I am not my gender


I’ve written about this on the Lib Dem Voice before so I apologise if I’m repeating myself but once again we’re discussing the idea that we need to get more women into politics as parliamentarians. Once again I’ll repeat myself in saying that this is not something I disagree with. But to have Willie Rennie say “I know many in the party instinctively do not favour positive action but I need to be frank with you. Nothing else has worked.” is actually incredibly concerning for me.

I may only be 22 but for years I’ve fought against those who would put me into a box labelled “female” and expect certain things from me because of that. Within the last week at my work we had a photoshoot and I was the only woman there and the photographer didn’t even bother to learn my name. I was referred to as “she” or “the girl” or “her” the entire time but my male counterparts all were addressed by name. When I started my degree my female lecturer told me that “There’s not much room for women at the top so you’d better be good.” Being boiled down to your gender is a really horrible way to go about life. Why would we ever want to try and implement that in our politics?

To be chosen for your gender above anything else you stand for is not the way forward in achieving equality. In fact, it’s pretty backwards. The See Me campaign for mental health ran with the slogan “See me. I’m a person, not a label.” and that’s something that’s stuck with me since the first time I heard it many moons ago. We should be seeing women for the value they have, not the gender balance they’d bring. So see us. We’re people, we’re not our gender. And we’re definitely not a way to fill a quota.

* Rebecca Plenderleith is a member in Dumbarton and blogs at Some Ramblings.

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  • Simon Thorley 26th Oct '15 - 1:51pm

    Excellent post – we must reject this illiberal identity politics and its obsession with putting individual human beings into collective boxes. What are we here for, if not to triumph individual freedom from labelling and prejudice?

  • I think Using male female quotas is essentially saying that getting the outcome you happen to want is more important than treating everyone equally and assessing them as an individual on their own merits.

  • Would now be appropriate for a joke about men getting it in the neck from women whatever their answer is on this particular issue?

    No? I’ll get my coat…

  • Women are already in a labelled box and there are already quotas against them. Positive discrimination is the only proven way of demolishing that reality and is not in any way illiberal.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Oct '15 - 4:13pm

    Do not be afraid of standing up for your gender, men, women or anyone else. I’ve done more than my fair share of moaning about positive discrimination and the like in the past, but I do like a good honest debate and I sometimes manage to get my mind changed as a result of it!

  • Of course you are not merely your gender but humans make judgements about people in just a few seconds. It’s the way we are made so both you and me will be identified as a woman first and then other judgements will come into play. Exams are no longer marked with your name on the top because it was discovered that female examinees were being under marked. It is this sort of unconscious bias that we are up against in the world of politics. We need quotas so that it becomes common to have female MPs in the party, so that in the future young women like you will be judged on your abilities and character and no longer on gender.

  • Ruth Bright 26th Oct '15 - 7:29pm

    But Simon Thorley and others there has to be a level playing field. I worked pretty tirelessly for the party, normally for free, for 21 years. I am not complaining. The party has been at the centre of my life and I am grateful for all the fun and friends it has given me. But when, as a PPC, after those 21 years of service I wanted and needed the equivalent of statutory maternity leave, it was not granted and “my” seat went out to a selection with five male candidates. What is that if not an election rigged in favour of men?

    Off the top of my head I can think of seven female activists where having children was a factor in them bowing out and the party offered little flexibility. There is much passion on LDV against AWS. Where is the passion about the way things are rigged against women?

  • Richard Underhill 26th Oct '15 - 9:11pm

    Have a look at today’s debate in the Lords on tax credits. The Lotrds’ Speaker is a woman. The movers of the Liberal Democrat, Crossbench and Labour amendements are all women. Labour’s leader in the Lords is a woman and the Tory leader might be too.

  • The problem that those arguing against AWS is that they have never produced a selection system that puts women anywhere near the 50% of PPCs that they should be. The one and only time we got that (and more or less a balanced parliamentary team) was when we used zipping for the first Euro poll under a form of PR. (It was later abandoned and election by election women reduced in number and retiring women MEPs were replaced by men) Now I’m well aware of the need for a range of minorities to be represented in any Lib Dem Team, but the most glaring gap is the gender gap. The party’s selectorate has far too many people who will always vote for a man in preference to a woman – a lot of them women! Sometimes you have to force change. AWS is in many ways a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the nut has refused to be cracked for all of my 50 + years in the party. When I joined the party in 1964 the parliamentary team was all men and now in 2015 it’s all men. All the very slow progress we had made towards getting more women into parliament has been swept away by the 2015 debacle. People who don’t want AWS have a duty to lay out clearly how they will ensure that our candidates will be gender equal without AWS. Platitudes like we have to tackle discrimination at its source just don’t cut the mustard. We’ve tried and tried to tackle this problem and have failed. I know many – both men and women – in our party find the whole idea illiberal, but so is the present system which has failed for all of my lifetime ( and before that too) to get remotely near a gender balanced parliamentary party, never mind started to tackle the issues of minorities. Sometimes we have to take difficult decisions and sometimes people have to change their minds. To misquote Keynes ‘When the facts change I change my mind, what do you do Madam’

