Emily Carver: Making misogyny a hate crime would be a big mistake

24 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Calls to make misogyny a hate crime are not new. But it is only now, following the Sarah Everard tragedy, that the Government has ceded to what were hitherto pretty leftfield demands.

From autumn 2021, police in England and Wales will be required “on an experimental basis” to record crimes of violence motivated by a person’s sex or gender. This has been heralded by feminist groups and prominent politicians such as Labour MP Stella Creasy as a “campaign win”. In their view, we are now one step closer to keeping women and girls safe from male-perpetrated violence.

While the law remains unchanged (for now the police will only be asked to collect data on such incidents), the Law Commission – whose review into current hate crime legislation is yet to be published – has already recommended that sex or gender-based “hostility” be added to the existing five characteristics protected in hate crime laws.

Given the emotionally-charged reporting and outpouring of public emotion we have seen in recent weeks, it seems likely that a government under immense pressure to “do something” will press ahead with expanding the definition of a hate crime into law.

Such a knee-jerk reaction would simply represent yet another example of ministers using legislation to appease single-issue activist groups without considering the possible unintended consequences.

It should worry us all that a Conservative government is even on board with the concept of a hate crime. Assault, criminal damage, harassment, murder and many other grievous offences are already crimes. Adding the complexity of motivation – which is often wholly subjective – means the law is no longer even-handed. Any person from a protected minority group can automatically demand a higher penalty purely based on their perception of motivation, which may or may not be accurate.

Furthermore, as we have seen with recent and increasing attempts to clamp down on offensive speech in Scotland, hate crime legislation creates a scenario in which thoughts and ideas are subject to the criminal law – an Orwellian overreach of state power that has no place in our liberal democracy.

And it won’t stop here – it never does. Demands that we expand the definition are growing: consider how the Greater Manchester Police reportedly include “alternative subculture groups” like goths, emos and punks in that increasingly nebulous group, “protected minorities”. Should verbally abusing someone who dresses as an emo really carry a higher penalty than abusing someone with no visible minority status?

Will it create a more tolerant society, one that shields those who someone, somewhere, believe need protection? Did anyone ask the punks what they think? Or are there simply no limits to increasing the burden on our police offers and criminal justice system?

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the water muddies further when it comes to including sex or gender in hate crime legislation. One would assume that hate crimes are there to protect minorities, but if an offence can be registered as a hate crime on the basis person’s sex or gender, in theory, any crime could be argued to be motivated by hate.

One has to ask whether the Stella Creasy’s of this world have considered that heterosexual white males could, in future, be victims of a hate crime. But if, as is likely, this legislation is designed to solely target misogyny, is it really a win for feminists? After all, giving women protected status would mean men and women are no longer deemed equal before law – a move that few would regard as progressive.

Despite years of campaigning for equality between the sexes, the direction of travel is moving firmly towards more policing of male and female interactions rather than less. The Prime Minister has already advocated such measures as the introduction of plain clothes police in bars and clubs to “protect women”, while madcap proposals to introduce a curfew for men were taken far more seriously than they ever should have been.

There is also a sad irony that many of those on the progressive left who have demanded that misogyny become a hate crime often have so little to say when it comes to less politically expedient issues, such as gender self-identification and the systematic abuse of under-aged girls at the hands of grooming gangs. They’re fixated on fashionable, woke causes that set women in reverse and the real frustration is that often these feminist warriors are in a position to influence and move the dial on the very real challenges we still face.

In the past year, we have grown accustomed to state involvement in almost every aspect of our lives. If the Government is serious about protecting women from male-perpetrated assault, they should concentrate on enforcing existing laws and making sure our criminal justice system is fit for purpose –  last year just 3.6 per cent of reported sexual offences resulted in prosecution – rather than legislating according to whichever activist group shouts the loudest.

Ruth Davidson: The pandemic has been devastating for the world’s poorest girls. We cannot turn our backs on them.

18 Mar

Ruth Davidson is the MSP for Edinburgh Central and Leader of the Conservative Party in the Scottish Parliament. This is a sponsored post by Crack the Crises.

