Women's Rights, workers' rights

As the number of people employed topples the two million mark this week, the front pages are not dominated by striking women rising placards for fairer distribution of pay across the sexes, flexible working in tough times and protection of maternity rights. Instead they are filled with pictures of men at industrial plants, Honda car yards closed down, and bankers losing their bonuses. That’s why I was pleased to welcome Harriet Harman to the European Parliament to discuss these issues (see video below)


The face of this recession is not a woman’s. It is already ingrained in my mind as a snow whipped man waving a laminated placard. But behind the headlines women are being silently slain, laid off at a rate of increase that doubled that of men last year. A two and a half per cent increase in the female redundancy rate in 2008 doubled the rate of the male increase  of 1.2 percent, according to the recently released Trade Union Congress’ figures.

As women tend to work in smaller workplaces, their redundancies go by unnoticed by the media, and former bastions of working women are slipping back into the home at such a pace that the Female Eunuch might never have been written.

Just a fortnight ago, the Sunday Times Style magazine reported a new ‘Prommies’ phenomenon. Professional mummies, who, due to dwindling business, City cutbacks and lay-offs, now find themselves at home with a new job description: mother. Slouching about with her mac photo albums waiting about for the economy to kick start, the lifestyle of this new brand of ‘super mum’ didn’t sound too bad. But this is not the reality for anyone, but the super rich. In reality being a Prommie will mean poverty, frustration and an increasingly daunting gap between being a woman and the workplace.

International fiscal stimulation packages have until now shared the same face as the banner bearing strikers. Obama’s promises of “Building roads, bridges and schools; investing in green technologies” concentrate on construction and engineering industries, where the fact is very few women are employed. It does not offer help to service sectors, more nurses, teachers and retailers are employed. Closer to home, Brown’s concentration on rescuing ailing car plants and banks may later filter down to more women dominated industries, but in the meantime these industries are going bust. Leaving female shaped holes in the job market that are not being filled.

Fortunately women’s minister Harriet Harman appears to be on the case. Yesterday evening she addressed the women’s committee of the European Parliament, of which I am a member, with urgent pleas to make women’s voices heard in this recession. To continue the equalities agenda at full steam as it is even more important now. And to keep at the forefront of all politician’s minds the impact of this recession on families, on women and on equality.

Our women’s minister revealed, to the collected audience of MEPs representing women’s interests from all around Europe, that in a recent polling of public attitudes in the recession  one third of women say their lives have already been affected by the economic downturn. Ms Harman also said the poll revealed that more women than men report an increase in arguments in the home as a result of this recession. From which we can conclude, that the economic downturn is affecting men’s ears or, that women are bearing the brunt of financial cut backs and renegotiating finances such as pocket money, school trips and shopping budgets, within the home.

Fortunately within the sea of grey suits at this year’s G20, women’s issues will be gain prominence with its very own section of speeches and debates between women ministers in April. But as Ms Harman expressed her fears, that without the combined pressure of female politicians from across Europe pushing for this section it could easily slip off the agenda, it is clear that the fight to keep women’s toehold in the economy will be as hard as the one that got us it in the first place.

The same hard fought for employment rights that made it possible for women to combine a career with a family; flexible working, increased maternity rights and part-time hours, are now the very things that are making some women vulnerable to desperate employers looking to cut costs, no matter how illegal this practice may be. Even back when credit crunch sounded more like a cereal than a recession, business mogul Alan Sugar received wide ranging support for his opinion that the current equality laws are “counter-productive for women… You’re not allowed to ask [about planned pregnancies] so it’s easy – just don’t employ them [women].” Ominously he ended this ill-thought tirade with: “It will get harder to get a job as a woman.”

If the economic doom mongers are correct then the threat of this sort of discriminatory action can only get frighteningly worse. To halt this increasing threat, women across Europe need newly devised policies aimed at protecting them from from unfair job losses. They need legislative and fiscal crampons of protection and more money for training to keep their toehold in the economic landslide. If we do this, when the rubble clears then there will still be some women holding onto their hard fought for posts and we will have a once in a lifetime moment for progressive politics. A chance to rebuild sectors such as banking without the 40 per cent pay gap between men and women and culture of lap dancing, strippers and chauvinism.

As our sisters in Iceland and Norway are leading the way in proving, with their new female Prime Minster and 40 percent representation on women on company boards, it may have been men that got us into this problem, but to get out it’s essential that women play a full part.