Johnson’s 50:50 target for women in parliament. An important pledge – but Conservatives should avoid quotas.

27 Nov

How do you get more women into politics? This is the question that Boris Johnson delved into last week when he called for the “biggest ever recruitment drive” for female candidates, activists and potential MPs.

Johnson made the announcement as part of “Ask Her To Stand Day”, which marked the 102th anniversary for the Qualification of Women Act. In a video for the occasion, he spoke of the importance of achieving 50:50 representation among men and women in parliament, a goal he also stated in the run up to 2019’s election.

Despite there being a record number (220) of women elected to parliament that year, they still only make up 34 per cent of Members of the House of Commons, and five members of the current Cabinet, leading to the emergence of groups such as 50:50 Parliament, which aims to boost the figures.

As of yet, no details have been released about what the plan for 50:50 representation is. One paper reports that Johnson is not considering selection quotas for Tory candidates.

However, his announcement might raise hopes among campaigners that the Government will take affirmative action. Frances Scott, Director of 50:50 Parliament, said of Johnson’s video “We have never before heard a Conservative Party leader publicly state their support for fully equal representation of women at Westminster”. After the Government took a more interventionist role in its obesity strategy, anything is possible now…

But how do you reach 50:50? And should you set quotas at all? As a woman in political journalism, who did psychology at university, the question of why women and men go into different sectors, in uneven numbers, is one I have always found extremely interesting. There are all sorts of hypotheses about why this is, but I believe the answer is a complicated mixture of personal preference and societal factors, hence why imbalances are so hard to remedy.

One point that often gets overlooked is that disparities between men and women shouldn’t always be taken as evidence of sexism or gender inequality. There is a tendency to pathologise anything other than 50:50 representation, but it’s more complicated than that. For instance, in some of the most gender equal societies, women are much less likely to go into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) than men, whereas the STEM gap isn’t as pronounced for those in more oppressive societies. This phenomenon is called called the “gender equality paradox”.

That’s why it’s important for politicians and society to focus on “equality of opportunity”, not “equality of outcome” when assessing gender equality. In short, men and women should have the same opportunities, but we shouldn’t expect these to neatly convert into equal representation across industries. Freedom means being able to choose different things.

As far as parliamentary careers go, there are some very big reasons why women might not choose to go into politics. Personally, I am wary of the long hours, thankless tasks, and especially put off by the abuse and media intrusion. Perhaps if the Government could magic away the latter, I might give politics a try – but it’s an unfortunate part of the job description that has become worse with social media.

Of course, there are some things the Government and society can do to make things better for women. I suspect one positive step is more education about it in schools, so that girls can build experience in political campaigning. Clare Ambrosino, who stood as the Conservative candidate for Easington last year, tells me “I think if women started being active in politics earlier, we’d have a better chance of having more women politicians.”

She adds that some of the weekends away and after work hours can make things particularly challenging for mothers. Given that women are still expected to take the brunt of childcare, trying to manage the many demands of an MP is a mammoth challenge. Anything that makes life easier here should be implemented – indeed, Johnson has previously pledged to make flexible working and childcare more accessible.

Organisations such as 50:50 Parliament, too, are playing a vital role in promoting women’s participation in politics, offering networking and support, and this will make a big difference, as so much of success – in many fields – comes down to building contacts.

There are many small steps we can take that have a big effect on participation. But the Government should not force the issue by trying to emulate Labour’s quotas. Not least because it is anti-Conservative, undermining the values of self-determination. It will, too, backfire on Johnson; seen, alongside his obesity strategy (and all the other Coronavirus measures) as another sign of too much state intervention.

And fundamentally, targets are not the right way of looking at things. The focus should be on equality of opportunity. Are women receiving the same access to politics as men? The answer to that is where we begin.

The media coverage of Symonds reeks of sexism

13 Nov

Over the last few days, newspapers have paid a great deal of attention to Carrie Symonds, the fiancé of Boris Johnson and former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.

It is reported that she, along with Munira Mirza, Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, and Allegra Stratton, the new face of Number 10 press briefings, objected to Johnson’s plans to make Lee Cain his chief of staff, and ultimately caused Cain’s subsequent resignation. Many see this as evidence that Symonds has too much power, and have even joked that she is now the de facto Prime Minister.

The intricacies of what happened with Cain at Number 10 still aren’t completely clear. But whatever the case, it was no excuse for the avalanche of sexism that has been directed at Symonds and the other women reportedly involved in Cain’s departure. 

