My Lords, it is a great honour to speak in celebration of International Women’s Day. It has a special personal meaning for me. On this day 102 years ago, my mother was born in St Petersburg in Russia. She lived for 100 years and two weeks. When I think of her life’s journey, I am reminded of women’s resilience and courage. I am also reminded of the many misfortunes that women of that generation had to endure and overcome.
For the first 30 years of her life, hardship and danger were my mother’s travelling companions: from Russia on the eve of the revolution, through the years of civil war in Siberia, exile in war-torn China, tragedy during World War II in Indochina, where her first husband was killed by the Japanese when she was nine months pregnant, to sanctuary at last in Paris and London. When I think of her life, I remind myself how lucky my generation was to have been born in this country when we were. Yet we had our own struggles—and we too needed more than a few drops of determination to overcome them. Those of us who decided to forge a career in the 1970s and 1980s could be confronted by an often intimidating and hostile world dominated by men, many of whom saw the arrival of women as a threat to the natural order.
While at university, I decided to become a commodity broker in the City; I was one of the first women to do so and I enjoyed it enormously. But to get there and stay there, I had to run the gauntlet of harassment, molestation and abuse, some of which would make you blush today. The view then was that if you wanted to make it in a man’s world, you had to pay this price and shut up. Thankfully, today that kind of behaviour is considered totally unacceptable and often illegal. This is surely something for all of us—men and women—to celebrate. It is an example to the world. This Conservative Government can be proud that female employment is at a record high and the gender pay gap at a record low.
But there is no room for complacency. Some men will always resist the equal treatment of women. Power too often goes to the heads of men who wield it, leading to abuse and bullying—we have seen gross examples in the press—so the struggle goes on. Eradicating misogyny is challenge enough, but we need to move beyond that. More women should be positively encouraged and helped to become politicians, CEOs, firefighters, surgeons or train drivers—whatever they want to do—with equal opportunities and equal rights. That should also embrace women who want to stay at home as wives and mothers, if that is their choice, without being judged as second-rate by their female peers. The challenge for women today is to get the balance right and not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction.
Let me explain what I mean. I have a confession to make: I like men. I have two sons, two stepsons and a husband. I do not want to emasculate men, bludgeon them into submission or turn them into our enemies. I do not want them to be afraid of paying me a compliment, opening a door or entering a lift alone with me. What I want above all is for the vast majority of decent men to be on our side—to work with us. We do not want to wage a gender war, nor do I believe it necessary. What we want is to be respected for what we are and who we are. In turn, we need to do the same and respect the majority of men. So let us include them in our fight. I see very few men here today, and I hope that next year the debate will be earlier so that more men can participate. After all, we are all—women and men—one humanity. This is how I have watched my sons and stepsons grow up—to cherish and respect women as their equals, to enjoy their company and, if it is their choice, to love them.