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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:59 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 7:59 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for opening this debate and I welcome her to her new role. As ever on International Women’s Day we have had a treasure trove of a debate, with the diamond in the middle of the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ranger. You know what they say about diamonds. The noble Lord brings to the House a wonderful, interesting and unique experience, which I think we will all find most valuable as time passes.

I realise that the Minister will tell us when she sums up this debate—I wish her good luck in doing that—about the great record of this Government in their support for women in many different ways, because that is her job. Indeed, she can be proud of their record compared with that of previous Conservative Governments over many years who voted against any equality legislation. I hope that she will also reflect on the many accounts we have heard today of the challenges that women in the UK face. This is a rich, civilised country with mostly enlightened views on equality and discrimination, but there is still some way to go.

I start by thanking my noble friends Lady Gale, Lady Bryan, Lady Donaghy, Lady Prosser, Lady Wilcox, Lady Nye, Lady Healy, Lady Osamor, Lady Crawley, Lady Goudie and our honorary sister, my noble friend Lord Young, for great contributions and for showing the deep, broad and very practical equality traditions of the Labour movement, going back to the match girls, the Durham women, the Grunwick women, the Ford women and the parliamentary pioneers such as Harriet Harman and Barbara Castle, of whom we are very proud indeed.

My contribution will reflect on “invisible women”, using the title that Caroline Criado Perez used for her ground-breaking research and publication of that name, which I am sure many Members of the House will have read, or certainly read about. It describes and illustrates the gender data gap and data bias in a world designed for men and allows us to say with some accuracy that we live in a male-dominated world in almost every aspect we care to examine—culture, art, music, science and government.

As we all know, enlightenment and knowledge are the first step along the road to change, so this is not a counsel of despair but a plea to understand and change. I recommend reading this book to those who have not done so; I particularly recommend it to those who make decisions about how to spend money and make senior appointments. As Simone de Beauvoir said:

“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.”

It is important to say from the outset that the gender data gap is not deliberate or malicious; it is the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia. Sometimes it is not thinking; it is a gap, an absence, a non-collection of data. I shall relate two examples to illustrate this.

The first one, which we know and are very familiar with, is the issue of who should feature on the new bank note, replacing the only female figure with another man. As we know, Caroline Criado Perez led a successful campaign for that not to happen. In the process, some men got so angry that they threatened her with rape, mutilation and death. Even those men who were more measured in their displeasure showed that they were experiencing anger because even minor female representation was an iniquity. The interesting question is how the Bank of England came to this conclusion. It set up a series of objectives which it said would reflect merit. It set up objective selection criteria—we all read that it said this at the beginning—and said that the person it would choose had to be a key figure from the past, had to have name recognition, had to have good artwork, to be uncontroversial, had to have made a lasting contribution and to be universally recognised and enduring. So it was not surprising that it ended up with five white men on the shortlist. It is a good illustration of the historical gender data gap which means that women are far less likely to fulfil those criteria. It is not that the Bank of England deliberately set out to exclude women—indeed, I hope that it will have looked at its objective criteria and taken a different view.

Another example in the book concerns snowploughs in Sweden. In 2011, a town called Karlskoga in Sweden decided to re-evaluate its policies and practices though a gender-equality lens. One presumably slightly jaundiced official said that at least snow clearing would be “something that the gender people would keep their noses out of.” Of course, that guaranteed that the gender lens would be focused on this essential service. Every year, snow clearing started with the main arterial roads and ended with the clearance of pedestrian walkways, cycle paths and so on. Noble Lords can see this coming: women walk more than men do, we take more diverse routes to work, to schools and shops, while the men were largely driving their cars to work and back again. The outcome was that more women fell over on the snow and ice, broke their arms and legs and hurt themselves. It was shown that snow clearing was in fact not gender neutral at all. It did not cost much to reverse those things, and it is clear that it is much easier to drive through three inches of snow than push a buggy through it. It saved a lot of money, because women were not going to accident and emergency, were not having to be mended and did not have to take time off work. I do not need to go into the detail because noble Lords can read about it.

The most telling matter—it was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Rock—is how the missing gender data impacts on a world increasingly dependent on big data: big truths dependent on big algorithms using big computers. If half the data that should be there is simply absent, it will have big consequences. As noble Lords know, I deal with health issues in this House. Gender bias can affect women in countless ways, but the gender health gap is putting women’s lives at risk. Seat belts, head rests and airbags in cars have been designed mainly based on data collected from car crash dummies using the physique and seating positions of men. Women’s breasts and pregnant bodies do not feed into the standard measurements, with the result that women are 47% more likely to be seriously insured and 17% more likely to die than a man in a similar accident.

Medical trials have been found to exclude representative samples of women—including pregnant women, women in menopause and women using birth control pills—which may result in medical advice that is not necessarily suitable for females. Women who suffer heart attacks are dying needlessly because they fail to recognise their symptoms and they receive poorer care. The British Heart Foundation found that, over 10 years, more than 8,000 women in England and Wales died unnecessarily after a heart attack because of inequalities in diagnosis, treatment and aftercare.

Online apps based on data collected mainly from men have also been found to suggest that a woman’s symptoms of pain in the left arm and back might be due to depression, and that she should see a doctor in a couple of days. In contrast, a male user of the app is more likely to be asked to immediately contact his doctor based on a diagnosis of a possible heart attack.

A 2018 study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that women are less likely to receive cardio- pulmonary resuscitation from bystanders during a cardiac arrest. This has been attributed to the fact that CPR training uses only male dummies. Training with female dummies would eliminate fears of causing injury, and the misconception that breasts make CPR more challenging. Verbal memory tests used to detect Alzheimer’s disease disadvantage women. Research in the United States shows that women in the early stages of Alzheimer’s perform better than men in these tests. However, as this difference is not taken into account, the disease is detected later in women, preventing earlier treatment.

As these examples show, when products, medication, training and advice cater predominantly for men or are based on male profiles, terrible things can happen. Tackling the entrenched gender divide in health is key to saving lives, by ensuring that essential products and services meet the needs of both women and men. This is about women stepping out of the shadows and claiming their data and presence, and increasingly I think we will see that this will make more progress.

I would like to end by thanking everyone who has spoken in this debate. I note that we had nine blokes taking part, which is more than usual and might be a record; I welcome that and thank every one of them. As my noble friend Lady Gale said at the outset, the Government need to take further action to move towards equality. My noble friend asked many questions; many noble Lords have asked questions. What they have showed is that we have come a long way, but we still have some way to go.