Monday, March 10, 2014

From Isabel To Ibex: Spanish women

On 19 October 1469 there was a wedding in Valladolid. It was a wedding that was notable for a number of reasons, not least because it established a union between two kingdoms and announced the arrival of a nation state. When Isabel of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, it is doubtful that anyone could have predicted where their union would lead. It was a marriage that was to travel to the Americas, along the rivers of gold and to an imperial destination, and though ostensibly a marriage of equals, Isabel was the dominant partner. She was tougher than Ferdinand. She believed in justice, even if this justice was far from always benign; the Inquisition was established nine years into their reign.

Isabel is arguably the most important woman in Spain's history, but more than three centuries later the second Isabel also became important, albeit for a different reason. Isabel I may have led Spain to its empire, but she was still only a woman, and Isabel II was responsible, merely for being a woman, for the Carlist Wars. Her father, the generally mad absolutist Ferdinand VII, had dispensed with Salic law, meaning that there could be the succession of a female sovereign. The Carlists rejected Ferdinand's "pragmatic sanction" and supported the pretender to the throne, Ferdinand's brother, the Infante Carlos. Carlism, a movement characterised by Catholic traditionalism, was to be a factor in Spain's history for more than a hundred years. 

Kings and queens tell only part of a society's story, but the story of Isabel II shows that, despite the achievements of the first Isabel more than three hundred years before, entrenched attitudes hadn't changed. Indeed, because Carlism and its traditional Catholicism remained factors into and during the Franco era, those attitudes prevailed for very much longer than they did in other societies. In Franco's Spain discrimination against women was such that there existed the "permiso marital". A woman couldn't work or even travel away without her husband's permission.

The changed role of women in Spanish society is one of the most profound of all the changes that has come about since the establishment of democracy. If one looks around the political scene, one finds a female vice-president in the national government, a trend started by the previous Zapatero administration. In the Balearics two women will be fighting it out to lead PSOE into the next regional elections. Either might just become the first female president of the islands. In the business world, such as in Mallorca's hotel industry, women occupy top roles in hotel chains and in hotelier organisations. The changed role of women has been dramatic.

To celebrate International Women's Day a conference was held in Palma which was entitled "Work, family and personal life: a triangle in constant evolution". It looked at issues surrounding equality and the reconciling of family and working lives. The conference would have been able to draw on a substantial body of research, such as that from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and from the European Commission, which has detected a wage gap of 16.4% between men and women that applies across Europe but which has been widening in Spain. This 16.4% gap just so happens, according to the UGT union, to exist in the Balearics, though it isn't as wide as a national 23% level, which might sound like a reason to be cheerful but in the union's opinion isn't; it says that it reflects generally lower salary levels because of the nature of the Balearics labour market and the high level of seasonality.

From this research one also discovers that the percentage of female representation at board level in Ibex 35 companies (those that comprise the stock market index) is 16%, while among unlisted companies with between 100 and 500 employees, a third of them do not have any women in their management teams. This suggests that women are getting a raw deal, but if one considers the situation in the UK, it isn't all that different. There, a 15% wage gap is said to exist (the figure is probably open to interpretation), while female representation on the boards of FTSE100 companies has only recently topped 20% for the first time.

To combat this inequality the ILO suggests measures that were on the table for discussion at the Palma conference - improved child care services, codes of practice to tackle gender stereotyping and such like. It all sounds incredibly familiar. In the early 1980s my company was the first to publish a journal in the UK devoted to women in management. The issues were the same then as they are now. That was the UK though. This is Spain. The advances here have been remarkable in that there is now some comparison with the UK. But these things take time, though perhaps not as long as the period between the first Isabel and the final years of the Carlist tradition.

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