Work-Life balance is important for our future

Labour Party

A year ago Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning in the United States State Department under Hillary Clinton, resigned her job. It was indeed a job to die for, but Slaughter realised that she wanted to spend more time with her husband and children, especially her 14-year-old son who was going through a troubled time.

 The Sunday Times reported how Ms Slaughter talked to a group of women at Oxford University, saying: “I just got up there and started talking about how incredibly hard it had been and how it had changed my assumptions about my entire career trajectory.”

 Slaughter believes we have reached a tipping point. It is just too hard for women to have it all. As men’s as well as women’s lives are changing, Slaughter and other women at the top of their professions want us as a society to address the way we still see paid work, and, of course, the corollary of work in the home and bringing up children.

 One partner in a leading law firm quoted in the Sunday Times made a very telling point: “We’ve got to change what it means to be a partner because otherwise we are not going to be able to attract the best young men, as well as the women.”

 Whet this albeit anecdotal evidence shows is that the younger generation of men are looking for more balance between their work and family life. I find this encouraging. If we are to have an equal society for men and women with both able to make equal choices the question of work, children, domestic and caring responsibilities, men need to be involved. Women and men should be seen as equal.

 Anne-Marie Slaughter’s immediate goal is to close the leadership gap. She is absolutely right when she says that it will only be possible to forge a society which really works for equality when women wield power both corporately and professionally in sufficient numbers.

Slaughter sees an overhaul of school timetables which are based on the assumption that women do not go out to work as essential. She also thinks we need a change in the male-driven work culture of presenteeism, including more home-working and flexi-time, to allow more balance between work and home life.

Interestingly, Slaughter calls for women in employment to talk about juggling childcare and domestic responsibilities with their work. She is certain that if men knew what women have to deal with they would be more ready to make changes.

Anne-Marie Slaughter has, I believe, done us all a service by being so open about her own experience. Work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges our society faces. Women are now expected to work and very often need to for economic reason. For most women staying at home is not an option. We need to address this huge question in a far more rational and thought through way than is currently the case.

Disgusted by Forbes’ Methodology for Determining the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women

Labour Party

World's fourth most powerful woman (right) and seventh most powerful woman (left). Apparently.

This morning, I read the newly published Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. As it loads up I wonder to myself, will Merkel be ahead of Hilary Clinton? Where will Catherine Ashton come? I wonder which female CEOs have been judged as the most powerful?

To my horror, Lady Gaga is number 7. Oprah Winfrey is number 3 – ahead of both Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel. Ellen Degenres beats Nancy Pelosi to the last spot in the top ten. The most powerful woman in the world is listed as Michelle Obama, undoubtedly an influential woman, and very able in her own right, but there because she is the wife of a powerful man. Catherine Ashton is not mentioned at all. Lower down the list Madonna, a singer who (I checked) last released an album 3 years ago, is 2 places above Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a Supreme Justice in what could be argued to be the most powerful court in the world (numbers 29 and 31 respectively).  Whilst Lady Gaga, Madonna and Beyonce have the very highest level of influence within the world of fashion and music, I am unsure as to how that possibly entails they are more powerful than Catherine Ashton, who co-ordinates the foreign policy of the world’s largest economic area, or Dilma Rousseff, the President of a G12 country (Brazil).

Perplexed, I turn to  Forbes’ list of the 68 most powerful “people” in the world. Since there are only 4 women I don’t feel it’s entirely unreasonable to refer to this list as the list of the 68 most powerful men in the world. Funnily enough, there are no singers or actors in sight. Indeed, it seems a far more reasonable list; being topped by Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, the King of Saudi Arabia and Vladimir Putin. Men who without a shadow of a doubt wield large amounts of tangible power.

So why the difference in the two lists?  It turns out the lists are compiled using different methodologies.  In considering the men the factors taken into account are the size of populations they hold power over, their financial resources, the extent of their sphere of influence and the active use of their power. When it comes to the women however, they have instead been split into 4 categories; business, politics, media and lifestyle. So, half dedicated to women who influence real things and half dedicated to women who influence media and “lifestyles”.

