“How can a woman who is just about to give birth take on a role as MP?”
This is the question a Tory councillor asked of Catherine Atkinson, the Labour candidate for Erewash. Not fifty years ago. This happened last week. In 2017.
Tory councillor Jon Wright posted on Atkinson’s Facebook page and demanded to know how “would she work it with a two-year-old child and a newborn baby?” arguing “she might be too busy changing nappies to be a voice for the people of Erewash”. I wonder if he asked his party colleagues David Cameron, Matthew Hancock or Jeremy Hunt if they would be too busy changing nappies to undertake their dual roles as MPs and cabinet ministers when their babies were born.
Or is the truth that as far as this Conservative councillor is concerned, changing nappies is, to borrow a phrase from Theresa May, firmly a “girl’s job”?
How many voters do you think asked this question of Zac Goldsmith during the Richmond by-election in December last year? His son Max was born in January – do you think anyone wanted to know how he would juggle being an MP with being the father of five children, including a newborn? Similarly, how many constituents expressed concerns over whether Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham, would be able to balance his job in Parliament, having recently become a new dad?
If we want a Parliament that understands people’s lives when it takes decisions, it needs to be representative of society, which includes having MPs who are parents of small children – both mums and dads.
When I was pregnant during my time in Parliament, I was frequently asked by the media how I would manage being an MP and a mum, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. My husband, who was also an MP at the time, was rarely asked about combining the roles of MP and dad.
Unfortunately pregnancy and maternity discrimination is still alive and well, not just in politics, but right across society. The scale of the problem was well documented by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission when it published a damning report last year demonstrating just how pervasive these prejudices are. It found that 54,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination. A shocking 70 per cent of employers say women should declare if they’re pregnant at job interview, even though if a potential employer were to ask this and base their recruitment decision on the answer they would be breaking the law.
I commissioned that extensive EHRC research back in 2013 when I was Employment Relations Minister, and it was intended to provide a robust evidence base to inform an action plan to tackle the problem. Instead, this Conservative government issued a few platitudes and has left the report to gather dust.
Theresa May has said that “addressing gender equality and supporting women's rights is not a nice-to-have, it’s essential”, but we have seen woefully little leadership from her on this issue.
For all May’s fanfare about worker’s rights, the detail of her manifesto tells a different story. She wants to keep the prohibitively high employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 that I fought against in government, and which we now have firm evidence are obstructing access to justice. Rights are rather meaningless if you can’t afford to enforce them, so Liberal Democrats would scrap these fees.
The Tories have completely failed to put forward a coherent plan to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination. They don’t even take action when their own elected representatives encourage such discrimination, as in the case of Cllr Wright.
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats are committing in our general election manifesto to specific measures to tackle gender inequality, including extending funding for childcare, providing better back-to-work support and ambitious targets for women in senior roles such as on boards.
Perhaps most importantly in the long term, however, is building on the success of shared parental leave (which was bitterly opposed by many Tory blokes when I drove it through government). We will never achieve equality in the workplace until we have more equality in the home. Our plans for an extra four weeks of parental leave specifically for fathers will help tackle the assumption that parenting is one of the “girl jobs”.
These 1950s attitudes about what men and women should and shouldn’t do have no place in our society, and it’s time we consigned them to the dustbin of history, where they belong.
Jo Swinson is the Lib Dem candidate for East Dunbartonshire and was Minister for Women and Equalities in the Coalition government
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