The pandemic has hit harder than I think any of us would have imagined when we first heard of another respiratory virus jumping species and spreading around the world. For over a year, our lives have been turned upside down.

While we have all been touched in some way, nobody would suggest that it has affected us all equally. There are dozens of factors that have impacted the way we’ve experienced the last year – in different parts of the UK we’ve faced different restrictions, our jobs have carried varying degrees of risk, and our age, ethnicity, whether or not we have children and our medical histories have shaped the challenges we face.

Following International Women’s Day, and when the safety of women and girls is hitting the headlines back home, it is worth noting that there are few groups for whom this experience has been more damaging than for the poorest girls in the poorest countries.

The UK Government has done much to highlight the inequality they face – the Prime Minister has been a champion for the power of girls’ education as a transformative force in development, and a series of ministers, including the brilliant Baroness Sugg who recently resigned, have driven that agenda forward.

Even before Covid-19 hit us, 130 million girls were out of school, but after the school closures introduced to restrict the spread of the virus, research suggests that ten million more girls are at risk of never returning to school. The immense efforts taken to get girls the opportunity of a better future that education provides are – in millions of cases – being reversed.

For too many girls, being out of school is not just about not learning. It can mean facing abuse, being put to work, being married off or otherwise having their futures snatched away from them. It is estimated that 2.5 million more girls are at risk of child marriage as a result of the pandemic, and one million more girls are at risk of adolescent pregnancy. For the lucky amongst us, this pandemic may have been a tedious intermission in our lives, but that, at base is all it has been. For these girls, it has taken away their ability to shape their own futures.

Over the last ten years, under Conservative Prime Ministers, there have been fewer more powerful forces for the rights of women and girls on the world stage than the UK Government. Projects like the Girls’ Education Challenge have supported millions of girls through school, our progressive leadership in family planning has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives in childbirth and helped women to control their own futures.

When others stepped back, such as in President Trump’s introduction of the Mexico City Policy restricting family planning, the UK stepped up. But Rishi Sunak’s announcement that the Government will break its promise to keep aid spending at 0.7 per cent of our national income puts this role in jeopardy just when it is most necessary. As every other member of the G7 increases its aid in response to the pandemic, the UK is alone in shirking from the task.

The recent reports of cuts in our support to countries like Yemen and Syria are a stark reminder of the practical impact of our broken promise. But It won’t just be in warzones where it’s felt. Girls growing up in extreme poverty, faced by the injustice of gender inequality and the oppression it brings, will have a lifeline withdrawn just when they need it most. I salute MP colleagues who are making it known to the Conservative whips that they will not be party to this abdication of our moral duty on the world stage.

For so many within the party, support of the 0.7 per cent is a cultural shibboleth helping to define the type of Conservatism we practice – and a quick headcount shows our number can tip the scales. So I welcome weekend briefing rolling back a permanent cut to a temporary one. But, frankly, I’d rather the Chancellor reconsidered his decision entirely. The UK shouldn’t balance its books on the backs of the world’s poorest and what a waste it would be to reverse the phenomenal progress towards gender equality of which we have been a part.

There has been much political discussion in recent years about how women succeed, what the barriers are and how we individually and collectively can overcome them. It’d be patronising to suggest that the intervention of others is the decisive factor in this, but it is absolutely undeniable that the context in which women grow up helps to shape their chances.

Millions of the next generation of women will have a tougher start in life, and a slimmer shot at success, because the withdrawal of UK aid will make it harder for them to learn, harder to avoid abuse and child marriage, and harder to take their futures into their own hands.

Davina McCall, groupthink and the Twitterfication of society

13 Mar

In recent days, the UK has been shocked by the murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who was attacked while walking home in South London. A Met Officer has since been charged with her kidnap and murder. Everard was clearly loved by so many people. It is horrific that a young woman going about her life should be taken in this way. My thoughts are with her family and friends at this terrible time.

Lots of women are naturally very upset about what happened. Everard’s murder has sparked a national conversation about safety. Some women feel nervous about parts of life that men take for granted, and may have had awful experiences that shape how they navigate the world. As a 32-year-old woman I know that I might be expected to continue that discussion here, but I do not wish to. All I can say is that I was extremely sorry to hear the news.

