What I always find striking about International Women’s Day is the breadth of public engagement in what is an intrinsically political cause. IWD is embraced by regular workplaces, community groups, sports teams and faith organisations alike. In the past few years I have variously celebrated IWD at a primary school culture rally, a town hall art exhibition, a church prayer evening, and a City networking event for women in business.
While we Brits love a theme day, and the same mass engagement could also be claimed of many other dates in the annual ‘awareness’ calendar, from Breast Cancer Awareness Month to Children in Need, support for IWD surprises because the day is rooted not primarily in fundraising or information spreading, but in the cold, hard politics of inequality, and, therefore, of social justice. IWD remains relevant because it universally still the case that differences in opportunity exist based on a binary condition of birth.
Of course, IWD can often feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Broadcasters and commentators dust down last year’s stories on the glass ceiling or the pay gap, because rates of progress are so slow that little changes from one decade to the next.
Political representation is another dusty boomerang that keeps coming back; a brief look at the current Westminster profile suggests this will still be the case when my pre-school daughter is old enough to celebrate IWD, and probably my granddaughters, too. As it stands today, little more than a fifth of MPs – 22.6 per cent – are women. Within this sorry state, Labour fares the best with 33.7 per cent, while the Tories currently stand at 15.7 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats fail at 12.3 per cent. Psephologists suggest that, worryingly, these statistics are set to get worse, not better, in 2015.
Labour’s relative success at returning female parliamentarians may be due to the more inclusive nature of our party, or, more likely, our use of the persistently unpopular, but self-evidently effective, all-women shortlists. The fact that the implementation of an all-women shortlist never fails to provoke local controversy to this day remains depressing. We are yet to conclusively win the argument that, while the necessity of all-women shortlists should perhaps be a matter of party-wide regret, necessary they are for now. Rarely, however, does the resentment of the imposition of an AWS carry over for any significant length into the career of the duly selected candidate. It is easy to forget that without all-women shortlists we might have no Rachel Reeves, no Kate Green, no Rushanara Ali.
And yet there remain areas of the country where our public face still fails to reflect the diversity of our party, let alone the diversity of our electorate. Even in Labour heartlands there are still boroughs with all-male representation at both local government and parliamentary level. Electors in those wards receive leaflets with all-male headshots staring back at them, which some would consider a source of embarrassment or misjudgement within modern electoral realities. Further still, in my home patch of Greater Manchester, only one out of the 10 local government leaders is female (and sadly she is not Labour).
And so it is time for the age-old IWD mantra: a lot done, a lot more to do. I am grateful to the many women who have contributed thought-provoking articles to today’s special edition, spanning subjects including Julia Gillard’s experience of sexism in leadership; gender politics in the London mayoral election; the Swedish approach to prostitution within the justice system; and action for women in Syria. Enjoy the read. And, with the 2014 IWD theme being ‘Inspiring change’, let’s reconvene this time next year to see if Groundhog Day continues …
Claire Reynolds is a councillor on Tameside council, a former adviser at 10 Downing Street and an elected member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets @mrs_creynolds
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