Today is International Women’s Day and although things have become better for women at work and in politics, glass ceilings still remain to be shattered.
Studying isn’t for women. That was my introduction to the world of work aged 16. Having started working for the National Coal Board aged 16, I thought myself lucky to have found a boss who gave me time off to take my A-levels. Then I was called to his office.
“Management” had demanded to know what he was thinking giving a girl time off for studying. It was clear: study leave was for men. My path was blocked. My experience would be unrecognisable to women starting out today. So despite the mountains we have yet to climb it’s good to know that we’re making progress. But that progress is slow.
Among the political leaders of Europe, just a few are women. Angela Merkel is probably the dominant force in European politics at present. But in a world of men, female politicians inevitably have to fall back on the male style of politics. Margaret Thatcher relied on macho posturing to keep her party in line and it is easy to see similarities in Merkel’s approach. To beat the men, Merkel has to play the man’s game.
Labour’s Cathy Ashton has discovered just how sexist some of Europe’s male politicians can be. She has had some rotten press over her first year as the EU’s foreign policy supremo. Much of the criticism from politicians does come with sexist undertones. Yet through all this she has shown the traits that so many women look for in politicians: tough when she needs to be and more interested in getting the job done.
The problem is that we will only be able to challenge outdated views by normalising the existence of women in political life. Even in the European Parliament, women still have to fight harder to be heard. We need more women to be taking an interest in politics and deciding that they could do the job of a politician as well as anyone. But for many that path looks too daunting.
Labour can be proud of its record in encouraging people from all walks of life to get involved. But still our politicians are perceived as coming from a small elite, who have had little experience outside the macho world of politics. That not only affects how we as a party relate to the public, it is also off-putting for many people outside the bubble.
Looking back to the National Coal Board, what was my reaction to being told to quit the studies and get back to work? My first act was to leave, move on to a new job where I would be valued. But more important than that, I got organised. The 16-year-old who was told to know her place would hardly recognise herself years later, sitting in Shadow Cabinet. Those early experiences are what led me to the trade union movement – and it was the unions that gave me the confidence to speak up and speak out. It’s time the unions took up that challenge again.