International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Crossbench 3:51 pm, 7th March 2019

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak among so many inspirational women—and men—as we mark International Women’s Day. It is always a privilege to rise in this Chamber, but never more so than in this debate today. Given the barriers women face to participation in both political and leadership roles, I am acutely aware of the privilege we hold as women Peers within your Lordships’ House.

Female representation in Parliament is just one of many advances for women over the last century. Educational attainment, workforce participation, control of reproduction, and anti-discrimination laws are all evidence of the scale of change, here in the UK and in countries around the globe. But all these gains have failed to translate into equality in terms of leadership. Across the world, women make up just a quarter of parliamentarians, news media leaders and judges. Just 15% of corporate board seats are occupied by women and only in healthcare, education and the non-profit sector does female corporate leadership exceed 40%. Change is happening, but it is at a snail’s pace. A lack of consistent data makes global progress hard to track, but analysis of LinkedIn data found that over the decade to 2017, the proportion of female leaders increased by just 2% across 12 industry sectors.

Therefore, despite all the advances in gender equality that we celebrate, it is clear that women still face significant barriers in progressing to leadership roles. Some of these are embedded in law: in at least 100 economies worldwide, women face gender-based job restrictions, and in 18 countries, husbands can still legally prevent wives working. Some 59% of countries have no law against workplace sexual harassment. More often, though, the barriers are embedded in culture and customs—those unstated norms that conspire to exclude women or prevent them accessing the influential networks that offer a leg up on the ladder to the top.

Alongside this, we read that women’s educational choices can leave them less prepared than men to prosper in the workplace. In a wide range of economies, women’s access to technology is limited, so they lack proficiency in what is becoming the critical skillset of the future. As we know, women are more likely to carry domestic and caring responsibilities, which leaves them more likely to seek part-time or flexible working.

As we have heard, when women rise to leadership, they continue to face challenge, marginalisation and hostility. We have seen horrific examples of this over recent months in the UK, but this is a worldwide concern. Of 55 female parliamentarians from 39 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2016, almost half reported threats of death, rape or violence.

In parallel to this overt hostility is a more insidious form of assault. Blair Williams at the Australian National University wrote her PhD thesis on the ways in which media representation had reinforced gendered and sexist stereotypes in the three weeks following the elections to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Theresa May in 2016. Analysis of newspaper coverage revealed that, far from having moved on in the years between the UK’s two female Prime Ministers, references to appearance, clothing and gender had doubled in some areas of the press. Both women were repeatedly compared to head girls, a term that infantilises women and denigrates their skills and success. An over-emphasis on handbags and kitten heels is just one of the not-so-subtle ways in which the media undermine female political leaders at every turn and, in doing so, undermine women as a whole.

Perhaps it is not surprising that across the four areas on which the 2018 Global Gender Gap Index reports, the major disparity was in political empowerment. Just 17 of the 149 countries assessed have female heads of state; and on average, only 18% of Ministers and, as we have heard, 24% of parliamentarians across the world are women.

Why does this matter? I do not need to tell you, but I will: in short, because women’s political leadership results in better outcomes for women and girls, which means better outcomes for society more broadly. Research indicates that women work harder at communicating with their constituents, and there is a correlation between female representation and higher expenditure on social issues. A 2018 study found that when women are signatories to peace agreements, they are more likely to be implemented and to have longer-lasting effects.

There are plenty of quantifiable arguments for women’s political empowerment, but even without them, its justification is irrefutable. Women make up half the world’s population, yet their voices are still not equal in the places where decisions are made. The prediction is that it will be 107 years before this particular gender gap is closed. On the eve of International Women’s Day, does not the Minister agree with me that 107 years is far too long for us all to wait?