Why is this piece about Davina McCall, the TV presenter? It is a sad reflection of our times to move from tragedy to social media wars in the course of one article. But that is what has happened in real life this week. I have been astonished by the speed at which conversations about women’s safety moved to heated arguments, and then political opportunism. The debate on women’s safety escalated when Baroness Jenny Jones from the Green Party suggested the UK needs a 6pm curfew for men.

It was such an extreme thing to suggest that I thought it was a (dire) joke at first. The idea should have been quickly dismissed, but Mark Drakeford then took the stupidity baton and ran with it, suggesting that Wales could implement this plan. In the meantime, the commentariat argued over how much responsibility men have to tackle women’s safety.

Even just listening to women’s experiences has surely been an important lesson for men this week – to realise how common it is for them to be fearful, and the reasons why. We must do more as a society. But generalisations about men can be taken too far. How many of us have loved ones that are doing their best every day? Do they deserve to be grouped together with the most evil among us?

McCall wanted to temper the debate, and Tweeted her thoughts to the world (below). It’s hard to overstate how much bravery her post took. McCall has 2.7 million followers, a fantastic career and we live in an era when celebrities are allowed to say a very limited range of things (whatever anyone claims). She risks severe reputational damage in posting this:

Almost immediately newspapers deemed this the “wrong” view to have. All the headlines followed the same narrative: “Davina McCall condemned”, “Davina McCall criticised”, “Davina McCall faces backlash”, “Davina McCall slammed”, “Davina McCall slammed”, “Davina McCall slammed”… there is a lot of slamming… This is me going through all of them online.

But the evidence of McCall being “slammed” is ambiguous to say the least. Let’s take how many people “liked” the Tweet – 85k (at the time of writing). In other words, many people agreed with her, and those are just the ones prepared to show it.

It was interesting to note that one newspaper used the fact McCall was criticised by a Loose Women panellist as evidence she had been widely condemned. It doesn’t surprise me that newspapers think a celebrity shaking their head reflects majority sentiment. I call this the “Twitterfication” of society. We now assume that a vocal/famous minority on Twitter reflects everyone. Anyway, you could just as easily have said “Davina McCall praised for defence of men” based on her Tweet getting 85k likes.

The McCall write up is a problem for journalism. It shows the tendency of writers to a) report Twitter as if it is real life (how many readers actually care what a Loose Women panelist Tweeted about McCall?) and b) frame events on Twitter through their own perspective (“bad Davina!”).

Why does this matter for a political blog? Well for one, the McCall event has to be seen in a wider context. In the last week, UK voters have looked on in bewilderment as Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview essentially destabilised parts of the media. Piers Morgan, for the crime of questioning the couple’s account of their time in the Royal Family, was pretty much shown the door at ITV, as was the editor of the Society of Editors.

We have seen that there is a prevailing orthodoxy in the UK (and indeed US). I don’t think I need to spell out the range of opinions you are supposed to have under this quasi-religion, but one now seems to be around how much responsibility men need to take for other men. Hence why McCall has been treated as blasphemous for stating otherwise. It is a fragile place for a society to be in.

The Government is hoping all this culture war stuff will go away, despite allegations to the contrary (that it wants a culture war). It clearly thinks it can navigate its way around these tricky areas with policies, such as Gavin Williamson’s free speech legislation.

Yes these steps are important, but all MPs also need to roll up their sleeves and put forward their worldviews. The McCall debacle isn’t just a Twitter spat, but an example of how distorted and censorious our society has become thanks to social media. The Government can’t stick out of this one. It needs to find its “inner Davina”.

Johnson believes in gender equality (but is putting more men than women in the House of Lords)

10 Mar

Last November, Boris Johnson became the first Tory leader to endorse the goal of a Parliament containing equal numbers of men and women.

