Women Given a Poor Deal by the Banks

Labour Party

Evidence has come to light today that women are being discriminated against by banks.

The report, entitled ‘Women and Banks: Are Female Customers Facing Discrimination?’, by Noreena Hertz, looks at several cases where banks have discriminated against pregnant women and those on maternity leave. It also looks into the different treatment of male and female entrepreneurs when applying for venture financing loans. 

One bank manager told a mortgage applicant: women “get all indecisive about whether they’re going back to work” after child having children, according to Helen Rumbelow’s excellent article in The Times today.

In itself this comment in incredibly sexist, reminiscent of the 19th Century when women were frequently diagnosed with hysteria. Perhaps even more shocking is that the bank manager who made that comment is a woman.

I find it absolutely appalling that banks may be discriminating against women in this day and age. I am also surprised to find that the Financial Ombudsman supports the banks in this action, who said that was a “legitimate commercial judgement”.

Not only is denying an individual access to funds based on their gender ethically wrong, it is also completely illegal both in the UK and in Europe. These legal protections are the products of many years of progress through laws such as the Equality Act and pages of legal case work.

The sexist discrimination in the financial services industry does not stop here though. The report also highlights that women-owned firms are charged higher interest rates on their loans than comparative firms owned by men.

I struggle to see how women-owned businesses present a greater risk to financiers than their male counterparts. In fact several studies have shown that women owned businesses have a better credit rating overall.

It appears that the whole culture of this industry is geared against women succeeding in business. A study undertaken by the Labour Government in 2004 found women owned businesses were “more likely to face discouragement when applying for external finance”.

Such barriers to women becoming home owners, or their full participation as entrepreneurs are particularly disheartening at a time when they are being hit the hardest by Tory cuts and are looking for new ways to support themselves.  This is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with in the most robust way possible.  I only hope that this government, supposedly pro-business and home-ownership, will do everything it can to address this staggering inequality.

At Conference: From Pioneers to Power and Back Again: Why Have Women Been Forgotten?

Labour Party

As the Parliamentary season gets into swing we once again find ourselves back in conference season. This Saturday the Labour Party Conference begins in Liverpool.  I am looking forward to the first couple of days in particular as Saturday and Sunday are the days of the Women’s Conference which I hope as many of you can make as possible. You also might be interested to know that I have organised a Fringe Event on the Sunday: “From Pioneers to Power and Back Again: Why Have Women Been Forgotten?”

One of the most overlooked aspects of the Labour Party’s history is the contribution of its women activists. By holding this event I plan not only to pay tribute to the work they did and the successes of women in the Labour Party but also to ask why women have been forgotten in the socialist movement.

I believe this question is more important now than ever before as the Tories are in the process of rolling back all of the advancements women have made in recent years.  As a result, the women’s vote may cost the Tories the next election.

Labour’s future lies in once again becoming the party for women. So join me, Harriet Harman, Rachel Reeves and Baroness Joyce Goulding for an afternoon where we examine where we went wrong and how to become the women’s party for the future.

You can also find details of it in the Conference Guide (page 63) or online here.

Honouring unsung female heroes

Labour Party

A student of history would be forgiven for thinking that for the vast majority of the course of world history the earth was populated almost entirely by men. In any list of the greatest leaders, scientists, explorers, entrepreneurs, etc nearly all of them are men.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, many great women have been rather successfully written out of history. My own experience of undertaking research on the history of women in the Labour Party has demonstrated this all too clearly – while women were at the forefront of change and pioneering action, the men were the ones mentioned in the history books.

The second is that the work women have often done has been of the kind that is largely invisible, but without which the world would not exist as we know it. I have always liked George Eliot’s (one of the greatest female writers in the English language but condemned forever to be remembered as a man) ending to Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

For this reason I am delighted to have discovered that this October One World Action will be holding an event to celebrate the achievements of the unseen powerful women who change the world, called “One Hundred Women”.

These hundred women’s actions have been of great benefit to the world within their chosen spheres, be they entrepreneurs, or involved in media and the arts, human rights, public services, or business. The full list can be accessed here.

