Women Will Remain Poorly Represented While We Fail to Accommodate The Realities of Women’s Lives By Kelly Grehan

“Women are not interested politics Kelly, that’s why I voted against it.”

So said a member of my CLP, when explaining why he voted against an AWS (All Women’s Shortlist) motion.  Of course, this comment was no surprise to me. Years as a political activist have shown me time and time again that, for many, the idea that women do not belong in politics persists.

The failure to bring about gender equality in any part of our political system is used by some as proof women are not interested or not ‘cut out’ for politics.
Of course, the truth is that, 101 years on from some women gaining the vote, the infrastructures of our political systems continue to conspire to exclude women.

When the first women entered Parliament, beginning with Nancy Astor in 1919, The Palace of Westminster was not designed for women at all.  The only women’s toilet was a quarter of a mile from the debating chamber and a small staff room in the basement, known as ‘the dungeon’ was designated The Lady’s Members Room.  

Women were expected to use this as an office, changing room and everything else. Meanwhile men had access to baths, dining rooms and a smoking room. Things have largely continued in the same vein- with women expected to adapt to the political system, as it is, with little thought given to how it could change to incorporate the realities of womens’ lives.  

This surely, is one main reason why women remain so underrepresented in all layers of government.

Take maternity: in 1976 Labour MP Helene Hayman became the first sitting MP to give birth. When her son was 10 days old she asked the Conservative Whip if she could be paired in order to miss a vote, and received a negative response.  Labour Whips refused her the time off so she came, baby in tow, forced to breastfeed the child in the only suitable place, which happened to be Shirley Williams office. A senior Conservative called the police when she left the baby with his nanny in the Ladies Members room while she voted.

And so things continued like this until last year, Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson was ‘furious’ after Tory Barndon Lewis, who she was paired with, voted in a Brexit vote while she was on maternity leave. This led to Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, delaying a planned caesarean, in case the same thing happened to her.  The outcry over this led to a temporary standing order being introduced to allow new parents to vote by proxy, with Tulip making history when Vicky Foxworthy voted in her behalf in January.

In 2010 a nursery was put in the Palace of Westminster.  Predictably, a complaint followed – about the loss of the bar, about the ‘waste of money’ and, of course, that this was a ‘perk for women.’

The numerous bars which adorn the building are apparently not a perk worthy of comment.  The fact is the changeable nature of Parliamentary debates, with urgent questions and the like, make planning childcare incredibly difficult, for staff as well as Members and a nursery helps.

Last week Parliament debated making the place more family friendly and accessible.

Ellie Reeves said:

“If Parliament is to be truly representative of these we seek to serve, we must continue to look at ways to break down barriers for those who might consider putting themselves forward for public office.”

Why have we not done this already?  

This week MP Stella Creasy announced her pregnancy.  At the same time she bravely told of her experiences of suffering miscarriages and having to continue with her work as an MP while bleeding and in pain. MPs from all parties have commented in support of her campaign for maternity leave for MPs.  

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) regulates the pay of MPs and authorised the budgets they claim for their work. It does not ‘recognise’ that MPs may go on maternity leave and so bears no responsibility to make provision for any paid cover for what they do outside the parliamentary chamber like campaigns and constituency casework.

In Denmark a member of the national parliament would have a substitute MP appointed.  Stella said she felt “forced to choose between being a mum and an MP.”

How many great people are we missing out on because Parliament does not account for the simple fact women have babies?

Why is all the responsibility on the mother, rather than on the structure which is oppressive in penalising parents who wish to serve?

Then there is council, where women and people under 60 continue to be poorly represented, which is a shame because councils should be representative of all groups within the community.

I know that when my children were under 5 I knew much more about local provisions for preschoolers, what was available and what was missing than I do now. That’s not to say I don’t try to be an effective voice for mums battling with services I no longer use, as I will for anyone,  but there is no doubt that councils benefit from people with a broad range of experiences – and at the moment that is rare.

I could not have dreamt of standing for council when my children (now ages 12 and 9) were younger as I could not possibly have been attending committees within days of their births, or managed bath time routines around late meetings, or canvassed while breastfeeding.  

Being a councillor and a mum is difficult: late meetings, casework, reports to read, but I love it. Representing my community is what I always wanted and I am sure there are many other women like me who dare not put themselves forward because the systems are not in place to support them.

It may surprise people to learn that there is no expectation of time off for anyone who has recently given birth, from council work. Only around 5% of councils have baby leave policies.  I’ve heard female councillors being told they must attend meetings within weeks of giving birth and feeling shamed for not ‘pulling their weight.’ This is not good for them, and frankly it is not good for our society.  

Until we act to change things we will continue to exclude people from standing and will not get the representation we need.

