Why we must strengthen women’s voice in government

30 11 2011

Scotland has a new political leader with Ruth Davidson winning the election for leadership of the Conservative Party in Scotland. This is not a huge step forward, as Annabel Goldie has led the Scottish tories for many years and being head of the 4th party in Scotland is unlikely to lead to any real powers , but it does mean, at least, that another backward step in the representation of women at the heart of government has been avoided. When Wendy Alexander stood down at the last Scottish elections in order to spend more time with her young family the country lost, whatever you think of her policies, an elequent and active parliamentarian.

The scarcity of women in government is a scandal that needs to be addressed.

Currently at Westminster only one in five members of parliament are women. When it comes to the centre of government, only one in six members of the Cabinet are women. To state the obvious, one in two of the population are women and this lack of women’s representation at the heart of our political system needs to be addresses in order to ensure that women have equal influence in decisions that affect our everyday lives and the society in which we live.
It is almost a hundred years since women won the right to vote but at the current rate of change; the number of women MPs increased by just 2.5% at the 2010 general election and has increased by only 4% since 1997. it will be almost as long again before there is equal representation in parliament, this is despite the fact that our political system is founded on the core principles of liberty, equality and democracy. To set this in a global context, over 50 countries around the world have parliaments that are now more representative than the Westminster Parliament.

So what? Why does it matter that there are so few women in Government?

In my opinion it is fundamentally a matter of fairness. As women we pay the same taxes as men but do not have an equal voice in determining how those taxes are spent on the public services that we all use. And as with boards of corporate bodies where evidence emerges daily that greater diversity improves performance, a more diverse Parliament will lead to better governance as women bring different experiences and different approaches to decision-making than men.

The Davies Report makes a number of recommendations to improve diversity in the boardroom, all based on the improved performance and profitability that will accrue from having more women in senior, decision-making roles yet FTSE 100 companies are reluctant to take up these recommendations. The government should take the leade. Parliament has huge symbolic power: where they lead, others will follow.

So, why aren’t there more women in politics?
In order to illustrate the problems that face women in politics I will use the experience of one woman who has made it into the centre of government, Roseanna Cunningham MSP. Roseanna is my local MSP and has spoke about her career in earlier editions of the3rdimagazine.

Firstly, some of the practical barriers that continue to perpetuate women’s exclusion from political life need to be broken down. The most persistant of these pertain to childcare. In talking to Roseanna earlier this year she mentioned that the parliament at Holyrood was coming under pressure from taxpayers to close the creche. Pressure was being brought to bear as it was considered inappropraite that taxpayers money should fund a “perk” for MSP’s that many working women do not have access to in their own workplaces. This pressure should be resisted. Roseanna doesn’t have children and expressed the opinion that the job, as currently constituted, would be impossible to do if she did have a family. Closing services that help women with children to take a role in parliament cannot be right. On the contrary, we should be doing all we can to support working mothers in parliament and across the board. The antisocial hours and bizzarely structured parliamentary day needs to be changed to work for women, rather than women working to fit into outdated working practices. These changes would benefit all MP’s, surely?

Media portrayals of female politicians need to be changed. Again with reference to Roseanna’s experience, what she is wearing is often commented upon in press reports before what she has to say. Not withstanding David Cameron’s cuddlefest with Mumsnet, in the 2010 general election little coverage was given to women’s presence in British politics and how issues will affect women. We can already see how the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government is disproportionately affecting women in the workforce.

In order to change the numbers in government then more women need to be chosen by the political parties to stand for election. Put simply, if the political parties are serious about increasing women’s representation, they can do this just by standing more women candidates in winnable seats.

We all have a responsibilty here. If we want more women in positions of power in government then we all need to take action. Counting Women in have a campaign to increase representation and I recommend that you take a look and sign the petition.