So, for what I am sure will be an excellent night where women who really have made a difference will be honoured, go to The King’s Fund, 11 Cavendish Square, London, W1G 0AN at 6.30pm on Thursday 27th October.

Tories vote against Women in Boardrooms

Labour Party

Yesterday the European Parliament took a historic step forward in ensuring women’s leadership in business by urging the Commission to propose legislation including quotas by 2012 for increasing female representation in corporate management bodies of enterprises, if voluntary measures do not manage to increase the number of women.  

Women currently make up 10% of directors and only 3% of CEOs at the largest listed EU companies. The Parliament voted by a very large majority to address this inequality by adopting a resolution that calls for women to make up 30% of top management in the largest listed EU companies by 2015 and 40% by 2020.

Unsurprisingly, Tory MEPs were once again shown to support the extremist ring-wing position in the Parliament, an honour previously reserved for UKIP. The 17 out of 26 Tories that bothered to turn up to the vote voted against any legislation that would ensure women take their rightful place in business leadership. They also voted against the report as a whole, showing that not only do they disagree with legislation to enforce women’s equality but they disagree with encouraging women in business leadership at all.

This just goes to show just how out of touch with real issues the Tories are. Firstly, such legislation would only come into effect when voluntary measures fail, giving businesses an opportunity to change their practices voluntarily. Secondly, not only have several countries, notably Norway, the Netherlands, France and Spain, pioneered this approach already but our own experience in the UK shows that quotas are a necessary tool for breaking down the barriers to women’s access to high power jobs. They are one of the only ways in which the masculine culture of boardrooms and politics can be forced to change. The Tories’ however have shown that they have no interest in such change, nor in having women in positions of power.

I have always been a supporter of the introduction of gender quotas and spoke in their defence on Women’s Hour yesterday morning which you can listen to here:

I wholeheartedly welcome this decision and congratulate the Parliament’s Vice-President Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou who drafted this resolution. I hope that the Parliament’s decision yesterday will lead to real changes for the women of Europe. It is shameful however, to know that so many of the MEPs Britain sends to the European Parliament only seek to block and derail the best of its work.

Fiona Bruce – women in the home, not in the news.

Labour Party

Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton, has tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill going through parliament designed to “encourage marriage”. This particular nuptial inducement would mean that any non-employed spouse would be able to transfer their non-taxable allowance to their partner and thereby reduce their overall tax bill.

Once again we see this Tory-led coalition pursuing its particular version of right-wing ideology. Ms Bruce’s amendment does not simply encourage marriage, it encourages a specific type of marriage, one in which there is an unemployed partner. Fundamentally, this is a bill to encourage marriage where the woman is a housewife. This category applies to fewer and fewer women these days not only because we now live in times where generally two incomes are needed but because the vast majority of women chose to work and thereby lead a multi-dimensional life. This amendment would penalise them for making this choice.

At a time of national stringency it does not appear prudent to reduce the tax for those couples who can already afford for one partner not to work. Indeed, the Lib Dems have a point when saying that it is far more important to increase the taxable limit for all as a means to improving living standards, rather than doubling it only for those who happen to have an economically inactive spouse.

What is more, this amendment penalises married women who work and therefore contribute economically, which is something this government professes to encourage. It also seems odd that Tories believe it is ok to encourage married women to stay at home while insisting that single mothers must work for their keep (and heaven forbid they try to ask for money from an absent partner). 

Fiona Bruce’s amendment is simply a misguided attempt to reinstate the family values of yesteryear in spite of all of the evidence that this is neither economically or socially prudent nor in the best interests of women.

The appalling position of women elsewhere must not blind us to the dire state of our own.

Labour Party

Today the Guardian published an interview piece with Harriet Harman; talking about the state of women’s empowerment and political involvement both within the UK and the democratising countries of North Africa. 

