On Saturday I joined tens of thousands on the streets of London to protest against the Government’s damaging austerity agenda and it was heartening to see so many women, particularly young women, on the march. In fact, in the last few years, women seem to have become the face of the trade union movement.
From Frances O’Grady, who is poised to take the TUC’s top job in a few months, to the amazing women organising in workplaces across the UK, some of whom I was lucky enough to meet at the recent Unite London and Eastern region young members meeting, to women in the public sector standing on picket lines telling the Government that enough is enough.
But while the new prominence of women in our movement is heartening it too often hides a darker truth: the reason we are seeing so many women stepping into the political limelight is that all too often it’s women who are losing out most to austerity. Cuts to state welfare and the public sector are leaving many women struggling to make ends meet and hold on to jobs. And as the Government slashes spending it expects women to fill in the gaps left by a shrinking welfare state – an example of public policy based on attitudes to women’s roles that come directly from the 1950s.
Around 40% of working women are employed in the public sector, which is being devastated by Government cuts at the expense of thousands of jobs. We’ve seen women’s unemployment at its highest since 1987.
Women in full-time employment still face a 15% pay gap compared to their male counterparts, rising to 20% for BME women, and the majority of low-paid workers are women.
At a time when we need women in parliament to be standing up for us against this Government, only 1 in 4 MPs is a woman and the Prime Minister thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to remove a woman from the cabinet because of her age and replace her with an older man.
This is completely unacceptable and we need to be lobbying for a better deal for women. We need to make our voices heard in our education and work places, our local communities and in parliament. The Government’s attack on women and the lack of women’s representation in parliament need to be challenged.
I’m proud of Labour’s record of fighting for gender equality. From maternity pay and paternity leave to the Equality Act we did so much but there’s still a lot more work to do. Women MPs like Yvette Cooper and Kate Green are showing how we can promote equality in opposition but activists on the ground must play a role too.
This is why I’ll be attending the UK Feminista lobby of parliament with London Young Labour women on October 24th at 11am to lobby parliament about women’s equality. We’ll be meeting at Westminster tube station and I’d urge you to join us to tell politicians of all parties that they need to do more to tackle the abhorrent inequality that still exists in our society.
The lobby is calling for politicians to look at four key areas to reduce women’s inequality: ending violence against women, improving women’s representation across society, promoting gender equality in the economy, work and family and ensuring equality when it comes to women’s rights and justice.
In a climate where the Health Secretary seeks to remove women’s reproductive rights, a Cabinet Minister talks about “classic rape”, and Government cuts are having a disproportionate impact on women, there has never been a more important time to tell David Cameron that we won’t calm down and that women deserve better.