"I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they are so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won't."
Those are the words of Audre Lorde - a prominent writer, feminist and civil rights activist who wrote extensively about women’s rights in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. The questions she raised and the causes she championed then remain glaringly unanswered now.
That issues surrounding gender equality and women in the workplace remain so prominent lends particular salience to two question: Why? And, how do we alleviate them?
Introducing Jess Phillips and Flick Drummond. Two MP’s at the forefront of championing, promoting and facilitating the discussion surrounding gender equality and Co-Chairs of a ‘Women and Work’ All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). Its aims are predicated on exploring the barriers facing women in the workplace and trends that effect UK women’s chances of co-existing and thriving on an equal footing with men.
In 1992 just nine per cent of MP’s in Westminster were female. Fast forward 25 years and that figure has risen to 29 per cent. Progression? Certainly. Parity? Certainly not.
Unfortunately, the Westminster bubble isn’t an isolated misrepresentation of gender inequality in the workplace. Instead it’s indicative of a wider general epidemic of gender pay gaps and unequal opportunities and representation. Progress surrounding the social and economic status of women in the workplace is underway but bridging an archaic and deep-rooted view of gender is laborious and fraught with pitfalls.
“It’s at a snail’s pace. Worse than that, an injured snail,” Phillips told IPSE. “We have got to recognise that without action and intervention this is not going to change and the snail will be squashed mid-route.”
Phillips isn’t your archetypal politician. Unorthodox, outspoken, in-your-face, quotable and – unusually for a politician – genuinely funny.
“I was working at Women’s Aid and I got sick of banging my fists on the wrong side of the table about the poor decisions I saw happening. I thought ‘no one is going to do this for you’ so I got on with it myself.”
Phillips entered politics to prove that ordinary people could - and was duly elected Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015. There is something overwhelmingly relatable about the 35-year-old who has gained a reputation for speaking her mind on matters that others are scared to even acknowledge.
She marked International Women’s Day (IWD) last year by reading the names of 120 women murdered by men in the UK in the previous year. It’s an outspokenness that has brought her a large share of the political spotlight. And with that come associated risks and rewards.
“It is more tiring than it is terrifying, but I have learnt to ignore my fears and demons and just crack on. I keep the silent and polite majority in my head, not those who simply pedal hate,” she said.
Drummond – the Conservative MP for Portsmouth South – meanwhile, is rather more orthodox. Less vocal, something she openly acknowledges herself, and, until recently, relatively unknown outside of her south-coast constituency.
“I think we get used to (the difficulties of speaking out), it goes with the job. I know Jess is more outspoken than I am so probably gets more attention from the trolls in social media, but if you are passionate about something you have to speak out,” she told IPSE following the launch of the Women and Work APPG report on women returners.
And it was a passion that stimulated her pursuit of a political career when she became disillusioned by the quality of local schools. She trained as school inspector when the youngest of her four children was one-year-old and then became a city councillor in Winchester. Her career, however, was stymied when she went to New York for five years with her husband’s job.
“It was an interesting time to live in the USA but it meant that it has taken me longer than many to get to Westminster. It is why I am so passionate about getting older women back into the workplace, we have experience which is invaluable to companies especially as we are living longer.”
The Women and Work APPG was constituted in early 2016 in response to increasing public and political focus on women in the workforce and the Government’s acknowledgement that the UK economy doesn’t utilise women’s talents and hasn’t benefitted from the “huge economic prize”.
For some women the cost of child care is the deal breaker for others the accessibility to get to work is their bug bear, and for others the culture of their industry.
“Flick and I both took part in the Women and Equalities select Committee enquiry in to the Gender pay gap,” Phillips said. “The inability for women to return easily to work was such a fundamental issue in the gender pay gap we both felt it needed exploring in its own right. The APPG committee agreed.
“A woman’s economic empowerment drives everything we do. We want to make sure that when the Government make economic and industrial decisions that they don’t forget half the population.”
Despite sitting on opposite benches, it is issues such as these that have catalysed their collaboration. In many ways they are the antithesis of each other - both politically and socially - but are working together on a common cause to tackle an issue far greater than party politics.
“It is our differences and our different experiences of being women who work that makes us such a good team,” Phillips continued. “We are from different generations, different backgrounds and have very different experiences of being working mothers.
“We rarely disagree on the central problem we are trying to break but have a breadth of experience to pull all the woman in the right direction, not just one narrow gap. (Policy) Is all equally important. Women are not a homogenous group. They, like everyone, have different needs. For some women the cost of child care is the deal breaker for others the accessibility to get to work is their bug bear, and for others the culture of their industry.”
The APPG consists of eight meetings and subsequent report with aims of evaluating and debating how policy makers can better deliver gender balance within the economy. Its findings and subsequent recommendations will be presented to Women and Equalities Minister, Justine Greening, later this year.
