‘Blue’ Monday was supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. And for aspiring women leaders in politics and government it certainly was. The news reminded us that we are no closer to furthering the cause of women leaders in 2014. Four stories were guaranteed to put the most ambitious women off working in government, politics and the City.
First, came the case of the prominent peer and his party’s clashes over claims of harassment, denials and calls for apologies. This has most men and women I know hanging their heads and sighing heavily at what has become a big mess with no happy ending in sight. Most of the women I talk to just say this is another example of politics being sleazy and many question why anyone would ever consider working in it.
We also heard that another one of David Cameron’s 2010 female intake of MPs won’t be standing in the next election. That makes a total of four women from that cadre who have stood down. Every departure of a woman from frontline politics sparks the usual rush of predictable questions – why doesn’t the prime minister have the female touch? Is being an MP a career for women at all? The same is rarely asked if a man quits. It is precisely because there are so few women in politics that if they do leave, it is hyped up as a national disaster. This makes every woman feel that if she does enter politics, she has to be a role model and had better stay for a long time or, like Louise Mensch, be labelled as not up to the job.
The City and Westminster are almost competing for the last place a woman would work. Nigel Farage told an audience of City workers and executives that women who give up work to have babies are less valuable to their employers on their return as they take time to rebuild their portfolios when they return. Many people know how tough the City is for women who want families and that the job is not for the faint hearted. It is not very clear what Mr Farage hoped to achieve by saying the obvious. It only suggests that he thought he was speaking to an audience from yesteryear – but as with all such speeches the message travelled far and wide.
A more pressing issue, and one that would have been far more refreshing to hear any male politician or leader talk about, is about equal pay in the City. London has a far bigger gender pay gap than anywhere else and this, according to Forbes, is partly explained by the highly paid jobs in the City for men. Another survey found that women working in financial services were paid nearly £15,000 less than men last year.
But the PR gaffes on this topic are not confined to party political leaders. In the Civil Service there are problems recruiting women to the top jobs too. Since Gus O’Donnell claimed that half of permanent secretaries were women, the proportion has fallen with only one new female permanent secretary appointed to run a department since 2010.
A survey this week said it is the blame culture of Whitehall that prevents women from going for the top jobs. But rather than tackle the culture it is announced that women need to go on ‘resilience’ courses. Again I am not clear what the purpose was of publicising this piece of research and the proposed ‘solution’. It read either as if women cannot cope with normal stress at work (which is an insult) or that the Civil Service has accepted the negative culture it says it hates.
Economic Secretary Nicky Morgan this week reminded her party that it needs to talk about things that appeal more to women, such as long term issues and messages about how government can help. Hearing more positive stories about the contribution of women in society is as important.
Blue Monday could be turning in to blue January for aspiring women leaders. We hope to combat that at the IfG with next week’s event on how women lead organisations. This is the second event in our women leaders’ series and both are full with over 100 people on the waiting list. Very few of those clambering to attend are men.
Party leaders need to remember – starting positive engagement with women just before an election won’t wash, it needs to be continual. Women don’t see these issues as party political. With every small or big story about women being a ‘problem’ now, we need to imagine that another woman is ripping up that job application and possibly the ballot paper too. And that’s bad news for everyone.