A month after he contributed his promise of support, the following letter appeared in The Times:

Sir, After Boris Johnson’s enthusiastic conversion to a 50:50 gender-balanced parliament, announced in a video on November 20, I looked eagerly for evidence in the latest list of peerages. As the prime minister said: “There is one first that is still long overdue and that is the moment when — for the first time — we finally achieve 50:50 in our parliament.”

Parliament, of course, includes the House of Lords, where even today 92 seats are reserved exclusively for men because of primogeniture. Thanks to our appointments system it would have been easy for the prime minister to appoint only women and improve the proportion (27 per cent) of women on the Conservative benches. However, his list included six men and two women for the Tory benches, taking the total announced since he became prime minister to 22 men and six women. Not even a nod in the direction of the 50:50 parliament.

As the prime minister said in that message four weeks ago, we need more women in parliament “not just because it is about the oldest and most powerful of all political ideas — the equality of all human beings in dignity and rights — though it certainly is about that. It is because, as I passionately believe, if you give men and women the same opportunities you will solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”

I couldn’t agree more.
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington
Co-chair, Women2Win House of Lords

It is generally recognised that the dynamic and resourceful Lady Jenkin, who with Theresa May set up Women2Win in 2005, has done more than anyone else to increase the number of Conservative women MPs, by encouraging capable women to come forward and helping them to become parliamentarians.

The party’s contingent of women MPs, which after the 2005 general election stood at 17, increased to 49 in 2010 and 68 in 2015, fell back to 67 in 2017 and is today at 87, just under a quarter of the total, which stands at 365.

Just over half of Labour MPs – 104 out of 202 – are women. So if that is the way the world is going, the Conservatives are still a long way behind.

Nor is the gap likely to be closed without anyone having to do anything much about it. Supposing at the next general election about 50 or 60 Conservative MPs, mostly men, decide the time has come to retire, it seems unlikely that more than half of their replacements will be women, so only another 25 or 30, which means parity will still be a long way off.

Meanwhile in Scotland, highly qualified women have this week been placed too low on the regional party lists to have any hope of election, while in Wales, women have also fallen back.

On Monday, ConHome asked Lady Jenkin if she thinks Johnson means what he says when he endorses the 50:50 target. She said:

“I think he genuinely means it, but I don’t think he’s given any thought to how it happens, because he’s been very busy.”

Johnson devotes enormous energy to demonstrating that even on issues like the NHS, or the prosperity of voters in the Red Wall seats, or gender equality, where Labour might at least be assumed to have its heart in the right place, the Conservatives can be relied on not only to have the right feelings but to be hard at work implementing effectual plans for reform.

He noted at an early stage in his career that “the trouble with Tory associations is that they don’t groove to chicks”. But where were his effectual plans for reform?

As Mayor of London, he became, as Nimco Ali has related, an opponent of female genital mutilation, before that cause became fashionable.

As Foreign Secretary, he cast around for a cause he might champion, and came up with 12 years of education for every girl worldwide, a cause he will be promoting during Britain’s presidency of the G7.

As Prime Minister, he celebrated International Women’s Day with a reception at Downing Street, held in early March 2020, just before the pandemic rendered such occasions impossible, and reported upon by Hattie Brett for Grazia:

“‘Do you believe men and women are equal?’ the Prime Minister bellowed at one point…no prizes for guessing what the audience of 50 girls from five schools around the country, businesswomen and his new fiancée bellowed back.

In a state room overlooked by a painting of Ada Lovelace, the female mathematician credited with realising the full potential of the modern-day computer, Boris Johnson went on to underline a pledge he made as Foreign Secretary: that his government is committed to providing 12 years of quality education for all girls, in the UK and around the world.

‘Let’s make sure that every girl in the world gets the same investment, same care, same love, same attention in her education as every boy in the world,’ he said. ‘This is the best way to help economies grow, tackle poverty, prevent early marriage and empower women. It is the single most important utensil at the disposal of humanity to change all our lives for the better.’”

As an earnest of his sincerity, Johnson appointed Lady Sugg as the UK’s first ever Special Envoy for Girls’ Education. Sugg declared:

“Today around 130 million girls worldwide are being denied the right to an education, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. Girls are kept out of school due to poverty, the threat of violence and because often, girls are simply not valued as much as boys. This tragic waste of potential must end.

