The Gender Agenda #3: Is there such a thing as “Women’s Policy”?

LDW stallI was long-winded last time so let’s try brevity: yes, and no.

When people talk about ‘women’s policy’ they usually mean one of three things:

1. Policies which only affect women directly: men (apart from trans men) do not, for example, suffer FGM or need access to abortion, so they will only ever be indirectly affected by policy on those issues.

2. Policies were your gender directly determines your rights and treatment in society: that includes gender separation in schools or prisons, or access to parental leave.

3.  Policies aimed at everyone, but that disproportionately affect women because of the way our culture is gendered: I put domestic violence, sexual exploitation and gender discrimination in that category.

I said ‘yes’ because good policy in these areas promotes the interests of women, which in turn moves us closer to our ultimate aim of achieving gender equality. That’s why Liberal Democrat Women’s policy group writes policy in these areas and acts as a hub for interested party members and specialists to start discussions about them.

But I also meant ‘no’, because calling it ‘women’s policy’, rather than ‘gender equality policy’ ignores that fact that changes will affect everyone, and suggests we don’t want or need men’s input.

LDW is not a silo. Membership is open to everyone, and we encourage men to join the discussion. We ask exactly the same of them as we would for anyone involved in the policy process: a healthy respect for evidence-based policy, even if what the data shows is outside of their experience.

I’d like to add a fourth category too:

4. Everything else.

Obviously women have an interest in every area of policy. Whether it’s healthcare, education, defence, the economy; of course over half the population has an interest in every single policy area. That includes policies that only directly affect men – like testicular cancer treatment funding, for example – because women will be secondarily affected, whether as family, medical professionals or carers.

But what I actually mean here is that gender is so pervasive that even a policy that has no intention of impacting one gender more than other, will probably do that. Everything from primary school recruitment campaigns to minimum wage rates affects each gender differently. As long as that is the case, and there is no good reason for the difference, we have not achieved gender equality.

The first step towards ending gender inequality, is to recognise it. This is why LDW also wants to help others with gender impact assessments on their policies.

So if you have a motion that you think could have a gender impact, you have an idea, or you want to know more about gender equality policy, come to us. We are happy to help.

* Alice Thomas is a member of the Federal Board and leads the FB Disciplinary Sub-Group. She is a solicitor based in Southwark who joined the Lib Dems in her hometown of Bromley & Chislehurst in 2006, just in time for her first by-election and has been campaigning ever since.

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  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 12:58pm

    Joe – I put that in my 4th category, as a policy which should affect everyone equally but doesn’t because we still have gender inequality. In those cases, we can’t simply stop enacting those policies, because we wouldn’t solve either the direct problem they seek to solve (the deficit) or the underlying problem that created the inequality. There are two things we can do: look at every policy to determine if the direct impact on the disproportionately affected gender can be lessened, and then look at the root causes of the imbalance. In the case of government austerity, as you say it disproportionately affects women because they hold a higher proportion of public sector jobs. So some ways to tackle that long term include looking at private and public sector recruitment and employee motivations to see if we can correct the imbalance on both sides.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 23rd Jul '14 - 1:15pm

    “The first step towards ending gender inequality, is to recognise it. This is why LDW also wants to help others with gender impact assessments on their policies.”

    Excellent article Alice and I commend the work of LDW and others who have and continue to challenge gender discrimination, and I hope that LibDem members both male and female support the Gender Agenda by joining LDW and donating to the following link and sending their contact and membership details through to Khloe Bailey Obazee, the LDW Administrator via [email protected]

    The sooner we all take personal responsibility for the current unacceptable levels of discrimination that women face on a daily basis then the better and we will ALL and this will play a significant part in eradicating this form of intolerance from society.

    Policies like legislation are good and unquestionably needed, but it is only positive action on that part of us all that eradicates intolerance.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera

    Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) – Vice Chair

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Jul '14 - 1:48pm

    Hi Alice, I don’t want to say much on this thread, but I just want to give a positive and a negative!

    When it comes to the negative, it is only a small one, which is that I don’t think something can be 100% a woman’s policy. This is arguably playing with semantics, but I think it is important to recognise because if we accept some issues are 100% female then people start bringing out the “what about the menz” stick if someone makes even the smallest mention of men. To demonstrate my point: if we take FGM and knock the F off it then we can relate that to men and if we call abortion “contraception” then we can also relate that to men (giving away derailing tricks of the trade).

    The second, which is a positive and why I’m coming across happier and more polite speaking to you than other campaigners, is because you listen to people who are angry, but you also stand your ground. It becomes very frustrating, even depressing, to be shouted at and told I am completely wrong for being angry and just trying to preserve my own privilege.

    I don’t always come across correctly, but we need more sensible debate where people are allowed to voice problems without being shouted at. Or at least people should seek to resolve differences after shouting.


  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 1:56pm

    I disagree with a lot of this article, but let’s start with one thing. The idea, suggested by the last sentence, that LDW are the experts on gender equality. If they were, they wouldn’t be saying that, would they?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 23rd Jul '14 - 2:14pm

    Richard Dean “The idea, suggested by the last sentence, that LDW are the experts on gender equality. If they were, they wouldn’t be saying that, would they?”

