Harriet Harman: “We’ve got to make sure the clock doesn’t get turned back on gender equality”

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Ask a Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. Here, Labour MP, Harriet Harman, says we still have a long way to go until we see gender equality. 

Harriet Harman MP will be discussing her new book A Woman’s Work, on Saturday 11 March at Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival.

We've made so much progress as women over the last decades. 

The opportunities I had are a world away from the prospects for my mother. In her day, the pinnacle of a woman's aspiration was to get a good husband.  And once she'd snared him, her calling was to provide him with children and have his meals on the table.  He was the ‘head of the household’ and her role was to support him. 

The Women's Movement, which swept into the consciousness of young women like me in the 1970s, challenged all that.  We did not think we were inferior to men, so why should we be subordinate to them?  They were his children too, so why shouldn't he take equal responsibility for caring for them? The money which she earned was important for the household budget so why was her hourly pay so much less than his? 

We thought equality was good for the economy - with women's talents and abilities recognised.  And that equality was better for personal relationships too.  It's unhealthy to have a situation where what a man says goes and the woman just had to abide by it.

We didn't like the idea that men made all the decisions and that women didn't have a say.  So the Women's Movement aimed for massive change.  When I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1982, Parliament was 97% men and only 3% women.  Now, though we are still a minority, we are nearly 30%.  And the income gap has been steadily closing.

In 1997 when Labour got into government, the average income of women (including not just pay but also pensions and tax credits) was only 50% of men's.  Now, it's 70%.  Childcare for working mothers is still a headache but there are nurseries in every area.  Still two women every week are killed by their husband or partner but at least no-one says, as they used to, she must have provoked him, brought it on herself. 

I worry that progress on ending domestic violence will be set back with the cuts in police numbers.

But we need to focus our efforts on closing the remaining inequality gap between men and women.   Now organisations will, every year, have to publish the gap between the hourly pay of their men and their women employees.  That will give women the chance to insist that their employer matches the best in their sector and to track the progress that is being made year on year.

Attitudes to domestic violence have transformed over the past few decades.  But I worry that progress will be set back with the cuts in police numbers.  With an overstretched police service it’s harder for women to get the support they need to escape violence.

We've got to make sure that the clock doesn't get turned back and men can help with this.

Advances for women at work have come in all sectors and in every part of the country.  But the cuts in children's centres and in tax credits will make it harder for working mothers to get the childcare they need.

For years we've battled against male chauvinist attitudes.  But now Donald Trump is giving heart to ‘back woodsmen’, and social media offers an anonymous space for men to threaten and harass women.

It's not just that we've got further to go, we've got to make sure that the clock doesn't get turned back and men can help with this. There are particular issues that face men that should be tackled like the need for longer paternity pay and higher paternity leave. There are men in senior positions in the government, in the health service, in business who can and should take these issues forward.  It was women who fought for the introduction of paid paternity leave.  But surely men should be fighting for it to be extended.

Once again we've got a woman prime minister.  But that doesn't, of itself, mean that women's lives will get easier.  It’s welcome that Theresa May has made tackling domestic violence a priority for her government.  But she must reverse the cuts to refuges which protect women fleeing from violence.  To back up her commitment to equality for women at work she must reopen the closed children's centres.   

And we’ll know we've got full equality when we see not only that there are an equal number of women and men in the Cabinet but when there are an equal number of men and women in the school playground picking up the kids and taking them home for tea.  Equality in the home and at work has to go hand in hand.