Women still massively under represented in law and engineering careers

Labour Party

Last week I wrote about the disproportionately low numbers of women working in academia in the field of mathematics. Despite making up almost half of graduates just 6% follow this into a mathematics career in the academic field. Institutions and committees are making real efforts to redress this and it will be interesting to see how it develops.

Yesterday I learnt some figures relating to an altogether different area- the judiciary. Just 15% of high court judges are women and for ethnic minorities the figure is just 4%. In the Court of Appeal there is not a single black judge. It’s a familiar pattern, I feel as if I am writing exactly what I wrote last week, for women make up almost half of all law graduates.

Ken Macdonald QC, a Liberal Democrat Peer and Warden of Wadham College, Oxford and Director of Public Prosecutions, 2003-2008, wrote in the Times yesterday that nothing is changing. Indeed he says it’s unlikely that it has been a magical meritocratic process that has seen white males rise so disproportionately quickly than others. He suggests something else must be ‘afoot’. And he makes the crucial point that so much talent and ambition is being overlooked as a result. “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a continuing failure to grip the terrible waste that blinkered recruitment represents: all that talent and ambition overlooked,” he writes.

And further research yesterday found that just 6% of British engineers are women, this is an increase of just one per cent age point since 2008. The report, published by EEF manufacturers’ organisation found that this compares to 26% in Sweden, 20% in Italy and 18% in Spain.

The EEF suggested factors behind the disparity included a “failure to encourage enough young women to study science-related topics, which has left half of UK state schools having no women studying A-level physics.”

Its report called for a “national campaign to increase the number of women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics to professional level, as well as to promote apprenticeships and other vocational routes into work.”

It’s only with positive and proactive steps like this that we can actually make a difference. Doing nothing simply isn’t an option, otherwise in five years’ time we may find that the percentage of female engineers has increased by another per cent age point- and that’s not good enough.

Business needs more women on boards

Labour Party

Writing in  The Times on 7 January 2013 about the proposed EU Directive to increase the representation of women on company boards, Ruth Lea declares a strong dislike for positive discrimination, describing it as “patronising and demeaning” and discriminating against men.   

In one sense she is right – quotas to increase the number of women on company boards should not be necessary. But the rate of change is too slow.  When women make up over 60% of graduates, and control about 70% of global consumer spending decisions, their under-representation in economic decision-making (just 6.5% of UK executives are women, 18.7% of non-executives) is plainly unfair.   A number of studies suggest that companies with a higher share of women at top levels deliver strong organisational and financial performance, while a gender-balanced board is more likely to pay attention to managing and controlling risk.

Ruth Lea goes on to say that women make different lifestyle and career choices, which doesn’t amount to bias.   But men rarely have to consider breaking their career to rear their children.  With more father-friendly policies  some women would be free to make other choices.

The proposed Directive sets a quota for non-executives of the largest listed companies by 2020, while encouraging progress for executive members.  However, where an EU member state can show it will reach 40% women non-executive directors on the boards of its large companies by 2020, there will be obviously no need to enforce a quota. Given that the UK is currently making strong progress with self-regulatory measures towards ensuring that 40% of non-executive directors are women, it may be that Britain will come into this category.

The proposed Directive, in addition, focuses on transparent recruitment processes and the qualifications of applicants. It should inspire women further down the company hierarchy to break through the glass ceiling. Quotas should not be seen in isolation; they are part of a wider process to ensure fairness at work.

The European Court of Human Rights is Fit for Purpose.

Labour Party

Ken McDonald’s opinion piece in the Times today is quite simply wrong. Far from measures being needed to reduce the reduce the scope of its jurisdiction, the ECHR is one of Europe’s success stories.

McDonald’s main argument as to why the court is “no longer fit for purpose” is that is now has a backlog of 150,000 cases growing at 20,000 per year. While this is not perhaps an indication of an organisation fully in charge of its workload, it does show just how popular the court is with the people of Europe. Surely it is obvious that the solution to an oversubscribed service is to expand the service rather than curtail it? Surely that would be more beneficial than restricting people’s access to justice because the violations of their human rights weren’t really “serious enough”?

