On international women’s day, do women have cause to celebrate this government?

by Victoria Williams

Today is international women’s day. An apposite occasion to ask, in which case: do women have cause to celebrate the Tory-Liberal government?

In Parliament, women’s representation has improved, with the number of female MPs rising from 126 to 142 in the 2010 election. Nevertheless, the centre for women and democracy has described the 2.5% increase as “derisory”. The election of “Cameron’s cuties” swelled the number of female Conservative MPs from 18 to a more respectable 48 (though one might argue that calling them “Cameron’s Cuties” rather negates any positive aspect of it as an exercise in equality). But even adding in the Lib Dems’ paltry seven female MPs, the two governing parties combined still have fewer woman MPs than Labour’s 81 (and than the 94 they had in 2005, or the 101 in 1997).

In government, the position is worse. The number of women in the cabinet hasn’t declined so much as stagnated, remaining at a grand total of four under Cameron, as it was after Gordon Brown’s final 2009 reshuffle. Labour still has a better track record overall, though, since Brown’s first cabinet in 2007 included five women with a further four having the right to attend, and Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet boasts an impressive 10 female members, including veterans Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell as well as 2005 intake Labour ladies Meg Hillier (shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change) and Mary Creagh (shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs).

In society as a whole, women are the hardest hit by George Osborne’s public service cuts. So stark are these realities that the Fawcett society took the government to court for sexual discrimination following the budget announcement. The assault on tax credits, a transformational Labour initiative, hits women hardest as they are overwhelmingly the majority of those in receipt of them.

In turn, 89% of primary carers are women, so cuts to both child tax credits and public spending on childcare services proved a double whammy for women and a real blow to women’s ability to attain any kind of work/life balance. It would appear that that’s what Cameron wanted all along, since his showcase policy, tax rebates for married couples, only applies to those in which one partner works and the other stays at home. It does not take a lot of primary research to discover which gender in a heterosexual partnership is more likely to be the stay-at-home parent. In total, women will pay nearly £6 billion of the nearly £8 billion extra direct tax and benefits changes.

Women will also suffer the most in employment terms. The public sector, besieged by pay freezes, job losses and savage cutbacks, is staffed by 65% women. Part time workers, whose jobs are the least stable at the best of times, are 85% women.

To the surprise of some, the Tory-Lib Dem government pushed ahead with Labour’s adversely criticised equality act (2010) in the face of cross-party opposition. But there was an outcry over their decision to drop section 78. This section of the act required large organisations employing more than 250 people to measure and publicly report on their gender pay gap as of 2013, with participation voluntary before then. Obviously, publicly shaming companies (or rather, forcing them to shame themselves) with a gender pay gap would have been a meaningful driver toward equal pay, particularly in big corporates preoccupied with their reputations. Dropping this requirement from the act leaves it fairly toothless in the workplace.

The Conservative women’s organisation is hosting a conference to “celebrate” international women’s day in Westminster tonight, as one might have expected. In truth, it doesn’t really seem as though they have a lot to shout about. It is perhaps possible to discern a slight change in the tone of the Tories’ attitudes to women: a marginal shift from utterly contemptuous to occasionally tokenistic. It doesn’t really seem like enough “progress” to warrant “celebration”.

Victoria Williams is a freelance journalist.

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2 Responses to “On international women’s day, do women have cause to celebrate this government?”

  1. Tacitus says:

    I live and work in a constituency where at the last CLP Annual General Meeting, 6 men and 1 woman were voted into posts that should have been held by no more than 4 men and 3 women. At the meeting one ‘senior’ member was heard to say “We must look after the ladies”, whilst a woman member queried whether the constituency actually needed to bother with a Women’s Officer.

    Are women disenfranchised from politics? Absolutely! Should it change? Of course. Has the party the willingness and passion to bring about that change? The jury is out.

  2. John Phelan says:

    ” It is perhaps possible to discern a slight change in the tone of the Tories’ attitudes to women: a marginal shift from utterly contemptuous to occasionally tokenistic.”

    Stick ‘Margaret Thatcher’ in google.

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