Take some of the words that have been printed about Symonds. Papers claim she is called a ”princess” and “dubbed the ‘Duchess of Downing Street’”. Would anyone – in any context – have ever referred to Philip May, Denis Thatcher, or the male partner of any female politician as a “prince” or a “Duke”? I think we all know the answer.

In another example of sexism, newspapers claim that Symonds teamed up with Mirza and Stratton to see off Cain. One headline reads “How ‘Carrie’s Crew’ saw off the ‘Brexit Boys” about the trio, as though they were 10-year-olds telling tales on Cain to a teacher.

Aside from this being an infantilising description of some of the most important figures in the Government, it reflects a depressing tendency to group women together, as if they think the same. Perhaps Mirza, Stratton and Symonds all objected to Cain for their own individual reasons. Why relate it back to their gender?

Critics of Symonds will say their main objection is not that she is a woman, but that she has interfered too much in political decisions. However, it begs questions about what this “interference” means. It is not unrealistic, for example, to assume that Prime Ministers’ partners might offer opinions, with varying levels of zealousness, on their other half’s work (even if that is running the country). And leaders have to decide how much they want to listen to the advice.

Symonds is not just any political partner, either; her experience as former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party, and as one of the most prominent campaigners in last year’s elections, puts her in a unique position in terms of political insight.

But that’s not the point. The point is the level of vitriol directed at Symonds. It is all the more pertinent in the same week Kate Bingham, Head of the Government’s vaccine task force, found herself receiving equally harsh treatment, albeit because of a £670,000 PR bill. Whatever one’s view on the PR view, it does seem to me that women in these positions sign up to an astronomical level of scrutiny.

As one paper wrote about Bingham “She is obviously very talented, she speaks her mind and gets straight to the point, but has frustrated a lot of people at the department”, which I also cannot imagine being said about a man.

In short, we think we have come a long way in fighting sexism, and in many ways we have. But there are still things that people say and do, sometimes without even noticing, that reveal just how unfamiliar many are with the idea of women occupying political spaces and roles – even in 2020. Referring to Symonds as a “princess” is just the start, unfortunately.

Radical: It’s time the Women and Equalities Committee was replaced

10 Nov

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical.  She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

We need to talk about the Women and Equalities Committee. Just take its name, for a start! The ‘women’ part incites ire both from those who find it patronising (“we’re 50 per cent of the population!”), and those who find it exclusionary (“what about men?”, “what about trans men?”, “why isn’t there a BAME committee, then?”). Whereas the ‘equalities’ part is symptomatic of the confused nature of state discussion of such matters: why the plural? If ‘equality’ is good enough for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Equality Act…

Parliament.uk lists 133 current parliamentary committees, the members of which are MPs and Lords (some only have MPs, some only Lords, and some both). Some are ‘general committees’ (focused on scrutinising legislation), some are ‘select committees’ (focused on the work of particular government departments, etc), and three are ‘grand committees’ (focused on devolved matters). Unsurprisingly, these committees cover a vast range of topics — from Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, to Fire Safety, to Pensions. 

The Women and Equalities Committee (WESC) is a select committee, set up in 2015 to scrutinise the work of the Government Equalities Office, on the recommendation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in Parliament. It’s worth noting the involvement of this APPG. After all, the GEO focuses on many other ‘equalities issues’ aside from women; sex is only one of the Equality Act’s ‘protected characteristics’. Anyway, on this approach, aren’t women included in ‘equalities’, already? Isn’t the WESC a bit like a Mars Bars and Chocolate Bars Committee?

There’s more to be said about the foregrounding of the term ‘women’, here. But, beyond specific frustration at perceived condescension or exclusion, there’s a longstanding general debate about the state’s involvement in such matters. This ranges from the claim that the state does nowhere near enough to further the life chances of people from oppressed groups, to the claim that the state shouldn’t be involved in these matters at all. Many argue, for instance, that such involvement can be divisive and counterproductive, and represents serious overreach. And that seems a convincing argument to us at Radical, with regards to matters such as state-enforced positive discrimination. 

However, it also seems clear that there are certain such matters that do require state involvement. Indeed, in writing this regular column, we hope to remind Conservatives of this, in relation to the way in which, so often, the interests of women have been forsaken amidst the gender-identity lobby’s capture of our institutions.