 Politicians and journalists frequently complain about the democratic deficit of the EU and how the structures of governance are not accountable to the people. The ECHR however, is actually a body that is reachable by all citizens of the EU and its role is to respond to their most fundamental of needs, the upholding of their human rights.

 This leads me to McDonald’s next argument, that the court is now overstretching itself in terms of the breadth of cases it is willing to hear. What he forgets, however, is that much as the rights to not be killed, tortured or imprisoned without trial are extremely important human rights they are not the only ones. The European Declaration of Human Rights is far more expansive than that. In order to properly uphold the law of the EU, the Court is actually obliged to consider all cases brought to it in which the claimant believes their rights to have been violated according to that law.

 Finally, the author also argues that the ECHR is in the impossible position of trying to apply the same law to former Soviet dictatorships as to the ‘nice, friendly’ countries of the West. This is a gross misrepresentation of the state of affairs within Europe. While the UK certainly has better human rights standards than other parts of the continent it is by no means exemplary. Consider for instance the deporting of victims of trafficking, the discrimination against same-sex couples and the slow erosion of civil liberties in recent years. The number of cases brought against the UK government in the ECHR (443 judgments since its creation) shows that the UK is also in need of an impartial overseer in matters of human rights protection.

Human Rights are dictated by moral reasoning – on this point Europe has reached legal agreement. It is right that all of Europe should be judged by the same standards of justice. That is the purpose of the ECHR and one for which it is fit.

Being a female politician is about more than “sex appeal”, thank you.

Labour Party

Over recent weeks the British press have been almost ecstatically condemnatory of the chauvanistic nature of French politics, talking loudly of how dreadful it must be to be a woman in politics in France.

Indeed, recent revelations along with what we have always known about French political culture would offer no evidence to the contrary. What is remarkable, however, is the self-righteousness with which news of the DSK affair (among others) have been received in Britain.  There has been an overwhelming smugness displayed by both the media and British politicians that Britain does not have France’s chauvinism problem.

However, today I read in the Times an interview piece on Rachida Dati who the Times itself described as one of the most prominent victims of France’s overtly sexist political culture. Yet, the first paragraph of the piece reads:

“After the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, at a time when France is fretting over sexism and the limits of seduction, it seemed fitting to be talking to Rachida Dati. The most glamorous of the mould-breaking women whom Nicolas Sarkozy took to power with him in 2007, Dati was sacked and banished from the Elysée Palace two years ago, but she remains a symbol of how French women have it both ways. They can wield power and high-octane sex appeal at the same time, using the latter to enhance the former”

Firstly, why on earth is her “high-octane” sex appeal and her glamour the most important things to mention about her? If this was a biopic on any male politician there is no way that the first paragraph would mention any octane of sex appeal, nor would it then go on to talk about what they were wearing, yet we are made aware that Dati looked “impeccable in couture trouser-suit and heels” and has both “big dark eyes and perfect make-up”.

Dati is not the only example of how female politicians are judged and evaluated by their appearance. Much as I am not the biggest fan of Theresa May, I find it abhorrent that she is judged by the British press on what kind of shoes she wears or how often she wears the same jacket. I have also blogged before about by what criteria women are judged to be powerful – overwhelmingly as a result of their husband’s status or through their effect upon popular culture rather than politics or business.

The most shocking statement made in the article however is that which states that French women use their sex-appeal to obtain and enhance their power.  This appalling argument is one that has formed a cornerstone of the cultural myth surrounding powerful women: That their power is reliant first and foremost upon their sex appeal and therefore dependent upon manipulation of men.