“Giving girls the chance to learn is not only the right thing to do, it’s one of the smartest investments we can make with UK aid.”

But in November, Lady Sugg resigned as Special Envoy, and Minister for Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, in protest at cuts in the aid budget.

Those cuts jar with the Prime Minister’s long-standing commitment to girls’ education worldwide.

As Lady Jenkin has observed, he has a direct role in appointments to the House of Lords. If he wishes, he could demonstrate his commitment to gender equality by recommending only women for peerages until the Conservative Party had attained gender equality in that house.

But to do so would be to refrain from using, as a means of control over men, one of the richest sources of patronage he possesses.

Puritans disapprove of patronage, but it is the principal power possessed by any Prime Minister.

Many men who believe themselves to be in line for a peerage might withhold their support from Johnson, or refrain from donating funds, if they were told must abandon hope of obtaining that bauble.

A “women only for the House of Lords ” policy would open the Prime Minister to the charge of allowing political correctness to run mad.

He would also expose himself to bitter reproaches if he were to support a compulsory retirement age for peers of 80, which would change the balance of the house by clearing out around 160 mostly male peers.

One suspects that Johnson will prefer to get his spokeswoman to insist, as she did this week, that he is a feminist, who will soon reshuffle his Cabinet, which at present contains five women, in order to admit one or two more.

For his Commons majority, Johnson will continue, for the foreseeable future, to rely on the votes of men as well as women. He will be aware that if, in order to attain gender equality, he denies male MPs, no matter how gifted, all hope of promotion to ministerial office, he could very soon find his own position in danger.

So although Johnson is a fervent believer in gender equality, one may surmise that he will be unable to attain it in the immediate future even within his own party.

He is, however, reported to be considering scrapping primogeniture, a reform which would in time ensure that about half the 92 hereditary peers who remain in the Lords were women.

Here is a change which would demonstrate the Prime Minister’s staunch commitment to equality, and essentially modern outlook, without impairing his powers of patronage.

International Women’s Day and what the polls tell us. ‘Building back better’ might need a feminist version too.

8 Mar

Today marks International Women’s Day (IWD), which I confess I have a degree of cynicism about. Like many Conservatives, I am generally wary of anything related to identity politics. It is not as empowering as some of its proponents seem to think.

Case in point: several years ago I was asked to be on a debating panel. When I replied that I wasn’t available that day, the producer replied: “do you know any other right-leaning women?” I immediately realised what box I sat in: right-wing, tick, woman, tick. But I just want to be me first and foremost.

So you can understand my wariness around a “woman’s day”, which can sometimes treat us as something of a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same thing. That or it becomes a PR exercise more than anything (as I am writing this I spot a shop offering a IWD discount).

Nonetheless there are clearly many issues that directly impact women, and IWD at least gives us a chance to pause and reflect on where feminism must go next. The very name – “international” women’s day – should give us a clue of where our efforts are most needed, as there are still unbelievably terrible stories of gender inequality in the news.

From maternal mortality rates (every day in 2017, around 810 women died from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth), to women in Saudi Arabia only being allowed to drive from 2018 to the recent murder of three female journalists by gunmen in Afghanistan, these are all reminders of our duty to do more internationally.

There is a huge amount to say on feminism in 2021 – and the aforementioned issues, which deserve books, never mind articles written about them. But this week ConservativeHome will be examining these issues through more of an electoral/ domestic lens; from examining candidate selection to what policies women want, to this piece, which will look at polling and how it can help Conservatives reach more women at future general elections.

Ostensibly it looks like there is no big difference between how men and women vote, judging from the last election in 2019. YouGov found that 46 per cent of men voted Conservative versus 44 per cent for women. But the gender gap actually becomes quite pronounced when you look at 18-24 year olds. Sixty five per cent of women in this age bracket voted Labour (46 per cent for men) in 2019, and 15 per cent of women voted Conservative (versus 28 per cent for men), which is a dramatic margin.

