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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour 7:25 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Mone. I wholeheartedly concur with her about the importance of entrepreneurship as a way forward for many women. There is a lot of potential there.

I could not help reflecting that these are interesting times in which to celebrate International Women’s Day, when the whole concept of gender is somewhat fluid and, some would say, up for debate. I must admit that I was looking forward to the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, being here today, but unfortunately she is not. This is probably not the right place for me to pronounce on this issue—not that I do not have a view—but I agreed with my noble friend Lady Crawley when she pointed out the unfortunate habit of no- platforming people whose ideas we do not necessarily agree with. Surely what we need in any debate on this issue is the ability to listen to other points of view.

I, too, congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Sugg, on their new positions. I was particularly impressed by the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, made about stereotypes in relation to boys and girls and how those set in at an early age. Even at primary school, we need to teach boys to show respect for the girls in their classes. If we do not stop those attitudes, which start at an early age and which unfortunately are often reinforced by things that children access on the internet, they can lead to domestic abuse—a matter that we will try to deal with in the Domestic Abuse Bill. I am very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, will be dealing with girls’ education in developing countries.

I missed some of this debate, for which I apologise, but I heard one reference to Malala Yousafzai—an astonishing woman. I feel that we do not sufficiently pay tribute to her and the work that she has done. Apart from the incredible courage that she has displayed, she is the youngest Nobel laureate and has done much to inspire young people around the world. She is, of course, accompanied by another amazing young woman. I might not necessarily agree with all her views but you cannot help but admire the sheer determination of Greta Thunberg and the fact that she has inspired a lot of young people to understand the importance of climate change. They are important young women who have made a huge contribution and it is important to mention them as we celebrate International Women’s Day.

As a former trade unionist, I shall focus a little on some of the important industrial disputes. A number of us are wearing ribbons recognising the importance of the matchgirls’ strike in 1888 and are supporting the campaign for a memorial to recognise its importance. There were two other disputes. I think that it was the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, who mentioned the machinists at Dagenham. That was an important dispute—after all, it launched the Equal Pay Act. We ought to pay tribute to Barbara Castle, who supported them. What an amazing woman she was. Another dispute which is not often referred to was at Grunwick from 1976 to 1978. An Asian woman, Jayaben Desai, led a really difficult but important campaign. It did not end well. The women did not get the justice they deserved.

The older one gets the more one tends to turn to the newspaper obituary columns. I am perhaps as guilty of this as anyone else in your Lordships’ House. I kept one I saw recently because it has a relevance to today’s debate. It was of a woman I had not heard of—a brilliant NASA mathematician called Katherine Johnson. As John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, pored over the computer-generated data and decided that the numbers warranted a second opinion, he said, “Get that girl here. If she says they are good, I am ready to go”. That girl was Katherine Johnson, a 43 year-old mother of three whose mathematical brilliance helped her to defy sexism and racism to become one of the most trusted human computers at NASA, the American space agency. She was an amazing woman. The obituary also mentioned how she tried to get into a meeting dominated by male engineers.

“Quietly the quality of my contribution began to outweigh the arbitrary laws of racial segregation and the dictates that held back my gender”.

Johnson was assigned to the space task group which NASA established in 1958. Although trusted to work on top-secret projects as an important team member, she was never invited to the meetings by engineers. One day she asked to attend a briefing and was told, “Girls don’t go”. When she pressed her case, asking if there was a law against it, her boss allowed her in. What a huge battle she had to fight.

A number of noble Lords have spoken about the importance of carers’ allowances. There are more women at work and in full-time jobs, but there is still a long way to go on the question of equal pay. Although we have made progress, there is still a huge disparity. As we enter a difficult period for our economy, will the Minister think about the impact this is going to have on single working parents? We ought to be looking carefully at how universal credit operates. Will she give some consideration to this?

I am running out of time, but I want to pay tribute to the late Lady Rendell. She was an amazing woman and writer and a fearless campaigner concerning female genital mutilation. I also want to pay tribute to the late Lady Jowell. What an amazing contribution she made. Lady Dean was an astonishing woman. I met someone whom she had encouraged to go to Cambridge University.

I want to end by referring to another newspaper article. There is hope for humanity when, after 96 years, the Ilkley crown green bowling club has ended its ban on women members. By gum, that’s progress.