It's been forty years since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in the United Kingdom, but this week it seems as though equality laws have passed by a swathe of the population. The weekend announcement from Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and a potential future leader of the Labour party, that she will take maternity leave for the early weeks and months of the next government has exposed the considerable prejudices that lie beneath - and govern - our unequal society. The next time someone asks why women feature so lightly in Parliament, judicial benches and on FTSE Boards, you can point them in the direction of the last 24 hours.
Swift on the heels of Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell's response that people must be "put in positions they can handle" comes the accusation from Belinda Brown writing in the Daily Mail that Reeves is "treating motherhood as a part-time obligation, almost a hobby".http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2966117/Sorry-Rachel-taking-Cabinet-seat-going-maternity-leave-feminist-says-BELINDA-BROWN.html#ixzz3SeKI6vCt I did a quick tally of the men in Cabinet, or would-be Cabinet, who treat fatherhood as a part-time obligation, or hobby. Funnily enough, I don't think I have heard that accusation about any of them. A working parent is a working parent. In the 21st century, men and women can choose how they exercise responsibility for their children. The government has recognised this by bringing in legal provisions that allow parents to share responsibility as they see fit in the early months following the birth of a child. Previous Labour and Conservative governments have recognised this by enshrining equality in the law of the workplace, as well as in most other areas of civic life. That equality, however, remains a considerable way off as long as women, but not men, are judged for their decisions on whether or when they have children and if so, how they choose to juggle child-rearing responsibilities.
Brown thinks that no-one who is "being woken throughout the night to feed an infant" should be in a position of power. Presumably she therefore considers that male MPs, or judges or businessmen, never participate in childcare at all. Brown considers it "highly unlikely that Reeves, is going to be able to apply her considerable intellect to political and social problems if she has major commitments elsewhere". Presumably, then, she considers that male MPs or judges or others in powerful positions never have to prioritise their own commitments, perhaps that the male intellectual capacity is more rigorous than the female who can't cope with more than one task or crisis. She claims that women "should be prepared to make sacrifices" so that "if we peak a little later in our careers surely that is a compromise we should be happy to make." She plainly has a solution, then, to the considerable drop-off rate for women in their mid-30s from professional careers which then impedes their return to the workplace in which their male counterparts have years' and streets' more experience in which they negotiate, carve out and preserve their status and positions. Really, what she is saying that women with babies should not be allowed to have responsible jobs. Brown concludes that "if Ms Reeves wants to behave like a man, frankly I don't think she is fit to represent women." So, here we have a talented frontbench female MP, vowing to abolish the bedroom tax as her first act in government, who is apparently not fit to represent women or, according to Rosindell, unable to handle that position of power, all because of her decision to take a short period of maternity leave. I cannot remember a single male politician with young children, as many do, who have been subjected to such vitriolic challenges on the basis that they, too, have to juggle and prioritise family life with their political commitments. Frankly, we should have been far beyond this in twenty first century Britain. But it is probably no surprise to many of us that we are not.
The fundamental problem is that, in most professional environments, the workplace remains at least subtly - if not actually - determined by men. Men determine the long working hours and presentee culture; part-time or flexible work is often perceived negatively, leaving many women to become disenfranchised and disinvested in their workplaces. Politicians, in fact, do not even have the option to work part time. Men network ferociously in a way that women simply are unable or unwilling to do - try popping into a City restaurant on a weekday evening, for example. Men advance themselves and push themselves forward in a way that is often alien to women as a result of centuries of being told to 'people please' and look pretty. Many institutions were designed by men for men. The Houses of Parliament is a classic example, but so, too, much of the corporate and legal worlds in which decisions are made which affect the entire population. Old boys' networks are just that and they continue to hold sway, especially in those traditional corridors of power. Double standards continue to be applied to women whatever their choices. They can be ambitious, but not 'too ambitious'. They must compete with men, but can't be seen to be overly ambitious. Indeed, over- ambitious is the word Brown herself chooses to describe those women who would support Reeves' decision. She doesn't suggest an adjective for those men who might equally support Reeves. And then there is maternity leave, and the multiple problems that arise out of the need for women to take some time away from their careers if they choose to have children. Case in point.
The barriers to women advancing in the workplace continue to arise from outdated societal and gender models. In my own profession, the Bar, women judges remain far and few between and although silk appointments are improving, there is still a very long way to go. The reaction from many friends and colleagues to Brown's article this morning reveals the unspoken gender issues which continue to prevent the full participation of women in the workplace.
A colleague informed me that recently an employment judge said in open court, in the context of an pregnancy dismissal claim, that no new mother should go back to work 5 days a week. When she told him many did exactly that, his reply was, "well it's not fair on the child though". I have heard many stories of how senior men in the profession perceive the primary role of female barristers to be at home. Pressures mount when judges are unwilling to allow a barrister to leave court on time to collect children from childcare. There are other stories of how women who have not had children for various reasons themselves face obstacles and prejudice. Many women barristers have been given advice at some stage about the need to deepen their voices when speaking in court. The assumption is that women must transform themselves to get on in a man's world. Meanwhile, I have been told that a colleague's children were being taught at school to thank their mothers for staying at home to look after them, irrespective of the fact that she, and other mothers, were in fact at work. Everyday sexism isn't an imagined problem, but a genuine barrier based on an outdated model that prevents gender equality from becoming reality.
For all those who think feminism should be shackled along with the burned bras of the 1970s, we are not there yet. Ask yourself why there are so few female politicians, so few female judges and decision-makers and so few women on boards when they comprise half of society. The answer might be a circular one. Long confined by history to their roles as mothers and wives, women have had to come out fighting for the same right to use and enjoy their intellect. When they do that, and show that they can, they are often criticised for every choice along the way.
Men and women should be cheering on Rachel Reeves' decision to fight for her place in government. We need more than lip service. The equality laws have not proven to be enough. We need strong women in Parliament, on the bench and on boards to represent us, to be involved in decision-making and to improve the quality of that decision-making that affects us all. Men, too, need to be willing to speak out and ready to recognise, change and adjust those workplace models which have benefitted their sex until now. And yes, we need strong female role models so that our daughters will look up and believe that they, too, can be valued for more than their ability to look pretty and people-please. There is a life before and beyond maternity leave, and women are entitled to choose how they live it.