How to get to equality

Jo Swinson


If statutory parental leave payments can’t be increased across the board, an interim step could be to give parents the option to take less than their full entitlement, but to have the money concentrated so it is paid at a higher rate, says former Minister for Women and Equalities Jo Swinson in a new book.

Swinson’s new book  Equal Power And How You Can Make It Happen is a practical guide to female empowerment. It deals with everything from work to culture. This year will see a review of Shared Parental Leave three years after the legislation was brought in by the coalition government. One of its main architects, Swinson is keen to defend the legislation – which allows parents to share parental leave between them – amid reports of low take-up. She says it was always estimated that take-up would be fairly low to begin with. She would like to see SPL extended to the self-employed and for the rate of statutory parental pay to be raised across the board.

Swinson talks about the early days of laying the ground for SPL. She says some of the responses from employers to the new legislation were telling – those who grumbled about the additional burden it would place on them were essentially saying men were more important and more indispensable than women, she said. She points out that where men say they are worried about the impact on their career if they take SPL they are implicitly saying they are fine with the impact falling on the woman’s career. While acknowledging issues around finances, she spells out how sharing leave has big implications for women’s careers and for equality and says that work needs to change to fit the new parenting model. “As attitudes change, in the future there just won’t be sufficient talented people for them to employ if they continue to restrict themselves to fish in the recruitment pool of people whose partners do not work,” she writes.

Unfinished business

Swinson says her book is “a call to arms” and states that the sexual revolution is “unfinished business”.

An early chapter, as befits a politician and in the year of the centenary of some women getting the vote, deals with political power. At a time of aggressive trolling of women politicians, Swinson lists a range of ways to boost female political power, from challenging parties and the media to be more representative to boosting women’s confidence to put themselves forward and setting mini targets to develop the confidence to speak up. She says political parties’ funding should be linked to their progress on diversity and that they should run pilots to see how to make it possible for MPs to job share.

Swinson states that inequality starts in childhood and that we are all complicit in it. She says “childhood currently functions as an apprenticeship in gender inequality” and recommends a range of strategies and vigilance – from being aware of what you praise to watching what words you use to describe actions taken by girls and boys and expanding the horizons of both genders. She talks in detail about the pressure to look good, maternity discrimination, tackling gender-based violence and the gender pay gap, women in sport and the links between gender and other forms of diversity.

In a chapter on work she describes how the system has been built on a male model – designed by men, for men on the basis that there is someone at home doing all or most of the domestic work. Getting to 25% women in leadership is a start, she says, but it means that it is essentially women joining a men’s club. Getting to 50% will actually shift power. To get there requires a raft of different measures, from amplifying women’s contributions, encouraging women to sit at the table and not asking the usual suspects to speak at events or take part in other activities to investing in women.

Good for men

It is not just that gender equality is good for women, argues Swinson. It’s good for everyone because concentrations of power are bad. Moreover gender stereotypes are holding men back. Far too little attention, she says, has been paid to gender issues for men and boys and the damage they do – she tackles everything from the pressure to hold back emotion and to be the breadwinner and the neglect of the role of fathers to porn and the warping of ideas of intimacy.

Gender equality is not about a battle of the sexes. Feminists are not the enemy, she says. Equality is good for all of us and we should not just assume that we will simply progress towards it. Trump was a wake-up call to those seeking equality. “The risk of going backwards should stiffen our resolve to keep pushing forwards,” states Swinson. Her book is indeed a rallying cry.

*Equal Power And How You Can Make It Happen is published by Atlantic Books, price £16.99.

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