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'It's not just the toilets, stupid' -

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

The Electoral Commission’s recent publication “Gender and political participation” highlighted the importance of women politicians in increasing the participation of women in elections. In 2001 where a female MP was elected turnout amongst women was 4% higher than seats where male MPs were elected. In those seats significantly more women agreed with the statement “Government benefits people like me”. So it’s not just seeing women in parliament, but believing that they will have an impact on policies to the benefit of all women.

When I’m asked whether its more difficult being a female MP than a male MP, I usually say yes, because there are not enough toilets. OK, I’m going for the cheap laugh, but it’s a common experience for women, having to queue as there’s insufficient provision in public places. You will be happy to know that I’ve set my sights higher than legislation to increase the number of women’s toilets: I’m suggesting that there should be a duty on public bodies to promote equality between the sexes in the provision of services.


What exactly would this mean? Essentially it’s ensuring that public services are relevant and don’t primarily meet the needs of either men or women to the exclusion of the other. For example, women are significantly more likely to be victims of domestic violence - on average 2 women a week murdered by a partner or former partner. The police need to respond to this as the serious crime it is and not give it a lower priority because its ‘domestic’.


In health, cancers that affect men should receive the same level of priority as those that affect women. Women have gained a high profile for breast cancer - its detection and cure, while it is only recently that prostate and testicular cancer have been receiving significant publicity. On the other hand in smoking prevention, the adverts and facts appeared to help in reducing the numbers of young men taking up smoking, but now we find it’s actually increasing amongst young women in worrying numbers.


There’s a great deal of discussion in education circles that boys are doing worse at schools than girls - this inequality needs addressing. Yet despite this, girls generally end up in lower paid jobs. What is Connexions, the advice and guidance service, doing to address low aspirations by girls? Would having more women in leadership roles in society help girls develop their own aspirations to succeed?

But isn’t this just another duty that will burden our public bodies and add to the cost of bureaucracy with very little to show? Some local authorities and public bodies are improving services to meet the different needs of women and men. It doesn’t have to be costly - in fact by providing services that are more relevant, it can save money. And there’s already some experience within the UK.

The law that set up the Welsh Assembly requires it to “make appropriate arrangements with a view to securing that its functions are exercised with due regard to the principle that there should be equality of opportunity for all people.” Its ‘Committee on Equality of Opportunity’ has a work programme tackling issues that affect women, disabled people and ethnic minorities, and indeed any group who might be discriminated against. The range of its work has included equal pay, flexible working, increasing the numbers of women in public life.


The National Assembly’s work on equal pay has been praised by the Department for Trade and Industry as leading the way in the UK, and there is interest in the strategy from Canada and Australia. The primary objective of the “Close the Pay Gap” campaign has been to tackle discrimination in pay systems as the single biggest cause of the gender pay gap. With this duty perhaps it’s no accident that the Welsh Assembly leads the world in equality of gender representation. There are equal numbers of male and female members and equal numbers of men and women in the cabinet.


In local Government many Councils have been working on these issues. A quick surf of the internet and I found Manchester City Council having made domestic violence one of its top ten priorities in its Crime and Disorder Strategy, having produced a directory of services for women and a  ‘Women’s Forum’ - to specifically consult women about services. Nottinghamshire County Council have a corporate equalities plan to look at all possible areas of discrimination. The Beacon Council scheme has had themes of promoting racial equality and access, perhaps its time for one on gender equality to ensure good practice is acknowledged and disseminated.


Fundamentally it’s about fairness. Administrations at local, regional and national level need to be more inclusive, to demonstrate that they are able to serve all those who look to them for services. The Government has already given public bodies a duty to promote race equality. Providers of services are beginning to respond to the needs of their black and ethnic minority users. The Disability Discrimination Act is starting to tackle issues of access and make services more responsive to the differing needs of disabled people.  Let’s look forward to when this law is passed and we see an end to long queues outside women’s conveniences. More toilets for women - that’s a slogan that’s got to be a winner.





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