Equality: are we there yet?

It may be more than 200 years since the Jacobins ran through the streets of Paris to the rallying cry of “Liberté, egalité, fraternité, ou la mort”, but while these principles still underpin our ideas of civilised society, their interpretation remains the subject of fierce debate.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, approved in France in 1789 as the fundamental document of the French revolution, defines equality as a civil right to equal opportunity:

“All citizens, being equal in its [the law’s] eyes, are equally eligible to all public dignities, places and employments, according to their capacities, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

A few months ago, Joseph Stiglitz claimed in a provocative piece for Vanity Fair that in the US, the top 1 per cent took 25 per cent of the country’s income and controlled 40 per cent of its wealth. The figures, argued the economist and Columbia professor, put the US at the head of a global inequality ranking, outflanking Russia and Iran.

Earlier this week, The New York Times published findings from a survey it commissioned from Equilar, an executive pay data provider, into the salaries of executives in the 200 largest US companies. Median pay for these executives had grown to $10.8m in 2010 – a 23 per cent rise on the previous year.

“Growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity,” wrote Stiglitz, arguing that a growing gap between the poorest and richest in the US eroded its identity as a country of “fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community”.

Equality of opportunity is difficult to maintain. As the UK’s National Equality Panel reported last year, social mobility in Britain is the lowest in Europe, with women in particular failing to convert better educational achievement into career progression beyond the age of 30.

In the week that Bastille Day was celebrated with French tricolores and fireworks, we should re-examine what equality means for society, the workplace and the individual.

 

 

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.