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Gender Equality Is The Key To Solving Our National Challenges

10/04/2017 08:06
Nicola Tree via Getty Images

We may have a female prime minister in Theresa May, but unless during her premiership women actually advance, her gender will be irrelevant. Women's leadership is not the end in itself: it is part of the struggle to improve the lives of all.

I was 16 years old in 1997 and 29 in 2010 when Labour left office. From my childhood to my womanhood, a Labour government was in place. I went to university during those years, got my first job, bought my first house, got married, had both my children and nursed my nan and grandad and then my mother who later died of cancer. Tax credits, free nursery places, nursery vouchers, my local Sure Start, investment in the public and third sectors where both my husband and I worked, my children's savings accounts, my nan's care workers, her attendance allowance, my maternity leave which had improved again by the time my second baby was born, my husband's paternity leave, the charities, hospitals and hospices who helped my family as my mother deteriorated, the list of things those women rose to their feet from their green benches to demand for girls like me meant everything. So many possible stumbling blocks for my potential kicked out of the way by Labour women in a Labour government.

For my mother's generation none of these things existed, and without them, today would look very different. But a friend of mine who worked for the local council recently packed in her job: the pressure of dwindling resources and changing schedules meant work just couldn't fit in with the other demands on her life. She too has two children and a poorly mother. The stumbling blocks are being shuffled back into place.

The world has changed since 1997, and women in politics seem to be making some steady if slow progress towards equalising the numbers. Parliament has changed and although I have only been here since 2015 I think there has been a softening or a feminising of the place in the past 20 years. The hours of sitting are better (if still not great) for parents and children often roam the halls - even the voting lobbies - of the Palace of Westminster. People readily speak of their personal experiences, their mental health problems, their personal bereavements, their fears and in the most unprecedented cases their own rape. Opening the doors to women has moved the place on from being a home for one kind of person, in one kind of suit, with one kind of life.

But as the palace softened, I'm afraid to say that the world hardened for women in politics. The dawn of internet technology has brought animosity (also faced by the women of 1997 and the handfuls who came before) into our homes and into every minute of our lives. For young women today, the intimacies of their childhood relationships, their youthful misdemeanours are all filed up in the cloud for people to use against them. Instead of opening up these clouds and letting it rain real people with real lives over Westminster, I fear the atmosphere will affect the type of women who want to put themselves forward.

So it is for the women in the PLP to challenge this and to take on the extra work of mentoring and encouraging young women. Each and every woman in the PLP has three roles: being a local champion and managing a difficult, usually marginal, constituency; operating as a 'just as good as the boys are' Westminster legislator; and also acting as the feminist activist tasked with keeping politics open for everybody.

I truly believe that gender equality is the key to solving so many of our current national challenges. The UK has a productivity problem and frankly that is not a surprise, because when we talk about infrastructure, or industrial strategy in this country we conveniently forget half the population who would be far more industrious if only we could get out of the house.

Where is the Tory government's strategy to think about gender when it considers the skills gap? Investing in universal childcare might be an idea. Or an industrial strategy for care that might save millions of working hours lost to stress and mental health ailments. Such a strategy might mean older women, who suffer worst from the gender pay gap, would not have to work part-time to care for their older relatives. Women have been workers for centuries but no industrial strategy I ever read seems to have noticed. The lack of women in the line-up for the northern powerhouse conference was a case in point.

The reason the women of 1997 saved my life was not because they handed me benefits, or 15 hours of free childcare to give me a break. It is because they allowed me to get out of my house and become something. What is lost in missed contributions to both the Treasury and society must run to billions of pounds. Thousands of missed opportunities for innovation, lifesaving medicine, beautiful things and technical revolutions. What could have been if only we'd thought to remember the women keeps me awake at night. What have we missed?

Jess Phillips has written a contribution for the new Fabian Society book This Woman Can: 1997, women and Labour published today.

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