Politicians need `new language' to reach women

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Politicians need to spend more time listening to women, to understand what they feel about the future of society, Patricia Hewitt, deputy chair of the Commission for Social Justice, told the conference, hosted by She magazine yesterday, on what women want from political leaders.

Women, she said, were thought to be less interested in politics than men. This was not true. Women were active in parents' associations, church groups and community organisations.They were concerned about issues affecting their children, relatives and communities.

Politicians needed to find a new language to talk about the issues women felt strongly about, she added. Rather than talking about exchange rates, they needed to talk about the economic security of the family, flexible working hours and child-care arrangements.

Women did not fail to understand politics, she said, butpretended not to. Many were alienated by the "yah-boo", confrontational style of traditional politics. Older women, who were more likely to vote Conservative,remember with repugnance the old macho union-dominated Labour Party and the "Winter of Discontent" of 1979.

Because women were concerned about down-to-earth issues, they were likely to espouse broad social values. They wanted good public services, a fair distribution of income, and intervention to reduce unemployment. They were more likely than men to think about the interests of others.

In Australia, Ms Hewitt said, research had found women were frustrated, as they were expected to be perfect mothers and wives, and perfect workers.

Australian women, who were more likely to vote Labor, wanted decent family incomes, child-care arrangements and flexible working hours. They were concerned about violence on the streets. In the US, she added, the Democrats had found women were primarily concerned about time and money.

In Sweden, where women are also more likely to vote for the left, women enjoyed an extensive child-care support system. In Australia, women could use child-care credits to buy children places in state or private nurseries. Politicians, Ms Hewitt said, had to "listen to women, and then to address concerns about the economy, in terms of people's lives".

Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said that on average, men earned £100 a week more than women. The gap was narrowing, but it would take 33 years before it closed. By spring 1994, she added, 25 per cent of employees in Britain, about 5.4 million people, were part-time workers, and 86 per cent of themwere women. But women made up only 35 per cent of those in full-time employment. Muchpart-time work was low-paid, which meant many women would face poverty in old age.

About 2.5 million women have earnings below the National Insurance lower- earnings level, preventing them from contributing to the state pension system. None would be entitled to a full, basic, state pension. By 2001, only 25 per cent of women would retire on full, basic, state pensions. Women, she added, were economic underdogs and would remain an economic under-class in retirement. To break this cycle of inequality, comprehensive maternity rights, affordable child care and other new measures were needed.