100th International Women’s Day debate

04 March 2011

Baroness Heyhoe-Flint, Baroness Brinton, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, Baroness King of Bow (pictured), Baroness Lister of Burtersett and Baroness Morgan of Ely made their maiden speeches in the House of Lords on Thursday 3 March in a debate on the global and domestic challenges for women in the centenary year of International Women's Day

Baroness Gould of Potternewton, former chair of the Women’s National Commission, opened the debate.

Baroness Heyhoe Flint

Baroness Heyhoe-Flint said it was with great pride that she had ‘moved from Lord's NW8 to the Lords SW1’ in a speech that emphasised the challenges for women in ‘gaining acceptance and recognition in the world of sport, in participation, funding, media coverage and representation at board level.’

Representation on the boards of sports governing bodies would support the image and profile women: ‘The 2010 Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport, ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson, found that only one in five members of national governing bodies (NGBs) are women. One quarter of sport governing bodies have no women on the board at all yet, ironically, almost half the staff of 44 out of 47 Sport England-funded NGBs are female.’ The business case was unarguable. ‘The presence of suitably qualified women will provide a balance of skills and perspective,’ Baroness Heyhoe-Flint said. The England and Wales Cricket Board, with two women non-executive members, was ‘a shining example of an NGB which offers recognition.’

Present when the private members club the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) admitted women members in 1998, ‘after a mere 211 years’, the Baroness would not advocate a quota system: ‘I do not believe legislation is the route: no breaking of the glass ceiling—more a level playing field.’ Greater media coverage would also ‘assist development and improve sponsorship opportunities,’ she said.

Closing her speech, Baroness Heyhoe-Flint said: ‘It may only be by persistent persuasion that women will overcome the problems that I have highlighted, but in challenging economic times we need companies, charities and philanthropists to invest in the potential of women in sport who, after all, are 50 per cent of their market.’

Baroness Brinton

Women still bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty, Baroness Brinton said. Women with disabilities were ‘further stigmatised and experience even greater poverty, less education and worse health than their non-disabled peers.’

Baroness Brinton cited rural Tanzania where 10 per cent of pregnant women develop obstetric fistula – a condition that can occur when emergency care is not available to women who develop complications during childbirth. ‘Tragically, 90 per cent of these women lose their babies and are then confined to home with the debilitating results—uncontrolled leaks and resulting health and hygiene problems. Women find themselves outcasts in their own community.’ Although treatable by a free, simple hospital operation in Tanzania, it was difficult for the health professionals to identify women who needed help ‘because they were invisible,’ she said.

A project, developed with a mobile telephone company was helping to address this: ‘Regional representatives locate women with obstetric fistula and alert the NGO, which transfers money via a text message on a mobile phone to pay for a woman’s bus fare to the hospital. This really is a case of “for the want of a nail the Kingdom was lost”, or, to turn it positive for this project in Tanzania, “for the want of a bus fare, a woman’s life is returned to her, and her family”,’ she said.

Referring to the Department for International Development (DFID) review into UK aid announced this week, Baroness Brinton said: ‘I hope that the guidance is not drawn so tightly that low-cost projects like this, which are truly life changing, are excluded in future because a bus fare might not count as maternal health.’ 

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington spoke of her own and her family’s support for the participation of women in Parliament. In 1907, her great-grandfather, Sir Willoughby Dickinson, Liberal MP for St Pancras North, introduced the first women’s suffrage Bill. Her grandmother, elected MP for Hemel Hempstead in 1937, was the only Conservative woman MP returned to Parliament after the 1945 election, she said.

Baroness Jenkin’s involvement with the issue of women in Parliament began in 2005. ‘After the general election of that year, a mere 9 per cent of the Parliamentary Conservative Party were women. More and more Conservatives were at last starting to realise that this was not just an issue of representation, it was one of credibility—the credibility not just of the Conservative Party but of politics as a whole.’ This led to her co-founding Women2Win. The support of men has been important to its successes, the Baroness said:  ‘Women never make much progress until we succeed in persuading men that things have to change.’

There is still ‘some persuading to do.’ Vigilance was required to ensure no discrimination against women candidates, she said.  Fewer women applied to be candidates for parliamentary seats. It was crucial to support and mentor these women, whatever their party allegiance. 

Baroness Jenkin closed her speech by paying tribute to a group ‘still mainly made up of women’ and not in receipt of of universal sympathy: ‘I know all this because I have been a member of this group—the spouse of a Member of Parliament—for the past 20 years. As we celebrate the 100th International Women’s Day, I salute this band of few heroes but many more heroines.’

Baroness King of Bow also focused on the participation of women in Parliament. The former MP spoke of her desire to ‘move beyond the limited territory’ of equalities issues. ‘I have to be honest and say that we have been having these debates for so long, I sometimes find them claustrophobic, as though I was trapped inside a box—a small box. A small box with a tick on it. But I should not complain. I am great at ticking boxes. I tick loads of them,’ she said. ‘My dad is black, my mum is Jewish, my grandparents were Scottish, Irish, Hungarian, African-American and native American Indian—there are more ticks on my census form than on my mum’s German shepherd dog. I have tick-borne disease, but all these ticks make me think one thing – tick-tock. At the current rate of progress, it will take 200 years to achieve an equal number of women in this Parliament.’ She accepted that Parliament did not ‘go in for revolution.’ But after 200 years, the timeframe was ‘frankly, lazy.’

