Party Conference Series – Jo Swinson MP
As part of a series of guest-blogs during the party conferences, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Under Secretary for Women and Equalities, Jo Swinson MP, tells us what the Lib Dems will offer women voters in the 2015 General Election. You can catch up on Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Gloria de Piero MP’s blog here, and the Conservative’s Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women, Nicky Morgan MP’s blog here.
In the Coalition Government, the Liberal Democrats have set the agenda on tax cuts for low earners, childcare, shared parental leave and flexible working, allowing more women the choice and the support they need to make the right decisions for their careers and their families.
We have shown in government that we are not afraid to challenge the status quo and old fashioned stereotypes about how women should live their lives.
For far too long the prevailing view has been that men should go off to work and women should stay home as primary carers of children. The system of parental leave has long reflected this: out-dated and inflexible.
Liberal Democrats recognise the important role fathers play in the upbringing of children and the positive benefits of women retaining a strong connection with the workplace, which is why we have driven through radical reforms to shared parental leave. This will apply to any babies due from 5 April 2015 and is set to benefit 285,000 couples.
Under our changes, working couples will be able to choose to share up to 50 weeks of leave in whatever way suits them best. For example, this could mean more time all together as a family in the crucial few weeks after a child’s birth or dad taking additional leave later on when mum to returns to work.
As Liberal Democrats, we want to go further and transform the role men play in the upbringing of their children. We will offer fathers an extra four weeks of paternity leave – bringing the total to six weeks. We know the benefits for child development of involvement from both parents early on, and of course when parents share caring responsibilities more equally, more equality in the workplace will also follow.
Our reforms to shared parental leave are about ensuring women are on an equal footing with their male colleagues in the workplace. When men take more time off for caring commitments, then dinosaur employers who decide against hiring or promoting a woman of child-bearing age will have to think again. Businesses will be better able to retain talented female staff and benefit from better productivity and staff loyalty.
As Liberal Democrats we also want to see a shift in societal attitudes to women, and especially young girls.
I was disturbed to read research recently that shows on our university campuses, home to some of our best and brightest of the future, a sexist and ‘lad’ culture has taken root. An NUS survey suggests a quarter of students had experienced unwelcome sexual advances at university, and two-thirds had heard rape or sexual assault jokes on their campuses.
This is highly troubling, but perhaps not surprising in a country where ‘everyday sexism’ is rife in the media, most notably through the practice of airbrushing and certain tabloids’ fascination with the lifestyle choices of young women. It is hard for many young girls to be confident in themselves and their bodies when newspapers and magazines are laden with the images of an unattainable ‘ideal’ body.
But what action can we take? Should we ban page 3 or censor over-sexualised music videos.
I think the answer is simple and less bureaucratic: education. Young boys and girls need to be taught the value of respecting personal choices and of the emotional dangers of putting too much pressure on young people to conform. Too often the media, with its fascination for celebrity culture, glamorises certain career paths for young girls. Positive female role models are needed to encourage ambition and ensure young girls consider a wide range of career choices.
As Liberal Democrats we are determined to improve the representation of women across a range of jobs, especially in certain sectors like science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. The Your Life campaign (yourlife.org.uk) encourages young people to pursue study and careers in these areas. Diverse workforces with different perspectives and ideas will lead to better decision- making. By encouraging women to consider a wide range of occupations, our economy will be more balanced and our businesses more competitive.
As we approach the 2015 election we have further ambitions to tackle gender inequality – central to our aim of creating a stronger economy and a fairer society. We will tackle the stubborn gender pay gap, boost childcare support and give women more opportunities return to work after having a baby.
Our time in government has seen record numbers of women in work and radical reforms to give women a greater say over their work-life balance. We are ambitious to go further, however, and we know for full equality to be achieved we need significant changes in cultural attitudes towards women in the media and in society more widely.
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