Women’s rights need champion

Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale has never considered herself a feminist, not because of how they were portrayed in the media as “bra burning hairy unfeminine man-hating lesbians,” but simply because she believed that there were no more fights to be fought when it came to women’s rights. Yet her speech at the UCCI conference last month suggests her realisation that women still have a long way to go when it comes to equal rights with men.

Margaret Ramsay-Hale said she grew up at a time when there were laws legislating equal pay for equal work, guaranteeing right of access to education, the right to vote, the right to stand for election and the right to own property. Furthermore, she said she grew up in a time when women had access to birth control and in this fundamental way gained rights over their own bodies and the right to reproduce.

Thus, she says, “Perhaps you can forgive me for once declaring that there were no more rights to fight for, just rights – like laws – to be enforced.”

Today, Ramsay-Hale acknowledges that there is still much work to be done, even among the Western world countries, where even here women still do not have the same rights as men.

She pondered whether to speak at the conference on the “ghettoization of female labour” a serious problem in developed countries whereby women gain employment fairly easily but their employment is poorly paid, less than men and unskilled, and is characterised by the absence of upward mobility and opportunity [source: Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap, a paper published by the World Economic Forum]. She also noted that an article published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender had highlighted the issue of “pink collar ghettos” whereby women were clustered, even in offices, in lower status departments.

“And in these pink collar ghettos and elsewhere in the workplace, women are being paid less than men sometimes for the same work,” she said.

“Women are frequently fired because they are pregnant or worse not hired because they may one day get pregnant and might choose to leave the job after the company has invested so many training dollars in them,” she commented.

Ramsay-Hale said that women were already the majority of the world’s poor and that was true in the Cayman Islands as well.

She said: “Such discriminatory practices impoverish women and families because one the sad realities of Cayman and indeed the wider Caribbean is that most households are headed by single women, most of whom receive no or inadequate financial assistance from the fathers of their children.”

Education was certainly an element in the regaining of the balance of rights, yet Ramsay-Hale said that even though women’s enrolment in higher education had often outpaced men’s and women formed half the workforce in many countries, there were few women in positions of power.

The figures backed up her argument: across the Commonwealth only 13.1 per cent of professors are female and only 9 per cent of managers are women. Likewise in the workplace, studies have found that only 3 per cent of law firm partners and executives in publicly traded companies are women.

Ramsay-Hale went on to say that women are not proportionally represented in government and even where there were a number of women holding electoral office, few women actually made it to the upper echelons where the real decisions are made. This means that resources are allocated without meaningful input from women whose life experiences give them a different awareness of women’s needs.

“If things are going to change for women they have to accede to positions of power; they have to become the leaders, the decision-makers,” she stated.

The importance of women in the in the business world was highlighted in a study by Deloitte which Ramsay-Hale quoted, which stated that the struggle for equality by women “cannot be seen as simply a ‘women’s issue’, but rather one of talent as women’s progress has vital implications for the health and growth of governments, companies and nations.”

Ramsay-Hale said that men ought to pay attention to this issue because it impacted the business’s bottom line. Women in senior roles translated into greater financial rewards for that business, she said.

“The top 500 multinational firms, which had at least three women on their boards, saw a 16.7 per cent return on equity; average companies saw just 11.5 per cent. The greater the number of women, the greater the difference; those with the greatest number of women on their boards had 53 per cent greater return on equity than those with the fewest,” she stated.

Ramsay-Hale looked to countries such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Norway for a solution. Finland had the highest representation of women in government and constantly ranked high as one of the best countries in which to live, she said.

However, that said, a number of South American countries also decided to adopt gender quotas to ensure equal representation within government but their experience showed that quotas requiring political parties to put up female candidates did not guarantee that the women would actually be elected and the election of women did not guarantee more women-friendly legislation.

By way of example, Ramsay-Hale spoke about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who once declared “I owe nothing to women’s lib. The battle for women’s rights has largely been won” and in the result, did not introduce a single policy initiative to advance the rights of women in the UK.

It put her in mind of the sentiment expressed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who said “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Quotas by themselves won’t resolve the issue of women’s under-representation in leadership. Many women are discouraged from seeking public office because the burden of caring for children and families rests with them. While the role of caregiver doesn’t exclude them from participation in workforce or in government, it is a significant barrier to most women. Without a change in our legal and social systems to reflect that the care of children is not the personal responsibility of women but a parental responsibility and indeed a political responsibility, nothing will change. 

“Care is a human right and that governments have a responsibility to ensure that the children are looked after and provided for,” she affirmed.

One way of removing this barrier to women’s fuller participation in society was for governments to provide free or subsidised and accessible day care. Businesses should do the same for their own employees, she said. 

“Here in Cayman day care is $320 a month. If you have three children or more you’d only be working to make the day care provider rich,” she said. “With whom do the poorest women leave their children when aunts and grandmothers are now working?”

Ramsay-Hale acknowledged that times were hard for cash-strapped governments right now, but felt that looking at such schemes would be a step in the right direction.

Another way of removing this barrier was to grant leave to both parents on the birth of a child, a change that would go some way acknowledging that the care of children is not mother’s responsibility alone. Revisiting the Nordic countries, she said that those countries had very generous parental leave provisions, up to three years in some cases, which “have allowed women to participate freely and fully in every area of endeavour”.

Summing up, she said that until women are represented in equal numbers at the seats of power the struggle for equal rights was not over.

She went on to say that in this regard recognise that this was a common journey to full personal and national self-realisation. 

It was not about asserting female superiority, but searching for gender equality, she said.

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Chief Magistrate Margaret RamsayHale

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