But is that enough? I think not.
I am a member of a political party, the co-operative party which, a fact I wasn’t aware of when I joined, is affiliated in government to the Labour Party. The meetings are dire, turgid affairs. The local branch is exclusively male. I am 50 and it is the only group I attend where I am the youngest person there – probably by a good 15 years! The processes are archane. I am old enough to remember a TV show called “the Wheeltapper’s and Shunter’s Social Club”. If you are too then you have a good feel for the co-op party meetings. The language of composites and motions is straight out of the 1970′s. In addition I am consistently excluded from communications. I hand over my e-mail address at every meeting as it has mysteriously dissappeared from the database. This usually means that I get notice of the next meeting but then my contact details disappear again. After a few months I contact the local organiser, find out what is happening, what I have missed and arrange to attend the next meeting, where I hand over my e-mail address and the whole cycle starts over again. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that my exclusion is deliberate, though some incompetence is also at work within the organisation.

I ask difficult questions, I challenge the status quo and raise concerns about the composition of the party at local, Scottish and National level. I might never make a difference locally but I know that there is more chance of influencing decisions if I am there than if I’m not.

So this is the challenge – to join together and campaign through petition and protest but also to take personal responsibility and take individual action.

Handbags and gladrags

23 11 2011

Am I the only woman who objects to the plethora of women’s networking events that revolve around shoes and canapes and chocolate?

I thought not.

For the record, I hate shopping. I buy handbags in order to carry more easily the stuff I need to carry and buy shoes to save walking barefoot through the Edinburgh grime. If I want red wine and gossip and canapes I will go to Gleneagles with my pals.

But my objection to these type of networking events is more fundamental. They perpetuate the idea that women love spending more than they enjoy earning – that men earn the money and the women spend it.

The facts are somewhat different. A recent study (by pollsters TNS-BMRB) showed that men are more likely to spend a windfall on something nice and unnecessary than are women; and that women are more likely to save, add to a pension or reduce household debt. But the media never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. The Herald, for example, recently launched a women’s supplement that is packed full of shopping pages and which recently had a front page showing a woman carrying arms full of shopping bags to illustrate the story of how this reckless spending has plummeted families into debt. The fact that women’s debt may actually be the result of low income or being single mothers doesn’t get a look in.

Even while this image of conspicuous persists women are also facing the blame for the retail downturn – apparently we aren’t shopping enough! Janet Daley argued in her column in The Daily Telegraph that that the economy won’t grow unless women go shopping asserting that, “the
most significant form of female political power is deciding when it’s safe to spend.”

I am probably guilty as charged. I don’t like shopping and only shop when I have to. But that’s not the point. This constant obsession with women’s spending habits obscures our role in wealth creation. In fact the move of women into work over the past 40 years has fuelled economic growth. Women have both started their own businesses and helped the organisations that they work for to grow.

And it is women’s enterprise not women’s spending that will help us to move out of the current recession.

So please, all of the business networking events for women, do us all a favour and concentrate on the business and not the handbags and gladrags.

Long to reign over us…?

21 11 2011

So, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have a girl first then she will become queen in succession.

Am I pleased?
Surely this is a triumph for women?

Well, no. I am not pleased. This is another piece of tokenism that doesn’t address the underlying problem, which is with the system and not with the appointment of the figurehead. We have a female head of state now, the queen. True, the next queen might be there as the first born of the reigning monarch rather than because there were no men available but what will really have changed. Nothing.

This is not just a matter of a quaint, dysfunctional and largely marginalised family whose role is purely ceremonial. Prince Charles, for example, routinely interferes with due process in matters that affect the Duchy of Cornwall in order to ensure that decisions are always made in his favour.

And privilege still ‘rules’ in Britain. On of the stories uncovered by the current storm surrounding the relaxation of border controls is that UK Customs and Revenue have agreed to let off Goldman Sachs and Vodafone with millions in unpaid taxes – leading one insider to observe that ,for the very rich, taxation is discretionary’. Essentially, if you are a wealthy individual or large corporation and can afford to employ expensive lawyers to evade taxes and to dispute any attempts to reclaim tax owed then HMRC will cut you a deal in order to avoid lengthy court cases.

Compare and contrast with the instant issuing of threatening letters and fines should a standard rate taxpayer miss the submission deadline for tax returns.

The rich are better equipped, better advised and more prepared to avoid taxes than at any time in the past. The principle of a fair days work for a fair days pay has completely broken down, most clearly evidenced by the huge bonuses and massive pay rises that the elite continue to award themselves despite record falls in the stock market and continued corporate losses.