    I think that you will find that those suffering from inequality issues are potentially best placed to offer evidence of its existence and potential solutions.

    Why are you picking fault?

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera

    Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) – Vice Chair

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 2:22pm

    Joe – I understand the scenario you’re putting forward, and in that case, if you need to make people redundant, you cannot stop doing that because of their gender. In fact, if you were to fire more of department A only because they are men and that would improve the balance of numbers (even if they were not the more efficient and necessary department) that would be direct discrimination, which is illegal and I am certainly not advocating that.

    However, I still think gender impact assessments are useful in that scenario because because they mean we can recognise any gender differences, and when done well, they can help us to identify ways to lessen those differences.

    In the scenario you set out that means asking why department B is less efficient, and why it has a higher proportion of women, and whether these two facts are connected. In many cases it is true that it will make no difference to the short term outcome. But where that happens it can still be helpful to help us identify longer term policy objectives.

    For example, imagine if your theoretical departments were a local council’s waste management services (usually male-dominated) and social services (usually female-dominated). On impact assessment, it turns out the latter is less efficient because they work longer hours, with lower job satisfaction, and average lower pay. None of these things is directly related to gender (although the pay gap still exists in the public sector), but the council still gains by knowing that these problems exist.

    It also turns out they hire more women because more women are likely to do social care qualifications or want to work in social services (this is gender-related). We then come away with two aims which assist gender equality in the long term: encourage more men to get involved in social work and try to attract more women to waste management (in both cases by looking at apprenticeships, community programmes, PSHE lessons, hiring practices etc).

    I also don’t believe that gender impact assessments would give false assurance. Done properly, they would identify that almost all policies disproportionately affect one gender – whether we are talking about forces cuts or teachers’ pensions – and allow us to collect data on the extent to which gender in our culture affects men and women’s experience. Knowing the extent of the differences, in every sphere of life, would make it a lot easier to push for cultural changes which is the only way to truly to bring about gender equality. Only government has the ability to collect that data on such a large scale.

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 2:24pm

    Richard – the last sentence is ‘We are happy to help’. I’m not sure that implies anything about our level of expertise.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 2:28pm

    We might also look at the suggestion that FGM and abortion only have direct effects on women.

    Let’s take just abortion. It has important effects on the bodies and lives of the women and unborn child. It also has important effects in terms of the degree of brutality which a society accepts. No way does the electorate regard these several important effects as women-only issues! Is it a woman’s right? Society doesn’t agree at the moment – abortion is accepted as the lesser of several evils, the others including the back-street abortions and the rearing of unwanted and uncared-for children.

    The apparently neat categorization into issues types 1, 2, 3, and 4, which would seem to be intended as a prelude to asserting who should have most influence on what, doesn’t work for me.

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 2:31pm

    Eddie – if you knock the ‘F’, which stands for ‘Female’, off of FGM, it would necessarily change the whole meaning of the policy. It would not be physically possible for you, as a man to suffer FGM. Abortion – the deliberate destruction and removal of a fertilised ovum, zygote or foetus from the uterus before term – and contraception – the prevention of fertilisation of the ovum in the first place, or prevention of implantation of a fertilised ovum (depending on the kind of contraception used) – are completely different issues. Unless you are a transman, or intersex, and have a uterus, it would also not be possible for you to have an abortion. These are, therefore, policy issues that only affect women directly.

    The same logic applies to any biological sexual difference that only affects one gender, including prostate cancer, testicular cancer, or erectile dysfunction for men, and ovarian cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome, or miscarriage, for women.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 2:31pm

    I’m glad we’ve agreed on that. It implies nothing at all about LDW’s level of expertise. Women have relevant experience, views, and proposals for solutions, and so have others.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 2:34pm

    This categorization into 1, 2, 3, and 4 really isn’t working at all. My wife will be directly affected by erectile dysfunction, if and when I get it. Just as I am sometimes affected by her headaches.

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 2:36pm

    Richard – as stated in the article, and in my comment to Eddie above, the term ‘directly affect’ women has to do with whose bodily integrity they affect. I state in the article that men are indirectly affected by policy on women’s bodies, and that I do not consider any of the categories I set out as ‘women’s-only’ issues, because ‘changes [in such policies] will affect everyone’ and I ‘encourage men to join the discussion’.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Jul '14 - 2:44pm

    Hi Alice, we are mainly just playing with semantics. My point is that if people relate things to men’s issues then they shouldn’t always be shouted at. If in a meeting about the economy someone mentions implications for defence then they are not shouted at, but they would be if they did it too much. It’s just a sense of proportion.


  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 2:47pm

    Sorry to be a pain, Alice, but I’d just like to open up one further hopefully-helpful aspect of the discussion on categorization, before I disappear for a few hours.

    Is FGM a women-only issue? Or a mainly-women issue? No! The fear of that brutal practice affects children too, the damage it does to marital relationships affects both the husband and the children, the association between FGM and race and religion affects the relationships between races and between religions.

