In defence of Stella Creasy

25 Nov

Yesterday Stella Creasy, the Labour MP, sparked huge controversy when she complained about not being able to take her three-month old baby son into the House of Commons. 

On Twitter she posted a screenshot of an official letter she had received, which warned she couldn’t have a “seat in the Chamber when accompanied by a child”. In response, Creasy tweeted: “Mothers in the mother of all parliament are not to be seen or heard it seems…”

Almost immediately she started trending on social media, where many criticised her comments. They pointed out that Parliament has its own on-site nursery for children aged three months to five years – so why doesn’t Creasy take her baby there? That, or why can’t she pay for childcare herself? After all, MPs earn a much better salary than most of the population…

Others highlighted the fact that mums in other industries wouldn’t be allowed to take their kids to work, so why should MPs be an exception? On and on went the counter-arguments.

There’s no doubt that bringing a baby to parliament – where our country holds its most important debates – is fraught with difficulties, even if Creasy’s baby looks very well behaved. Imagine if we’d have had some of the Brexit debates of the last few years accompanied by crying babies. Perish the thought!

Even so, I confess I found myself leaning towards Team Stella in this strange Twitter battle, and thought the response to her was quite telling. It’s no bad thing to have an MP point out the challenges of being a working mum, and the knee-jerk apoplectic reaction shows how little people think about this issue.

In many ways, our society has come a long way in promoting women’s rights; it’s easy to think we can relax and that the work is done. But one area we tend to ignore a great deal is motherhood, despite the enormous implications it has for women’s lives.

Take the gender pay gap, for starters. Motherhood is clearly the biggest cause of discrepancies in pay between men and women – forcing women out of their workplaces and/or into part-time work, which is the lowest paid – yet it’s not something MPs spend a long time contemplating, or anyone seems to be particularly vocal about.

More worryingly, lots of women have simply stopped having children, with birth rates the lowest on record in England and Wales since 1938, no doubt because they cannot see how to come out of work to have children. Maybe they have looked at the price of childcare and concluded it would be impossible. Millennials, who are the typical age people have children, also have to navigate expensive rents.

Women are calling out for better societal understanding and solutions here; for politicians to recognise that the current economic conditions make it near impossible for many to start families. So it’s not exactly encouraging when people rage against Creasy because she wants to take a little baby to parliament. Is this really something we need to get so angry about? Boris Johnson, in fact, got it right when he responded that parliament should be “more family friendly” – and so could many other industries be too.

Creasy clearly loves being a mum, which will be refreshing for politics, as she wants to use this experience to shape policy. Recently, for instance, she launched a campaign called VoteMama UK to support parents in politics.

As is obvious from yesterday’s reaction, lots of people will scoff at her ideas, but for many women it’s reassuring to see someone with her influence trying to shake up the system; trying, even just to get people thinking about whether women can “have it all” (they cannot); and ruffling a few feathers along the way. Conservatives shouldn’t mock, but take note.

Emily Carver: The individual no longer seems to count in our identity-obsessed society

10 Nov

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

New research from the Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank, has claimed that inequality among NHS staff members of different races and religions “is getting worse”. 

Its study Attracting, Supporting and Retaining a Diverse NHS Workforce, commissioned by NHS Employers, part of the NHS Confederation, highlights statistical disparities in the experiences and professional outcomes of staff by group, including along the lines of gender, religion, and ethnicity. 

According to data from last year’s NHS staff survey, Muslim staff are more than twice as likely to report experiencing discrimination than staff of no religion, and those who prefer to self-describe their gender are twice as likely to report experiencing discrimination as male or female staff. 

In terms of professional advancement, male nurses were found to be twice as likely to progress up two pay bands than female nurses; ethnic minority staff 27 per cent less likely than white staff to be “very senior managers”; and candidates with Bangladeshi ethnicity were found, on average, to be half as likely to be appointed from an NHS shortlist than a white British person. Where there has been an increase in representation of a minority group, this is described as an “improvement”.  

Of course, discrimination and bullying in the workplace should be seriously investigated, addressed, and dealt with swiftly. But what’s troubling is the implication that runs through the report that diversity is an end goal in and of itself, and that any discrepancy is likely a result of discrimination, bias or a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion. Its authors claim that “despite considerable effort and countless initiatives, inequality between NHS staff groups is persisting or even getting worse ­– and the health service does not have the tools to address this”.

In the same way that much of the analysis on gender pay gap reporting blames sexism for any discrepancies in earnings between men and women, the Nuffield Trust’s report assumes that any disparity between identity groups is down to discrimination – or at least provides little acknowledgement that there may be other factors at play. 

The reader is clearly meant to believe that any disparities between groups, be it in terms of progressing up pay bands, or gaining a position in senior management, must be due to discrimination.  

What’s concerning is how this translates into action. Commenting on the report, Danny Mortimer, Chief Executive of NHS Employers said, “there’s an absolute commitment from our members to finally address the inequities in our workplaces”, and that the report “reminds us that far more urgency and impact is needed in every part of the NHS”. 

Pat Cullen, The Royal College of Nursing Chief Executive, responded by saying that the NHS leadership has “no alternative but to act on the findings” of the report, and that lack of inclusion and diversity can’t be pushed down the list of priorities any longer. This is ironic, considering the recent exposure of just how much we’re spending on NHS Diversity and Inclusion officers every year.

Mortimer says that we must address inequities. But what does this actually mean? What actions are they advocating to ensure there are no such inequities? Does this mean that unless there is parity between groups, that the NHS has failed? And why is this even desirable? Should equality of outcome among staff now be the priority, in an organisation that is creaking at the seams? Surely, the last thing we need is more of our money spent on diversity and inclusion managers. 

But judging by the proposals made by the Nuffield Trust, this is exactly what its authors want. The report recommends that NHS England regularly provides information to employers on their ‘relative and absolute performance’ on equality and diversity. This means continuous data gathering on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation, as well as socioeconomic status, national origin and carer status. All to be supported by “continuous training” for NHS ‘diversity leads’.

Applying to jobs in the public sector and parts of the private sector has become a diversity and inclusion minefield. Demands to fill in your ethnicity, gender, even sexuality are commonplace, while in parts of the civil service they no longer want to see your academic background. Increasingly, it feels as though job ads may as well just put at the top of the job ad notice: “white, heterosexual, able-bodied men need not apply”. 

Diversity and inclusion may be dressed up in the language of equality, progress and advancement but it leads to quite the reverse. It’s lunacy that it has to be said but individuals should be judged as just that, individuals, not by their group identity or by their supposed ‘privileges’.

An institution like the NHS should focus on meritocracy, rather than engaging in pursuits that look suspiciously like social engineering. Come down hard on genuine accusations of discrimination, but whether a nurse is black or white should be of little consequence. 

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.