She's standing to be deputy leader of the Labour Party but, in a personal and provocative piece, Stella Creasy says that it's time women stopped fighting sexism politely - and stepped up to run the world
Well-behaved women may rarely change history, but it seems however good our manners are, we are still too often the unwanted guests in public life. Outnumbered, patronised and more scrutinised for our make-up than whether we make a difference, politics is not just a mug’s game but a man’s too. So, why bother? Because I believe, for the good of all, it’s time we took Beyoncé at her word and made sure women run the world.
To do that it’s not just the open sexism and harassment of female representatives that needs to stop – the ‘Calm down dear’ comments, rape and death threats both off and online. It is the everyday clichés that make it feel like you may as well be speaking Klingon when you campaign on inequality. And as a proud feminist MP, I’ve lost count of the times people have told me that describing myself as one is ‘careersuicide’, or how often I’ve been asked ‘if what I wear influences whether people take me seriously’.
The challenge is not just about how we talk to or about women, but also how we talk about leadership – that it takes ‘balls’ not guts, that it’s about ‘statesmanlike’ behaviour. When the media marvel at Nicola Sturgeon or Harriet Harman doing the top jobs, it only reinforces the notion that this is a disruption of the natural order.
On all sides of the political spectrum, stereotypes filter into how we are perceived. Right now, the Labour party is choosing a new leader and deputy leader. As a candidate for deputy, I have experienced how gender is used to dismiss us first-hand from men and women inside and outside my party. Allegations are flying. Some think women aren’t ‘up to’ the role or that we need ‘balance’ in our leadership team – having one woman may be acceptable, choosing two would be going beyond the pale. Indeed, some ask if we have ‘ladyballs’ – as though women in senior positions are OK as long as they mimic men. We champion equality but have to get our own house in order to lead change in the country.
This doesn’t just affect politics. There are more men in Parliament than there have ever been women MPs. However, electing almost 30% of the Commons as female at the 2015 election put us slightly ahead of the FTSE 100, which has scrambled to get close to 25% of company board members to be women. Sadly, most of these appointments are non-executives, there to make up numbers, not make decisions. In 2015 the glass ceiling may be cracking, but it is harder to shift than hoped.
Companies with gender diversity are much more likely to be prosperous, helping create more jobs and growth. When we do better everyone benefits, but there’s a risk Britain will get left behind. Germany will have a 30% quota for women in business by 2016. Many others have long had similar measures – Austria, France and Norway.
Such glacial progress shows how diversity – not just in gender, but ethnicity, sexuality and social class – is still considered marginal to Britain’s future. It is fiscally irresponsible not to use the full talents of our women citizens. But the latest Government budget cuts will hit them hardest.
Addressing inequality isn’t just about our economic prospects. Despite evidence that a third of girls experience sexual harassment in schools, we don’t teach consent as part of the relationship and sex education in the National Curriculum. It’s great to see some progress tackling female genital mutilation and forced marriage, but we must not stop there.
Some say that women should succeed to positions of leadership on the basis of ‘merit’ and if they don’t take part it’s their decision. Others would point out how women are putting their energy into non-party political activism. In whatever way, women are not giving up but trying to change the world on their own terms. I’m passionate about how politics can change lives, so we need women of all backgrounds and ages to be part of our decision making. We need to make politics the vehicle for change alongside such activism. We should use our democracy to demand action. And expect men to ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼join this fight for social justice, too.
The problem isn’t with women, but the world we ask them to take on. Feminism isn’t about women. It is about power and how this is unequally distributed in our society. The insult is to think that because some women have managed to get ahead, it’s up to them to keep going – as though previous generations couldn’t have run the country or a successful business, but held back rather than face discrimination.
My mother taught me to put my money where my mouth is and not to expect to do it alone. So, I’m standing for a leadership role myself, not because we need just one more woman, but many. It is not my ambition to speak for them, but to find new ways to get more women from a wider range of backgrounds into public life because we will all benefit from the contribution they will make. To do that, politics has to stop being about a machine that turns up at election time, and become a movement where everyone feels welcome and able to participate. That especially means those currently locked out.
It’s time we stopped asking nicely for change, and refused to accept the status quo. If you feel the same, get in touch – because however we cut our hair, we are mad as hell about inequality and not going to take it any more.
Stella Creasy is MP for Walthamstow