It was really interesting to listen to Jackie Doyle-Price. It struck me that male interests are unassailable and that misogyny can somehow be dismissed as banter. The knock-on effect of that in society is considerable. I would like to address the assumption that where the male interest lies is the social norm.
A part of me thinks that, in all honesty, we surely must regret the need for International Women’s Day. We can celebrate the fact that we are in this House, but for many women, the fact that we are holding this conversation today shows that society is riven with divisions that affect many women’s lives. To put it very simply, women are more likely than men to be in poverty, more likely to be unable to afford basic resources such as food and heating, and less likely to have savings to fall back on in hard times. The point is not that women’s poverty is worse than men’s; it is not in the quality of the experience. No one here would say that people should be living in poverty. I will couch this in rather grand academic words, and then I will try to describe it in less grand academic words: the key point is that women’s experiences of poverty are shaped by problematic gender and societal norms. I apologise for those terms, and I will try to unpick them.
There are reasons why women are poorer than men, and we here have a duty to ask why. One of the reasons, of course, is that women often still take the primary responsibility for care—we are used to these conversations. Although that is the case, it is simply not feasible for all women to lift themselves out of poverty by earning more through increasing their hours of work or securing a better paid job. The reality for many women is that their work has to fit into their caring responsibilities. Their lives include a range of responsibilities. There is not just more time to squash into the day. Their ability to work and progress is limited by the need to find a balance between working and caring.
Let us just remember some of the simple things. Women are not being paid for their work of caring for their children or their families. They never have been; it is historically women’s work. Our society defines the status of an activity with remuneration. This disregard for the worth of caring for others is echoed in the workplace. It is of course no coincidence that jobs that involve care generally—let’s face it, almost invariably they are lower-paid employment—are traditionally done by women. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the social care sector. Careworkers perform the vital work of looking after our most vulnerable people, yet their reward is to be overworked, underpaid and trapped, often in precarious zero-hours contracts. Covid-19 has thrown our dependency on careworkers into stark profile, and if there proves to be a shortage of careworkers, we might be asking ourselves why.
The immigration proposals that the Government published recently will only make the situation worse for careworkers, because of the sector’s reliance on migrant workers. In placing a greater weight on salaries than on skills, the Government will place a sector that is already overworked and understaffed under increased pressure. We have heard today about the sort of jobs that we should be encouraging women to take—the sort of “good” jobs that are generally celebrated. The Government propose to give
“top priority to those with the highest skills...scientists, engineers, academics”.
Those are sectors in which the under-representation of women is a significant issue, and that tells us all we need to know—and, to be fair, this applies not only to the Government but to society as a whole—about what we count as important jobs.
The truth is that we live in a society that values looking after machines more than looking after people. That, to me, is an extraordinary statement to make. As soon as it has been made, we know that there is something wrong with our values when we value machines more than people. Achieving equality is not about more women looking after machines, or more men being poorly paid in the care sector; it is about tackling the root causes of poverty by shifting our economic priorities towards the wellbeing of people. That is staggeringly obvious when we say it, but it is interesting that it has to be said. We can begin by establishing parity of pay between social care and healthcare staff and creating a fairer welfare system, starting—I would say this, of course—by devolving welfare to Wales so that we can sort out our own problems better, and reforming universal credit.
Let me end by saying that the goal is not simply for women to achieve equality with men, but for us to build a better society for everyone—a society in which the worth of caring for each other is so self-evident that it does not have to be put on record in this place.