The state of women’s rights in the Arab Spring countries is one of the most salient current topics within women’s politics. It is true that the danger posed to women in that region and the possibility of regression in terms of women’s rights is a major concern at the moment and one which the Women and Equalities Committee in the Parliament is taking seriously. On Monday we have a workshop discussing how the EU can best force the issue of women’s rights and empowerment onto the democratising agendas of Egypt and Tunisia. To this end, I support Harriet’s demands that aid to the region be tied to the observance of women’s rights. This opportunity to change the landscape for women in that region of the world must not be missed. 

However, often by focussing on problems overseas, by which dismal standards the UK does compare favourably, it can often blind us to the very real problems that still exist within our own country. This blindness can often lead us into hypocrisy. This is pointed out by Harriet when she notes that the UK government is sending delegations of men to other countries to lecture about women’s rights since our international development office has no women. 

The right that the Conservative government has to lecture that region on women’s rights is also dubious since, for example, whilst condemning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Africa, it has demolished services set up by the Labour government to prevent FGM occurring on its own soil. This means more women within the UK will now be vulnerable to this abominable practice. We must also remember that this is the same government whose leader still finds it acceptable to make sexist comments to women in Parliament and whose party is so entirely divorced from the reality of most women’s lives that they have almost no idea how unfairly their policies impact upon women in the UK.

The Labour Party and the women within it are rightfully fighting for women in the UK, battling against the return of a fundamentally patriarchal and misogynist political group, even on time-worn battlegrounds such as abortion rights. Our Labour MEPs are also fighting for women in terms of maternity leave, gender pay gaps, preventing violence against women and reminding member states how their policies need to take the effect upon women into consideration. Having said this however, we have still never had a female leader and women remain underrepresented within the party, particularly in Westminster.

I believe Labour is different from the Conservatives. In terms of  gender empowerment the Labour Party is firmly within this century. The Tories, as Harriet Harman said, are still living in the last. But we need to do more. We cannot be complacent simply because the Tories are so much worse. This is why I support Harriet’s demands for a change in our leadership elections to ensure that women are part of the leadership and for a 50-50 gender balance of elected representatives. Our country is half women. Whilst men should also fight for women, women need to be in power to represent women and not just in Africa.

More older women on TV please

Labour Party

Two news items today on women gave me pause for thought.

The first was this excellent Guardian piece on women in comedy. The second was the BBC survey showing the Corporation marginalises older women.

I fully agree with Hadley Freeman when she argues that within mainstream comedy women are, on the whole, considered to be unfunny and demoted to their own special categories. Younger women are either passive benign objects of sexual desire, or the neurotic wives (apparently on their wedding day all women get an obligatory brain transplant).

For older women however….well…..it’s hard to say exactly….it’s not as if there’s really enough to be able to tell. In much of the media world it appears that women only live until they’re 35 and spend vast amounts of that time either shopping, putting on make up or scheming….and lacking a sense of humour.

This isn’t the world I know. In the world I live in, where I now class myself as une femme d’un certain age, plenty of women are way over 35. The overwhelming majority are functional human beings, are just as capable as men, and are very funny. While I acknowledge there has been some progress in certain genres, in much of the media women are still portrayed as one-dimensional characters, really only valuable for their aesthetic qualities.

There are still not enough women in influential media positions such as production and direction. Many people seem to be under the illusion that this is no longer a problem. Even the Guardian proudly proclaimed that 4 women were competing for the top title at the Cannes film festival. This was, you may remember against 16 men, which is not so good when you realise that more than 20% of the media industry is made up of women.

Popular media not only reflects public perceptions but also influences and to some extent determines them. This is why it’s important to change the message the media is giving out about women. Reality and the media have a symbiotic relationship. This is why I, as a female MEP, care how the media is portraying women.

The BBC does have a duty here as our public service broadcaster with the highest of reputations. The BBC must act reasonably and fairly towards women over 35 and make sure they are as fairly represented on our television screens as the Corporation’s army of middle-aged men.

The cuts are reckless and regressive.

