Angela's speech to the for Women@TUOSnet AGM Lunch

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I want to start my talk today by paying tribute to a great Labour woman who was born on this day in 1910.

Barbara Castle needs no introduction and I’m sure you are all aware of the great contribution she made to the Labour movement and to the country.

Suffice it to say, she was and still is one of the longest serving women politicians in this country, having sat in the Commons for 44 years and in the European Parliament for 10 years.

She was a pioneer and a doughty champion of women’s rights, helping to resolve the Dagenham Ford women’s strike and bringing in the Equal Pay Act shortly afterwards.

So, can I say now, happy birthday Barbara. Your memory and your achievements are still an inspiration to women today, both in and out of the world of politics.

And if she had worked here at Sheffield University, I’m sure she would have not only approved of this network, she would actually have been involved in setting it up and running it!

Because networks such as yours, set up by and organised for women, are fundamentally important if we are make sure women are represented fairly in all walks of life.

We cannot rely on men to do this for us. If Barbara Castle taught us anything, it was the need to fight for everything, to fight to keep what you win and to fight for more.

And to never give up.  She taught us never to assume that standing still is good enough, and to always be aware that just as it’s possible to move forwards, then equally it’s possible to regress, to move backwards.

And of course, if she were still here today, she would recognize that at all levels in society, women are still disadvantaged.

Judged and rewarded for what they do by different standards to their male counterparts.

Now, I notice that since its inception, the Network has successfully embedded its aims and actions within the strategic goals of the University.

And I congratulate you for that. 

Because if we are to be successful in ending inequality, women have to work really hard to assert themselves, to make society aware that they offer as much potential and talent as their male counterparts. 

That’s no easy task, as it involves challenging deeply embedded beliefs about what women are and what their place is in society. 

And our task may well be made all the harder by the process of leaving the European Union, a process which involves facing up to the risk that Brexit will take gender equality backwards. 

We all know, for instance, that when an economy looks to improve its competitiveness by reducing costs, as ours may well do because of Brexit, the consequences tend to hit women harder than men, for various reasons I will go into later.

We need to be prepared for that and we need to make sure that the automatic default position, that women’s contributions to society are worth less than men’s, is not triggered as the automatic response to Brexit and all that brings with it. 

My own profession

Before doing that, however, I want to look at the progress women have made in my profession in particular and in the economy more generally. 

According to research carried out by the respected Fawcett Society, female representation in Parliament has dramatically increased over the 25 years to a point where around a third of the House of Commons are women

That’s 191 out of total of 650.

But still a long way from the 50% of representation women should have.

In government, half of the great offices of state are currently occupied by women, one of them of course being the role of Prime Minister itself.  Theresa May is more, much more, than a pair of Russell and Bromley shoes.

Indeed, 36% of the Cabinet are now women.

Although it has to be said that is slightly short of the figure which applied to Tony Blair’s first cabinet in 1997, nearly 20 years ago.  We’re still not making steady progress.

And in local government, according to the Fawcett Society, w omen make up only 32% of local councillors in England and 24% in Northern Ireland

Only 12.3% of local authority leaders in England were women in 2014, compared to 16.6% in 2004.

And only 13% of elected mayors are women.

Indeed, women’s representation at local levels is stagnating, with virtually no change in the level of female councillors in the last ten years. 

So challenges remain. 

We may now have our second woman Prime Minister, and Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Green Party are all led by women.

Even UKIP had a woman leader – well, for 18 days at least.

But let’s remember that my party is seemingly incapable of electing a woman to the top job.  Look at what happened earlier this summer – even then the role of challenger to the incumbent went to a man, despite a good woman being available and willing to take on that challenge.

Equally, let’s not get carried away with the idea that the Tories have somehow broken through some glass ceiling.  Even now, there are only 68 women Tory MPs – that’s 68 out of 329.  That’s just over 20% of the total.

The LibDems have no women MPs – I know they only have 8 Members of the House, but even so that’s a very poor record.

And even Labour, with its use of positive discrimination, has got to only 99 out of 230.  43%. 

Hopefully, the 99 will become 100 if Tracy Brabin wins the Batley & Spen seat in two weeks’ time, a vacancy created of course by the dreadful and brutal murder of my friend Jo Cox.

But the point surely is, despite all our efforts, and despite all the different methods used to increase women’s representation in Parliament, we still have a problem. 

We are only mid-table in the international league of women’s representation in national political institutions and we have a long way to go.

To make matters worse, look at the candidates selected so far by my party for the new mayoral positions.

