Jo's speech to Spring Conference


In her speech to Spring Conference, Liberal Democrat Minister for Women and Equalities  Jo Swinson puts violence against women and girls in context of wider cultural stereotyping and media sexism.

She also celebrates victory over Tories on equal pay but reveals for the first time their efforts to block media sexism review and says Lib Dem record electing women MPs is not good enough, but strong female candidates will win in 2015.

Conference, I’ve found it’s essential to have a sense of humour when you are a politician, particularly if you speak out on inequality.

Especially when I’m talking about gender equality, I expect that my words will be misrepresented, no matter how carefully I choose them. 

I lose count of the times that my comments are twisted and caricatured by sections of the media.

Suggesting children should play with whatever toys they choose becomes mandatory Barbies for boys

Encouraging praise for girls for more than just how they look becomes never telling your daughter she’s beautiful

Standing one day at PMQs while 7 months pregnant apparently means I hate women

And my personal favourite – according to the Conservative Woman blog, when I said that pregnancy discrimination is illegal and unacceptable, I was “hectoring” on my “feminist horse”

I’d like to know what exactly is a feminist horse and where can I get one?

Look, that’s the media, it’s what they do.

And it’s what I signed up for taking on this role.

But it’s also because there are vested interests that don’t want an equal society where as many women as men are in positions of power. 

They’re ok with the fact that three quarters of company directors, three quarters of MPs and more than three quarters of national newspaper editors are men.

 The current system works just fine as far as they’re concerned, what are these silly women getting all worked up about? 

Just get back to the kitchen – or if you are the Milibands perhaps the functional kitchenette - make a cup of tea and calm down dear.

 But it’s hard to be calm when you’re angry. 

And I’m angry that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence during their lives.

 I’m angry that 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex.

 I’m angry that women are still paid less than men, with a 19% pay gap.

 And I’m angry, no I’m furious, that every day, in every city, every town and every village across our country, individual girls and women experience casual sexism and harassment that wears them down, holds them back and wastes potential.

And when ordinary women and girls speak out and challenge this, they face a barrage of abuse – both online and offline. 

Ruth, on her birthday night out, turned down a man’s sexual advances at a bar and had a pint poured over her.

Or this 13 year old girl, who heard more than 10 rape “jokes” in one school lesson - and whose sex education has never covered consent.

This young woman was subject to horrible threats of sexual violence just for walking down the street – and yet this is so commonplace that her boyfriend can’t even see the problem.

Emma Watson, who launched the United Nations #HeForShe campaign with a powerful and passionate speech, said “as soon as I spoke up I was attacked”

Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned for Jane Austen to be featured on our banknotes – and received horrendous threats of sexual violence

Jess Ennis-Hill said she didn’t want her name association with a football club that would hire a convicted rapist, and vile people tweeted that they hoped she would be raped

I wish these were isolated examples.

Sadly the thousands of entries on the Everyday Sexism blog show that such abuse and misogyny is commonplace.

I don't want future generations of women and girls to have to put up with this.

This underlying current of sexism and abuse is the environment in which violence against women is endemic.

2 women a week are killed by their partners or ex-partners in the UK

1 in 5 teenage girls have suffered physical violence or intimidation from boyfriends and 70% have experienced sexual harassment at school or college

And yet the media will illustrate a story about the murder of a young woman with a photo of her in a bikini.

Conference we have taken action to tackle violence against women, but there is much more to do to eradicate these appalling crimes.

In Government, Lynne Featherstone secured £40 million to support victims of domestic violence and a further £10 million specifically for women’s refuges. 

We’ve introduced a new offence of domestic abuse – of coercive and controlling behaviour – because this kind of abuse can do as much harm as physical violence

We’ve criminalised forced marriage, introduced new stalking laws and thanks to dedicated campaigning by Julian Huppert, we’ve introduced a new law to tackle revenge porn.

Lynne has championed the cause of girls at risk of FGM at home and abroad. Thanks to her efforts we’ve changed the law to better protect girls at risk and improve reporting, so those who commit this appalling crime – and allow girls to be cut are brought to justice. 

We will not stop there.  We recognise there is much more to do. 

We will teach quality sex and relationships education in all schools, including consent, so that young people can get the right information the right way, rather than ending up with warped ideas about relationships from looking at internet porn.

We will tackle the absolutely unacceptable harassment of girls and women in schools and colleges by learning from best practice to create safe and respectful environments.

And we will protect funding for tackling violence against women and girls and improve refuge and rape crisis centre provision with national sources of funding. 

Violence against women is about power.  In economic terms, there is also a power imbalance.

It’s 2015, and yet we still have a 19% pay gap between men and women, men hold 65% of management positions and when a pregnant MP dares to aspire to Cabinet office, she is met by patronising comments about whether she can “handle” it and accused of being a bad mother.

At the time of a cabinet reshuffle, yet again, the media excels itself

Though Nick did at least post an appropriate riposte on Twitter…

However, we’ve certainly made progress.  Dedicated work by Vince Cable, Lord Davies and Helena Morrissey has led to a huge increase in women on the boards of our top companies, from 12% in 2011 to 23% today.

The pay gap has fallen, but women still basically work for free for 57 days a year.

Our Think Act Report initiative has seen hundreds (270) large companies with 2.5million employees share best practice and take positive action to improve gender equality at work.  But it has delivered far too little pay transparency. 

That’s why I was so determined to fight within government for the long-standing Lib Dem policy of making large employers publish their pay gap between men and women. 

It wasn’t an easy battle to win, from the beginning Labour only wanted a voluntary approach and the Tories didn’t want it at all.  But at meeting after meeting – and I sometimes get invited to Cabinet now – I plugged away at the issue. 

Nick was incredibly supportive, and when I said to him there might be an opportunity to use the Small Business Bill to deliver pay transparency, he was up for the fight with the Tories.

So finally, this week, we amended the Bill in the House of Lords, so that within a year, large companies will have to set out their average pay for men and women. 

That might make uncomfortable reading for some companies.  Good.  That is exactly the intention, to shine a light on the pay gap so that employers take steps to address the causes.

This will unlock the information for companies and employees to ask the tough questions about why men are still paid more than women. It is something I, and you, can be proud of achieving in government.

This is a victory for Nick Clegg, it is a victory for Liberal Democrats but more than that – it is a victory for women. 

The pay gap is not just about discrimination