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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Women in the Workplace

Thursday, March 13, 2014

At an event to celebrate International Women’s Day held at Sheffield Hallam University Meg gave the following contribution.

The theme for the day, ‘Women’s Career development highways or winding roads’ is very pertinent. Despite the advances in the workplace that women have gained, many not open to our mother’s generation, for far too many women the answer still remains a winding road.

Some of you know that I have been working on the lack of women in the scientific, engineering and technology sectors. I edited a publication on this and have been following up speaking and writing, trying with many others to increase the possibilities for women in these fields. Next week I will be launching a new publication about the same situation for women in the construction industry.

Now I’m not a scientist, mathematician, engineer, bricklayer, surveyor, architect or decorator - I have at times been a linguist, social worker, manager and currently a politician. One, whom I’m proud to say, was in 2012 awarded Chartered Manager status by the Chartered Managers Institute, the first UK politician to achieve this award.   

My passion for highlighting the lack of women in so called ‘non traditional areas’ springs not from my own background, but from a desire for gender equality. It’s not some abstract idea that by obtaining a 50:50 workforce all problems will disappear. No, it’s recognition that stereotyping women and men into different slots across the workforce, as in life in general, hurts us all.

If we are to achieve gender equality we need to change the culture of our workplaces at every level and in every business; and we need to address how we educate our young people.

Can women reach their potential in public life?

A good place to start is in public life, do women have the opportunity to reach their potential. Now Britain is a very different society than when I grew up. Over the years much has happened about gender equality in public life, yet we still have a way to travel.

The facts suggest we are slipping back. One example comes from changes in the machinery of government - where we used to have a high emphasis on equality we now have a downsized Equalities Office.  Where we had action on diversity, led by senior figures across Whitehall, which brought women into higher grades across the civil service, little now appears to be happening. 

In a Civil Service Reform document published in April 2013 diversity was mentioned in one paragraph and read “The Civil Service is committed to diversity and equality and is keen to attract and support talented people to grow and progress, regardless of background.”   It said there would be a series of positive action learning interventions, (whatever they are), to equip staff in under-represented groups to realise their potential. So we have an equality statement which fails to mainstream diversity, one which did not mention the need for culture change to build a truly representative workforce. 

ONS statistics published in October 2012 stated that 37.4% of the Senior Civil Service were women.  The target set for the next year was 39% - not ambitious and certainly not challenging.  The October 2013 ONS statistics show 36% women - 3% short of the target and down on the previous year. There are 10 women Permanent Secretaries 27%.  Yet over 50% of the workforce are women.

In 2012 for public bodies as a whole, the percentage of women appointed was 35%.  In the Judiciary, a not unimportant part of society, the figure was 24% - with only 8% of Supreme Court judges being women.

So in public life we appear to be going backwards in some important areas - why is that? 

First let’s look at the House of Commons and ministerial positions to see if the commitment is there. Since 1918 369 women have been elected to Parliament, which is only 8% over that period, 61% of whom have been Labour members.  In 1997 the number of women in the Commons almost doubled to 120 101 of them Labour, the others spread across all the other parties.

Currently 23% of MPs are women 23% of the House of Lords only 18% of the Cabinet. As illustrated recently, there have been a number of times in the Commons when the government front bench has been devoid of women. Overall only 26% of Ministers are women prior to 2010 that figure was 30%.

Of course we had Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, unfortunately she was known for holding women back from ministerial promotion rather than the reverse.

Women ministers have traditionally been placed in ‘safe’ departments for example there has never been a woman Secretary of State for Defence. It was not really until the 1990s that women made the top table

        1992 Betty Boothroyd became Speaker of the House of Commons,

        1997 Ann Taylor the first Leader of the House of Commons,

        2006 Margaret Becket the first Foreign Secretary,

        2007 Jacqui Smith the first Home Secretary,

        2008 Yvette Cooper the first Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

 

It is disappointing that a number of women MPs are standing down at the next election myself included.  The figure so far is roughly the same percentage for Labour and for the Conservatives 8%. However an important point is that the average age of the Labour women who are stepping down is 68, (yes I know I look young for my age!), and the average time spent as an MP is 25 years.  For the Conservatives the women are significantly younger and three have served only a single term and one stepped down after two years.

 

For local councillors a 2010 survey by the Local Government Association found that 31% were women; 21% Leaders or deputy Leaders.  The percentage of women councillors in London was highest at 36%; in metropolitan authorities 33% and in the shires 25%.

Looking beyond Parliament and politicians - in the armed forces only 12.6% of officers are women; in the NHS 32% of consultants; in the police 18% of women are ranked at Chief Inspector or higher.

In nursery and primary education women are in a clear majority at 86%, with 61% in secondary education. However with head teachers those figures reduce to 71% for nurseries and primaries, with for secondary schools a huge drop to 37%.

In higher education for 2011/12 we had 21% of professors being female; 35% of senior lecturers and researchers; and, a Times survey in 2011 indicated that just 17% of Vice Chancellors were women.  More worryingly, particularly given my experience in the science, technology and engineering sector, is that in 2011 the London Mathematical Society reported that only 6% of mathematics professors were women, and only 17% of engineering and technology professors.

These statistics illustrate that there is an issue with women’s career choices. I do not believe for a minute that there is an issue with their ability.  It is an issue which boils down to what is classed as ‘men’s’ work and what is classed as ‘women’s’ work.

Is the culture of our public services inclusive?