Not only does this have the implicit effect of pitting women against women (since power is dependent upon men’s favour it must be obtained in precedence of other women) but also renders a the power a woman holds illegitimate in the eyes of the masses. A female politician perceived to have got where she is by seduction can never be thought as worthy as a man who has got there by hard work and genius.

This myth is not only damaging but overwhelmingly false. The most powerful women today and in recent history, for example Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher or Dimla Rousseff, did not make it to power based upon their sex appeal or sexual manipulation of male politicians. Such women are also examples of the real change enacted by women upon the world stage and just how effective they can be as politicians.

What is actually most dangerous about this treatment of powerful women in the media is that all of this intrusive and irrelevant fluff about their appearance or personal life is given precedence over any discussion of policy, ideas or achievements. Nowhere in the Times article is there any mention of anything Dati actually did as Minister of Justice. This attitude is a problem for all female politicians, not just the most “glamorous”. If women in politics are only evaluated by the press for their appearance and their personal or family life, how are we meant to convince men in politics and the wider public as a whole to take us or our ideas seriously?

This is an issue so insidious that many simply fail to recognise it, or accept it as normal, but until we confront it and, as female politicians, demand to be judged on the criteria of policy, accountability and deed neither we nor the rest of the women of Britain will achieve equality.

Selling Northern Rock will rob Taxpayers

Labour Party

I was extremely disappointed to learn this morning that George Osborne has decided to ignore the sound advice from the Co-operative Party over the sale of Northern Rock.

Our Chancellor - Blinded by Ideology

Our Chancellor - Blinded by Ideology

The Co-operative Party’s proposals, which I support, advocated for a re-mutualisation of Northern Rock. Mutual ownership is the best solution for ensuring a stable long-term future for these companies, and ensuring that the expense undertaken in their nationalisation will deliver for consumers in the long term.

During the 1980s the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher embarked upon an ideologically-motivated demutualisation of co-operative financial institutions. It was many of these institutions, such as Northern Rock, which then subsequently failed due to over-risky lending, plunging us into a financial crisis.

Given that the policy of enforcing a complete privatisation of the financial sector has shown not only to have failed but to have done so with dire consequences to the entire country, it is clear that this decision is motivated by blind ideology rather than the best interests of the country.

In addition to the lessons of history there are other reasons why this decision is catastrophic. Firstly, if Northern Rock is auctioned off now then the taxpayer will actually make a loss on the sale: according to the Times the bank, which was given an injection of £1.4 billion of taxpayers’ money, is only expected to fetch about £1 billion when auctioned. This means that taxpayers money will be used to subsidise a private purchase whose profits will then go to line the pockets of the City’s wealthiest.

Secondly, in privatising the bank the government is relinquishing any opportunity it has to force its practices to be more consumer friendly. The least the taxpayer should gain from such an expensive purchase is the assurance that the currently nationalised banks will be pressured into providing accessible lending for those struggling during these difficult times. George Osborne however, has now demonstrated just how little he cares for those small businesses and first time homeowners who were most affected by the crisis and who our financial services are currently failing.

This is simply another example of how this deeply political chancellor is putting his own personal beliefs above the needs of the people and future economic stability and growth. It also highlights just how unfit he is to be in charge of our country’s economy. I urge you to support the Co-operative’s proposals by signing up to their campaign to reverse this decision.

The Interview with Michael O’Leary

Labour Party

The exchange between Michael O’Leary and myself on “Woman’s Hour” yesterday has received some attention, including in the Times this morning. You can listen to the full  interview with Michael O’Leary presented by Jane Garvey by clicking the media player below:

Interestingly O’Leary felt unable to leave it there and produced this press release. This is what I sent out a my response:

Ryanair attacks Labour MEP following radio debate

 MEP defends her position following ‘cheap’ and ‘personal’ dig by O’Leary

London MEP Mary Honeyball has responded to a press release issued todayby Ryanair accusing her of “false claims” against his airline and calling her “dreary”.