“We set it up to look at the barriers to women in the workplace,” Drummond said. “We decided to start with an enquiry and report about women returning to work after a gap. The report came from a statistic that was in the gender pay gap inquiry that women who have been out of work for more than six months find it very difficult to find a job or get back into their old workplace. This is appalling as we are missing out on a massive amount of talent and experience.
“The Government is very conscious about this, and the Prime Minister is personally committed to solving this issue, so I think we will see a cultural change as well as policies coming forward.”
Phillips added: “They should look hard at the recommendations and I’m delighted that in the Budget they committed some financial assistance to the creation of Returnships. This is merely the first step and I want them to be as obsessed with women’s unemployment or underemployment as they are with unemployed young people or people living on benefits.”
Earlier this year Drummond was a heavily involved in an inquiry and petition to make it illegal for a company to require their female staff wear high heels. The petition was started in response to one person’s experience, but it became abundantly clear that it wasn’t an isolated incident. Subsequently 150,000 people signed the petition. The Women and Work APPG hopes to work alongside businesses of all sizes to instil change in policy and attitudes regarding women in the workplace.
“There was a joint inquiry with the Petitions committee and that has now been completed,” Drummond said. “I think the publicity has raised awareness and I hope that companies have taken on board that making women wear high heels is a health and safety issue.”
The Women and Work APPG hopes to work alongside businesses of all sizes to instil change in policy and attitudes regarding women in the workplace.
Phillips added: “We are definitely pro-business but aim to act as a critical friend as well as a mouthpiece for those who are doing well. We work with businesses who really want to do better as well as those who are doing it already. Every day new corporations, small business and self-employed people contact us to talk about what they can do. We will gladly name and shame bad practice but we counter it with promoting the good even when for me those companies might not be my natural allies.
“The whole aim of the enquiry is to highlight and then damn some of the requirements women face just to have a job that are simply not faced by men.”
The current APPG is particularly pertinent following the publication of recent IPSE research - ‘Exploring the UK Freelance Workforce in 2016’ - which illustrated that women are driving a significant surge in the number of freelancers in the UK.
The research showed that the number of female freelancers increased by 55 per cent since 2008, compared to a 36 per cent growth in males. More specifically the numbers of mothers working as freelancers increased by 79 per cent meaning one in seven of all freelancers are mothers. The flexibility provided by freelancing has an abundance of pros, especially mothers balancing the rigours of the work life/parenthood balance.
“I think being your own boss is the greatest gift in the world, especially if you have a chaotic home life,” Phillips said. “You can set the culture of your work and use your skills to best effect rather than shoehorning them in to something else. As a working mum I would have loved to set my own agenda and been completely in charge of my path. The more people who do this the better all our working cultures will be. Work is changing and the system needs to catch up.
“We must make sure that these freelancers are not living below the standards we would expect for employed women. We need to make sure that this new workforce has access to the networks for commissioning and contracting and that their rateable value is where it should be.
“I am an interventionist so I think there should be an onus on public money to be spent fairly with good providers offering diverse services. Charters on purchasing and paying freelancers on time would be the first step.”
Drummond, who worked as a contractor earlier in her career, added: “I would like to see more flexibility so that everyone can have the benefits of being self-employed. Being selfemployed means that you can work around your other commitments although I know it does mean that you have to work harder because you are always worried about the next contract or deal.
Networks like IPSE are excellent to support each other. We all need to be able to talk things through with others in the same boat.
“I worked as an Ofsted inspector which meant I could take which contracts I wanted and work around my children when they were small. It is a great way of keeping up skills and working and caring activities. It can be exhausting though, and networks like IPSE are excellent to support each other. We all need to be able to talk things through with others in the same boat.”
Over the coming months the group will be exploring issues surrounding the gig economy, automation, Brexit, how the changing political and policy landscape will impact women in the workplace in the years to come and evaluating the potential opportunities such as growth in digital roles and the creative industries.
Just as Drummond’s petition to ban legislation calling on women to wear high heels to work illustrated; a united voice has wider influence for change. Phillips and Drummond have stressed the importance of involvement and interaction to enhance their cause. All the APPG meetings are open to the public who are warmly encouraged to attend, listen and engage, ask questions and contribute opinions.
Change, or indeed parity, won’t be easily forthcoming. But if anyone can highlight the challenges facing women in the workplace and stimulate discussion and awareness, Phillips and Drummond can. They act for those who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they are taught to respect established social norms rather than themselves. They know that silence won’t save them.
For more information on the Women and Work APPG and how to get involved visit https://connectpa.co.uk/the-women-andwork-all-party-parliamentary-group/.