I am not anti-capitalism. I have run a succession of entrepreneurial businesses for profit over the past 20 years. What I am is anti insider capitalism, the type that allows the very rich and powerful to exploit and manipulate the system in a way that ordinary people and businesses simply can’t.

So how about this. If government departments are unwilling or unable to gather the taxes that are due from the income of rich, lets shift the tax burden to what is owned rather than what is earned. After all, cash can be moved round the world at the click of a mouse – it is much more difficult to move a flat in Kensington or Knightsbridge to an offshore tax haven.

If we really want to make a difference we need to find a way to redistribute wealth and relying on the rich paying income tax and corporates paying corporation tax clearly isn’t working. We should transfer taxation to property tax, land duty, inheritance tax and the like.

We should focus on dismantling privilege and not just change the way that the head of the whole outdated system is created.

We need to change the rules not just create more exceptions

17 11 2011

I recently appeared as one of the expert panel at an event where Suzanne Doyle-Morris spoke from her book “Beyond the Boys Club. We discussed the glass ceiling, the glass cliff, the blockages in the pipeline of promotion and the leakage from that pipeline that means fewer and fewer women remaining in organisations at each level of management from workforce to the board.

This is all well and good and Suzanne gave a number of tips and tactics that women can use to navigate the current structures but actually I think we are missing the point in trying to work our way to the top of a system designed and built by men for men. We need to work to change the system. Of course we do, and I will, but I do not believe that things will change anytime soon.

Why? Because we need a change in the culture and because I know my teenaged son and I see and hear his pals, I am pessimistic. They are what is coming next and they are just the same as what went before. They shout and swear and value women for the way they look. They think women should do most of the cleaning, most of the shopping and all of the child-rearing. Oh, and women should go out to work, because why should women just stay at home with the kids when they have to earn a living. These are good boys, well educated boys. My own son has seen me work, start, build and grow businesses as a single Mum yet my personal example hasn’t been enough to significantly challenge his expectations of women in general.

This is what we are up against – the unseen cultural barriers. Sexism in the workplace exists and while it might not be as obvious as in past decades it is still there, hovering just out of reach of tribunals and disciplinary procedures.

It used to be acceptable to make sexist comments to female members of staff, often disguised as “banter” but betraying deeper prejudices. While this is less common, men will comment on how women look, only now they do it when they’ve left the room.

What I see with the next generation of men moving into the workplace is that they still find toilet humour funny, they find farting hilarious, they nod and wink and jostle each other if an attractive girl goes past. They may refrain from wolf-whistling, which is something I suppose, but their behaviour isn’t that different to the last generation of boys; the one’s I was at school with; the ones that are now running most of our big businesses.

This acceptance of juvenile stupidity in boys leads to a greater tolerance of inappropriate behaviour in men. They can pass on risqué texts and youtube videos where women indulging in the same practices are shunned. I can’t see these dual-standards changing anytime soon.

And whatever legislation is put in place to encourage shared parental care of children the change needed is cultural. If a child is taken ill at school who will the teacher call? Mum or Dad? Further than that, do you give your own mobile or that of your partner as first point of contact anyway? If the kids wake up in the night who gets up to see to them?

It is often said that women can’t or wont put in the hours needed to get to the very top; that leaving before their male companions shows lack of commitment. In my experience when men stay in the office after hours it is not to complete an urgent project, it is not to work on behalf of their employers at all. It is to avoid going home. Men stay late in the office so that their kids will be bathed and in bed by the time they get home. This is a great opportunity for those men to build relationships, to network with peers, to make connections that will be of benefit when they look for promotion. It is an opportunity that is not open to most women. We are the ones at home feeding and bathing the kids! I do know women who have reached the top of their careers and had a family. Most have delegated childcare and most of those have delegated to another women, nanny or au pair, not the father of the children.

What happens if we keep the status quo and teach women the tips and tricks to succeed in a mans world? Well, as far as I can tell will still have a man’s world with a few women with very thick skins who can thrive in that arena and who do make it to the top.

We will all be able to find a woman who has done it all, who has had it all, and who has retained feminine qualities, but they are the exception not the rule. I am confident that change can happen but we have to make change happen. Things will not just change of their own account. So if we are going to make a difference we need to change the rules not just create a few more exceptions.