Labour Women sharing skills
I went yesterday to a Labour Women’s Network meeting, and listened in on some very energetic discussions. I was welcomed as a guy by ex-MEP Carol Tongue standing next to me in the queue for registration, who said there were too few of us there (maybe 5%). My being in a minority, and feeling an outsider despite the welcome, is not exactly a mirror image of a woman being in a meeting with 95% men, since a) that is unremarkable, and b) men do not consciously draw strength from their male majority. Anyway, it was an energising experience even for an outsider, though I could only be there for part of the day.
In an uplifting pep-talk to kick things off Barbara Follett reminded us that things could go backward as well as forward. She related how Barbara Castle had put her down severely for saying that a doubling of labour women MPs to 21 at the 1987 election meant a step forward (from the 10 in 1983) – there had been 21 back in the 1945 election!
From the Paula Principle perspective there was no focus on employment as such (except on political employment, ie how to become an MP) but quite a lot of discussion of the importance of networking, sharing and mentoring (see PP Factor 4, on the importance of vertical networks). This included some practical messages about using social media, and about making links across to other groups. Dorothea Hodge spoke passionately in favour of the party making better links with faith groups – a potentially controversional issue, though she put the case very warmly.
The one item where I was half-tempted to intervene with a question was on the criteria for equality. Here’s why. More than one speaker implied that getting to 30% of Parliament being women MPs would be only a lower level achievement. The further implication was that only 50% would count. I understand the appeal of the 50/50 position but feel that it is a trap. For a start, it presumably rules out women going over 50%, unless we’re going to have different senses of ‘equality’ for men and women . Personally I’d be quite happy with more than 50% women, in Parliament and elsewhere. Secondly a rigid 50/50 would lead inevitably to contortions over how to fill exactly half of the seats appropriately. But most importantly it reinforces an impression of absolute difference between the genders, the kind of essentialism which I thought we were trying to get beyond. I don’t find it helpful to have a fullscale binary division into two equal (?and opposing) camps; the more fruitful discussions seem to me to be around what a reasonable threshold should be, below which neither sex should drop.
The answer to this need not be the same in every context. It might be one-third in a parliamentary context, but say a quarter in any given occupation (eg nursery education, where 25% male employment would be already a stretching target). It seems to me to be an acceptable symmetry for this to apply both ways round – I can’t think why the same thresholds shouldn’t apply to both sexes. But absolute numerical equality seems to me ultimately an unhelpful notion – and the fact that it’s often left implicit is dangerous. However, it wasn’t my place to say so on Saturday.