Nevertheless, She Persisted…

This Sunday it’s International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women across the globe, raise awareness against bias, and strive for a gender equal world.  There may be many of you wondering why we need this day, but the scary truth is that in 2020, we still have a long way to go.  In the UK last year, we actually fell 6 places in the global rankings for gender equality from 15th to 21st.  Not only are we not making progress, we’re going backwards. 

I have never been what I would call an active feminist, despite having been the victim of gender inequality.  This is in part because I just accepted this was how society was, but as I get older and wiser, and am in a position of influence, I want to speak out and do something about it. 

One thing I believe that as a society we need to appreciate more, is that in order to provide equal opportunity you have treat people differently because everyone is different.  This doesn’t just relate to gender equality.  In order to ensure a wheelchair user can use a bus, special provision has to be put in, above and beyond what other users would need.  Why then do so many not recognise this with other protected characteristics, such as gender?

I had many experiences early on in my career that have happened based on my gender.  These have ranged from experiences of inequality in the workplace to attempted sexual assault.  I am not saying that these things can’t happen to men, (men can be sexually assaulted), but it was me being a woman in these circumstances that led to the behaviour. 

The experiences that stand out include:

  • The boss who on a business trip knocked on my hotel bedroom door under the pretence of wanting to discuss something business related, and resulted in me having to kick him in the nether regions as he tried to force himself upon me;
  • The time I had my drink spiked in a bar after work.  What was equally upsetting was the reaction I got from my colleagues who I was with.  My colleagues blamed me for not having taken greater care of my drink.  I was in central London and I somehow made it home to my place in Surrey and my neighbour found me passed out on my front lawn.  Not one colleague helped me or even checked I made it home safe.  I was just 22 years old! 
  • I worked for a large American IT firm in my mid 20’s and was very good at my job consistently achieving well above my targets.  I went on maternity leave and when I returned, after a couple of months, applied for a promotion that had become available.  I didn’t even get an interview being told “we need you to reprove yourself.”  I would happily accept if I wasn’t right for the role, but my maternity cover hire, doing the exact same job was the one who got the promotion and to have been denied even an interview on the grounds of needing to reprove myself is unacceptable. 

I am not alone in these experiences.  The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimates that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, and according to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 77% of working mums have encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work.  These are just some of many examples of what I experienced, and I am ashamed to say that I did nothing about any of them.  I just accepted that this is what society is like.  I felt I didn’t have a voice to use and didn’t want to lose my job.  So why am I speaking out now? 

I was elected onto Wokingham Borough Council just over a year ago and in that short time, have been dismayed at the inequality that prevails, and believe that I have a duty to inform in order to incite change.  Looking outside of the council chamber and the services that WBC provides, I was shocked to hear that women only swimming sessions had been cancelled.  I was in a meeting where we were discussing how to engage more residents in sporting activities and exercise.  As I stated at the beginning, in order to provide equal opportunity, you have to treat people differently because everyone is different.  Women only swimming sessions were offered because there are a number of women in society who won’t or can’t access public swimming pools whilst men are using them.  For some this is due to their religion, and for some, they could have escaped domestic abuse and are too traumatised to want to be seen in their swim wear by men.  Yes, I appreciate that domestic abuse happens to men as well, but it is something that disproportionately affects women, and I’m using this as an example.  There are women in society that having men in the swimming pool provides a barrier for them to use the facility, and a way of overcoming that was provided.  What was shocking to hear was that this service was stopped because men complained that they weren’t getting equal treatment.  If there were genuine grounds for a mens only session, that is another matter, but to claim inequality demonstrates how far we still have to go in society. 

Back inside the council chamber, we currently have 18 female elected members out of 54, yet the latest numbers show that more than 50% of Wokingham’s population is female.  In order for good democratic decision-making, local politicians need to reflect the diversity of the communities we represent, and when it comes to gender, we’re not doing that.  There are a number of barriers in the way and these need to be addressed. 

In January’s full council meeting, it was proposed to move full council meeting times earlier by 30 minutes.  I’m sure many people would believe this not to be a big deal, but I spoke that evening about how it’s yet another barrier to diversity in the council chamber, and thankfully the chamber voted against it.  Whilst a small move, the shutting down of diversity leads to poor democratic decision-making, and we should be moving in the other direction. 

I would like to see positive changes made at the council that open us up and make us more diverse so that we can truly represent our community.  My fear though is that there is an engrained attitude that will make this hard to overcome.  If anyone remembers Charlotte Haitham-Taylor’s exit speech when she was bullied out of her position, you’ll remember she spoke of the old boy’s network. 

In the year since I’ve been elected, I’ve had inappropriate comments made about my appearance (inappropriate enough that other councillors have jumped in and said something); I had a late night intimidating phone call from a senior councillor, trying to shame and belittle me because I dared to stand up to them; I have been told that I am too naïve and unintelligent to be any good at my role and voters were conned into voting for me due to my appearance…(no, I’m not joking); The scariest experience though is the print media and online bullying and intimidation I’ve been subjected to.  Bullying and harassment has been an ongoing problem in national politics, and in recent times has become quite high profile in the media.  QC Gemma White led the independent inquiry Bullying and Harassment of MP’s Parliamentary Staff last year, and several female MP’s stood down from re-election for last year’s election, citing the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace.  My experiences conclude that the problem is at all levels of politics. 

To quote Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, “I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.” 

We have got to overcome this inequality and I will continue to push to break down these barriers at the council.  I also want to take the opportunity to thank all those out there, women and men, who are fighting to break down the barriers we have throughout society.  In particular I would like to thank Louise Timlin and Juliet Sherrett for helping me put this piece together.  To still have to fight in 2020 is quite frankly unbelievable, but I hold out hope that one day, we will get there.  #eachforequal #IWN2020

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