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 and unconscious bias, though those certainly play a role.

We have far too few women in well-paid sectors like science, engineering and technology.  And incidentally, far too few men teaching in primary schools, or working in the care sector.

Breaking down gender stereotypes is a vitally important part of this problem.  Though not everyone agrees…

We’ve created new careers guidance for parents to encourage girls to open their horizons. Miriam Gonzalez Durantez and her pioneering Inspiring Women campaign is getting role models from all sectors into schools to encourage girls to aspire. 

This week I joined Lib Dem Belinda Brooks-Gordon, at Birkbeck College, to hear about the steps they are taking to get more women into science.  Government funding is incentivising Universities across the country to follow their lead.

Another major cause of inequality in the workplace is inequality in the home.

The early waves of feminism rightly fought for women to be taken seriously at work.  That revolution happened, but it wasn’t accompanied by a similar step change in men’s role at home. 

It should be just as unremarkable for a man to be turning up with baby to the ‘rhyme time’ class as for a woman to be off to a business meeting.

Women still take on the vast majority of caring responsibilities – for young children and for elderly relatives.

Every family is different, and needs to be able to make their own choices about how to share the care.  But until now the law has entrenched the outdated assumption that mum should stay at home and dad should go out to work.

Not. Any. More.

Thanks to Liberal Democrats in government introducing shared parental leave.

It’s a radical change, but a simple one, it gives parents more choice, benefits children, and encourages more equality at work.

It’s my proudest achievement in government.

Of course getting dads to use it is a cultural challenge.  It’s new, so we need to raise awareness.  And it’s already prompting some very interesting discussions.

Some dads-to-be have said they’d like to take shared parental leave but they’re worried about the impact on their career.  Welcome to the world of the working mum!

The truth is, our economy needs the skills of parents in the workplace, and neither mums nor dads should have their careers stalled just for being parents.  Perhaps with men engaged in these dilemmas as much as women we can change attitudes and ditch the parenting penalty at work.

We do know from other countries that use-it-or-lose-it leave is a key factor in driving takeup from men.  So Liberal Democrats will increase paternity leave from 2 to 6 weeks – extra leave, that only the father can take.

Once parental leave is over, the cost of childcare is a huge problem for working couples.  I’m proud that we’ve extended free early years education for 3 and 4 year olds, and extended this to hundreds of thousands of 2 year olds as well. 

Incidentally, I’m pretty frustrated that my own constituents have been left behind because the SNP Government in Scotland refused to prioritise early years education.  Only after years of campaigning by Willie Rennie did the SNP eventually extend free provision to some 2 year olds, but have gone nowhere near as far as what Liberal Democrats in Government have delivered.

More free childcare has been a great help for many families, but we need to go further.  All 2 year olds should benefit, and we are the only party committed to closing the gap in support for working parents, by extending free childcare from the end of paid parental leave until 2 years old. 

This can make a huge difference to a parent’s career.  If you can’t afford to go back to work until free childcare support kicks in when the child is 2, and you have more than one child, it can easily mean many years out of the workplace – losing contacts and confidence.

And confidence can be key.

As a Minister in the Business department I meet a lot of senior businesswomen.  In our discussions about how to get more women into senior roles, I’m often struck by the way the conversation will turn to what happens in schools and how to equip girls with the confidence to aim high and achieve their aspirations.

They tell me that the lack of positive role models in the media, and an endless focus on what women look like, can hold many girls back.

These concerns are absolutely echoed by girls themselves.  Girlguiding UK do excellent work to make girls’ voices heard – they found that:

87% think women are judged more on looks than ability

75% think sexism affects most areas of their lives

Yesterday I visited a sixth form college with John Pugh and spoke to a fabulous group of young people, mainly girls.  Yet the first person to put their hand up to ask a question was one of the boys.  Nine times out of ten, this is my experience when I speak to school groups.

From a very early age girls are socialised not to put themselves forward, not to put their head above the parapet, not to have that confidence, so it is any wonder that twenty years later when it comes to negotiating a pay rise or putting themselves forward for promotion, the women might be less likely to do so?

In fact there’s a whole stream of adjectives used to criticise women who get too big for their boots:

Bossy, brazen, brash, forward, obstreperous, pert, pushy, saucy, shrill, strident.

When was the last time you heard a man being called strident? 

We also have a wider culture that values women primarily for how they look, while promoting an ideal “look” which is at best time-consuming and at worst impossible to achieve. 

I’ve heard 14 year old girls say they aren’t comfortable going to school unless they’ve spent an hour doing their make-up.  Think what that hour a day could achieve for a schoolgirl in terms of learning, exercise, sleep or building friendships.

This all combines to have a silencing effect on girls and young women.  But we need those voices to be heard, so I constantly try and convince women to get engaged and stand for election themselves.

Because frankly conference, 7 women out of 56 MPs is just not good enough.  We need to do more to nurture talented women in the Lib Dems, as well as getting more women involved in politics more generally.

But images like these certainly don’t help

I have argued within Government for a review – to be led by senior representatives of the media – to look at the implications of media sexism. Guess what? The Tories blocked it.

They are either happy with how things are or too afraid of a backlash. As we might find out in tomorrow’s papers, sometimes suggestions like this one can be taken out of context.

But make no mistake. This is not a call for censorship, this is not a call for editorial agendas to bow down to government diktat, this is a call for an independent review – chaired by media representatives – to work with government and other stakeholders to take this issue seriously.

We know from the Bailey review into sexualisation of childhood that sound recommendations from a respected independent reviewer can lead to real change across industry and government.

  The United Nations last week published a report saying gender equality is still 80 years away.

We can’t afford to wait that long. 

Conference, I’m not going to pretend this is an easy fight.  But you know, and I know, that we are up for this fight.

Liberal Democrats in government have won hard-fought battles to improve the lives of women and girls in the UK

Shared parental leave

More women on boards

Pay transparency

New rape crisis centres

Extending flexible working

More free childcare

Support for carers

Action on FGM

Fairer pensions

Tax cuts for low earners

We should be talking about this record with pride on the doorstep as we campaign in the weeks ahead.

Our efforts in government would not have been possible without your efforts in our constituencies. Our victories in government are your victories – and yes – the fights we have not won have also been the crosses you have had to bear.

And we have more to do:

Sex & relationships education in all schools

Use-it-or-lose it paternity leave

A further £400 tax cut

A million more women in work

Pensions fairness enshrined in law

Tackling media sexism

Closing the childcare gap

National funding for victims of violence

To do this, we need more Liberal Democrat MPs.  And especially more Lib Dem women MPs.

And I am optimistic; I believe that we have the energy and the passion for the things that we believe in to go out there and win.

Go out there and win new Lib Dem women MPs.

Win Mid Dorset and North Poole - Vikki Slade MP.

Win Berwick - Julie Porksen MP.

Win Watford - Dorothy Thornhill MP.

Win Taunton - Rachel Gilmour MP.

Win Oxford West and Abingdon - Layla Moran MP.

Win Gordon - Christine Jardine MP.

Win Hazel Grove - Lisa Smart MP.

We will confound the cynics and return to Westminster to fight to turn our manifesto ideas into reality -again.

We will keep fighting to create a fairer society where everyone can speak up and be heard 

We will keep fighting to build a stronger economy where every woman and man can make their contribution.

We will keep fighting for fairness, for feminism, for opportunity for all.


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