Going up an age category, to 25-49-year-olds, 45 per cent of women voted Labour and 32 per cent voted Conservative, whereas 40 per cent of men voted Labour, and 35 per cent Conservative. These differences are smaller than those found in 18-24-year-olds, but they could prove significant at future elections. As Stephen Bush, political editor of The New Statesman, recently wrote for The Times, “the party that finds a way to merge its core vote with the growing power of the 30 to 50-year-olds will dominate politics for decades to come.”

So how do politicians engage more with these groups? What do women want (at least, according to polls)? Patrick English, Research Manager at YouGov, levels with me: “Generally speaking, we don’t find huge differences on average between men and women’s opinions on a whole host of topics, including the economy, health, and public policy.” But he does add that there “*might* be something of a gender gap opening regarding the economy versus health.”

In one of YouGov’s latest trackers, 61 per cent of women picked health as one of the most important issues, compared to only 46 per cent of men. He says to watch this space there. He also points out that there are systematic differences that tend to occur in nuclear issues, with women much less favourable to maintaining Trident, or something like it, than men are.

Lastly he tells me that “a much higher percentage of women aren’t sure about (how well) the job the Government is doing than men. This suggests maybe that there are a higher number of women than men open to convincing on the Government’s record to date.” So how could it inspire some more confidence here?

Research from polling agency Ipsos MORI suggests that women need hope more than anything, largely as a result of the pandemic. While men are the immediate victims – being more vulnerable to the virus on aggregate – women have been badly effected by the economic toll.

In 2020, Ipsos MORI found that 33 per cent of women in work said their workplaces had been closed compared with 25 per cent of men, as they “are more likely to work in sectors most affected by the pandemic, such as hospitality, retail and travel”. Currently 140,000 more women than men are on furlough (2.32 million women in total). As a result, 60 per cent of women were finding it hard to stay positive day to day compared with 43 per cent of men.

Furthermore, Ipsos MORI found that 55 per cent of working mums said that they are finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day compared 35 per cent of working dads. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that, when balancing working from home and home schooling, mothers were able to do one hour of uninterrupted work for every three hours done by fathers. These stark differences highlight one of the most challenging issues of our time: women still continue to take the brunt of childcare, which has a disproportionate effect on their careers compared to men’s.

While the conservative argument is always that childcare is about personal choice – and indeed it is for many women – there will be others who disagree with this analysis, wanting more support from the Government, their employers or otherwise. Having children may be the biggest factor of all in differences in pay between men and women (as I have written about previously for The Spectator). Add to that the housing crisis (women my own age – I’m 32 – are nowhere near owning), the struggle to “have it all” has become even harder.

As Kully Kaur-Ballagan, Research Director at Ipsos MORI, told me: “The pandemic has exacerbated gender inequalities; women have been finding it harder to stay positive day to day, feel they have shouldered more of the childcare responsibilities and continue to be more pessimistic about the economy. As Britain starts to rebuild, ensuring the recovery addresses the issues facing women, such as flexible working, mental health, social care and protection from abuse, will be essential to ensuring that gender equality progresses otherwise there is a risk of rolling back.”

Ipsos MORI’s findings are not limited to the UK, incidentally. In 2020 it found similar patterns across G7 countries, where 73 per cent of women report being afraid of the future compared to 63 per cent of men; 59 per cent have experienced burnout, anxiety or depression, compared to 46 per cent of men, and there were clear concerns around childcare and careers. So many governments are going to have to think about how they do fix what could be called “the burnout gap”.

In the UK, perhaps part of the problem is that we have spent the last four years arguing over Brexit (Brexiteer here, by the way), so much so that we have lost focus on some of the more mundane aspects of people’s lives (childcare, the work-life balance). The pandemic has merely highlighted the challenges that were already there for women.

While the Government has set about an incredibly ambitious “levelling up” programme for “left behind” regions around the country, perhaps it could apply a similar process to some of the issues facing women. It cannot remedy every problem the polling has brought up – such as workplace barriers – but it can do more to do things like fixing housing. This is an issue that is disproportionately affecting the younger age groups heading over to Labour. By all indications from the data, “building back better” might need its own feminist vision too.

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?