Ahead of International Women’s Day, Medway Labour councillor Naushabah Khan looks at how the fight for equality is going.
This week in honour of International Women’s Day, and well, because I would have done so anyway, I went to watch On the Basis of Sex. Spoiler alert, the cleverly titled film is a moving story about the early years of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, a US Supreme Court justice; an exceptional woman, now in her eighties, who championed women’s rights in America.
At a particularly poignant point in the film, Ginsburg is challenged by her male counterpart in court, who accuses her of wanting the country to undergo ‘radical social change’. She upends his line of attack, reminding him that the ‘radical’ change he is so worried about meant that prestigious Harvard Law School still did not have female toilets.
Watching the scene, I couldn’t help but reminisce about a story told by female MP who recalled a similar experience. In her first year of entering Parliament she had sought a bathroom, only to be told that women did not have access to one in the entirety of this section of the parliamentary estate. The only difference between her story and that of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, was that this was 1997 not 1957.
Since then, within a short space of time, great progress has been made in striving for gender equality and promoting women in politics, public life and society; championed by a Labour government committed to furthering women’s rights. But there is much work still to do and within political parties the challenge remains significant. Take as an example the fact that Labour has never had a female leader, or that we were not immune to the need for change put forward by the #MeToo movement.
At a local level there are similar frustrations, and women who wish to stand as councillors are not always forthcoming. They could be put off by outdated and difficult cultures which can exist within political parties of all colours. It could be the restrictive nature of local government structures, which seem to completely ignore the fact that women, and of course men too, may have parental or caring responsibilities. Or perhaps it’s a sense that politics still is an old boys club, reserved for an ‘elite’ few, those who have the right face to fit the mould.
Certainly this is an image of the political class that Medway Council’s Conservative leadership is keen to promote. In a recent tweet, they posted a picture of a Cabinet meeting, clearly oblivious to the fact how starkly it highlighted a sea of similar looking male faces. For transparency there is one woman in the Tory Cabinet, but you would be hard pressed to find her in this photo. Although do feel free to have a go at Medway’s knock off version of ‘Where’s Wenda…’
As expected when such concerns are brought to people’s attention, the cries of outrage (largely from men) are quick to follow. Justifications are made that these decisions are not about someone’s sex but are instead based on merit, selecting the ‘best person’ for the job. Naturally this is an ideal that we all strive for. I would hate to think I got a job because of my gender, rather than because I was considered capable. But this sentiment loses credibility when you consider all the women who have missed out on opportunities due to unconscious bias, how many are treated unfairly during pregnancy and how many are still paid less than their male counterparts.
Apply this argument to the Medway Conservative’s and the only logical conclusion is that only one woman, out of 37 Tory councillors, is deemed qualified enough to be promoted. Being a Cabinet member in Medway is of course not an easy job; you are expected to be able to do things, like remember key elements of your portfolio. Just how difficult it can get is possibly best exemplified by Cllr Gulvin when he failed to realise that he was responsible for CCTV across the towns, despite holding the portfolio for nearly four years. Surely there is more than one woman on the Tory benches who can meet this intellectual challenge and match the ‘talents’ of her male counterparts.
As an another example of their retrograde views towards gender equality. In 2018 Medway Tories refused to support a request by local WASPI women to light Rochester Castle purple in commemoration of one hundred years since women received the vote. The outrageous excuse given was that a purple castle would promote UKIP… I am not sure any further comment on this particular decision is possible.
Later in the year, following much challenge and a motion by Labour, they did however support an event designed to inspire and celebrate, coinciding with the month that women were first able to exercise their right to vote. Following hard work and support from officers and a cross party team it was success, although not without some controversy. The key note speaker was a man. But perhaps most incredible was the Leader of the Council, the bastion of equality and women’s rights, Alan Jarrett’s insistence that he be given the opportunity to address the room.
Things really have hit a new low when Medway Conservative’s most inspirational female speaker is Cllr Jarrett. And what did he do with this opportunity to tell a generation of women that the world is their oyster, that they should aim high and achieve their dreams? Well he used it to pat himself on the back, to tell a fairy-tale of what an excellent job he has done in Medway and making a series of flippant assertions, was quick to dismiss any reference to gender equality.
The irony may have been lost on him, but it was not on the audience.
Let us consider for a moment his comments, have we achieved true equality and does it matter that Medway’s Cabinet bears no resemblance to Medway’s demographics? As someone who wants to get out of bed everyday passionate about fighting for a better world for women and girls, I can tell you it does matter.
It could be the difference between voting down motions on tackling period poverty, while male councillors tell us it’s not a problem here, and providing support to girls in our schools who desperately need it. It could be the difference between addressing Medway’s gender pay gap, which has increased since last year, rather than pretending it does not exist. And it could be the difference between addressing the uncomfortable truths about sexual harassment, rather than labelling those who raise concerns as obsessed with political correctness.
If you have read this and felt a sense of outrage or frustration at the way things are, well good. Because this International Women’s day, I want to send a message – things can be different, if we are willing to step-up and be that change. After all it is women in leadership and in politics who have driven forward some of the greatest social advancements. Whether it be Labour politician Barbara Castle who introduced the Equal Pay Act, transforming women’s lives, or the WASPI women who are currently fighting for their rights to a fair pension.
Striving for a better more representative politics at all levels and across all parties, needs structural reform and a transformation of attitudes, but it also needs women to step forward and men to give them the space.
For those who may need a little further inspiration, I would recommend visiting ‘fearless girl’ who is visiting London all the way from New York. As she puts it ‘know the power of women in leadership.’ Because if we don’t, men never will.
Naushabah Khan is the Medway Labour Spokesperson for Housing and councillor for Gillingham South.