Wera Hobhouse: We must not hold women back

Wera Hobhouse was the Lib Dem speaker in the Commons International Women Day debate yesterday. She concentrated on the discrimination women face in the workplace and the harm it does them and the organisations they work for:

It is an honour to be the penultimate Back-Bench speaker in this debate. We have heard many powerful contributions, including those dealing with discrimination leading to violence against women. I have experienced great solidarity on the issue of fighting discrimination in the past year and a half since I became a Member of Parliament, and if that solidarity continues, I really believe that we can make progress, particularly on the very dark side of discrimination.

Today I want to focus on something slightly closer to home—namely, my own experience as I was growing up. As I grew up in the 1970s, I looked forward to a future of exciting possibilities. The world was my oyster. I could follow my passions, study, develop my skills, build my career and have a family. It never occurred to me that my career options could be limited because I was a woman, that I would not automatically attain the same level of responsibility, pay and influence that my male counterparts would, that I might have to sacrifice my career aspirations when we started a family because I earned less than my husband, that there was an automatic assumption that I would take on the lion’s share of looking after our young children, or that in 2019 I would still have to speak out in this House against the ongoing discrimination and undervaluing of women in the UK. But here I am, and because I have a voice in Parliament, I am using it today to remind ​everybody that we must continue our efforts to fight discrimination—particularly its darker side—and to create a true gender balance in every sector of our society.

In the world of business, recent research from the Chartered Management Institute shows that, despite long-standing efforts to shift deeply entrenched attitudes, systems and practices, as many as 85% of women and 80% of men say they have seen discriminatory behaviour in a professional environment. The same research found that 75% of senior managers believe their peers are not actively and visibly promoting gender initiatives.

Although the gender pay gap has narrowed, women in this country are still being paid less than men. This has many damaging consequences. When a couple choose to have a child, they decide which parent will take time out to raise that child. They will weigh up what makes the most sense financially. In most cases, the partner on lower pay will, at least initially, reduce their working hours and take the hit to their career. In the majority of cases, the partner who stays at home is the woman.

Once a woman exits her career, for whatever reason—be it to start a family or to care for a family member—her promotion prospects are likely to diminish. Re-entering the world of work can be very challenging, especially if a person wants to do it on their own terms by job sharing, working part time, working flexibly or working from home. Those who return to work may have to start on lower pay, sacrificing years of valuable experience. They may be overlooked for promotion, and they are often seen as not being committed enough.

Gender generalisation can be dangerous, but most of us have seen that our cultural conditioning has promoted competitiveness and risk-taking—qualities that are more associated with male attitudes than with female ones—in the workplace over co-operation and empathy. Women bring a different approach to business and organisations. There is sound evidence that a company’s long-term profitability rises with a more gender-balanced management. Collectively, we are failing ourselves and the generations that are to come by perpetuating discrimination, even if it is subtle. Our economy is losing out, as we all are.

The vision of a truly liberal society is that everybody can be themselves and thrive. We must not hold women back. I want every woman in our society to feel as though she can realise her full potential, and we are not there yet. As I said at the very beginning, I hope very much that the solidarity that we have created in this place—that includes men as well as women—means that we do more and do better. I hope that by next year, rather than just talking the talk we will be walking the walk, and that we will see progress, particularly against the dark side of discrimination where women face violence. Let us do better than we have done in previous years.

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

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