  • Denis Mollison 26th Oct '15 - 10:38pm

    Agree 100% with Mick Taylor. I know that as a party we think we’re not biased and treat men and women equally. But then how come we now have only male MPs, and have effectively deselected our only woman MSP despite her outstanding performance, especially over policing?

  • This is one of the very few things I disagree with Mick on. The goal is not a gender quota of any kind, the goal is fairness. You don’t create fairness by adding in more unfairness, you make it worse, cover it up, and allow it to continue.

  • Ruth

    Your example is one that needs to be fixed but AWS is not a solution to it. Better support for new mothers who are PPCs would be a very sensible idea but just saying AWS is not a solution to that.

    I think the positive action required will cost a lot but there needs to be the determination to do it.

  • Denis Mollison 26th Oct '15 - 11:20pm

    Jennie – the question is what is fair? We’re trying to correct a tilted playing field.

  • Mick Taylor 27th Oct '15 - 7:41am

    The party has voted for all sorts of measures to help women (and some minorities) but they have all failed. The only time we did vote for positive action was when we adopted zipping and that WAS successful – so of course it was abandoned! I understand where Jenny is coming from but how does she propose to achieve that end? I fear that we’ll be having the same discussion long after I have joined the roll of honour in the sky. Please Jenny consider the possibility that you may be wrong.
    What matters is what works!

  • @Ruth

    Things aren’t “rigged against women”. It’s just that we judge certain positions such as MP and CEO as important (which they are in these sense that they’re powerful positions) and getting on in those sorts positions requires one to be tough and often ruthless and single minded which are characteristics found more often than not in males. That’s just nature and there is not a lot you can do about it.

    Most primary school teachers are female. But this doesn’t mean that teaching is rigged against men. But you don’t call for quotas in teaching because you don’t think it’s so important. One could argue however that being in a position to shape young minds is very influential and important, but it’s not the kind of thing we value.

  • Ruth story and Fiona’s on another thread here and the stories of the group of committed and highly able women activists who left the Party a couple of years ago (along with their whole families), and the total lack of any Lib Dem women promoted to Cabinet in the Coalition, has convinced me that the Party is institutionally sexist. Until that is addressed, everything else, I fear, may be just a sticking plaster.

    The other parties are doing much much better on gender and diversity, including the Tories and UKIP, without much effort. And the Lib Dems expend huge amounts of time and effort bemoaning their lack of gender balance and diversity, and yet nothing much changes.

  • Ruth Bright 27th Oct '15 - 8:41am

    Psi I can understand Rebecca’s points and yours. I agree AWS is not ideal and very much a last resort but it is at least a clear and easily understood solution.

    I have been banging on about maternity leave for ten years and people always come back saying “what an interesting idea but it’s all too difficult to implement” etc etc. There are always excuses about bursaries and other forms of support. I remember a shameful day in Southwark when the local party vetoed having a crèche for an AGM, something which would have hugely helped a young female single parent on a low income who later bowed out from activism.

    If we want to avoid positive discrimination we need to stop making excuses and implement positive action for women (especially the 80% who have children).

  • Ronald Murray 27th Oct '15 - 9:43am

    What we need to do is encourage more women to come forward as PPC’s. I joined the party in 1966 or 7. In many cases if we could encourage and women activists and councillors in particular to stand for parliaments both Westminster and devolved would solve the problem. All women shortlistes damage democracy. As would all male lists these lists are not equality. Women are the backbone of our party. Also having a less barborous parliament would help. Westminster needs modernising and reforming.

  • peter tyzack 27th Oct '15 - 9:57am

    a lot of good points here, and I am almost persuaded by Mick, but this is more than about changing procedures to achieve parity, it’s much more than that, it’s about cultural change, which is a long road. Doing something illiberal to appear to make progress is hardly a good idea. We need to complete the job of equal pay, we need to complete the job of ending single-sex schools and the in-built discrimination that represents, and we even have to get the building regulations right so that women don’t have to queue for the toilets !! At least MPs are now discussing Vat on sanitary products… but until the fundamentals are addressed with all the subtext that follows, until sexist jokes by stand-up comedians is ended, etc, we will never become gender-blind in appointments and representation.

