March of Women

9 03 2015

Yesterday I took part in the March of Women to celebrate International Women’s Day. Firstly, there was a re-working of Cecily Hamilton’s play A Pageant of Great Women and 50 of us spoke on behalf of a great women from Scottish history. Then over 100 women walked from the Women’s Library, where the play was staged, to Glasgow Green, some half a mile away. It was an incredible event and a wonderfully original and inclusive way to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The play, which was originally performed at The Scala Theatre, London in 1909, was staged before an audience of women and men and the march, though itself women only, was supported and followed by women and men. If I’d have asked any of them whether they believed in an equal society it’s a fair guess that everyone would say yes. So why hasn’t it happened yet? Over one hundred years have passed between performances and we are still living an an unequal society. The march, then as now, was women leading the call for change.

But, by marching alone and performing alone we are letting men off the hook. We are taking on the role as change agents, taking sole responsibility for change. The drive for equality becomes a women’s issue. Something we do alone. The men can sit in the audience, walk alongside and applaud our spirit. They need do no more than that.

Take politics and the forthcoming general election. According to Glenn Campbell, political correspondent for the BBC, the SNP’s candidates list is only 36% female, the Lib Dems is 27%, Labour 26% and the Tories just 15%. Of the 263 candidates selected by the five parties, 73 are women, representing just 28% of the total.

Take the pay gap, which Nigel Farage insists is “just a fact”. It is not closing. The International Labour Organisation estimates that the average gender pay gap now stands at close to 23 per cent, meaning that for every £1 men earn, women earn just 77p. Why isn’t the gap closing? Because it is seen as solely our responsibility as women to close it. It is up to us women to gain the skills we need to compete for the top jobs. Women have children and it is up to women to manage the career break this entails and if there is then a decrease in pay and conditions then that is only to be expected.

I am a founder member of an organisation which seeks to improve board effectiveness through increased diversity. There are many, many reports that show that boards make better decisions, and the companies they manage perform better, when boards are gender balanced. Yet, according to the 3rd annual survey following the Davies Report, women account for just 20.7% of FTSE100 board directorships and just 15.6% of FTSE250, and there remain 48 all-male boards. True, this is a slight improvement year on year but progress is woefully slow and it takes organisations driven largely by women to continue to push for change. When the benefits of board diversity are clear, why is it left to women to campaign for change?

Men are in positions of power at the moment. That, as Nigel has it, is just a fact. Men are in a position to actually make the changes needed to bring about full equality but choose not to, or to make change slowly.

My contention is that campaigning for equality should not just be a thing that women do alone. It is not good enough for men to sit and watch while we march. Men need to be more than supporters. Men, as well as women, need to challenge inequality.

Equality is about fairness and which of us, male or female, doesn’t believe in that.

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Barbie Bus Politics

1 03 2015

The Labour Party faced ridicule recently when their Women to Women campaign was launched in a pink bus, prompting comedian John Oliver to suggest that they were engaging with women in the same way as toymaker Mattel engages with 8 year old girls.

Gloria De Piero, who probably thought she was trading the puerile soundbites of GMTV for the serious world of politics when she was elected MP for Ashfield at the 2010 election, was instead forced to stumble through an interview while trying to find a different word than pink for the obviously pink bus parked behind her. Harriet Harman chose to call it cerise but whatever the shade of pink it was a strange choice for a party who have vocally supported the PinkStink campaign and one which was always likely to be seen as patronising.

What was more alarming than the colour of the bus was how the Labour Party described the campaign itself. Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, demonstrated just what they really thought about women when she suggested that they wanted, “to have a conversation about the kitchen table and around the kitchen table rather than having an economy that just reaches the boardroom table.” That’s right. They are coming to talk to you where you are; in the kitchen not the boardroom!

I thought that the opprobrium rightly heaped upon “The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind” video, released on behalf of the Better Together campaign which implied that women can’t think of big things when they have housework to do, would have taught Labour a lesson, but apparently not. And being patronising to women isn’t a Labour only issue. At a recent prestigious fundraising events held by the Conservatives one of the prizes was a shoe-shopping trip with Teresa May!

And anyway, with the manifesto already written this is not listening to women. It is merely talking at women.

But is there a need for a campaign for women at all? Does it really help to lump all women together in a homogenous mass of pink-loving, lovely, ladyness?

I am involved in many organisations which actively campaign to increase the recognition of the achievements of women and to promote greater participation of women across all aspects of society from shop floor to boardroom. During the debate on Scottish Independence I was active in writing articles, knocking on doors, giving out leaflets and generally campaigning. Yet it never occurred to me to join Women for Independence. The issues that occupied me, and millions of Scots on both sides of the debate, were those of social justice. Issues that affect both men and women. I am very unlikely to share the same views as any of the women the Daily Mail has called Cameron’s Cuties just because we both have ovaries. And young women starting out in work, looking for their first home, worried about repaying student loans, worried about getting a job have much more in common with young men of a similar age than they have with my retired and comfortably off mother. 51% of the population are women. Women are the average voter and not a niche, special interest group that have a narrow range of interests. Yes, there are issues that effect women in particular, like domestic violence being perpetrated largely by men against women, and the disadvantageous effects of the recent changes in the benefits system but issues like childcare directly affects mothers and those in traditional families, not all women.

There is a problem to be solved, though. One of engagement. At the 2010 election only 39% of young women bothered to vote. In total over 9m women didn’t exercise their right to vote. And, if you don’t talk about women then the debate becomes male dominated. Why? Because women aren’t IN politics. Women make up less than 22% of MP’s and less than 20% of cabinet posts are held by women…. and I actually heard Shirley Williams interviewed on Radio 4 this week saying that she thought her mother, Vera Brittain, would be proud of the progress women have made in politics.

To engage women we have to demonstrate that politics is not a man-only activity. This will not be achieved by driving a pink van through towns and villages. Far better would be for politicians to do their jobs and tackle issues such as equal pay. They could ensure that women are treated fairly in the workplace. If the Labour party really wanted to do something for women it could ensure that North Lanarkshire Council, which it runs and has run for generations, settles the 3,000 cases brought by women against it under equal pay legislation.

This “stop me an buy one” approach, with politicians arriving to a fanfare then leaving again like well-dressed ice-cream sellers, will not work.