The last few days have seen a number of women’s issues raised, as International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday were marked. It has all been rather gloomy. In the Lords on Thursday last, there were three questions about women. The first was about women and sport, where it seemed that sport for women was either diminishingly popular, or, when about to flourish was being frustrated. For example, the closing of the Don Valley stadium in Sheffield, where Jessica Ennis trained, or the lack of time for sport, especially competitive/team, at school. Not a trace of the Olympic legacy there.
Then there was a question about stopping violence against women which, if anything, is increasing. Attention was drawn to the terrible practice of female genital mutilation, which is carried out in this country as well as abroad, and so secretly that it is hard to prevent it or punish the perpetrators.
There was also a question about why there are so few women on FTSE 100 boards, especially ethnic minority women. Speaking as one who, for 30 years, has tried and failed to secure such a seat, I can tell you why. Women are not given seats on boards unless they have either worked their way up through the business, or come from outside as experienced non-executive members. It is very difficult to work one’s way up because, in my generation, business was simply never mentioned at school as a possible career choice; and in the case of the younger generation the hours demanded and the lack of affordable childcare make it almost impossible to thrive and stick at it. The potential non-exec is told that she cannot have a place unless she has experience in business, and since that is so difficult she is ruled out. Experience on public boards and in education or the arts does not count, it seems. It must be easier in the US. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recounts in her new book that her great achievement was to secure reserved parking for pregnant women at her workplace. Is this a joke? Women at work in this country would be thrilled to have any parking at all: workplace parking is rare and most women are struggling to reach work in rush hour in the revolting conditions of our trains and underground. She highlights the pressures on mothers, especially mothers at work, to be perfect. To be like Tiger Mother, driving the children on to the highest academic and musical levels by hours of intensive home coaching; to be like French mothers, thin, laid back, with children eating adult gourmet food quietly from a young age; to be yummy mummies, regaining model figures within weeks of childbirth; and to act out 50 Shades of Grey for their grateful husbands. Sobering thoughts on Mother’s Day, as we are reminded that the other 364 days are for our children.
It has also been recounted recently that there are fewer women at the highest echelons of UK politics than elsewhere in the world and that the prospects for more are dim. Well, no wonder, given the opprobrium suffered by all politicians, and the enormous difficulties a woman politician faces in caring for her family, even just seeing them, given the working hours and conditions. Late night sittings, the financial constraints on having a home for the children in London and in the constituency, their schooling etc. And a final grim thought, having just heard about the sentence for Vicky Pryce – it must be even worse being married to a politician than being one yourself . . .