Labour Party

Many will be left reeling after the revelations of yesterday’s Spending Review, a long list of savage cuts which threaten 500,000 jobs and the welfare of millions. In announcing this strategy, Chancellor George Osborne claimed to be driven by the demands of fairness; if this is true, it is painfully clear that he has a very distorted concept of what ‘fairness’ entails. Few could describe as fair a budget that impacts disproportionately on the poorest half of the nation, slashing already squeezed social housing provision and reducing care provision whilst allowing the City to emerge unscathed. Even The Telegraph readily admits that this is a political budget, shaped by ideological imperatives as much as economic demands.

Already, the plans have prompted a surge of compelling critiques from think-tanks and charities shocked by their regressive implications. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (hardly a voice of radicalism) has warned that the impact on the poorest tenth will be five times that on the richest, Shelter has expressed fears that homelessness will surge, and the Social Market Foundation has pointed out that protecting the schools budget meant big hits for all-important early years services.

Acknowledging all of this is hugely important, but it is also crucial that we include gender in the picture and recognise the particularly pernicious effects these cuts will have on women. As the Fawcett Society outlines, it is women who will be the main losers as jobs are cut, public services are rolled back and benefits are slashed. Of the 500,000 to be cut from the public sector, two thirds will be women and, as primary carers, it is women who will assume the extra burden of responsibility when provision for children and the elderly is scaled back. We must challenge this: if it goes unrecognised, women’s services and benefits will remain a soft target, vulnerable to a Coalition all-too-often governed by expedience.

Raising Awareness of Osteoporosis

Labour Party

I am pleased to be confirmed again as Joint-Chair of the European Parliament Osteoporosis Interest Group.  I will continue to work with the International Osteoporosis Foundation to raise awareness of the disease and campaign for funding to improve and extend treatment, as well as for public education about ways in which osteoporosis can be prevented, or at least reduced.

Osteoporosis is a disease in which the density and quality of bone is reduced. As the bones become progressively more porous and fragile, there is an increased risk of fracture, even after a minor bump or fall. Osteoporosis is often called the ‘silent disease’ as there are usually no signs or symptoms until a fracture has occurred. The risk of fractures due to osteoporosis rises progressively with age in men and particularly in women after the age of menopause. In women, the risk is comparable to that of cardiovascular disease and considerably higher than that of breast cancer. Currently, one osteoporotic fracture occurs every 30 seconds in the EU, and the ageing of the population will double the number of osteoporotic fractures over the next 50 years if changes are not made in present practice. Osteoporosis and resulting fractures can often be prevented, they are not “just a part of old age”, as many people wrongly believe.

Osteoporosis has a devastating effect on the individual and society as a whole. Fractures result in pain, disfigurement, and loss of independence. After a hip fracture, approximately 50% of patients can no longer live independently and 20% die within 12 months. If left untreated, the patient who sustains a first fracture has a greater than two-fold increase in the risk of a subsequent fracture. The risk of a third and additional fracture increases exponentially with each new fracture – known as the cascade effect.

Prevention of osteoporotic fractures is key to healthy ageing

Osteoporosis can be diagnosed by measurement of bone mineral density. Effective treatments are widely available in Europe for the management of osteoporosis, but, despite this, the great majority of individuals at high risk (up to 80%) who have already sustained at least one osteoporotic fracture are neither diagnosed nor treated to prevent further fractures. Equity is at stake, as a large gap exists between those who receive treatment and those that would benefit from treatment.

Aside from the personal and social costs, osteoporosis remains a major public health burden with enormous economic impact worldwide. The economic burden of osteoporosis in the EU is estimated at €43 billion annually (for 2010), in direct costs alone and to rise to €58 billion over the next 20 years. The burden on healthcare budgets is currently greater than breast and prostate cancer, myocardial infarction, and diabetes, and very close to stroke.