Why the difference in approach? Well, I guess it can only be because women are still judged to be successful on different gounds than men are. A female singer (Beyonce) can be considered more successful than a female politician (Rousseff) because fundamentally that’s what women should be doing isn’t it? The idea that (for example) Usher or Kanye West could be considered as successful or powerful as a male head of state is of course ludicrous. Sadly, the same attitude still does not apply to women. It is also highly apparent that Forbes still considers women as defined by their husbands but not vice versa. Michelle Obama is, according to them, the world’s most powerful woman, by virtue of being the First Lady, of being someone’s wife. Melinda Gates is number 27, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is number 35, Maria Schriver (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s soon to be ex-wife) is number 53 and the wife of the Emir of Qatar is number 74.  Shockingly Angela Merkel’s husband is not on the men’s list however. Well, I guess that’s because he’s a man; and is evaluated on the basis of his own achievements rather than those of his spouse. Forbes’ list is a depressing indictment of how our society still views and judges the female half of the world’s population. So women if you want to be powerful don’t bother trying to become a head of state or a business CEO! Instead, either try and marry someone powerful, or just make sure you have a good hairstyle, can carry a tune and are willing to wear skimpy clothes. Because clearly that’s still (nearly) all that matters.

EU High Representative champions Women

Labour Party
There is no doubt that Baroness Catherine Ashton puts the interests of women at the top of her personal agenda and that of the European External Action Service which she heads.

Speaking in the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, Labour peer Cathy Ashton told how when she visits other countries she always tries to ensure that women are included in some way, perhaps by talking to women’s groups. The same strategy is followed by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has also succeeded in putting women up the agenda of the State Department. Ashton and Clinton are, we understand, given to talking about women and how to improve women’s lives when they meet while carrying out their respective roles.

In setting up the EAAS I know Cathy Ashton has paid particular attention to employing women and has tried to secure a gender balance at the top of the organisation. Unfortunately due to the lack of women in senior positions, this has proved difficult. However, Cathy is ensuring that there are enough women lower down the pecking order for future promotions to redress the structure which will, inevitably, be top heavy with men at the start.    

 It’s good to see a top woman encouraging other women in such a positive way. Congratulations to Cathy and long may she continue this vital work.

Women in armed conflict

Labour Party

This week, in the run up to International Women’s Day on Monday 8th March, a series of special events were put on in the European Parliament focusing on a broad range of women’s rights issues.  Notably yesterday, we had a debate entitled ‘Women in armed conflict – the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo’.  In recent months I have written a number of blogs addressing conflict violence against women.  This is an issue which is discussed regularly in the European Parliament, given that countries across the globe tme and again look to the EU as a source of hope in the fight against such violence.

As many of you will be aware, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been in the grip of a grave humanitarian crisis since the country was devastated by a five-year long civil war between 1998 and 2003.  During the conflict, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fought against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite the brokering of a peace deal in 2003 which brought the war to an end, another type of war has continued unhindered in the DRC: the war against the female population.  In a country where the political situation remains extremely fragile, acts of violence against women, including rape, injury and sexual slavery, have been ignored and allowed to take place on a massive scale.  This has devastating consequences for both the women who are affected, and also for society at large.

Efforts have been made at the international level to address violence against women in conflict states.  Indeed the focal point of yesterday’s discussion was the progress on the ground since the introduction of Resolution 1325 ten years ago, in which the UN Security Council acknowledged women’s needs in armed conflict and women’s role in peace and security.  A representative from the European Commission was present at the debate.  He explained that a number of strategies have been adopted since 2000, including prevention, support for victims, and strategies to fight against impunity.  In November 2009, the United Nations launched a comprehensive strategy to tackle violence against women in the DRC, which was supported by the European Union. Then, in January this year, Margot Wallström, who was previously European Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, organised a conference in Brussels on ‘Women, Peace and Security: Empowering women in peace and conflict’.

Despite these efforts at the international level, to date only 12 EU Member States have adopted national action plans for implementing Resolution 1325.

One woman who has lived through the country’s violence spoke at the event yesterday.  She highlighted that impunity is one of the most important issues for female victims in the DRC.  Since the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002, the fight against impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity has come a long way.  However, as she correctly pointed out, most of the crimes against women committed during the civil war in the DRC took place before 2002.  There have been some convictions against the Congolese army thanks to external pressure by Hillary Clinton and other high-profile figures, including the sentencing last year of ten Congolese rapists by a Congolese military court.  Yet the judicial system in the DRC remains weak, and the capacity to accommodate all convicted perpetrators simply does not exist.

The speaker stressed that women who have been raped are victims not just of their crime, but are also victims of exclusion within the community.  Effective action is needed by local communities to ensure that injured women are treated with compassion, and are not simply rejected by their families and by their peers.

There can be no doubt that the European Union has a huge role to play in tackling violence against women in conflict-ridden and post-conflict states.  I strongly believe that the EU has a duty to encourage as many of its members as possible to adopt national actions plans for implementing Resolution 1325.  It should also ensure that in its missions to conflict states, a greater level of expertise is available to help victims of rape and other acts of violence.  Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war in civil conflicts across the globe, and the EU is one of the key actors with the capacity to significantly reduce the damaging effects of this upon victims and communities.