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Liz Truss: ‘I’ve got a particular view of what equality means’

10 min read

The women and equalities minister talks to Kate Proctor about her ‘fight for fairness’, how she’s sick of policies that ‘ghettoise women’ and how flexible working must be part of the Covid recovery

Standing on a classroom table, being told by a history teacher to imagine herself on the bow of explorer Francis Drake’s ship, left quite the impression on 13-year-old Liz Truss.

The women and equalities minister still rolls her eyes at her school’s attempt at livening up a lesson and she didn’t think it was doing her peers much good either. This smart, sardonic teenager must have been a teacher’s worst nightmare, dissecting the value of their lessons week in, week out.

At her comprehensive school in Leeds, pupils were also invited to write their own records of achievement instead of being given a report card by staff. Laughing, Truss reflects that she regularly wrote some of her lessons were an absolute “waste of time”, and admits she was quite argumentative. 

Her primary school education in Paisley, Scotland, had been rigorous, well grounded in maths and English, so her secondary experience made her particularly frustrated. She blames a city council culture that encouraged teachers to dwell on issues rather than grades. 

The reason we’re talking about her school days, rather than feminism or the political issues women face, is because they’re seemingly pivotal to her approach to the women and equalities brief to which she was appointed 18 months ago.

Women’s experiences will not improve if there isn’t equality of opportunity for all, if the educational basics aren’t mastered by everyone and if there aren’t basic principles of fairness, she claims. Boris Johnson has often talked of economic levelling up, and Truss believes this starts at the most basic level: school.

Last December she gave a career-defining and divisive speech, entitled The New Fight for Fairness which the rightwing papers celebrated as a “war on woke”, and opposition parties described as “bonkers”. The same Leeds secondary school came up in that 30-minute address too, where she says “while we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure people could read and write”.

Online, there was some disbelief that a school in the 1980s and 1990s had given more time to lessons on sexism and racism than maths and English. She rankles at that interpretation of her comment, explaining: “There wasn’t enough focus on getting those students up to a basic level in English and maths. The biggest protection against future unemployment is having a GCSE in maths.

“My view was too much of the school was distracted – and not just the school, this was the attitude of the city council at the time. Too much of the school was distracted on to facing fashionable subjects.”

Asked to clarify exactly what the fashionable subjects were at the time, she says: “We had lessons on racism, sexism. I could go into the way we were taught history. It was episodic, rather than chronological.”

After her speech, the race equality thinktank, The Runnymede Trust, fired off an angry letter to government asking them not to dismiss these issues as “fashionable”, saying it belittles the realities faced by Black and minority ethnic groups.

I don’t want the government dictating how households operate.

Truss is riding high at the moment within the Conservative Party, with polling displaying huge popularity. To most people outside of political circles she is known for her work as international trade secretary, signing a myriad of post-Brexit continuity trade deals and some new ones, such as the free trade deal with Japan. The 45-year-old is never too far away from a union jack and the flag of another nation as she signs papers in an official binder.

It’s a job she clearly loves, and pre-pandemic she became a bit of an Instagram star, making keen use of some witty hashtags. She also shares snippets of her home life with husband of 21 years, Hugh, and daughters Frances, 14 and Liberty, 12, where she’s fond of a country walk and baking. 

And her equalities position has won her many fans too. The comments below the YouTube video of her December speech, which she gave at the Centre for Social Justice, describe her as a breath of fresh air. She’s seen by many as an “anti-woke” champion, and she embraced the phrase herself in a Daily Mail interview before Christmas, where she said too many had jumped on the “woke” bandwagon, taking a swipe at what she sees as the left’s virtue signalling – particularly the pulling down of historical statues – rather than trying to make people’s lives better. 

Asked how she felt about this term being used in connection with her politics and if it meant much to her, she says: “Not really, is the answer. 

“I’ve got a particular view of what equality means, and to me it means fairness. It means that regardless of your background, your gender, your sexuality, you should be treated the same by the school system, the health service, you should be treated the same as an employee, you should have the same opportunities to set up an enterprise.” 

But irrespective of her views, there hasn’t been a huge amount of policy delivered in her time in the job so far. She says she is waiting on the results of a significant data project she commissioned in December, and which is due to report back with interim findings in June. She says “universal policies” that don’t “ghettoise women” will stem from there. 