Petition for Maternity Leave for MPs:

https://www.change.org/p/marcial-boo-chief-executive-of-the-independent-parliamentary-standards-authority-give-mps-six-months-parental-leave?signed=true&fbclid=IwAR0IlkD_xjnQ4sRPZ-LoQJTWtQA-D6MQiMJ8uGkD–L_1Ow9bmbZNaFbUkI

Grief and The Search For Meaning – A Reflection By Kelly Grehan

“Grief is the size of love” is probably among the truest truisms.

 

My mum died four years ago, after two years of suffering from ovarian cancer, aged 58.

 

Living with the knowledge that some one you love has an illness that statistically will kill them, but trying to be positive, enjoy each day, mentally prepare yourself for the worst and to continue with everything else in your life is, what I can only call a head fuck. It’s taken me these four years to really understand what effect this has had on me. I think some sort of numbness came over me and I became obsessed, subconsciously  with finding some kind of meaning in everything.

 

Maybe some of this came from the conversation my mum and I had the day after tomorrow we were told her treatment wound stop and she would have about two weeks left to live.

By then we knew I had inherited the faulty brca gene which caused her ovarian cancer, giving me a 50% chance of developing the same disease and an 87% chance of breast cancer. As mother’s are prone to do, she blamed herself for my situation, but I told her, her illness has brought me the knowledge that would save my life, as I would take the opportunity given to me to have a mastectomy which would reduce my breast cancer risk to 4%. It was a beautiful conversation. I had the mastectomy and reconstruction 24 months later.

I never cried or felt sad, I felt certain that this was something that proved my mum had not died in vain: her diagnosis meant I would almost certainly avoid the same fate. I knew that would be what she wanted. At least her suffering was not in vain.

 

For the record, I remain thrilled with my mastectomy and reconstruction and have never had an ounce of regret. But, on reflection I do wonder if my lack of sadness or hesitation was a bit unusual.

 

Whilst my mum was in her final two days, at the hospice, I signed up to take part in a skydive. Again, this was a good experience and I raised a lot of money for the lovely hospice that took care of us all. Sitting around a bed waiting for someone to take their last breath is a difficult situation.

It is a strange limbo, that’s hard to describe and, I suppose is an intense ending to the experience of loving someone with a terminal illness – the mental confusion of waiting to grieve being in the periphery all the time. I was determined I was not leaving that hospice without having done something positive, in this case signing up for fundraising.

 

And so, I continued on a path of looking for meaning. I signed up for a post grad counselling course, I did a fire walk, me and my friend expanded our little charity activities into a bigger organisation. All of these things were fantastic. It’s also fair to say I never let myself stop for a minute.

 

Then there is the way I viewed myself. I was determined that I would look back on my life, secure I had lived it to the full, and with no regret about missed opportunities.

 

I dedicated myself to my legacy, as I saw it, to be regarded as an amazing friend.  I never stopped to think how vulnerable that left me and, maybe inevitably this has meant I’ve found myself in an altogether different grief, for friendships I thought were real, but were not.  The loss of one person in a family inevitably changes the dynamic of the rest of the family.  Trying to find a new normal for everyone is hard.

My mum was also a person with a lot of close girlfriends and so I sought to find friendships which were like surrogate family relationships.  This has led to poor judgement on my part, with my giving too much of myself to people and not seeing this was not reciprocal.  

 

Grief, is a process that must be worked through, but for which the end can never be reached, and which inevitably changes all it touches.  I have found it hard to understand how it has affected me until this time has passed.  

 

 

In memory of my lovely mum.

 

 

 

Let’s Judge Our Second Female Prime Minister on Her Policies Not Her Clothing By Kelly Grehan 

As her premiership came to an abrupt end yesterday, Theresa May said:

 

“I am proud to have served the country as the second female Prime Minister but certainly not the last” 

 

Now, I’m not a fan of Theresa May, I despair about many of the policies brought in by her government and the legacy she leaves across the country is, in my opinion, one of toxicity and division. 

 

However, as a feminist, I also despair about the misogynistic undercurrent they runs through the way stories are written about Theresa May.

 

 Take this front page from The Metro

 

The insinuation is hard to miss: that a woman needs a man to tell what to do, even  when when she holds the highest office in the land, that it’s about time her husband puts his foot down and takes control of his wife. Can you imagine a similar headline about David Cameron or Tony Blair?

 

It brought to mind this Daily Mail front page from the week before Article 50 was triggered.

 

 

 

Now, I’ve had a good search and I cannot find a single article about David Cameron’s legs. Just think what could have been reported about a meeting between two female leaders who met to discuss the future of our nation. With this kind of news reporting is it any wonder so many people appear without a grasp of the complexities of our political system. Is it too much to expect some content about what they actually said at the press conference from which this phot was taken?

 

 

The other thing very notable about news stories about Theresa May’s Prime Minister is how many centre around her clothing.

