need to ask ourselves whether we should let economists be the driver for delivery of gender equality via economic development strategies and if, as we approach International Women’s Day and on every day of the year, the issue of gender equality should first and foremost be about human rights, not the price or cost of something.

Aside from wondering whether “inclusive growth” was a paradox in itself or neo-classical economics seeking a set of “protectionist” new clothes, I wondered to myself why the OECD, various think tanks and all their governmental followers seem to “objectify” gender equality into economic or monetary terms. The focus is always on the benefit to economic performance, and even when we mention gender inequality, violence or abuse in an economic context, it’s in terms that are monetarised. I’ve been guilty in the past of quoting money rather than rights.

For example:

The European Commission has previously estimated the cost of violence against women within the European Union to be €228 billion in 2011, 1.8% of EU Gross Domestic Product, of which €45 billion a year equates to costs to public and state services and €24 billion of loss economic product. Estimates in the UK suggest that we have costs of up to £40 billion a year through the impact on gender inequality and all forms of violence against women.

Rather than:

The European Union report on Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in December 2012 highlighted the need to reconsider the significant impact negative gender stereotypes can have on young women’s confidence and self-esteem, particularly on teenagers, resulting in a restriction of their aspirations, choices and possibilities for future career possibilities. It concluded by observing that it should not be forgotten that gender equality is a fundamental human right and has impacts that go beyond monetary calculations of impact into the social and environmental well-being of society, communities and individuals.

The economic impacts are important figures, no question. But for me you can’t put a price on the “economic” necessity of gender equality. Commodifying those suffering inequality as the primary spur to action is the wrong place to start; rather, we should be talking about the denial of a basic right.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t have economic indicators for gender equality in Scotland – such as the continuing inequity of the gender pay gap. I just think we need to make sure that it’s the human right that’s driving the agenda, not the financial benefit; that the economics is a welcome consequence of doing the right thing, not the primary driving force for any strategy or action in Scotland.

Economies and their economic structures, the societal norms they have perpetuated, are the source of much of the structural inequity and inequality, and whilst we should be looking to change them we should be looking for a framework of measurement that doesn’t play by their rules.

For example, Iceland is regularly viewed as the country in the world closest to gender equality but still 15% short on the overall statistical measure. But when you look at the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap measures of success, the majority of Iceland’s success at edging towards gender equality is on political empowerment and educational attainment. Whilst it’s top 10 overall for economic partipcation, it’s low top 20 and even outside the top 20 on certain economic statistics.

Can you measure equality purely in economic terms? Surely it has to be the equity, equality and opportunities afforded to all citizens regardless of any characteristics.

Iceland is one of, if not the, most gender equal country in the world, but if you believe the statistics it has paid for such equality and equity in short-term economic “success”. However, participation in politics, greater opportunity of educational attainment, equal rights, and protection from violence maybe are also fundamentally important, not only in non-economic terms but also for long-term economic sustainability and resilience.

This suggests that whilst gender equality has potential long-term set-up costs to change a male-dominated economy into a more equitable society of opportunity for all, that’s a price worth paying. I don’t want to give ammunition to those arguing for the status quo by using their own short-term econometric measures of success as any form of yardstick for gender equality. Gender equality has long-term benefits, therefore our evaluation frameworks to monitor and demonstrate success need to be similarly framed across a range of indicators.

Ultimately, this is an issue of human rights not economics, gender equality being a human right routinely denied to people across the globe using economic weapons, physical violence and psychological abuse. In Scotland we should seek to fight a social and environmental response first, with economic benefits as a consequence not the driver of such action.

I realise it’s perhaps strange for some to have a man writing about gender equality.  I see myself firstly in this regard as a father, with two young daughters who I hope by 2030 – the end date for the current UN Sustainable Development Goals agenda – will be living in a gender equal Scotland, equally and equitably with their brother. As Gloria Steinem has said, let’s be clear: equality isn’t a women’s issue, it’s for everyone.

I’ve previously wondered about moving towards a more qualitative based monitoring framework regarding gender equality in Scotland. Starting with the setting of a Gender Equality national outcome via the provisions of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. I’d love to see Scottish Labour make this a key pledge of their 2016 manifesto and laying down a challenge for other parties in Scotland to follow this lead.

In some previous scribbles, I’d made a start on thinking about 44 potential actions and indicators that could measure the movement of any country in the UK towards a state of gender equality by 2030. It’s a seriously flawed attempt, but it was a letter of hope for my children.

In the second half of this piece, due next week, I have some more specific thoughts on what Scottish Labour should be seeking from the next Scottish Parliament session in terms of Scottish contributions to the international goal of gender equality.