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UoB’s Women in Politics Welcomes Top Guest Speakers
Comment Editor Alex Goodwin praises the UoB Women in Politics Society Conference and links it to wider issues of gender inequality in parliament.
Two months ago, UoB’s campus was (unfortunately) graced with the presence of Jacob Rees-Mogg, when the Conservatives on campus secured him as a guest speaker. His attendance caused ripples all across campus, both with enthusiastic tweed jacket Tories rejoicing, and the LGBTQ+ members holding placards to make it known the MP’s views were not welcome on campus.
However on April 26, the Women in Politics society put together their first successful conference with five inspiring female guest speakers - yet it went completely unnoticed by the student body. If you need an example of everyday sexism, it’s this. Five brilliant women in politics speaking on campus barely made a squeak, versus one controversial man causing havoc amongst all student groups.
Birmingham alumnus Fiona Spencer, Chief Portfolio Officer for the Home Office, Sarah Cox, COO of Ofgem, and Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley were joined by Natalie Bennett, former head of the Green Party, and Gina Dutton, an NHS worker and representative of the Women’s Equality Party for a three-hour talk, question and answer session, and networking opportunity.
For women, men and anyone with a remote interest in structural workplace inequalities, both in and out of politics, the event was a fantastic opportunity to hear from women who have experienced the struggles and broken the glass ceiling first hand.
“The event was a fantastic opportunity to hear from women who have experienced the struggles and broken the glass ceiling first hand
Fiona Spencer spoke first, expressing positive experiences of the Home Office and recounting how for fourteen years she worked part-time with no avail, keeping her foot in the door but balancing motherhood alongside her career. She stated her experiences of gender in contexts such as the civil service is the clear differences in confidence levels, dependent on gender. Brilliant women remain humble, quiet and uncertain of their talents. She left us with the notion that a woman is only held back by herself – believe in yourself and ask for what you want.
Sarah Cox, a successful private sector businesswoman turned civil servant was up next. Her speech was far more business-orientated. She’s at the top of her company and receives 5.8% less pay than her male counterparts – this is a relatively small pay gap, she ensures us.
“‘When women are assertive in meetings, we’re aggressive. When men are aggressive, they’re assertive,’
‘When women are assertive in meetings, we’re aggressive. When men are aggressive, they’re assertive,’ said Cox, which rallied claps, laughs and nods of approval from around the room. ‘It’s not fair,’ she said, ‘but you don’t necessarily need the loudest voice in the room to make your point.’
Cox spoke about how the ‘white male pale stale’ aspects of patriarchy will follow you around in all aspects of your life. Cox is currently receiving an array of abuse from both male and female counterparts from her golf club, as she is in the process of becoming the first female club captain of her club’s 107-year history. ‘Club captain is no position for a woman,' apparently.
Natalie Bennett’s speech was next. Bennett was leader of the Green Party from 2012 to 2016, making her the only female in British history to take over party leadership from another woman. Bennett spoke about the male dominance in Westminster and the issues it may present for women, but she was loud and proud in her feminist stance, deeming that women should not shy away from remaining assertive in political contexts. Bennett was the first to bring in the importance of intersectionality within the female political agenda. White women need to encourage and support ethnic minority women to run for counsel and party positions, concluding there is strength in accumulative action and friendship.
Jess Phillips – a woman I wish to be my personal friend and who I would happily buy a pint in exchange to pick her hilarious brain – made the room roar with laughter and humbled us to silence with her brutally honest recounts of what it’s like to be a state-educated fiery female in Westminster.
‘It’s totally gendered bullshit’ said Phillips. ‘Everything is totally gendered bullshit.’
Phillips openly spoke about the abuse she receives online, from comments on her figure and her personal life, to daily rape and death threats. Her approach to the group, though hilarious, was also wholly grounding and highlighted the intrinsic issues of discrimination within society.
‘We are conditioned in every decision we make, in ways that men are not. We are asked if we can have it all, as if a job and children are ‘all’… these are very low expectations.’
When questions of female quotas popped up amongst attendees, whether or not these are positive and how we should deal with individuals berating the process, Phillips loudly exclaimed: ‘Positive discrimination has occurred since the beginning of time for white men! Yell that at them!’
Jess reinstated Spencer’s earlier ideas that women are socially conditioned to be self-critical. We hold ourselves back: ‘We have to learn to take up space. We have to learn to be bold.’
Gina Dutton, an NHS worker and representative of the Women’s Equality Party gave a humbled speech, introducing the audience into her personal workplace #MeToo experiences and how this conference allowed her to reflect on her own process of politicisation. Dutton expressed she had been an ostrich throughout her younger years, lucky in her own success, thus blind to others’ struggles. Her 50s has seen a re-emergence of political action, as she became a member of the WEP. Dutton’s speech was personal and reflective, ‘it’s never too late to get involved’ and make a difference were the sentiments that rang out across her presentation.
Myself a woman in politics, I was told by the first parliamentary candidate I worked under at age nineteen that she was not a feminist. This particular candidate was a mother of two and business owner to a female-orientated brand. I remember being shocked and hurt to hear that a woman I had until that point looked up to, was actively working against the notions of equality, unable to see past her own privileges. There is a need to recognise the necessity of female-only quotas is due to society’s structural inequalities. However, aged 23, my passion for a woman’s role in politics has been truly re-established, and the conference only accumulated this.
“However, aged 23, my passion for a woman’s role in politics has been truly re-established, and the conference only accumulated this.
Not only should the Women in Politics society be proud of producing a presentation of purpose on campus, unlike Rees-Mogg’s embarrassing display of ignorance, but the young men and women that participated in the event should take what was said and inspire the next line of graduates. Westminster requires women with personalities who are ready to facilitate the changes necessary, and this conference was a small insight into individuals happy to accept the challenge. There are problems, but this panel highlighted a few of the solutions and how to navigate yourself through these issues.
Feminism has its issues, but in its true form it isn’t a dirty word, even for women in politics. As Natalie Bennett said: ‘Women do two thirds of the world’s work and own 1% of the world’s assets – how could you not be a feminist?’