Lesley Laird; Time is overdue for bold action on women’s real equality

unnamedLesley Laird is a Scottish Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. Lesley is a supporter of the Women 5050 campaign to achieve gender-balanced representation in Parliament, Local Councils and on Public Boards. Twitter: @LesleyLaird 

With the shocking Harvey Weinstein revelations in the latter part of 2017, you would have thought that whoever was organising the Presidents Club event last month might just have had a light bulb moment before pressing ahead with one of the most disgusting and tasteless events likely to grace any social calendar. Just when you think it can’t get any worse – it does.

I could never be described as a ‘rampant’ feminist but, as friends and colleagues down the years would say, I don’t stand for any nonsense. Here’s the thing. Despite strong and capable women over generations standing up for their sisters, we are still fundamentally fighting the same battle. It goes beyond equality of work and pay. At its heart is respect – or as these two sorry episodes show, a distinct lack of.

Recent events show that successful and very senior male decision-makers still think the rules of respect do not apply to them. This is why something radical needs to be done. If we want a society that truly respects women, the lawmakers and decision-takers need to stop the warm words and apply some real heat to making it happen.

Let’s start with pay. We have had equal pay legislation since 1970, but we still do not have parity between genders when it comes to pay. We need a Government that will take bolder steps to make it so.

I believe that a number of actions need to be taken.

The current equal pay and equality law is not fit for purpose.  It needs to be reviewed, updated and should incorporate specific targets and timescales for organisations to achieve equal pay and equality measures. My Dad, a trade unionist, often told me: “There is never a good time to ask for a pay rise”. In this instance, it’s not a rise – it’s the rate for the job. Organisations have been getting a cheap wage deal out of women for years. It’s time to pay up or pay the consequences.

Which brings me to my second point. I believe, 48 years after equal pay legislation, that if companies have “not yet got with the programme” they should be prosecuted and fined. Just like obligations on health and safety, directors and senior leaders should be held liable for ensuring that their organisation is not simply paying lip service to the law. It’s way past the time to do the right thing.

Thirdly, the UK should set legal quotas for women’s representation on boards – both public and private – with regulatory consequences for non-compliance. The status quo of self-regulation shows there is no motivation for change. If we want something to change then we need to set out a compelling reason for changing, and if that requires legislation, then so be it. Quite simply, increasing female representation on boards is good for business. If you only ever fish in the same pond you will only ever catch the same type of fish – and continue the contaminated culture of Harvey Weinstein and All the President’s Men! Let’s widen the talent pool.

It’s not only at work that women are discriminated against. With rising levels of inequality in our society, it is women and children who are being disproportionately affected.

Nowhere is this so starkly seen than in the impact of austerity measures.  A recent House of Commons Briefing Paper, Estimating the gender impact of tax and benefits changes (December 2017), considered a range of studies looking at the gender impact of tax and benefits changes. Analysis of the 2016 Autumn Budget Statement by The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) showed that “individuals in the poorest households stand to lose most from tax and benefit changes, but in every income group women lose more of their individual income than men and BME women will lose the greatest amount”.   The Group also highlighted that:

  • Lone mothers (91% of lone parents) are set to lose 18% of their household living standards on average – a real terms cut of £9,000 per annum.
  • Single female pensioners (71% of single pensioners) are set to lose 11% of their living standards – the majority due to cuts in social care spending.

A further, and the most glaring, flaw in today’s system is that the current 2010 Equalities Act does not require formal Equality Impact Assessments to be carried out.  By failing to do so, the burden is again being disproportionately carried by women and the poorest in our society without the impact being fully understood and with no targeted mitigation measure even considered.

It is clear that there is a pervasive and unhealthy culture both within the work place and in wider society that continues to serve the few, while the many – and predominantly women – are picking up the tab.

So, let’s keep the pressure on for substantive reform, not just in the work place but in every aspect of our daily lives.

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