International women’s day and the 1918 Act are important to mark but so much further to go

International Women’s Day passed last week, and it came shortly after the 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People Act 1918 which first gave votes to some women.

I, like many others, think that we still have so much further to go in creating a society, nationally and internationally, with genuine gender equality.  But the fact that many people are saying that, does not mean that it is not a point worth remaking.  In fact, quite the reverse.

The first thing to note about the 1918 Act, is that it was a milestone that was only possible by a change to the law, which came about through political campaigning.  Much of that campaigning, and the most powerful aspects of it, came from outside mainstream politics.  Naturally, given the lack of women in mainstream politics at that time. But, it was through political pressure created by that campaigning, and clear demands put forward within that campaign, and then legislative action, that change came about.

A century on, we have still got miles to go in nearly all facets of our national life to give girls and women the same opportunity, esteem and standing in society as boys and men.

I want to talk about three areas that I’ve had a fair bit of contact with.  The law, politics and sports.

In the law the situation is intolerable.  Only around 30% of our judges are female.  This is worse in the senior judiciary with only two women having ever sat in our Supreme Court or equivalent.  We have two sources of law in our country, Parliament and the courts that establish case law in our common-law system.  It’s clear: a majority male judiciary is going to develop judge-made law in a different way to a gender-balanced judiciary.

I have raised this with very senior members of both the Bar and the judiciary.  The response has been that the problems come during female legal careers which are impeded by the challenge of mixing work and family life.  Meaning there are fewer female judicial applicants.  I’m told, change won’t happen overnight and there are many initiatives to overcome these impediments which will bear fruit overtime.

This explanation is unacceptable.  Gender equality is an absolute must in the judiciary at every level.  Not in 20 or 30 years’ time, but now.  I would like a legislative intervention to make this happen within five years.  You cannot have equality before the law, without equality in the law.

We also need changes to working arrangements of lawyers so that there can be genuine equality of opportunity to progress in the law.  A conversation with a female QC with children was enlightening in this regard.  Her trade required her to act in many multi-week trials.  Court hearings run from 10am til 4pm, with voluminous preparation each night, morning, and weekend, with clients to see before and after days in court.  It’s clear, a family life in such circumstances is difficult.

If any regard was had to the equality impact on the profession, such trials would sit four days per week or with reduced hearing hours.  But in the tough world of the senior Bar, such proposals will struggle to gain support.  They certainly did when I floated them with the said QC.  But, such radical thinking is required if we are to provide a fair opportunity for people to develop legal careers whilst finding time for family and to look after their physical and mental health.

My views are very similar in relation to politics.  I speak from the vantage point of having passed through a demanding selection process to become a prospective parliamentary candidate of a party who has at its core the fight for equality and better working conditions.  It’s fair to say that there are several aspects of such selections that would, generally speaking, be much harder for women with childcare demands to engage with or get to the bottom of.  The key in this regard is for such process to be clearer and streamlined so that it is easier for people with family demands to advance themselves.

It’s also clear that Parliament’s arcane and archaic procedures need to be refined so that women (or for that matter men) with families can more easily engage.  The sitting hours into the late night, voting by parade through a lobby, and the pseudo-social-club atmosphere created through the free-flow of alcohol at Parliamentary bars, most all be consigned to the dustbin.  Innovations like job-share MPs, and electronic voting must seriously be considered.

And then to sport.  Much of our national story is defined by sport: male sport.  With football sucking up much of the oxygen in this regard.  Doubtless the situation has improved.  Jessica Ennis being one fantastic example.  But patriarchy is still a defining characteristic of this aspect of our national story.  Take for example our female hockey players who won gold in Rio but still struggle to obtain endorsements and financial opportunities over their male counterparts.

Rugby, a sport of interest to both me and my wife, is illustrative.  The BBC being very keen to trumpet their coverage of the women’s six nations championship this year.  A glossy trailer has been aired on all of their coverage of the men’s competition, with the transparently unambitious punchline telling the viewer that highlights are available at 11.20pm on a Sunday night.

The BBC had a very well-staffed stall at the Labour Party Conference this year.  I took the opportunity to ask one of the public relations men, why it was the Beeb pumped so much cash into men’s sport relative to women’s.  My point to him was: ITV do a fantastic job on their six nations games, what’s the point in spending so much of licence-fee payers’ money on sport that would reach the free-to-air viewer in any event.  And the same goes for Premier League football highlights: let Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker earn their millions at someone else’s expense.

The genuine public interest is in reshaping this part of our national story to a more gender-balanced position.  In other words: the Beeb should push women’s sport and aim for at least parity of investment across the genders.  The fact that the PR man found my proposal a bizarre affront to the BBC’s “duty to entertain” seemed indicative of a lack of internal or institutional thinking on the matter.

All of the above show the inertia and institutional legacy which has delayed progress so much.  Labour has done a lot to much improve the gender balance in Parliament through measures like its all-women shortlists which recognise that nice-words and intentions are not enough.  We must now take a similarly radical approach to recasting many other institutions in our country into ones that are properly reflective of the country we want to be.

As a footnote, there has been some mention over the last week of the idea of “mansplaining”.  I have to say that I find this phrase unhelpful.  It feels to me like it perpetuates a construction of society which is defined by gender.  Like “fake-news” and “virtue-signalling”, it seems to be a debating device to instantly dismiss someone’s point of view or standing in a debate.  I have to say that in my job and in politics I have learnt that both men and women are liable to tedious, patronising or facile explanations or comments.  And insofar as it is used as a device to dismiss interventions by men on gender issues, that is self-evidently harmful to constructive debate.  Please let me know if you think the above thoughts could be deemed “mansplaining”, but don’t expect me to agree.