Former women and equalities minister Jo Swinson is at the forefront of the battle to bring an end to gender inequality. She talks to Chris Bond.
In years to come, 2017 may well come to be seen as a watershed moment in the fight against sexism.
The initial shock and revulsion at the scale of the harassment allegations that emerged against disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein quickly turned to anger. It has become a scandal that’s travelled far beyond Hollywood, sending seismic shockwaves through the high powered worlds of business and politics.
It was this groundswell of anger that spawned the #MeToo and #TimesUp social media campaigns and brought together women (and men) from around the world to share their stories of sexual harassment.
Then came last week’s story, exposed by an undercover journalist, of a men-only charity dinner hosted by the Presidents Club where hostesses, who had been instructed to wear skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels, were reportedly groped and subjected to lewd comments by the guests.
It was a depressing reminder, should we have needed one, that sexism is very much alive and well in Britain today. Jo Swinson, the former women and equalities minister, said the dinner was proof of a “rotten, sexist culture” in parts of the business community.
The MP has been banging the drum for women and gender equality long before it became a cause célèbre and in her new book Equal Power, published tomorrow, she highlights the scale of the problem while also making the case that everyone has the power to instigate change, whether they’re a teenage student, a global CEO or a taxi driver.
The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader visited Sheffield last week to give a talk about women in politics as well as Harrogate where she was among the speakers at the latest Berwins Salon North event. Swinson believes gender stereotyping and violence against women, along with the gender pay gap and sexism are all interlinked.
“It’s clear to me that these are all part of the same issue. Gender inequality is such an intractable problem and the Government cannot tackle it on its own.
“The only way we can crack this problem is if we get people up and down the country taking action and making changes in their everyday lives, because gender inequality is ingrained in our culture from the first moments of a child’s life all the way through to old age, and it’s so ingrained we almost don’t even notice it.”
She was so appalled by the allegations that emerged from the Presidents Club event she wrote to the Charity Commission demanding an investigation into whether crimes were committed. “That something like this can be considered ok by the establishment is what I find so galling,” she says.
“Women in the hospitality industry are harassed every single day. There are women working in coffee shops, hotels and nightclubs who today, tonight and tomorrow will be experiencing sexual harassment.”
It’s a problem that she says is “embedded” in all areas of society. Though Swinson says she hasn’t experienced sexism in Parliament she did when she was younger.
“I’ve experienced sexual harassment but then show me a woman that hasn’t...When I was 16 years old I used to work in a McDonald’s. I did one shift a week after school and another on a Saturday and one Monday evening a guy came in and started asking me whether or not I’d do the job topless.
“With hindsight I’d have told him where to get off, but I didn’t have the confidence that my manager would back me up. This isn’t the worst thing that can happen to someone but it just shows how commonplace this kind of behaviour is.”
Swinson says it’s important for women to share their stories, either on social media or with friends and family. “That’s one way of making this problem visible which is what we need to do.”
She also believes that the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal marks a sea-change in public attitude and awareness. “We know about Weinstein now but this is not a one off. I think people look at something like the Presidents Club and think it’s horrendous but see it as a set of bad apples.
“But having worked around gender issues for many years, this is just one end of the spectrum.”
At the heart of the problem is an underlying gender bias. “When you ask children to draw a firefighter and a nurse they draw a man as a firefighter and a woman as the nurse and these norms are embedded at a really early age.”
The question is how you go about challenging such norms. “You can’t fix everything so fix the bit that you can. It might be that in your workplace you can raise the issue of harassment policy and whether one exists.
“There are plenty of people who have taken this on like the 17-year-old schoolgirl who challenged the A-Level exam board over the fact an entire music syllabus had 63 composers and they were all men, and she got them to change it.”
When Swinson talks about gender equality she means for both men and women. The East Dunbartonshire MP was instrumental in the move to give fathers more parental leave which, she says, is one of her proudest achievements from her time in government.
“We shouldn’t let this become a battle of the sexes. It’s not about men losing out. I think a more gender equal world is good for women but it’s also good for men because some gender inequality affects men, whether it’s about being able to talk about their emotions or mental health issues, or the way fathers are routinely under valued by society for the role they play as dads.”
Next month it will be 100 years since the Representation of People Act became law, giving women over the age of 30 who owned property, or were married to a man who did, the right to vote.
So how far have we come since then? “There have been big steps forward and there has been progress. We don’t have equal pay yet but we have much better working conditions than we used to have. We need to celebrate the milestones and retain that hunger for change. I think we need to be benchmarking at 50 per cent, rather than saying isn’t it good that 32 per cent of MPs are women.”
She’s resigned, however, to the likelihood that this won’t happen overnight. “No country has achieved gender equality but if we create a movement across society that challenges these things in our culture and our workplaces then we can build a real momentum for change. I’m 38 and I hope in my lifetime that it’s achievable... but that’s the kind of timescale we’re probably talking about.”
Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen, published by Atlantic Books, is out tomorrow.