Ms Honeyball said: ‘Rather than explaining its actions, Ryanair has responded to me by using cheap publicity slogans, which are potentially slanderous. If O’Leary and his team cannot think of anything useful to say, then perhaps they shouldn’t say anything at all’.

Appearing alongside Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour yesterday Honeyball maintained that the Ryanair’s 2010 calendar, which features scantily clad young women in sexually provocative poses, is demeaning.

The women -all of whom are Ryanair employees – were, according to O’Leary, willing volunteers. However, O’Leary does not allow trade union representation at Ryanair, leading Mary Honeyball to wonder whether some of the young women faced pressure to strip off for the calendar. With no trade union to defend them, Mary questioned whether the young women could be especially prone to such coercion.

Replying to O’Leary’s jibe that she was just out to get “cheap publicity” Ms Honeyball said: ‘As an elected representative I have the right to draw people’s attention to matters like this. Since I currently sit on the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament, it is my responsibility to speak out about issues important to women.’

When Mr. O’Leary pointed out that the proceeds from the calendar go to charity, Mary Honeyball said there were much better ways of raising money for good causes which did not involve demeaning images of women.’

And finally….I would like to thank Iain Dale for his congratulations on the work I do on human trafficking.  About the Ryanair calendar Iain, I’d be grateful if you listened to this “Woman’s Hour” piece. I made the same points that you considered flimsy arguments on LBC and O’Leary conspicuously failed to answer them. Maybe they weren’t so flimsy after all?

David Cameron “not honest” about EU Budget

Labour Party

David Cameron could maybe win a pyrrhic victory on the EU budget, a “victory” which the MEP handling the negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the centre-right Sidonia Jedrzejewska, has labelled “not honest”.

Speaking about the letter signed by 12 EU leaders last week to limit the budget rise to 2.9%., Mme Jedrzejewska told the Times, “It is not an honest proposal. People who wrote the letter know it will be more in the end. They are just postponing payments.”

This is strong stuff, even more so as it comes from an MEP whose political philosophy is relatively close to that of Mr Cameron.

As the European Parliament expert on the EU budget, Mme Jedrzejewska is very clear that were the Cameron proposal to go through, there would have to be “amended budgets” to pay for existing commitments. “The member states have to understand that if you want to put a stop to the EU budget, then you have to put a stop to your ambitions too. You can’t have more for less,” she told the Times.

And this really is the heart of the matter. David Cameron and George Osborne are reducing the UK national budget by slashing public spending with huge consequences for the vulnerable and needy. Cuts in housing benefit will drive people out of central London, the unemployed are being forced to do unpaid labour and child benefit is being taken away from women who chose to be full time mothers.

The national budget can be brought down because expenditure is reduced.  I think it’s totally appalling and it’s not what Labour would have done. It is, however, feasible.

This is not the case with the EU budget.  Cameron and the other countries that sent the letter, which was a Cameron initiative instigated by David Cameron himself, have not put forward any plans to cut EU spending. Cameron, along with the other 11 which include Germany, France, Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Austria, is therefore at the very least culpable of not being honest.

The deadline for agreeing the European Union budget is Monday. The negotiating  protocol between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (the co-decision process) allows six weeks to reach agreement otherwise the whole budget will fall. If the new budget is not agreed, this year’s budget will continue to apply.

I wonder if David Cameron is trying to placate his Eurosceptic wing by bringing about an EU budget freeze by default, using EU procedures.  If this is the game plan, I think may well not succeed.  I wonder when push comes to shove how many of the 11 other signatories would be prepared to allow the EU budget to fall by the wayside. It is not, after all, either an efficient or dignified way of conducting business.

One final thought. If the EU were to revert to the current budget, one of the casualties could well be the EU External Action Service (EAAS). Given that in Baroness Catherine Ashton we have a Briton heading it up, and that the establishment of the EAAS marks a significant development supported by both the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats, I sincerely hope David Cameron would not be so pig-headed as to jeopardise its future.