Beyond this, however, it’s hopefully uncontroversial to emphasise, for instance, that it’s good and right that FGM is illegal, as it has been under UK law since 1985. And also that the state should do a much better job of enforcing this, to protect girls from these mutilations. Then, there’s the decades-long failure of UK institutions, including police forces, to stop large-scale sexual abuse in towns including Rotherham and Rochdale. The state is involved in these matters, and its actions — for good or bad — must be scrutinised.

Again, maybe you believe the state has no role to play in proactively addressing what are typically seen as hot ’equalities’ topics — such as mandating pay gap reporting, or quotas on boards. And those particular policy approaches run very much against our beliefs.

But hopefully you’d agree that equality itself is a crucial societal value, relating to our basic rights as human beings and as consenting members of a shared political society. And that situations in which members of certain sets of people are treated as if they are lacking the fundamental equal status that we all share, can be a matter for the state. And that this can move beyond instances of direct harm. For instance, policy issues like prisoner voting, and asylum seekers’ right to work, relate to equality in this sense.

But does the WESC spend its time addressing these kinds of matters? Is it a champion of girls’ safety? Are its members engaged in considering fundamental questions of equality? Do they work hard to defend their existence by engaging with underlying debates about the role of the state, and which kinds of state intervention can be justified?

Well, if the WESC has made any impact at all, it’s been solely on the question of gender self-ID. Perhaps it was inevitable that a committee with its remit would be susceptible to capture by gender-identity interest groups like Stonewall. It stands to reason that sceptics of the equalities agenda would avoid engaging with such a committee, while lobbyists for each protected characteristic under the Equality Act would see it as a political platform for their cause. And, as the most vocal identity-related cause of recent years has been that of transgender people, the most high-profile inquiry of the WESC was on transgender equality. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that, only weeks after Liz Truss published the government’s response to its long-running consultation on self-ID, the WESC felt the need to re-litigate the matter, opening its own, second inquiry into reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

This is neither to say that the interests of transgender people are unimportant, nor that the WESC has not produced interesting publications. Its 2016 report on sexual harassment and violence in schools made for sobering reading. Indeed, you might have thought WESC members would’ve reflected again on their earlier findings on the ease with which people should be able to change their legal sex. Their 2016 conclusions included not only the importance of accurate data — currently under serious threat following the capture of the census ‘sex question’.

But also the urgent need to ‘engage with men and boys’ on matters of sexual violence: ‘the focus in [Sex and Relationships Education] has been often based on girls changing their behaviour, rather than addressing the culture that leads some boys and young men to sexually harass and abuse girls and young women’. We hope the WESC pays more attention to such matters in their new inquiry, and recognises that effectively denying the existence of biological sex is not an option for a state institution.

Or maybe we should hope for something else. The WESC has shown itself to have been captured by a single-issue political campaign, and as such is clearly incapable of properly holding the state to account on the important matters within its remit.

The WESC has even shown itself incapable of advocating for the one group specifically named in its title — women — and has focused instead on privileging the interests, at all costs, of people identifying as transgender. Perhaps, therefore, parliament should bring the WESC to an end? Perhaps it should be replaced with a committee charged with scrutinising the way in which the state upholds the equally-held freedoms and rights of all, rather than viewing these matters through the contested post-modern lens of identity politics?

We therefore call on MPs to halt the WESC’s waste of taxpayer-funded state resources, and propose it should be replaced by a Civil Rights and Freedoms Committee, at the earliest opportunity. Focused on questions of equality before the law, instead of the grouping of people by particular identities, this committee could tackle everything from the privileges of citizenship, to the question of economic ‘levelling up’, to the risks of government by decree in the age of Covid-19. These are matters related to the fundamental values of equality and liberty, which can be approached by conservatives and progressives in common cause, without conceding to identity politics at the outset. 

Radical: Our top five reads for the summer – on gender-related issues

7 Jul

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they found Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

Last week, it was reported that Dominic Cummings had set the special advisers (SpAds) some books to read ahead of an “away day”. Dubbed “spad school”, by Times journalist Stephen Swinford, the advisers’ homework allegedly included reading all 350 pages of Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting, alongside Andrew Grove’s (only slightly shorter) High Output Management.