 

For example, not long after she became PM, in 2016, The Guardian wrote a story called ‘Theresa May sidesteps question about £995 leather trousers.’ In a country used to reading about politicians sidestepping questions about offshore tax havens and dodgy business deals, this seemed a particularly weak scandal.

 

Similarly, the 2018 budget caused then to publish a story called ‘What is the meaning of Theresa May’s £750 ‘twofer’ coat?’

 

In January 2017 the Evening Standard, edited by former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, printed an article entitled ‘Theresa May’s finest footwear: 30 memorable looks from parliament’s most talked about shoe closet’

 

Even last week, days before the EU election The Telegraph printed a story called ‘Theresa May’s Greatest Shoe Hits.’

 

I’m sure I could go on, but you get the point. This ridiculous, trivial analysis would simply not be applied to a man holding the same office, and it’s very triviality demeans the person it is applied to. We should be debating Theresa May’s decisions, policies and principles, if for no other reason they they impact on all our lives.

 

But for as long as women are assessed based on their shoes, coats and marital relationships women will be put off entering politics and equality will remain out of our reach.

 

 

 

 

Observations Of Attending My First Iftar As A Non Muslim By Kelly Grehan

Last night I went to our local Mosque with some friends to experience Iftar. Before I went I thought I might write about that experience, but actually it is my journey there I want to discuss.

Before I went I visited a friend’s mum, who is a Muslim, and she fitted me with a head scarf. I then drove to the Mosque. As I walked the short distance to the car I became nervous about people staring at me and potentially shouting.

As I drove on I realised I needed petrol and so went to the petrol station. As I used the pump I could not shake the feeling that people were making assumptions about me and I felt slightly panicky.

As I queued up to pay in the petrol station I felt concerned about what people might say about me and was pleased to get back in the car.

Why did this worry overtake me?

Well reports have shown that Muslim women are the most likely to be the victims of hate crime, and awareness of that was certainly with me, I felt a real fear I could be the victim of such an attack.

To some degree the scarf, on one hand an innocuous piece of fabric, made me feel that I had put a target on myself.

I imagined, that if anything were to happen to me people would apportion blame to me because of what I was wearing. It was really insightful to experience how some Muslim women must feel whenever they leave the house.

Then there is the feeling of assumptions being made about me, based purely on what I was wearing.

This felt deeply uncomfortable, not least because it reminded me of how sometimes, try as I might not to, I make snap judgements about people based on what they are wearing too.

This was only a small experience but, it certainly gave me a new perception.

Automation Will Make Robots Of Us All By Kelly Grehan

Many years ago I worked in a supermarket. It was hard not to notice the elderly ladies, who came through the 5 items or less check out every day and who seemed to seep with loneliness and for whom, that brief interaction might be the only time they heard a human voice all day.

Now when I go to the same supermarket the equivalent check out is no longer manned by a human, but rather customers are expected to serve themselves, often while an automated voice shouts orders about the bagging area. I wonder where the equivalent lonely people go now for that brief moment of company buying groceries once provided. With half of over 75 year olds living alone, I suspect there are lots.

There is a great debate to be had about how shops somehow managed to introduce a system where customers perform the tasks workers were once paid to do, with no reduction in prices to compensate. But there must also be concern about the unseen impacts of this.

Research is indicating that workers in countries with higher levels of automation report more physical and mental distress.

But I have real concerns about the decline of human interaction we are facing – so many things we used to do that brought us into contact with another person no longer do, from buying train tickets, paying for the bus to working at home to booking appointments. Almost one fifth of UK adults report being lonely and lacking social connections is shown to be as harmful for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

There is also no doubt that new methods feel more stressful too. Now in restaurants, the cinema and even bars you can order a drink and be given a glass and expected to serve yourself, again for the same price you used to pay for someone to do it.

A trip to the bank now includes someone harassing everyone in the queue to use the machine instead and by printing our own tickets we now incur all the printing costs with the cost we used to pay to have tickets delivered now rebranded as a ‘booking fee.’

Of course, other areas which were once places of interaction are also in decline, such as pubs and clubs so it is no surprise loneliness is on the rise.

Technology marches on, with no chance to go back, so we must find ways to make sure that ‘progress’ is not at the cost of the mental health of the citizens who it claims to serve. We need to ensure we find new ways for people to connect because lives led in isolation will make us less open to positive human experiences than the robots who have taken our places.

The Shame Surrounding Abortion Is Victory For The Patriarchy By Kelly Grehan

Abortion has been legal in this country since 1967 (well most of it, Northern Ireland continues to cling on to a law made in 1861).  Whilst the criminalisation of termination is no longer in the living memory of many people, a culture of shame surrounding abortion continues to perminate.

