It was over 30 years ago that Wilson’s Labour Government introduced the Sex Discrimination Act, making it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sex in employment, vocational training, education, and in the provision and sale of goods and services. A landmark piece of legislation. But has it lived up to its promises?
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) recently reported that only 10% of directors of the UK’s FTSE 100 firms are women, and only one in five members of parliament are female. The latter statistic is very interesting, especially to those, like myself, involved in politics and in campaigning to return people to parliament. The report goes on to estimate that it would need up to 200 years to attain gender equality in Parliament. The EOC explicitly calls for all political parties to take positive action before the next election to improve women’s representation in Parliament. The Parliament Website backs up the EOC’s claim, showing that only 126 of 646 members of the House of Commons are female. Drilling down the figures does not fill me with as much pride as I would have hoped in my own party – only 27% of the Parliamentary Labour Party is female. I don’t find this surprising, however – I feel the “older” Labour Party has much to do in order to even get close to gender parity.
But I am encouraged. One thing that the Labour Party and its members have done is begin to change the culture of the organisation. In areas of the party where a change in culture does not manage to permeate, the Labour Party has strict rules to ensure gender balance. This is seen in all areas from elections to the party’s national committees to selection of local government candidates. Indeed, seats being vacated for the next election are automatically subject to an all-women shortlist unless exempted by the party’s ruling executive committee. But of course this isn’t good enough; in fact, positive discrimination is certainly not a long-term solution to this (or any) problem. The real solution must be in changing the culture. Encouragingly, this change is most noticeable in the youth and student wings of the party. Labour Students appoints a national women’s officer, and the vast majority of clubs (including BULS) have separate liberation officers for a number of campaigns, including Women’s, BME, LGBT and Disabled Students. Of course there is more to be done, and of course discrimination against women can become most pronounced not when they are at university, but when they are pressured to sacrifice their career for family life, but I am proud that the Labour movement is leading the way in this uphill struggle for women and all under-represented groups.
It is no coincidence that BULS, with its stated commitment to equality, has over 100 members and that almost exactly half of them are women. Although I know it’s nothing more than a small step forward, I’m delighted that Labour clubs up and down the country are holding events like the “Ladies in Red” event, which was pioneered by BULS in 2005, and which was held for a second time at the end of last year.
Compare this to the other political parties. Less than 9% of Tories in the House of Commons are female. This is completely shameful, although unsurprising given the abhorrent core values and attitude to equality of the grassroots members of the Conservative Party. I would perhaps be less critical if I saw the youth and student wings of the opposition parties try to become more representative. They do not. Many Conservative Future groups that I have encountered base their “successes” on being a drinking club with a ruling committee – usually well educated with some right-wing Daily Mail-fuelled banter, but occasionally nothing more than a front for some other macho-fuelled club. You can guess the gender composition of these groups – often substantiated in photos of their “successful events.” Trying to find a woman is like trying to play a particularly sick game of Where’s Wally.
It all boils down to something very simple, however – for a more equal society, trust not those who talk the talk, but those who walk the walk. Cameron’s Tories are not proving themselves to be any different in substance from their pre-1970s incarnations in terms of welcoming women and other under-represented groups.
I proudly stand for the values of equality, democracy and social justice, and will continue to strive for gender equality. I have every hope of that goal being met in the House of Commons long before the EOC’s 200 year estimate –
That depends, of course, on the Tories and their 91% of male MPs being quelled.
John Ritchie is Chair of BULS