International Women’s Day was first celebrated forty-three years ago today. Although it may not feel like such a long time ago for many of us, we have seen advances in women’s role in the workplace and public life. Even so, we might have expected those advances to be greater after forty-three years.
1975 was a memorable year for women in two other ways: it was the year Margaret Thatcher was elected as the first female leader of a major British political party and Welsh women drove to Brussels to deliver the first ever petition to the European Parliament calling for women’s rights.
It was the same year that the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in Parliament, five years after the Equal pay Act. The aims of that legislation still haven’t been fully realised. The Welsh Government’s latest equality report (2015/16) showed, despite there being more women than men on its own staff, Welsh Government employed 506 men earning £50,000-£95,000 compared to 378 women. In positions with earnings of less than £50,000, women outnumber men by 59%. The pay gap was 8%.
Although it shows that Welsh Labour are no good at practising what they preach and failing to hire enough women in senior grades or encourage enough to apply, it shows that gender equality is less about the number of women in the workplace and more about the work they are doing and the value placed upon it their skills.
In “Closing the Gender Gap” by WorldSkills UK and the Careers & Enterprise Company, it was reported this week that most young women in the UK still feel that their options are limited by their gender and that 7% fewer young women said they were confident about their career than young men. It is dispiriting to see that over a third of young men also feeling their career is likely to be determined by their gender, although 18% more of them aspired to work in increasingly valued and growing industries such as engineering and I.T., despite STEM programmes devised by Welsh and UK governments, targeted at young women.
The report concluded that our young people have more – not less – gender-conservative views of the world than their parents. This was measured in the types of industries and the levels of pay that young people associate with men and women – exactly the drivers of our pay gap today. The research found not only that young women aspire to lower salaries than men – by - around £1,000 – but also that they aspire to considerably lower salaries than their parents believe they are aspiring to.
The most disheartening finding of the research also showed that these biases are also projected onto others, with young people themselves more likely to direct their peers into careers based on their gender, rather than their abilities and interests.
The next generation of the workforce needs to be more diverse and exposed to a wider range of ideas and ways of thinking. Diversity breeds a braver, more innovative and successful response to a greater field of real-life challenges. This is a key reason for shaking things up. If you’re looking to improve wellbeing across the population, well we all enjoy a sense of achievement more than experience of failure, whatever our gender. And to do that, we need to think hard about the influences on our young people and the visibility of women who have aspired and achieved.
Politics is one place to do that. The Conservatives have done more than any other party to show that the glass ceiling can be broken. We passed the laws giving all women the right to vote, and blazed the trail with the first female MP, the first woman Secretary of State for Wales, the first woman leader, the first and only woman Prime Minister and the first and only party to have two.
What’s missing from that list is the first Conservative woman MP from Wales. That’s something I want to put right.
As the Chair of Women2Win Wales – Women2 Win was set up by Theresa May, of course – one of my priorities is to have more women stand as Conservative candidates in Wales, at all political levels. We also want encourage more Conservative women to put themselves forward for other visible roles in public life. We’re not about quotas or targets: Our purpose is to crack the confidence question, helping women of all age and backgrounds recognise what they can offer and what they can achieve.
As part of that, we’re there to help recalibrate what have been seen as political strengths – it’s not all about the nice suit and a decent speech. That diversity which leads to a happier and productive workforce also leads to a happier, more productive politics and certainly one which reflects and responds more effectively to society as a whole.
Following the acquisition of new powers under the UK Conservative government’s Wales Act, the Assembly has commissioned a report which examines how the Assembly might look in the future – the number of AMs, how they are voted for, votes for 16-year olds. The consultation on these may ideas is about to begin. One of the ideas put forward was whether any changes to our electoral system might include a gender quota, which I’m sure will prompt a very lively debate!
The interesting thing for me is that it even needs to be a suggestion at all. There is a problem that still needs to be solved. We are still in a place where having two women prime ministers is held out an outlier statistic not something we take for granted. We are still in a place where young girls are self-selecting lower economic prospects.
So let us use this International Women’s Day to reinvigorate the campaign that women need to put themselves forward for election. As with Welsh Government’s own staff, it’s not just about numbers of women in our parliaments, it’s about how our attributes and talents are valued and promoted as valuable.
That includes Conservative women’s attributes and talents. We need them for politics to be braver, more innovative and a more successful response to real-life challenges.