Rachel Maclean: Parliament has a duty to lead the way on gender equality
If we cannot get our gender balance right here in Westminster, Rachel Maclean writes, how can we provide leadership to the rest of society?
I recently moved house and purchased a set of keepsake boxes for my children’s baby mementoes: the all-important first tooth, the first lock of hair. I’ve treasured them ever since my daughter was born 24 years ago, followed quickly by three sons. I was amazed that in 2018, the year that marks 100 years of women getting the vote, the only colours I could buy these in were pink and blue, clearly intended for baby girls and boys. A trivial point, maybe, but it underlines that we still have a long way to go in the UK to achieve true gender equality.
These norms that boys and girls are so different that we should direct them towards different realms of life are so strong and ingrained in us that we barely notice them. Except when we come to ask ourselves, how is it that we lack gender equality in many areas of society and in particular in our public life?
I’ve prided myself in bringing up my children equally as well rounded individuals able to follow their own path and interests, doing what makes them happy whether or not it is gender typical, as do most parents in the UK. But as they grow it becomes evident that boys and girls ARE different, just not perhaps in their colour preferences (I have a son who is loud and proud in his love of wearing pastel pink).
The debate has moved on to the recognition that those differences are necessary in any walk of life, for better performing teams in business, to a better representative Parliament.
And this is where the APPG for women comes in. If we cannot get our gender balance right in Parliament, how can we provide leadership to the rest of society? We all know of the critical lack of women in STEM subjects across many sectors of our economy. I believe that Parliament has a role to play in advocating for diverse careers, starting from women politicians, and disseminating to all walks of life and society.
That’s why I was honoured to be elected the Chair of this popular APPG supported by an excellent team of women from all the other major parties. Following in the footsteps of the previous inspirational chair Mims Davies MP, we are united across the House in the belief that our Parliament is much healthier with a balanced gender mix.
Despite encouraging advances made by all parties, women face special challenges entering public life and, in particular, Parliament.
It’s not only the well-worn (but still relevant) arguments of caring and family responsibilities that hold women back. Being a politician requires a specific set of skills to do it well including confidence, debate and public speaking. Sometimes, these are associated with the types of careers that men have been encouraged to enter more than women have, giving them a head start before they embark on their political careers. In the APPG we hope to address some of these.
Another hugely important role for us is mentoring and outreach to young women up and down the country. We want to make clear that being an MP isn’t about being from a specific type of background or training, it can be open to any woman. The skills you need can be taught, just like any skills for any job. You don’t have to be born with them or to have worked in a typical occupation to enter Parliament.
The debate is more relevant than ever now, with the recognition highlighted by Helena Morrissey, founder of the 30% Club to promote more women on boards, in her recent book ‘A good time to be a girl’.
She notes that empathy is increasingly needed to navigate the rapidly changing world we live in. Something that women are typically excellent at. We know there are vast numbers of women out there with the abundant skills to represent a community. We exist to hold out a helping hand to get them on the first step of the ladder. The rest is up to them!
Rachel Maclean is Conservative MP for Redditch and chair of the APPG for Women in Parliament