Apart from few role models in senior public positions an additional problem can be the cultural one. Is the culture of our public services inclusive, welcoming, open, and engaging or is it closed, exclusive and hierarchical?  

This can be seen in a number of ways.

Sexism is not just an overt practice but can be covert as well ranging from unwanted sexual suggestions, inappropriate use of language to belittle women, touching and feeling women’s bodies without permission.  Some of those may sound unimportant, but at best they show a lack of understanding and at worst an idea that women are there to serve in whatever way that a particular man wants.  I believe it’s symptomatic of a desire to see women as inconsequential without serious intent.  They are examples of what has become known as ‘everyday sexism’.  

Just like in many workplaces, I am occasionally brought up short by the attitudes of colleagues.  One day I was buying a salad and discussing with a male colleague the need to try and eat healthily, his reply to me was that I didn’t want to lose my schoolgirl figure!  Meant in jest no doubt, but I’m 54 and not the best thing to say to me.

On another occasion when in a hurry I came across a male MP who had forgotten his security pass and so couldn’t get through a door. I quickly opened the door to which he remarked: “What a helpful girl you are.”  I sighed to myself but hurried on when he added: “And a very fit girl.”

This did cause me to express my displeasure at being belittled.  He protested he was just being friendly.  I have no problem with people being friendly.  After all I’m from Sheffield and we call everyone “love” men and women.  But this sort of comment is just sexist. He wouldn’t have dreamt of saying to a middle-aged male colleague “And a very fit boy”.

After such incidents, I’m left wondering what were these men thinking.  Did they assume I’d be flattered?  I’m not saying that these remarks come close to the experience of more serious forms of sexual harassment, but they are symptomatic of a culture that fails to value women in the same way as men.

They belittle, stereotype and put women into a place that can pave the way for some men to go beyond saying something, to serious and dangerous forms of sexual harassment. 

This culture is more likely to occur in male dominated workplaces and is often a reason why talented women leave jobs they are good at. Many employers do not recognize the potential women have in the workplace, because if it is OK to treat women in that way it becomes easy not to take them seriously and value them as they do male colleagues.

Some people will say that we should concentrate on more serious issues - every week on average two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. Of course we have to do more to tackle violence against women, but it is a first step in changing attitudes about what is acceptable. It is something that we should be able to achieve; after all, it is only about our right to be treated with respect and dignity.

Education

Society forces choices on our children which often determine their future. I was struck by a comment from one young woman when I was editing a publication about women in science, engineering and technology. She said “How can you dream of being an engineer if you don’t know what one is?”  

If you have never seen, never heard, a women inventing something, fixing something, will girls dream about doing that job when older?   For engineer you can read politician, professor, judge, army officer, business leader.

The recent ‘Women in Leadership’ Report, published by Women in Management and the Chartered Management Institute, supports this. Liz Jackson, the CEO of Great Guns Marketing, identified a lack of knowledge among young women about the workplace.  She found that “Most girls just don’t know what is out there.  There is a massive detachment between education and the workplace, where they don’t know about these great jobs that exist”.

From an early age we give boys toys to build things with, we give girls dolls. We limit their imagination from the moment they are born. Children learn early just what a ‘woman’s’ job and a ‘man’s’ job are, and make their choices accordingly.  Once set on a particular educational path it can be hard to change and complete a new set of appropriate subjects

So what can we do?

The focus of today’s event is good it is important that women support one another and network - but we need to come away with some very positive actions. Actions not just for ourselves, but for what we can do for the young women entering the university for the first time.  To focus on what can be done, on the possibilities we can help create what influence we can bring to bear beyond these four walls.

For instance, I am working with the University of Sheffield (am I allowed to mention them here?), on an everyday sexism project. We will be conducting research with students as a pilot group and will then roll out the project I hope to involve Hallam in that.

Maybe there is a research project that you can undertake to highlight the positive aspects of flexible working beyond the university campus.  Is there scope for one of the Departments to undertake a wider project in this area with local business? 

Is there more to do in networking with other universities to push the agenda and avoid stereotyping in education?  Do you have some ideas I am happy to do what I can to support work in this area.

Should we be doing more to promote positive role models and highlight the success of women? I’m delighted that the University of Sheffield listened to my suggestion that the new engineering building should be named after a woman. Pam Liversidge is not just a successful engineer she was also the first, and so far Sheffield’s only female Master Cutler.

What more can the university do to encourage young women to think out of the box, to raise their sights and think about what they are capable of achieving not just think about traditional roles? 

Challenging sexist remarks when you hear them can feel pretty ineffectual. But by changing attitudes about what is acceptable we help change society.

What can be done to ensure young people are encouraged to take an interest in politics to understand that politics affects the opportunities they have?

You may have other ideas and I would love to hear them.

Conclusion

It says on my paper ‘conclusion’ what is that. To my mind a society that in all walks of life encourages women to fulfil their potential. Such a society I believe would also allow all men fulfil theirs.

Nothing less than a concerted and persistent approach will be sufficient to achieve the transformation that is required.  It could harness the skills and talent of girls and women, who would never dream of taking up certain careers, never dream they could become leaders.

No single agency can resolve the range of economic, institutional, organi­sational and cultural challenges that ex­ist.  However, politicians, educators, business leaders and individuals working together can do it

When I leave Parliament my passion for equality will not diminish.  It was a driving force for me before I became an MP and it will remain so.  I said earlier that Britain is a different place to the one I grew up in we have made progress we cannot allow the foot to be taken off the accelerator. We have to keep up the pressure or forever the road for women will be winding and not a highway.

Thank you for listening. 


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