 

One in three women have had a termination, but it remains a subject never discussed in polite company and very few people tell family and friends about their experience.  Whereas people regularly announce and ask advice about various ailments on their social media feeds seeking a termination is done in hushed tones –  and so the stigma and assumption of remorse remains.  

 

Earlier this year the BBC drama Call The Midwife, featured a storyline where a woman died as a result of backstreet abortion.  At the end of the episode, viewers were directed to the BBC’s Action Line website that provides information about issues aired in programmes.  Except that this time there was no information about abortion. The BBC claimed the issue was “contentious” and that it could not be seen as “supporting one side”.  It remains unclear what they mean by this, how can providing information about a medical procedure be ‘supporting a side?’  Would they follow this argument through about other things once illegal such as say, equal marriage, committing suicide or marrying someone German?  We can only hope that they don’t think they fact some people fought against changes in all these areas does not mean the bbc think we need to present differing viewpoints on them too. To be fair to the BBC an outcry has seen them apologise for this decision.

 

Abortion should be presented as a medical procedure accessed by some people.  It is not a case of ‘picking a side.’ After all there are some medical treatments which various cultures and groups are opposed to such as blood transfusions and vaccinations but we do not hide away information on how to access either of them lest someone take offence.  

 

Abortion has always been opposed by some, for the simple reason it gives women control over their bodies and situation.  

Does the attitude of secrecy towards abortion derive from the fact it is only accessed by women and the patriarchy dictates that womanhood is defined by the wanting, having and raising of children?

Although most of us are pro-choice there remains in our subconscious, an expectation that women not wanting a pregnancy are a bit odd.  This presents itself in the way women without children are continually asking when they will be having children and if past child bearing age why they did not have any.  My experience is that childless men are not held to account on this matter!  Men do not seem to be judged on their contraceptive failures either!

 

We should move towards accepting that abortion is a common part of life and as such should stop treating it as something that should be shrouded in shame.  Lots of things in life are not ideal, but that does not mean they should be taboo.

The Notion That Some Jobs Are ‘Women’s Work’ Hinders Equal Pay By Kelly Grehan

So, the court of appeal have ruled that Asda’s lower-paid store staff, who are mainly female, can compare themselves to higher-paid warehouse workers, who are mainly male, in pay claims.  

This claim could cost ASDA £8 billion in settlements, but first staff need to demonstrate the jobs are of equal value.

They might find this hard – because any job primarily performed by men is considered somehow harder.  

 

When ever the pay gap is discussed the response is often to point out that women pay the price (literally) for the decisions they make with relation to maternity and childcare, and there may be some truth in that, but there is another issue – all work traditionally or predominantly undertaken by women is considered of less value than work traditionally or predominately undertaken by men.

According to the Office of National Statistics the jobs in the UK with the lowest annual pay are:

● Waiters and waitresses

● Leisure and theme park attendants

● Bar staff

● Hairdressers

● Launderers and dry cleaners

● Kitchen and catering assistants

● Check-out operators

● Care escorts

● School crossing patrol

● Cleaners

● Nurses

● Pharmacy dispensers

● Sewing machinists

● Elementary admin

● Florists

 

It is hard to argue against the fact that most people employed in those roles are women.

 

It is interesting that, 50 years since the machinists at Ford started a strike which led to the Equal Pay Act 1970, sewing machinists remain on poor wages.  

 

Let’s look at some other examples and see if we can find reasons for their low wage:-

 

98% of nursery workers are female.

Most will have spent 2 years obtaining a level 3 qualification.  

Most can expect to earn minimum wage.

Let’s just think about that for a moment – this is one of the most important jobs imaginable – looking after under 5’s; changing their nappies, teaching them to share, teaching them to count, making them feel secure.  

But, somewhere along the line we decided people doing this role were only entitled to minimum wage.

Anyone who has ever been to a florist know it is not cheap! I had naively assumed the reason flowers cost so much more in the florist in comparison to in the supermarket or on the market was due to paying for the expertise of the worker, but it seems not.  

This is another minimum wage occupation.  

It is, ironic that the ASDA ruling occurred on the same day that Jess Phillips spoke in the House of Commons on proposals to impose a £30,000 pay threshold for EU workers to be considered skilled.  

She commented that many of her constituents do skilled work, including nursing, but earn less than £30,00.  She then went on to say “I have met many people who earn way more than £30,000 and have literally no discernible skills, not even one.”

Isn’t this something we have all experienced? People paid lots and you wonder ‘how?’

Are they usually men?

Historically, women did all the unpaid labour in the home.  This is no longer the case, but knocking down the culture that assumes work undertaken by women is of less monetary value has proven hard and hence women earn less.  

If we gave more value to the jobs that are important but are generally paid less then employers might feel more inclined to pay them more, and by default we may begin to address the equal pay discrepancies.