Previous Labour Governments had introduced groundbreaking equalities legislation. However, Baroness King was ‘still shocked’ at the ground still left to break. ‘Maybe that is because I grew up in a country where the head of state and the Prime Minister were both women and it was an article of faith to me that, in this country, unlike so much of the world, women no longer faced an uphill struggle,’ she said. ‘I was a misguided young woman. I thought that promoting equality was a matter of us tying up a few loose ends, not actually questioning the whole system.’ 

Repair was required in three areas. The first was to recognise that the equalities debate is for everyone. ‘All men in Britain today who desperately want to see their children more than they do, would benefit from greater gender equality at work and around childcare responsibilities,’ she said. The ‘harshest inequality of all’ also needed to be addressed: ‘The inequality between those who are nurtured from birth, on the one hand, and those who are effectively abandoned, whose lives are thrown away before they reach the age of three.’ Lastly, prevention was better than cure ‘to improve outcomes in our system.’ Baroness King commended Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith’s report ‘Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens’ as ‘genuinely groundbreaking.’

Concluding her speech Baroness King said: ‘I hope that we can stop ticking boxes, start to think outside the box and secure gender equality for all.’ 

Baroness Lister of Burtersett

Baroness Lister drew attention to the ‘hidden poverty’ of women within families. ‘Although domestically and globally women tend to bear the main brunt of poverty, this is often overlooked in our very proper concern with child poverty. Yet female and child poverty are closely linked, not least because women still typically manage poverty and, in trying to protect their children from its full impact, they act as poverty’s shock-absorbers,’ she said.

Baroness Lister recalled her time campaigning against the proposal to pay family credit through the pay packet. ‘Evidence indicated that, if money for children was transferred from the woman’s purse to the man’s wallet, it would be less likely to be spent on the children,’ she said. ‘Moreover, such a transfer would deprive mothers of an important independent source of income over which they had independent control. Unfortunately, this is a battle that we seem to have to fight periodically, as successive Governments overlook the importance of how income is shared within families. It is an issue that we face yet again with the proposed universal credit.’

Research showed that low-income women are more likely to go without basics than men living in the same households. A recent study referred to ‘economic violence,’ in which ‘the woman has so little access to money that her freedom is severely curtailed. Other research illuminates how the stress created by poverty can undermine mothers’ ability to provide the kind of parenting that they want to. This can get overlooked in policy debates, which sometimes give the impression of blaming poor parents,’ she said.

As an academic and campaigner, it was a privilege to be able to’ draw attention to the reality of women’s poverty over the years, Baroness Lister said. ‘A colleague in the department of social sciences at Loughborough University reminded me of our responsibility to speak truth to power. I hope that I will fulfil that responsibility on behalf of women who are in fact better placed to speak that truth—and, with support, are more than able to do so—but who do not have access to power.’

Baroness Morgan of Ely

Baroness Morgan of Ely focused on what she called the ‘tradition of feisty Welsh females’ which was ‘alive and kicking in the House of Lords.’ This included Welsh suffragette, Viscountess Rhondda. ‘She was never allowed to take up her seat in the House of Lords, as she would have been had she been a man,’ she observed. ‘Despite this, my noble friend Lady Kinnock and I were only the sixth and seventh women in the history of Wales to be elected to full-time public office in 1994.’

The establishment of the National Assembly had dramatically changed the representation of women in politics in Wales since then. ‘It took the introduction of a gender-equal selection method by the Labour Party to go from probably the worst representation in the world to one of the best. We had more women in the Cabinet than we had men. That was absolutely unique in the world,’ Baroness Morgan said. ‘Recent political selections, however, for Westminster and the Assembly have demonstrated that unless we keep the foot on the pedal we will revert to the previous trend.’

With the most severe recession since the great depression, there was a real danger there could be a pushback on the gains made by women in recent decades. The economic slowdown was likely to affect women more than men. ‘In the past, women’s concentration in the public sector has helped protect women from the initial impact of a recession. Not this time,’ Baroness Morgan said. The cuts were ‘likely to make life very difficult for many women.’

The recession was ‘literally’ a ‘manmade disaster’, and ‘women needed to be included formulating the response,’ Baroness Morgan said. There was not much sign of that. ‘All 27 out of 27 central bank governors of the EU are men.’ There were lessons to learn from what has happened in Iceland. ‘This has fuelled the transformation in the way that the economy is driven. It has turned the key levers of finance over to women. It has a female Prime Minister. A woman heads up two of the major banks there. In Iceland, risk awareness, profit with principles, emotional capital and sustainable growth are not fashionable buzzwords, but are accepted as a part of good business.’

Other Members of the Lords who took part in the debate included Baroness Grey-Thompson, Lord Sugar, Baroness Benjamin, Baroness Hussein-Ece, Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead, Lord Loomba and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws.

Baroness Verma responded on behalf of the government.

Further information

The term ‘maiden speech’ refers to the first time a new Member gives a speech in the House of the Lords. A maiden speech usually takes place during a general debate and is uncontroversial.

Image: Parliamentary copyright

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