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Friday, Aug. 13, 2004

An uphill battle for women

LONDON -- Morgan Stanley last month agreed to a $54 million out-of-court settlement to ensure that serious allegations of sexual discrimination against it did not come to trial in the United States. The bank proclaimed its innocence, but if it really had nothing to hide, why didn't it let the evidence be presented and refuted? Many observers are likely to take the view that "there is no smoke without fire."

Morgan Stanley is not the only firm of late to be accused of serious discrimination against female employees. A number of cases are being brought before industrial tribunals in Britain. Some allegations suggest not only the existence of a male macho culture in the world of finance but also some pretty nasty behavior on the part of a number of overpaid young executives who seem little better than puppies that have yet to be housebroken.

At some companies, it seems that women executives are treated as if they were maids or waitresses, and sexual innuendos and uncouth remarks are commonplace. Such companies and their male-chauvinist managers deserve to be taken to court and made to pay compensation. But, although it is now easier to bring cases before tribunals, it seems probable that many women are unwilling to face the trauma of collecting and giving evidence; they either resign themselves to being bullied or accept compensation when it may be offered.

In Britain, the Equal Opportunities Commission has taken up a number of individual cases, and companies would be unwise to ignore the costs of not complying with the laws outlawing sexual discrimination. Increasing numbers of women are entering, and being promoted in, the professions and civil service. They are also becoming prominent in politics and in business, although there are still only a few women chief executives in Britain.

More progress on equal opportunities for women has been made in Scandinavia and northern countries than in Latin countries, where male chauvinism remains entrenched. Interestingly, the countries with the lowest net reproduction rates (Spain, Italy and Germany) are generally perceived as having male-dominated societies. In fact women, who are encouraged to go on working after marriage, do not have fewer children than those who remain at home and become what we term "ladies who lunch" -- women who have the leisure to go out to lunch with their friends.

Maternity leave, family allowances, nursery facilities and men willing to share domestic chores and help bring up children are among the factors that affect net reproduction rates. Governments can help by making legislative changes and giving tax incentives, but alterations in social attitudes cannot be achieved without a hard fight by women.

The Church of England has allowed women to become priests for a number of years, and it seems certain that in due course there will be women bishops. This reflects a significant change in social attitudes. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has not yet allowed women to become priests, although nuns form important religious orders. It has also continued to insist on celibacy in the priesthood despite the serious increase in allegations of sexual abuse of children against Catholic priests. Its views on sexual behavior and condemnation of birth control theoretically ought to lead to larger families. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case in many Catholic countries in Europe.

One reason why Islam has little attraction as a religion for many people in Western countries is that it permits discrimination against women, even though its more tolerant forms do not endorse such discrimination. Shariah law, with its call for the stoning of women who are guilty of adultery, is not acceptable in Western countries, which rightly attach importance to human rights and sexual equality.

In some Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed by law to drive and are subject to other legal restrictions. The Islamic dress code prescribing that women's heads must be covered is seen by some in the West as a sign that, in the Muslim religion, women have an inferior status. French authorities, who attach importance to the secular state, have forbidden the wearing of head scarves in schools. In Britain we have taken a more tolerant view, but we insist that Muslims, while they must be allowed to practice their faith freely, must also obey the laws of the land, including those banning sexual discrimination.

In Japan, it would seem that sexual harassment at least is now regarded as a serious matter, but in many Japanese companies the roles of receptionist and servers of tea still seem to be reserved for women. Japan appears to have made only limited progress compared with other advanced countries in promoting women to senior posts in business.

Japanese politicians who argue that the women's place is in the home and that their function is to produce children are doing nothing to help solve Japan's future population problems. They need to pay more attention to providing nursery facilities and children's allowances and should aim to reform social attitudes toward women.

One immediate step they could and should take now to demonstrate their belief in equal opportunities for men and women would be to ensure an early change to the succession law so that Japan could have an empress in the future.

If opinion polls are anything to go by, such a change would be supported by the vast majority of Japanese voters. The Japanese failure to change the law is seen abroad as an anachronistic anomaly, particularly when there are a number of precedents in history, including during the not-so-distant Tokugawa Period, for Japan having an empress.

The conservatives among Shinto priests, rightwing politicians and members of the Imperial household who oppose change are damaging, not upholding, the Imperial institution. This will survive only so long as it remains relevant to the Japanese people.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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