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International Women’s Day (IWD) this year is asking us to #BeBoldForChange. We are encouraged to call for a more gender inclusive world. We have explored in the course of this series of blogs why IWD is still relevant and I want to look at what more we all stand to gain if we achieve gender parity and a more gender inclusive world.
Watching the debate in Parliament on the proposed state visit from Donald Trump, something soon became clear. All the MPs, with the odd exception, giving speeches in defence of the state visit were white men. The contributions on the other side spanned the gender and racial divide. There were powerful emotional speeches, in particular from women and both men and women of colour who could draw on personal experience to illustrate the arguments against a state visit. Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, said Trump’s rhetoric had left her, as a Muslim, feeling ‘attacked and misrepresented’. She went on to conclude,
‘As a Muslim in this House, I am not an enemy of western democracy; I am part of western democracy. I fought really hard to be elected. I fought against bigotry, sexism and the patriarchy to earn my place in this House. By allowing Donald Trump a state visit and bringing out the china crockery and the red carpet, we endorse all those things that I fought hard against and say, “Do you know what? It’s okay.” I give my heartfelt thanks to the millions of people who signed the petition and I really hope that we do not honour this President.’
By contrast, in seeking to downplay some of the more shocking skeletons which emerged from President Trump’s closet during the presidential campaign, Sir Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, asked an astounded room and country, ‘which one of us has not made some ridiculous sexual comment at some time in our past?’.
And so it was that a litany of white male MPs sought to defend the state visit by seeking to minimise the racist and sexist messages Trump has given through his rhetoric, actions and inherent in some of his proposed policies. And I found myself thinking of my University dissertation.
As a third year law student, I chose to write my final year dissertation on women in politics and, more specifically, whether affirmative action was an appropriate tool to help boost female representation. So much of the case I sought to make rested on the difference it makes when there are more women in Parliament and the impact true gender parity could have. Would it make a real difference to the legislative agenda? Equality of representation is an inherent good in a democracy but does it actually change anything on a substantive, policy level when women are equally represented? On reflection, I wish I could have directed my dissertation supervisor to this very debate. If ever the impact of more women in politics, and indeed men and women of colour, was clear, it was here, when debating the morality of rolling out the red carpet to a misogynist who, it is widely accepted, has bragged about his ability to sexually assault women.
Of course, there are plenty of men horrified by Trump and many of them spoke up also, but it was the almost universal absence of women to defend Trump which struck me most.
We all go through life encountering a specific set of experiences. Those experiences make us who we are, they shape our beliefs and they help us determine our priorities.
For most of our history, the experiences of most of those in power were, largely speaking, very similar. From gender to race, sexuality, religion, class and educational attainment, this lack of diversity gave us a political class whose beliefs and priorities had, broadly speaking, been forged through shared experiences.
While I don't know for sure, it is my strong suspicion that Sir Edward Leigh has not been catcalled, he has not been subjected to a ‘ridiculous sexual comment’ in the workplace. Similarly, I doubt he has ever worried that, solely on the basis of his nationality or religion he may be excluded, which is why he probably felt comfortable stating,
‘As regards the argument of racism, I do not believe there is any proof that the travel ban is racist…. to accuse the new President of the United States of racism, misogyny and all the rest is overstating it.’
If you have not experienced racism, misogyny and 'all the rest', perhaps you do think that these charges are overstated and you’ve heard worse in social settings or elsewhere.
If, on the other hand, you've seen these things close up or indeed been a victim to them, you not only recognise them but you recognise the importance of calling them out. Now, of course those of us who have been privileged to live lives free of such discrimination can, and often do, lend our voices as allies. But, there can be no replacement for personal experience and the perspective and drive it gives us. And so, I'm thankful for the growing diversity we see across all society, and I'm a greater advocate than ever for taking all steps necessary to achieve gender parity in politics. Because of course it makes a substantive difference. The challenges we experience in our lives, including the hardships and discrimination, do of course shape our worldview and help us determine our priorities. It is no coincidence that some of the key achievements of the Labour government elected in 1997 with record breaking numbers of women MPs included the increases in child benefit, free breast cancer screening and the reduction of VAT on sanitary products from 17.5% to 5%.
The impact of diversity of experience, all experiences, is of course visible across all of society and for me, working in an environment which values such diversity was always going to be an important factor in assessing a potential employer. Yet, while I can be proud to work for a firm which continues to make strides in diversity, I work in an industry where this is still the exception rather than the rule.
When the Supreme Court heard the recent Article 50 judgement on mass, Lady Hale’s position as the sole female Supreme Court Justice, was a stark reminder of the distance we still have to travel. I should add that the lack of any kind of racial diversity in the Supreme Court and the disparities across the legal profession could be subject of an entire separate article. Tasked with deciding some of the most important cases in the country, I can’t help but be concerned that our highest court in the land represents so little in the way of diversity of experience. For it would be naïve to think that the experience of a judge has no bearing on how they approach their consideration of a case.
With Lord Neuberger’s announcement of retirement, the Supreme Court is hiring. They are looking for a new President and two, possibly three new justices. I hope that in considering these applications, the Supreme Court decides to Be Bold For Change and, in so doing, helps to forge a more gender inclusive world. For it is clear that an attitude of gender inclusivity and its result in greater gender parity, will lead to greater benefits for us all.
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