Women Need A Radical Economic Policy, Not Cheap Political Point-Scoring

02/09/2016 18:13 | Updated 02 September 2016
Jane Barlow/PA Wire

As a 19-year-old woman living in London in 2016, I should be among the least oppressed women in history. And yet, when I think of the future I am still scared - not only for myself but for millions of women who face the prospect of being abused, disadvantaged and underpaid. The solutions to our problems require real struggle and political will, not just more "representation" of women in parliament or the boardroom.

In recent weeks, I have watched with increasing exasperation at the way women's equality has been used by some sections of the party as mere ammunition for cheap shots at Jeremy Corbyn. At every stage of her life, a woman faces barriers - and many of them are etched not only into social attitudes but into the structure of the economy as well.

It starts from an early age. Being catcalled in school uniform and being judged by the way you look is the norm. Young women, and young men, are pushed into gender norms and modes of behaviour which are oppressive - and which limit our life chances. By the time we reach the world of work, women make up just 14% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) professions, and we are paid on average 19% less than men.

Challenging that dynamic means challenging damaging gender norms before they form. We need to make Personal, Sexual and Health Education a statutory part of the curriculum - not an optional one as it currently is - in order to challenge behaviours and stereotypes built around hyper-sexualisation and hyper-masculinity. Understanding consent should start at school, and everyone should have to do it.

But it is about opportunities as well. Occupational and educational segregation stems not just from women not wanting to study engineering, but from not being able to. Any system that wanted to foster equality would have to do away with the highest tuition fees in Europe, and with cuts to the further education sector which have seen student support fall through the floor. Women are far more likely to be carers, for children and for others , than men - and if aspiring to getting into education and training is counterposed to the duties of our daily lives, many women will stay at home or go to work. Free universal childcare would be a good place to start, as would the reintroduction of maintenance grants in the university sector.

When we reach the workplace, we are devalued - and it isn't just about the fact we're paid less, it's about what society thinks our labour is worth. Women are hugely disproportionately likely to work in the 'five Cs' (catering, cleaning, caring, cashiering and clerical), jobs which are vital to everyone's daily lives and to social reproduction, but which are paid poverty wages and regarded as unskilled work.

These are the sectors that have been most marred by the rise of zero hours' contracts and precarious working conditions. What we need is for these exploitative conditions to be banned where possible, and fought by strong trade unions - with decades of anti-union legislation repealed. When women are discriminated against in the workplace for getting pregnant or, well, being a woman, they need to know that they can go to court against their boss without paying tribunal fees. At £950, justice is something which many women can't afford.

Throughout their lives, most women suffer from inadequate housing. Sometimes this is a source of poverty and misery, sometimes something far worse. Two women are killed every week by partners or ex-partner - and 20% of homeless women become homeless in order to escape domestic abuse. What we need is a government that will fund a safety net for women, and solve the long term problem - by building hundreds of thousands of council houses a year, controlling rents in the private sector and directly regulating energy prices.

Reading a lot of the coverage of the Labour leadership election, you could be forgiven for thinking that the most burning issues facing women are whether or not Jeremy Corbyn sent a particular email quickly enough. It isn't - and what women really need is a radical new programme that can make the rip up the rule book written by generations of rich white men, and turn the economy on its head. In fact, along with a pledge to create a women's advisory board and to include Labour's many brilliant women activists and MPs, all of the positive policies I have listed in this article are in Jeremy Corbyn's manifesto