She’s busy trying to set up an Equalities Hub, which will be based in the north of England, though its final location is yet to be decided. On the government’s website, the hub explains that it works with the Cabinet Office, Government Equalities Office, the Social Mobility Commission, the Race Disparity Unit and the Disability Unit. 

For the hub, she’d like a north-east location, perhaps away from “London’s boardrooms”, and away from activist groups that unfairly dominate and have the “loudest voices” – as she mentioned in her speech.

Asked if a diverse city like London simply produces campaign groups that are likely to be on the more progressive end of the equalities debate, she says: “I share the desire to end discrimination against women or against ethnic minorities or LGBT people but what we’re talking about is the way to do that. I think that’s a really important distinction. I don’t want to switch the clock back. I want to move the clock forward in a way that supports the universal principle of human dignity rather than the idea that we’re going to categorise people by the group they’re in.”

Under her watch you won’t find “women’s policies” specifically being developed, and she’s already hit out at “pink-bus” feminism.

There won’t be quotas, or all-female shortlists for anything. She’s also stopped unconscious bias training among the Civil Service, saying it’s not useful in improving equality. She’s previously described herself as a Destiny’s Child feminist – one who believes “women should be independent”. She makes the case for Conservative feminism, centring on freedom that will in turn lead to empowerment, and it’s clear many of her views crystallised in her early teens.

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against the nine characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Truss says she wants to move beyond this “narrow focus” and doesn’t want anyone to be defined by a particular characteristic. There should also be a focus on socio-economic circumstances and geographic inequalities.

Enforcement when there are issues of discrimination should be ramped up, she says, and has confidence this will happen within the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) under new chair Lady Kishwer Falkner.

“We know pregnant women still suffer appalling discrimination in the workplace. And that’s something the EHRC is committed to tackling. We want to see more of that action [rather] than esoteric debates that are quite meaningless to people,” she says.

A report on flexible working, which she has just released, shows that if companies advertise their jobs as flexible there’s a 30 per cent increase in applicants, and they’re likely to be women. 

“If we normalise flexible working – that will benefit particularly women – but it’s a universal policy. That’s the type of policy we should be focused on that levels the playing field,” she says.

People who aren’t used to working the system lose out. Those people are more likely to be women.

She refers to the work of economist Iris Bohnet, whom she says has written an “excellent book”, although she can’t quite remember the title (it’s What Works: Gender Equality By Design).

“It’s about how you create organisations that are fairer, more equal. 

“It goes back to what I was saying about transparency, openness, clarity. If job adverts aren’t being clear they offer flexible working, that’s when people who aren’t used to working the system lose out. Those people are typically more likely to be women or live outside the big cities.”

In light of this edition of The House celebrating International Women’s Day, she is keen to stress the work she is doing with the G7’s Gender Equality Advisory Council this week. She is leading on the gender equality work, focusing on women’s economic empowerment, including access to finance for female-led businesses, reaffirming the government’s push for girls to get 12 years of education, and encouraging the study of STEM subjects. 

She hopes to announce that a number of leading women scientists will be joining the board imminently. 

Two of her political heroes right now also come from the international field, referencing Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization, whom she describes as a “breath of fresh air” for her strong stance on environmental issues, and Canadian trade minister, Mary Ng, who works on women’s economic empowerment.

“We’re really seeing a sea-change in the world of trade,” she says. 

Though closer to home, it’s hard to escape the gendered impact the coronavirus pandemic has seen on British women, with reports of them shouldering more of the home-schooling responsibilities than men. 

Asked if she was worried that the pandemic had set women’s progress back, she says: “I think we’ve got to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes of what we expect women to do.

“Clearly many women have faced real challenges. People across the country have faced real challenges. As we move towards opening up, we’ve got to make sure women build back better.”

Again she refers to the potential for flexible working for women in the Covid recovery, but adds: “It’s always a slightly tricky subject because I don’t want the government dictating how households operate.”

It’s suggested to her that lots of women have found themselves in more traditional roles during the pandemic in terms of the division of labour in the household. 

She asks me, and sounds genuinely interested, how much housework I do. And then pivots to her male adviser asking them the same question. He gallantly admits his partner does more, though he does the cooking.

Truss replies: “Seriously? 

“It is not a reflection of my house,” she says frankly, then descends into a fit of giggles. 

Whether it’s Destiny’s Child feminism, or her own unique brand of Conservative feminism, she’s serious about the non-gendered approach, seemingly right down to her own household.

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