Now, whatever your preferred method for predicting the future, it seems unlikely that the reading-list-story trend will stop here. It’s a yearly classic, after all. Whether you’re a school-leaver preparing for university entry, or a Government minister intending to use time away from Westminster to learn the historical context of your brief, your summer plans probably include some targeted reading. 

So, here are our top five Radical reads for the summer. As regular readers of this column might expect, they’re not cheerful page-turners. But they may well change your life.

1) It’s a badly kept secret that the Equality Act (2010) and the Gender Recognition Act (2004) aren’t exactly the best-drafted pieces of legislation. Discrimination solicitor Audrey Ludwig’s deep dive into the former – published just a few days ago on the WPUK site – emphasises its incredible complexity, in a neatly practical manner: she explains how she goes about determining whether someone has faced unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act’s purview.

Along the way, Ludwig highlights the lack of “objective research and analysis” into the impact the introduction of “self-IDwould have on sex discrimination, and related issues, such as pay. Key to these matters, she reveals, is the role the “legal comparator” plays in discrimination cases: self-ID would change “who and who cannot be used as a legal comparator”, and this would have serious repercussions. 

2) Employment solicitor Rebecca Bull’s recent briefing note for MBM Policy Analysis, Impact of Gender Recognition Reform on Sex Based Rights, sets out the implications of proposed Gender Recognition Act reforms on sex-based rights and protections under the Equality Act.

Like or loathe the Equality Act (and there’s a lot to criticise about it), it’s now woven into the way in which every business and public-sector organisation has to operate. How services are provided, and how employees are paid and treated at work, are prescribed by the Equality Act.

Where Audrey Ludwig’s blog gives a snapshot of how self-ID would affect the way in which the Equality Act works in cases of workplace discrimination, Bull sets out the “significant concern that single sex service provision on the lines of natal sex will be rendered unworkable and severely compromise the rights which women currently have to single sex services”.

3) The NHS recently edited its guidance on puberty blockers as a treatment for transgender children, to remove the claim that suppressing puberty with synthetic hormones is reversible, and to introduce a description of harmful side effects.

Much concern has arisen about the medical path increasingly regularly embarked upon by children who identify as the opposite sex. And, in Growing Pains: Problems with Puberty Suppression in Treating Gender Dysphoria, professors of medicine, Paul W. Hruz, Lawrence S. Mayer, and Paul R. McHugh, give a clear and comprehensive account of the use of puberty blockers, and the subsequent hormone therapies and surgeries that many of these children move on to as young adults.

The authors rebut the claim often preferred by medical professionals and advocacy groups that puberty suppression is fully reversible, and highlight a lack of scrutiny of the safety and efficacy of what they consider to be “experimental medicine” being practised on vulnerable children.

Anyone who’s concerned about the treatments currently being administered to hundreds of UK children who’ve been diagnosed with gender dysphoria will find this article useful and troubling in equal measure.

Published last month, Joanna Williams’ Civitas report, The Corrosive Impact of Transgender Ideology, is as punchily written and hard-hitting as its title, and her spiked credentials, suggest. But it’s also well researched and argued, with Williams’ experience as an academic grounding her readable style.

Culminating in five policy recommendations – including the immediate prohibition of the prescription of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones to children – this paper (or short book, really, as it comes in at about a third the length of Tetlock) addresses the “social impact” of the “emergence of the idea of transgender”.

It also provides a neat summary of a shift in “progressive” rights-based activism – away from demands for “more freedom from the state for people to determine their sex lives unconstrained by the law’, and towards demands for “recognition and protection from the state […] to regulate the behaviour of those outside of the identity group”. 

5) Deep philosophical claims and arguments lie beneath all policy recommendations and legal analyses, and the written output of the sex/gender debate is no exception. Indeed, those of us who write about these matters are often criticised for being too esoteric, and for failing to engage with the real world.

Hopefully, the practical focus of the works listed above will serve to counter that criticism sufficiently, however, for us to be able to end this week’s column by recommending some top philosophical writing. We have great hopes for Sussex philosopher Kathleen Stock’s upcoming book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminists, due out in 2021.

But, until then, check out her recent TLS review of Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence, and her 2019 Aristotelian Society talk on sexual orientation as a “reflexive disposition to be sexually attracted to people of a particular biological Sex or Sexes”.   

Caroline Nokes: Spare a thought for women. Male ministers have forgotten we exist in their lockdown easing plans.

30 Jun

Caroline Nokes is Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North. 