There have been achievements in the past 10 years: the number of fractures per year is beginning to stabilise, and there are now more evidence-based treatment options available. However, we still have a long way to go:

  • 21 out of 27 EU countries do not recognise osteoporosis as a national health priority (this is critical is terms of galvanising public and medical action towards fracture prevention)
  • Hip fracture costs have doubled or tripled in some countries
  • In many countries, full access to and reimbursement of bone mineral density scans and treatments are not available to high risk individuals (and even to many to have already sustained an osteoporotic fracture)

Building better bone health

The prevention of osteoporosis and fractures should be considered under a lifetime strategy. One of the best preventive measures to avoid fractures in later life is to build a strong bone foundation in youth. Healthy adults generally reach their peak bone mass by the age of 20 years. It is estimated that a 10% increase of peak bone mass would reduce the risk of an osteoporotic fracture during adult life by more than 50%.

The key elements of any chronic disease prevention strategy are diet, exercise, early diagnosis and effective treatment:

  1. Build strong bones in youth
  2. Maintain bone strength in the mid-years
  3. Target high risk individuals over 50 years
  4. Diagnose and treat ALL individuals who have sustained their first osteoporotic fracture
  5. Focus on muscle strength and falls prevention in the older years

We need to raise the profile of osteoporosis so that people suffering from the disease are aware of the risk factors and have equitable access to appropriate medical treatment. I have been chair of the Osteoporosis Interest Group in the European Parliament for a number of years and will continue to support initiatives to raise awareness on osteoporosis among politicians and EU institutions. 

Are you at risk?

Take the online IOF one-minute risk test and understand better how osteoporosis could be a risk to your quality of life: http://www.iofbonehealth.org/patients-public/risk-test.html

Health care professionals can freely use the fracture risk assessment tool (FRAX® tool, http://www.shef.ac.uk/FRAX) to assess their patients’ risk of fracture at ten years.

For more information, consult the IOF website (www.iofbonehealth.org). The European Parliament Osteoporosis Interest Group supports the IOF EU initiatives for better bone health.

Success and motherhood for Kim Clijsters

Labour Party

Kim-Clijsters Celebrates With Child

There is no doubt in my mind that Kim Clijsters is a remarkable success story: not only has the tennis star just won the US open, but she has done so a mere 18 months after giving birth to her first child. I am always deeply impressed to hear about women who successfully manage to juggle their role as mother with their work commitments. However, as an article in today’s Guardian observes many new mothers can find it difficult to resume their career after they have been away from it for a long time. You can read the Guardian article online here. When you’re a professional athlete like Kim Clijsters, or Paula Radcliffe, who won the New York marathon when her child was just 10 months old, the prospects of success are made to look even more remote.

Like many women who endure the pressure of a demanding career, Clijsters decided early on that she wanted to start a family. She also decided that this shouldn’t mean the end of her tennis career. And why should it? Inevitably there will be those who argue that women like Clijsters are selfish, and her win has certainly resurrected age-old debates about what the role of a woman should be. I for one am convinced that Clijsters’ decision to resume her tennis career after starting a family is something to be praised, not criticised. From the point of view of her daughter, what could be more wonderful than seeing her mum suddenly become the centre of attention? It has been suggested that people’s expectations of women are lower when they come back to work after a stint of maternity leave, but if Kim Clijsters has proved anything it is that women can excel in difficult circumstances, and this should render all the more impressive their triumphs and accomplishments. We should be giving our full support to new mothers as they ease their way back into their working lives, not damning them for being out of the home for too long.

We should also be taking a more sympathetic approach to how we view the role of men. UK fathers are currently entitled to take two weeks paid paternity leave, and the increasingly relaxed rules for them indicates that common opinion is shifting. People everywhere have come to accept that 1950s-style cultural norms about the need to separate work and parenthood are no longer applicable in today’s society.

An important question raised by the Guardian is whether or not being a mother actually helped Clijsters to win her tounament. Female athletes who claim that they became better focused after having children provide a lesson for us all. Rather than writing off women who take a break from work to have children, we ought to be looking at what improvements their new role and new experiences may actually bring to the jobs they perform. Tremendously successful women like Kim Clijsters, Nicola Horlick and businesswoman Julia Hobsbawm, who have gone back to work soon after having children may look like a rare breed. Yet there is a strong case for arguing that their successes have been possible largely because of their children, not in spite of them.