THE BLOG

The General Election Failed Women

15/05/2015 16:38 BST | Updated 15/05/2016 10:59 BST

This was not a good election for women.

They made up just a quarter of electoral candidates and featured in less than a tenth of press coverage. The issues which disproportionately affect women featured even less. Indeed, in all the months of election coverage and campaigning, there was barely an acknowledgement that such issues exist.

It was even more depressing that in a highly developed nation like the UK, in 2015, our choice of Prime Minister was limited to a contest between 'default man' and 'default man.'

It is little wonder then, that the policies which would have made a tangible difference to the lives of women, such as reform of childcare and social care, were largely absent.

To be clear, these are not 'women's issues,' and to portray them as such simply reinforces the stereotypes - such as that women are the natural carers - which fuel inequality in the first place. But this inequality has meant that the consequences of the failure to meet people's needs have fallen disproportionally on the shoulders of women.

As provision for the elderly, the infirm and people with disabilities is battered by austerity, it is largely women who pick up the baton of care, often balancing that with low paid work and domestic labour, with little respite. Should we care about something as trivial as the gender disparity in the enjoyment of leisure? Hell yes.

Then there is the parenting penalty.

While 82% of fathers work full time, just 30% of mothers do and no, on the whole, it's not because they don't want to. Or that men don't want to take a greater share of parental responsibility. It's that our whole system of parental policy institutionally discriminates against women; assuming that they will shoulder the greater proportion of care and structuring entitlements and employment opportunities around that.

This is not to say that the choice to look after children full time is not an equally valid one, of course it is and it should be supported, whether that carer is male or female.

But what of those women who want to have what men take for granted, a family and a job? Childcare costs in the UK are among the highest in Europe; British families spend an average 33% of their income on childcare compared to a European average of 12%. That is if you can find a childcare place at all.

Those of us with children now spend more on childcare than we do on mortgage payments, again, that is if you can get a mortgage. The parental penalty extends to housing, where families with childcare costs are being refused mortgages, forcing them to squeeze in to homes usually chosen before children came along. If they are lucky enough to be on the housing ladder. It is hard being a first time buyer but it is not even an option if you are a first time buyer with young children.

Did you hear any our of political leaders or the venerable fourth estate take any of these issues seriously? No, me neither.

The problem was in policy, and in presentation. The deficit and the need for politicians to demonstrate fiscal responsibility meant that the comprehensive re-imaging and reform of parental support and social care was never on the cards. Both George Osborne and Ed Balls committed their parties to no extra spending, shutting down any serious debate about areas of policy that yes, will require government expenditure.

But there is no money remember; the bankers took it all.

This alone does not explain the failure of our politicians to find a way to talk to and about women in a way that wasn't patronising and utterly out of touch.

We had 'calm down dear' on the one hand and a pink bus on the other.

There has been an amazing grassroots resurgence of feminist activism in the UK (and globally) over the past few years, engaging young women and men to demand change in how they are perceived and treated. Indeed one of those campaigns was to free girls from pink, and all that it symbolises. Yet few of our politicians seemed either aware or to care.

Should they be worried about the emergence of the new Women's Equality Party? Let's see: a party with a charismatic leader which seeks to reflect the concerns of a section of the electorate who feel that the mainstream parties don't take them seriously? Sounds familiar.

The difference is that - whatever you think of their politics - Scottish nationalists and Eurosceptics are still a minority of the population. Women are half the country. They shouldn't need their own party to get their voices heard. If serious lessons are not heeded by all our political parties about the urgent need to create a more gender equal economy and society, we won't just be talking about a failure of politics, but a failure of the very principle of democratic representation.