A speech from Felicia Willow, interim CEO, at the Labour Women's Conference on Saturday 26th June 2021

The Fawcett Society was established in the footsteps of Millicent Fawcett – most notably a suffragist, not a suffragette. This means Millicent wasn’t the one throwing bricks at windows, or throwing herself in front of the King’s horse, but she was the one gathering evidence, amassing support, and working with sympathetic politicians and journalists to achieve real, sustainable change.  

The Fawcett Society continues very much on the path she set. We undertake robust research on the most pressing issues facing women and equality, and campaign in a pragmatic, thoughtful and practical way. We are a cross-party organisation. It has been one of the great privileges of this role as Interim CEO of the Fawcett Society to meet and work alongside politicians from all parties who are dedicated to achieving equality for women – and who, like me, are angry that we are still nowhere near our goal, so many years after Millicent helped to secure the vote for women.  

We have had one of the worst years for gender equality since Millicent was around.  

The pandemic – and the pandemic policy response – has stripped bare how fragile our progress towards gender equality really was.  

When push came to shove, it was women who bore the brunt of caring for children when schools and childcare closed.  

It was women who faced higher furloughs and now face greater threat of redundancy.  

It was women who suffered the most in terms of their mental health, their financial struggles and their challenges caring for others.  

And when you consider intersecting characteristics – which cannot be ignored in the fight for gender equality, the impact gets even worse. The impact on mothers on low income, disabled women, women from racialised communities – this pandemic made every form of equality worse.  

We have lost possibly a generation of progress. And despite Fawcett’s campaign alongside 80 other organisations to ‘make women visible’ throughout the pandemic, we see little to no action done to build back better and to finally put on a gendered lens to this problem and its solutions.  

So what are the issues facing women today?  

The first is that we still don’t have enough women in power. If people didn’t believe this was important before, they’d better believe it now. Women make up just over a third of MPs. In 2021! And what happens when enough women aren’t in the room making these decisions, like we have seen throughout the pandemic?  

Construction gets an investment, but not childcare.  

Equality impact assessments get thrown out the window.  

Gender pay gap reporting gets suspended.  

Fawcett has been working to get more women in power, and to get more diverse women in power. Evidence shows that having women in the room makes a positive difference on the quality of the decisions being made, and in those decisions not being skewed towards the interests of men alone. This was urgent before, but it’s even more urgent now.  

The second issue is money. Women at work are still being discriminated against. Whether it’s an Equal Pay Act that has been in place for 51 years but which still doesn’t enable women to even access the information they need to know they’re being underpaid, or mothers being made redundant while on maternity leave, or the practices in work such as asking for salary history that perpetuate the inequality against women and minority groups, little to nothing is being done.  

The pandemic highlighted that it is still women who bear the vast majority of responsibility for childcare and other unpaid work, and this translates to unfairness at work. Part-time working women struggle to access advancement opportunities. The motherhood penalty is still a very real thing. The pensions gap keeps women in dependant relationships and unable to maintain an adequate retirement. The gender pay gap is getting bigger – and many employers feel no compulsion to take action to address this.  

We need serious consideration of these issues. We need an overhaul of Shared Parental Leave so  that dads and second carers have protected time off that is only for them, building better equality from the beginning of children’s lives – and which has been proven to be good not only for the children, but for equality in the workplace as well. I don’t want to live through another pandemic when I see mothers bearing so much of the burden.  

We need the right to know comparator’s salaries.  

We need to ban the ability to ask for previous salary history.  

We need to prohibit new mothers and pregnant women from being made redundant.  

And we need compulsory action plans for employers to take action to address their gender pay gap.  

And the third issue is gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes are limiting the potential of all children and all adults. They’re the reason that suicide is the number one cause of death amongst men aged under 45. And they’re the cause of 6 year old girls saying that STEM subjects aren’t for them, as you have to be really, really smart. 

Sarah Everard’s murder brought fourth an outpouring of grief, solidarity and the fear shared by women across the country. When misogyny as a hate crime was announced, it wasn’t recognised widely as being connected to the huge figures of male violence against women and girls that have swept the country, instead we had jokes about locker room banter and mothers in law. More than anything else, this demonstrated to me how oblivious so many people are to the misogyny that underlies our entire society and which stems from gender stereotypes that begin even earlier than most of us realise.  

We have to look at what expectations, messages and standards we send to our children, to our young people, and to our broader society.  

Fawcett delivered a major report on gender stereotypes in late 2020, and ever since we have been working with government departments, businesses, childcare providers and others to implement our findings to do better.  

We have so far to go, and if I had one message on all of these priorities, it is that solidarity is the only way to get there.  

Feminism has been an amazing force for good, but it spends too much of its time in infighting. The Fawcett Society is not here to fight with other feminists. We are a movement of feminists for equality. Our thousands of members won’t always agree on every single thing we do or say, and we may not always agreed with every one of them. Our projects won’t be relevant to all of our members, and they wouldn’t expect them to be. Whether we’re deep diving into the experiences of women of colour in the workplace to undercover why their pay and progression is not where it should be, or examining how employers can do better in dealing and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, or uncovering how menopause might be affecting women reaching senior positions, or campaigning for the right to know, or working with employers to help them understand and reduce their gender pay gap… we are here, every day, continuing to fight – not against other feminists – but against the patriarchy and to continue in Millicent’s footsteps.  

If you feel the same way, then I’d invite you to join our movement. Being a member means that you are there with us, in our broad church of feminism, as we fight – not against each other, not against other feminists, but against the inequalities and the injustices that women continue to face, today more than ever.