My Lords, I thank the Minister for initiating this debate. One of the key ingredients for advancing gender equality is leadership, and I believe that the noble Baroness has shown that in spades.
When I first started on the road to try to advance gender equality, more than 50 years ago, I hoped we might have gone further down the road than we have. We seem to have won the right to work twice as hard as men, all the while multitasking—the right to be knackered. I want to talk about two things. The first is that macroeconomics do not take women’s contributions sufficiently into account. Secondly, I want to give examples of how inspiring women keep me going.
Almost all macroeconomics is male based. Women’s unpaid care work is a crucial and often neglected consideration in the design of economic policies and reforms. One report of a conference run by the Women’s Budget Group highlights how unpaid work,
“unjustly absorbs economic shocks and often compensates for austerity measures”.
In other words, it is women who pick up the pieces during periods of austerity, and the Government must accept some responsibility for this. The disproportionate burden of unpaid work on women and girls creates a barrier to access to decent jobs and promotion prospects.
There may be more women in employment than ever before, but many have been displaced from secure public sector jobs into temporary work, the informal economy or underemployment. This increases their financial insecurity and widens both the wage gap and the gender gap. Importantly, many have few opportunities to participate in decisions that directly or indirectly affect their living conditions and those of their families and communities.
All economic policy changes should be subject to a gender equality impact assessment. The failure to take account of the full range of contributions made by women means that the impact of austerity measures is not taken fully into account. Local government is a case in point. Central government funding fell by nearly 50% between 2010 and 2018, and this has had a devastating effect on local services mainly used by women: adult social care, domestic violence refuges, childcare. It has also led to more job losses for women in public services.
In the last year, there have been two reports from UN experts highlighting the devastating impact austerity is having on women’s rights. Combine the austerity measures with the obscene gap between rich and poor and the result is disillusionment with traditional social democratic parties and fertile ground for extremism or populism or both.
I turn to how women in leadership can be a vital element in encouraging and motivating others. I have time to mention only three. Watching Julia Gillard, when she was Prime Minister of Australia, in total control at the Dispatch Box in Canberra—and yet finding time to see me immediately after Question Time—was inspiring. She is now leading global education projects and inspiring many more.
“We are underrepresented in decision-making structures … and overrepresented in poverty statistics”.
“I’m just an ordinary working-class girl from the North” and, she went on, “if I can change the law, anyone can”. As many noble Lords will know, she was at a festival when someone photographed under her skirt. She reported it to the police, who told her it was not a crime. When she posted a picture of the two perpetrators on Facebook, she was told to take it down because it was harassment. She felt so violated that she started an online petition to make upskirting—as it is called—illegal. She said:
“Eighteen months later, I watched the law being changed at the House of Lords, tears streaming down my face. People who take violating pictures up skirts can now be sent to prison for up to two years”.
That is a case of actions speaking louder than words. Let us renew ourselves for another year of fighting for gender equality.