Gender equality in government: Women want to be drivers too

If it is always men who are formulating policies, devising strategy, building the car, women aren't going to want to drive it
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The Independent Online

Following a story I wrote last week on the lack of apprenticeships available to women and girls in male-dominated sectors such as science and engineering, I received an email from the mother of a 17-year-old girl who had applied for a place as an apprentice mechanic with a well known car manufacturer. Despite having technical experience working with cars as well as a string of relevant GCSEs, and there being mechanic apprenticeships available, she was offered a "front desk" role as a receptionist – a blow to a young woman desperate to be a mechanic.

This tendency to assume women are better at some roles than others – which typically are front of house rather than back-room – is obviously not confined to the motor industry. But in political parties in particular, the problem is acute. Not among ministers and shadow ministers, but within the circle of aides who shape the party leader's image and thinking. These back-room boys and girls fall into two categories, and gender seems to be the defining and dividing factor. In all three party leaders' inner circles, women deal with logistics, relationships and PR, while the men are in charge of strategy and policy – basically, building the car rather than selling it.

Ed Miliband has many excellent female MPs on his front bench but, as it is often pointed out, he does not have many women among his circle of advisers. The press (including strategic communications) and policy advisers and his chief of staff are all men. Women in the Labour leader's circle fill the gatekeeper role – an interface between leader and the rest of the world, as well as someone to stop him wearing the wrong suit – or logistics, making sure he's on the right plane to Washington and his bags get to the hotel while he goes to the White House.

David Cameron's circle is no different: one of his closest female aides, Gabby Bertin, was formerly his press secretary (rather than "strategic communications", a role filled by two men – Andy Coulson and then Craig Oliver) and is now the PM's link with business, while Kate Fall is deputy chief of staff but her job is mainly as gatekeeper, again, more about relationships than strategy. Could these two talented women have done strategy and policy? Yes, of course. Men do both PR and strategy, so there's no reason why women can't. Under Tony Blair it was the same – Anji Hunter and Sally Morgan were gatekeepers and political secretaries, smoothing relations with the party and the outside world.

Oh, but we are told, Miliband, Cameron and Nick Clegg have their wives in their inner circles, and they are strong female influences on the leaders. Last week we were told that Justine Thornton, Miliband's wife, was his "secret weapon". There is no doubt that Thornton, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez are all impressive and clever. But please forgive us if we women strive to be something more than a wife and something more meaningful than "front of house".

Why should it matter, you might say, particularly when there are now more women in the Cabinet and on the opposition frontbench? Because, as British politics becomes more presidential, a leader's inner circle is more powerful than ever. Political parties are always searching for ways in which they can win the "women's vote". If it is always men who are formulating policies, devising strategy, building the car, women aren't going to want to drive it.

A trip to the net's dark side

We hear much about the "dark net" – the murky world where anti-government hackers, criminals and paedophiles lurk without scrutiny – and most of us would not wish to go there ourselves. Yet in the past week I have unwittingly stumbled across deeply sinister views on Twitter, as if the chirpy blue bird has a black crow as an alter ego. There is a "trend" called #creepshot, where 21st-century peeping toms take pictures of unsuspecting women on the beach, in swimming pool showers or, in one tweet I witnessed before it was taken down, of schoolgirls at a bus stop.

Then there is the anti-Semitism – a "trend" which seems to have never gone out of fashion and is never far from the surface, never more so than on Twitter. The former MP Louise Mensch, while expressing her opposition to Israel's military action in Gaza, tweeted criticism of the Lib Dem MP David Ward for saying he would fire a rocket across the border if he were a Palestinian. One person asked her if she was Jewish, another tweeted "her name [Mensch] tells you all you need to know". Another tweeter, apparently a BBC journalist who has since deleted his account, talked about UK politicians being "bought by you know who". It doesn't matter that Mensch is her married name and that she is a Catholic, when people want to identify the "Jews", we are never far away from lists and yellow stars.

Spare a thought for the spads

When ministers lose their jobs in a reshuffle, their special advisers tend to go with them because they are more associated with their boss rather than the department. The ex-minister is still an MP, but his or her "spad", as we call them, is out of work. Michael Gove cannot take his advisers from the Department for Education with him in his new role as Chief Whip. So, the three of them were shown the door by the DfE's permanent secretary (while new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan apparently hid in her office).

This reminds me of the running joke in the Austin Powers films where the henchmen – normally expendable in every James Bond or Hollywood action film – are shown to have wives and children. After one of Dr Evil's henchmen is killed, the camera cuts to his wife back home, who, when informed of the news of her husband's death, says: "people never think how things affect the family of a henchman". In Westminster, special advisers are the loyal but expendable henchmen. People never think how reshuffles affect the spads.

Cameron's river ricket

I wonder who failed to tell David Cameron the difference between the River Tyne (on which Newcastle sits) and the River Tees (which cuts through Middlesbrough)? It would be easy to mock the Prime Minister for his ignorance of the North of England, yet I wonder whether, as a former PR man for Carlton Television, he still thinks in terms of ITV regional brands and "Tyne Tees" is a phrase entwined in his memory, if not in geography?