Women everywhere are in senior roles – in Government, the police and running some of our major companies. So no problem then?
Later today on the main stage of the Conservative Party conference I will join a high-powered panel of women who have all made their mark on British society, including the leaders of both the House of Commons and Lords, and the Government’s minister for women. Our task? To discuss the issue of “women in public life”, because the fact remains that in very few of the sectors examined do women exceed the 51% of the UK population that they comprise.
In my view there are still two big barriers to overcome.
One is the rise of social media and the part it plays in today’s identity politics which increasingly permeates society. Trial by Twitter means anything and everything you say can be misinterpreted and the accusations fly. The anonymity of social media has also resulted in evil hiding in the shadows with very little redress.
In this febrile climate it is not enough to just be a woman in politics who has convictions and wants to do a good job. I speak from personal experience.
Four months ago I did the electronic equivalent of locking up my personal Twitter account and throwing away the key. The simple reason was that I grew sick of the personal abuse dished out to me. What upset and concerned me more than the trolls was the shrugging shoulders and lack of real action from Twitter to crack down on it.
I appreciate I chose to stand for public office and that politics is a tough gig. It was Sir Christopher Meyer, one-time press secretary to John Major, who said to succeed in the role you needed “quick wits, a sense of humour, histrionic skills, self-confidence and a thick skin”.
I can hopefully tick most of those attributes most days, but the abuse hurled at me and other women politicians in social media is of another order. Just ask Claire Kober, ousted from Haringey Council and subjected to a social media ‘pile-on’ orchestrated by her enemies. Not quite the golden age of intelligent communication that the early internet pioneers believed in.
The second barrier is, I believe, women themselves.
In my experience some women tempted by politics tend to wait for an opportune moment to join in – when career targets are achieved, or when children hit significant milestones, perhaps have gone to secondary school or college. There is a fear that the anti-social hours and the full-on demands of politics will erode family life and stability. I was seven months pregnant with a toddler in tow when elected for the first time so in truth my children have no idea what ‘normal’ family life entails.
To young women interested in politics, understand that you have to make a choice, and you will have to make sacrifices. You cannot have it all. A line of courageous women from the suffragettes to Margaret Thatcher opened the gates for you to be heard in politics. So march through those gates.
The reality is your family life does take a hit when you are a politician and that halcyon moment of calm doesn’t exist. But does it for any family with working parents?
I became leader of Westminster City Council in January 2017 just as my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my first born was entering the teenage years and the delights of the menopause chose to descend. Not the easiest of combinations and great timing, but if I can juggle all this with being a councillor then really you can too.
My advice to all women - young and older - do not let life events get in the way of your ambitions, your aspirations. Some days you will feel you are sprinting on the treadmill of life and jumping from one domestic disaster to another while also serving your electorate. Just do what all working mothers have always done - cope with what life throws at us!