    The categorization 1, 2, 3, 4 doesn’t work. The fight against FGM is a man’s fight as well as a woman’s one.

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 2:51pm

    Richard – I would repeat the statements in the article and in my comment above: “I do not consider any of the categories I set out as ‘women’s-only’ issues” and “changes will affect everyone… and we encourage men to join the discussion.”

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 2:53pm

    Eddie – I respectfully disagree that ‘we are mainly just playing with semantics’, because there are policy implications to differentiating between, for example, contraception and abortion.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 5:42pm

    @R Uduwerage-Perera

    No, those suffering from inequality issues directly are not always the best people to either identify the problem or propose solutions. They certainly have roles to play, and can certainly help identify the symptoms, but the problem itself occurs as much in those who impose inequality as in those who suffer it. There are also plenty of people who suffer without recognizing what it is, or while thinking that it’s normal, when it shouldn’t be.

    I complain when people seem to be using inequality as a way of encouraging division. People in societies are inter-connected, so we all suffer when one does, and we all have rights and roles in solving problems. This party allows and encourages persons of all genders to participate in discussion and policy-making on all issues, not just factional ones. The idea that inequality is solely the province of those who are treated unequally is just plain wrong.

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 5:59pm

    Richard – there was no intention to use ‘inequality as a way of encouraging division’; quite the opposite. I will repeat again that LDW believes “changes will affect everyone… and we encourage men to join the discussion.”

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 23rd Jul '14 - 6:09pm

    Richard Dean sadly I fear that you miss the point with regard to the reality of dismantling the barriers of intolerance.

    For many, including 51% of the population who happen to be female it is not theoretical but something that happens everyday at one level or other. Improvements with regard to the Gender Agenda will ultimately actually assist everyone no matter their difference.

    As for your attempts at humour “My wife will be directly affected by erectile dysfunction, if and when I get it. Just as I am sometimes affected by her headaches”, I apologise for perhaps appearing humourless but frankly I do not find this in the slightest funny.

    As for implying that “the idea that inequality is solely the province of those who are treated unequally is just plain wrong”, I am pretty sure that nobody who actually works within the equalities arena would ever say this. Intolerance continues because not EVERYONE acknowledges that it as important to them and so they let it continue.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera

    Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) – Vice Chair

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 6:15pm

    R Uduwerage-Perera
    Ok, you carry on peddling division if you prefer. Personally I prefer to work towards resolving inequalities.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Jul '14 - 6:56pm

    Dave, I would like to be excluded from your criticism. I purposely came on to write a nice, brief and on-topic comment and it’s not fair to accuse me of derailing for giving a negative and a positive. You haven’t made the slightest mention of the article’s subject and just came on to launch some personal attacks on commenters and you accuse us of derailing? Lessons can be learnt on both sides.


  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 7:12pm

    Thank heavens we have LibDems who don’t read posts. By God, if they did, they might actually have a chance to develop sensible policies and get elected!

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 7:27pm

    Anyone who has any experience at all of inequality and ethnic minorities knows well that the people who suffer will often support the systems under which they suffer.

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 7:41pm

    Richard – Ruwan said ‘that nobody who actually works within the equalities arena would ever say… that inequality is solely the province of those who are treated unequally.’ He also said that we will reach equality when “EVERYONE acknowledges that [equality] is important to them”. Those statements promote inclusion, not division.

    Everyone in this thread – myself included – has argued that everyone has a right to contribute to gender equality policies. No-one has tried to exclude any group from contributing to those policies.

    In that context, I would like to ask why you have stated that “people who suffer will often support the systems under which they suffer”. The statement is true, but not relevant to the discussion unless you mean to imply that these people’s support for the existing system should be discounted when we create policy. If that is your argument, your statement is the first on this thread to suggest that we should divide people into ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ opinion groups when it comes to policy discussion.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 8:56pm

    You seem to be moving towards Men from Mars Women from Venus territory again. Why not try being a little less divisive? Division doesn’t help anyone except those whose positions and incomes stem from it. If you actually want to achieve change, you’re basically going to need to use persuasion, not force, aren’t you?

    It’s going to be a long process, particularly since inequality and related issues are not simple at all – people adapt to make the best of whatever situation they are in, and change will inevitably disrupt that, and so be resisted, even if it seems from other viewpoints to be for the better.

  • Alice Thomas 23rd Jul '14 - 9:02pm

    Richard – I would appreciate it if you could identify what the divisive statements are that you think I have made, so that I don’t repeat them.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Jul '14 - 9:22pm

    I’ve just noticed Dave Page did make a comment about the article a few comments above, so I’m sorry for missing that out.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '14 - 10:06pm

    Following Joe Otten’s wise advice, I will say no more. Thanks for an illuminating experience.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 24th Jul '14 - 9:02am

    @Richard Dean you seem to be supportive of not putting checking mechanism in so that we do not return to “Life on Mars”.

    Out of interest can you please identify what you are exactly doing when you say “personally I prefer to work towards resolving inequalities”? perhaps the rest of us could assist you, or you could actually assist us?

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera

    Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) – Vice Chair

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