Covid-19 has taught us many things about the importance of physical and mental wellbeing. We discovered (if we actually needed to be told) that your chances of recovery were greatly improved by being physically fit and in the normal weight range for your height.

We found out that mental resilience was important to cope with long periods of relative isolation, and social contact carried out mainly by Zoom. We were told very firmly that an hour of exercise should be part of our daily routine, and pretty much the only way to escape the house legitimately.

But for women in particular the importance of wellbeing seems to have gone well and truly out of the window as lockdown is relaxed.

Why oh why have we seen the urge to get football back, support for golf and fishing, but a lack of recognition that individual pilates studios can operate in a safe socially-distanced way, rigorously cleaned between clients?

Barbers have been allowed to return from July 4 because guess what – men with hair need it cut. They tend not to think of a pedicure before they brave a pair of sandals, although perhaps the world would be a better place if they did. Dare I say the great gender divide is writ large through all this?

Before anyone gets excited that women enjoy football and men do pilates can we please just look at the stats? Football audiences are (according to 2016 statistics) 67 per cent male and don’t even get me started on the failure of the leading proponents of restarting football to mention the women’s game.

Pilates and yoga (yes I know they are not the same thing) have a client base that is predominantly women and in the region of 80 per cent of yoga instructors are women. These are female-led businesses, employing women, supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of women, and still they are given no clue as to when the end of lockdown will be in sight.

Could it be that the decisions are still being driven by men, for men, ignoring the voices of women round the Cabinet table, precious few of them though there are? I have hassled ministers on this subject, and they tell me they have been pressing the point that relaxation has looked more pro-men than women, but it looks like the message isn’t getting through.

I will declare an interest. Since I first adopted Grapefruit Sparkle as a suitably inoffensive nail colour for an election campaign in 2015, I have been a Shellac addict. The three weekly trip to Unique Nails is one of life’s little pleasures, an hour out, sitting with constituents, chatting, laughing, drinking tea.

It is good for the soul, a chance to recharge and chill out. And for many of the customers it is their chance to not have to bend to get their toenails trimmed, it is a boost to their mood, that can last for a full three weeks until it is time for a change.

And it is a fairly harmless change to go from Waterpark to Tartan Punk in an hour. Natural nails have done very little for my mood since a nice chap from Goldman Sachs told me: “you could go far if only you opted for a neutral nail, perhaps a nice peach.”

At school I was described as a “non-participant” in sport – I hated it, and it has taken decades to find the activities I can tolerate to keep my weight partially under control. Walking the dog is a great way, but nothing is as effective as the individual work-out rooms in a personal training studio – where it is perfectly possible for those of us who do not like to be seen in lycra to exercise in isolation and then have the place cleaned for the next victim.

I am not suggesting it is only women who do not like to exercise in vast gyms, there are men with similar phobias, but what I cannot get over is the lack of recognition that a one-to-one session in a studio is not the same as toddling off to your local treadmill factory.

The Pilates studio owners of Romsey and Southampton North are deeply frustrated at the apparent inability to draw the distinction between their carefully controlled environments and much larger facilities where, to be blunt, there is a lot of sweat in the atmosphere.

I know I get criticised for being obsessed about women – it goes hand in hand with the job description – but I cannot help but feel this relaxation has forgotten we exist. Or just assumed that women will be happy to stay home and do the childcare and home schooling, because the sectors they work in are last to be let out of lockdown, while their husbands go back to work, resume their lives and celebrate by having a pint with their mates.

(And yes I do know women drink beer too, but there is a gender pint gap, with only one in six women drinking beer each week compared to half of men.)

Crucially, women want their careers back and they want their children in school or nursery. Of course home working has been great for some, but much harder if you are also juggling childcare and impossible if your work requires you to be physically present, like in retail, hairdressing, hospitality.

These are sectors where employees are largely women, and which are now opening up while childcare providers are still struggling to open fully – with reduced numbers due to social distancing requirements. It is a massive problem, which I worry has still not been fully recognised or addressed.

Perhaps if the PM needed to sort the childcare, get his nails done and his legs waxed it might be different. But it does seem that the Health Secretary, the Chancellor, the Business Secretary and the Secretary of State for Sport and Culture, who all have a very obvious thing in common, have overlooked the need to help their female constituents get out of lockdown on a par with their male ones.

Am I going to have to turn up to work with hairy legs to persuade them that women’s wellbeing matters?