Jo Swinson: Women in the public eye endure the bottom of the internet

jo swinson by paul walterEqualities Minister Jo Swinson is back at her desk today, six months after giving birth to her son, Andrew. To mark the occasion, she spoke to the Independent on Sunday about the new flexible working rights which come into force today and the treatment of women in politics and on the internet. This means that every employee will have the right to request flexible working. Amusing points to note: first of all, the sub-editor can’t add. They know she was born in 1980, so why put her age at 36? Secondly, the official at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills who didn’t seem to know who Jo was? Really?

Here are some of the key points of her interview. Firstly, on how parenthood has changed her. I wonder if her husband Duncan Hames, or any other man, has been asked this:

You have this entirely different sense of perspective. You’re looking at the world through someone else’s eyes and it is a life-changing event. It’s been an absolutely wonderful experience so far, and every day there’s something new. But I don’t feel that as a politician I’m hugely different. Obviously I have a different set of experiences that chime with experiences that many of my constituents have. I think I essentially still have the same set of values and the issues that are important to me don’t seem to have changed hugely.

On the new flexible working arrangements, Jo says that enabling it is just the start of cultural change:

Sometimes, as a mother, people are expecting that they may have to be flexible and that you may have to work slightly differently, but Duncan has found that that’s not quite so automatic, necessarily, for fathers. And so I think those cultural issues are quite deep rooted and are not going to be changed overnight. But that’s very much what we are wanting to start to change, with the shared parental leave and the communications that need to go alongside that.

The conversation then turned to the subject of body confidence and the way women in public life are often judged on their appearance in a way that men never are. Jo said that this sort of treatment could put women off high profile public life:

You just need to look at Twitter when Question Time is on, and compare the comments that are made about the male panellists and the female panellists – and that is whether or not they are politicians.

There is a significant minority out there that decides that the best way to take issue with what a woman is saying and with her views is to attack the way that she looks.

If you look at the role models that are out there, the women that tend to be photographed tend to be actresses and models, whereas the men are often in the media because of what they do in terms of business and sport. You look at the sports pages and you’d often be forgiven for thinking women didn’t do sport.

When you have an undercurrent of misogyny in some of the online sphere, that can be offputting for young girls.

And she knows that there is a great deal to be done to sort our own party’s gender balance:

No parties are 50/50, but I’m going to be the first to say that my party needs to do a huge amount better and I’ve invested a lot of time in supporting and mentoring other women in the party.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Hannah Bettsworth 30th Jun '14 - 4:19pm

    “Jo said that this sort of treatment could put women off high profile public life”

    This. If there’s anything I hate it’s the massive focus on “look pretty you’re going on the media/tv/a photo op” because sometimes I have days with terrible hair and I’m not gonna let that hold me back. Also the kind of treatment Claire Lally got. “Here, let’s just search through everything ever in your background and criticise you for tiny little things.” And then people are surprised when there aren’t more women in politics.

    I’m having a bit of a feminist rant day, I feel.

  • Here are some pictures of a fantastic female role model who has managed to be highly successful and respected in politics and academia for well over 50 years now, despite a marked absence of designer clothes, make-up, or even hair dye :-

    I’m not saying Jo Swinson doesn’t have a point; but I do feel that sometimes women like Jo can exaggerate the barriers that things like appearance put in the way of women, and a lot of this kind of rhetoric can actually have a counterproductive effect on young girls, who are likely to believe it to be always true and hence worry too much about it.

  • @Stuart
    Whilst not trying to out do you on your point about Shirley Williams, I think my personal favourite is – working class background, she got to the top of the slippery pole (Party Leader – although only for a very brief spell) and I think she should have put herself forward for the top spot on a permanent basis. (PS, I’m not a member of a political party, so this isn’t a Labour love in thing).

    On a similar note of course, the Conservative Party and Greens have also had female Party Leaders, perhaps the fact that the Lib Dems are lagging so far behind other parties is the reason why some feel the need to exaggerate or rant?

  • @Chris_sh
    Well quite, and there are quite a few other well-regarded female politicians past and present who fit the bill (Mo Mowlam, the Eagle sisters etc.)

    As for the claim that “women in public life are often judged on their appearance in a way that men never are”, I’m sure Ed Miliband wished that were true but it patently isn’t.

    I’m not trying to turn this into a “but what about the men” post (I share Hannah’s annoyance at that kind of thing) but I couldn’t let that remark go without comment.

    The fact is that women can be successful without spending all their time getting glammed up, and if the body confidence lobby really wanted to give a positive message to young girls they’d be stressing things like that instead of constantly exaggerating the doom, gloom and guilt trip stuff.

  • @Stuart, I am not sure the body confidence thing relates to the working world. There was an article a while back which said something like “but obviously it’s ok to try to look as good as you can when you go for a job interview”. I think it is mostly about people worrying they are not attractive to the opposite sex, which of course in a lot of cases (such as me when over 100 kg) they are unfortunately not. They are worried particularly that girls think they have to go anorexic to find boyfriends.

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