  • David Evans 27th Oct '15 - 9:58am

    As I have said so many times recently, those advocating AWS are really fighting the wrong battle. We are now in a situation where if things are not turned around quickly, we may not exist as a parliamentary party in ten years time. We need to find ways to get more people to vote for us and quickly. If you asked on the doorstep what would make people vote for a Lib Dem, I doubt if the issue would come in the top twenty. So to everyone who says we need to do this now, I say ‘Which is more important, saving the ship or who sits on which deckchair?”

  • It’s nice to be able to agree with David Evans for once. When you’ve only got 8 MPs out of 650, what size, shape, age and colour they are is not the fault of the party, but of the electorate.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Oct '15 - 10:37am

    After the votes in the Lords on tax credits yesterday the Parliament Channel switched to the Commons, which was having an adjournment debate on unsolicited telephone calls, texts, etc. The minister has been working on this for more than 2 years, but is finding it difficult. The MPs who attended were nearly all from the party which was moving the motion. Other MPs might be wise to catch up from Hansard, because the issue arises in all their constituencies and surgeries. A nuisance for some is preying on the vulnerable for others.

  • Ruth

    “I have been banging on about maternity leave for ten years and people always come back saying ‘what an interesting idea but it’s all too difficult to implement’ etc etc. There are always excuses about bursaries and other forms of support.”

    Well that is an apauling response to give you, I would suggest the translation is ‘I’m not that bothered by it.’ I wonder if the problem is not that you are asking too much but that more needs to be asked for. The maternity leave point needs to be there, creche provision should be, on another post someone suggested other possible improvements in the selection criteria (talking about the London selections), there are surely many others (I have made an alternative suggestions on other discussions). Perhaps the point should be made that your suggestions so far are not gender specific they just happen to be points that happen to disproportionately affect women (though could affect men depending on circumstances).

    AWS will adversely affect that candidate who will be branded by their opponents as ‘needing an AWS to get selected” other positive actions (that still needs to go far beyond what has been done).

    Unfortunately for the point of this post (getting back to it) even positive action does “label” people by the characteristic you are taking action on. However it is one piece of illiberal action that is to try and avoid another illiberal outcome. From a pragmatic point of view I agree with David Evans if you were to ask people sex and race wouldn’t come up as a top reason identified, however it does set an unconscious impression that does feed in.

  • We seem to have forgotten that the party lost a number of very good potential female PPCs because they were subjected to inappropriate behaviour on residential weekends.

  • Most of those against AWS miss the point. All the fine words and intentions of our party since it rejected positive action and all the wishes that we should stop being institutionally this that or the other have achieved nothing. Even if our party had been successful in holding seats in 2015 the parliamentary party would not have been remotely representative of a society in which a (slight) majority of the population are female, around 8% are ethnic minority and around 5% homosexual. It would still be decades in the future before we even looked representative in terms of gender. Frankly, it’s just not good enough. There are alternatives to AWS like zipping, which might – with good will – achieve the objective of a representative party, but they are difficult to implement for parliamentary elections but not for Europe. The other point that has been missing in all these discussions is the simple fact that women are not putting themselves forward in sufficient numbers to give constituencies a choice of adopting excellent female candidates. I suspect that the main reason for that is that many women who would make good parliamentary candidates don’t bother because they see the evidence that they have little chance of being selected, no chance whatsoever of being supported when they need it (for example maternity leave) and not a lot of chance of being elected. There is also a widespread view (whole contrary to the evidence) amongst both the hierarchy and the constituency selectorate that women fare worse than men in elections. Far too many people think a smart young man in a suit is a better bet than a hard working woman. Training for the selectorate is rejected as patronising and inappropriate. (“I don’t need training to know who the best candidate is thank-you”)
    AWS is far from perfect. It would however ensure that our PPCs were representative in terms of gender. With some tweaking it could also give ethnic minorities representation. I don’t think it would need to be a permanent feature of our selection system. Once we had a balanced team and parliamentary party, it would disprove a lot of myths and would hopefully lead to local parties selecting a range of candidates into the future.

  • Mary Reid

    “We seem to have forgotten that the party lost a number of very good potential female PPCs because they were subjected to inappropriate behaviour on residential weekends.”

    I hope no one has, as that should have been the catalyst to starting to think of intelligent actions that could be taken. But also the need to take proper care of the potential/existing PPCs that are currently here (not just how to avoid them being harassed in future), which I think Ruth’s points are a good starting point.

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