Monday, 9 April 2012

What inequalities?

The semester has just about finished. Just trying to get as much writing done before the exam scripts land on my desk. The semester has been very busy teaching and with completing a rapid research review for a funder on equalities and place-based socio-economic policies (mentioned previously, with some thoughts, here).

I also had to teach equalities this semester in my Social Sustainability course to a postgrad class of (predominantly) planners; mentioned, in a somewhat dramatic fashion, here. What do I mean by equalities here? In technical parlance, I mean the nine protected characteristics identified under the Equality Act 2010. More broadly, I suppose you could sum it up as all those inequalities in the World that are not socio-economic inequalities, but are usually in a reinforcing relationship with socio-economic inequalities. As a gay man and all round wishy-washy lefty liberal I did know about equalities in this way, but until now I had not gone into such depth. I was also aided in my deliberations by my fantastic students who produced some really fascinating insights when I set them an Equalities Impact Assessment as a coursework assignment (did you know women have less resilience in the aftermath of natural disasters?).

So the review really got my thinking. I had assumed, I now know naively, that good regeneration, or a very productive, positive socio-economic policy will help all equally. After all, it's socio-economic inequalities that matter most, isn't it? Of course the reality is much more complex. The evaluation of the New Deal for Communities programme suggested that black and minority ethnic people, and more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, actually do a lot better out of place-based socio-economic policies. Further, our own wee bit of analysis demonstrated that in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the Scotland (i.e. those datazones in the "bottom" 15 per cent of SIMD) there was a disproportionate number of people who classified themselves as "not-heterosexual". Unfortunately, due to the age-old small n problem we could not unpack the figure any more than that, but do bear in mind that this does not include those who did not disclose their sexual orientation. This finding certainly questions the notion of the "pink pound" for me.

Whatismore, I also had a quick skim through Scottish policy and all 32 Single Outcome Agreements (on the latter, I should be able to make that available in a Google Doc once the report is signed-off). A lot of the academic literature (see this for example) I read suggested that a key issue was that place-based socio-economic policies are often unintentionally "blind" to equalities issues because of the sort of thinking I was prejudiced with - they'll benefit everyone, won't they? Or if the policies are not "blind" then they "see" in a very problematic way - such as having targets to get people off disability benefits, rather than a positive policy of encouraging active inclusion and citizenship with disabled people. The problematisation of populations was picked up by the Equalities Impact Assesment of the Edinburgh Partnership SOA. Looking through Scottish policies this was definitely a clear trend. I'm not saying policy is intentionally sexist/racist/disablist etc. but just that equalities could be taken more seriously. Another element of this is the focus on early-years intervention in Scottish policy, a topic to which I oft-return but don't publish on. Policies like the Early Years Framework have to be, by their very nature, gendered in their impact. Yes, we want fathers to be involved in a child's life, but it is predominantly women mothers (do you know, the ones who actually give birth) who will be the object/subject of antenatal and maternity projects. Rather worryingly, I thought, the EYF talked throughout of "parents" throughout and only used the word "mothers" once - and in the context that we must not forget about fathers.

So, what does this all mean? Well, I have to return to the cry of Equalities Officers everywhere, we need more Equalities Impact Assessments. And just because a country or local authority does not have the numbers on equalities groups, as Scotland very rarely does, does not mean we can ignore the issues as populations cannot be counted. We can still infer impact using techniques such as logic modelling. And for two of the protected characteristics - sex and age - we're literally falling over ourselves in data, but people do not take an equalities perspective. I also think we in academe are equally as guilty of this - a point rather forcibly made by the feminist scholar Mary Hawkesworth in this conference plenary I heard. As an acdemic interested in socio-economic inequalities, I should be explicit in recognising that these are not the same for everybody, are not experienced in the same way by everybody, and not everybody responds to them in the same way. 

If I'm not careful, equalities, place-based policies and engagement could become my research niche...


  1. Since the Early Years Framework states it applies from pre-birth to age 8, there is more here than just antenatal/maternal projects.

    Focusing on mothers is unfair on several levels - by erasing the role of the father (or any other caregiver - not all parents are heterosexual couples) not only are they given short shrift in terms of the value they add to a child's life (and their ability to parent) but also in giving them an excuse to be crap more pressure is poured onto the mother.

    I have more to say, I'll be back later ;)

  2. I know what you mean, and I'm sure that's what the authors of the EYF thought. However, the policy measures they're introducing to implement the EYF, and the patriarchal society in which it is implemented, mean that it is likely to be a gendered intervention (the benefits and burdens of it will fall disproportionately upon women) and this is not fully acknowledged in the policy and is, in fact, obscured by the use of the word "parent" over "mother".

    1. Could this be seen as an attempt to address that inequality, rather than mask it?

      I'd prefer (call me naive if you wish) to see it as redressing the balance by addressing interventions towards "parents" since it's usually mothers that are blamed for the requirement for an intervention in the first place?

  3. Very late reply...I think what I would have liked to have seen is a more obvious equalities impact assessment that picked up that "parents" is actually gendered...