The proposed metro Mayors for Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester – Labour has selected male candidates in every instance.

We have faced this problem before.  In 2001, Labour went backwards in terms of women’s representation in the Commons and legislated to legalize all-women’s shortlists in response.

But why should we have to resort to such mechanisms to ensure gender equality?

Why is the default position so often, in politics, to select men for key roles, even when there are good women available?

Don’t get me wrong.  I support all-women’s shortlists and indeed benefited from them in terms of my own nomination as a Parliamentary candidate.

I think, however, that we have failed to recognize so far that AWS is not changing our political culture quickly enough. 

Yes, the Tories have moved forward, thanks to pressure from Labour women’s representation to move with the times.  And yes, more Labour women are selected now, even in open selections.

Progress, however, is too slow.  The underlying assumption in politics, as elsewhere in British life, is that women are not as good as men.  In our culture, the qualities and skills required by politicians are seen to belong essentially to the male of the species. 

We have a lot of work to do, therefore, and our approach to getting women into politics needs to be refreshed.  

We have to change cultural assumptions about women and what they are, and about their ability to hold their own in the world of politics.   

We have, in other words, to make Westminster sit up and take notice.  Only last week, Jon Craig, of Sky News fame, came up with his top ten of who had had a good week at Labour conference.  Not one of those politicians mentioned was a woman.

Let me apply now this argument to the economy, and in particular to Brexit.

There is no doubt that the role of women in the work place has changed and over the last 80 years we have seen great advances.

In Sheffield we have just erected a statue for the women of steel.

A memorial to those women who went into the munitions and steel factories during world war two and played a vital part in ensuring victory.

Let’s not forget, too, that women played a key economic role in the First World War.

My own great-grandmother, a Rotherham woman, worked in a munitions factory. 

She, and women like her, changed the face of Britain.  Their work meant that perceptions of women were changed forever.  

There are now some 14.85 million women in work. 

Indeed, the female employment rate is now 69.8%, the highest rate since comparable records began in 1971.

However, these bare statistics obscure some of the murkier aspects of the progress we have made. 

I mentioned earlier the story of the female sewing-machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham during the late 1960s, who fought for equal pay for equal work. 

Their story has been immortalized, of course, in the film Made in Dagenham.

  And their legacy was the Equal Pay Act 1970, piloted through Parliament, as I said, by Barbara Castle.

Five years later, we got the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.


Together, these Acts made it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of gender or marital status.

And the initial consequence of these Acts was indeed a sharp fall in the gender pay gap in the early to mid-1970s


This important period for women’s progress in the workplace was also marked, however, by the accession of the UK into the Common Market, renamed today of course as the European Union. 


Now, from its inception in 1958 equality was at the heart of the European project, with Article 141 of the Treaty of Rome stating


Each Member State shall ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied 

So there you have it, women’s economic rights enshrined in EU law.  In the very law that underpins the Union itself. 

And since then, women’s rights in the workplace have been strengthened, with the Social Chapter guaranteeing a range of protections against discrimination.   

For example, EU Directive 92/85/EEC saw the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding.

The EU also established parity of rights for part-time workers with their full-time equivalents, which have been particularly important to women, given that almost three quarters of the part-time workforce, according to latest figures, is female. 

That compares with the fact that women make up only 36.5% of the full-time workforce, by the way.   

However, despite it now being 40 years since the passing of the first legislation to bring about equality and despite the measures designed to support women in the workplace, women are still being paid some 19% less than male employees.

According to the latest figures, the difference in men’s and women’s median full-time hourly earnings (excluding overtime) is still 9.4%.

Why, might we ask, is this the case, when equal pay for equal work is enshrined in law?

There is a range of answers to this question, of course, and together they work to explain not only why women struggle in the workplace generally, but also why they particularly struggle in places like Parliament. 

First of all, evidence points towards the differing levels of reward offered to a range of occupations.

In other words, those sectors in the economy where women are dominant are much less well rewarded than those dominated by men.  Carers, for instance, are paid at a much lower rate than engineers. 

And this despite the fact that the training and education needed to work in these sectors is just as demanding as for male dominated occupations. 

Even when pay rates are compared within the same sector, one finds that women tend to be slotted into roles where the pay is lower down the scale. 

In the accommodation and food sectors, for example, the pay gap runs at 5%, but this gap rises to a mammoth 35% in financial services and insurance.

Another worry is the growth of what I would term as unconventional employment structures.  Zero Hour contracts represent the most infamous expression of this trend, and unsurprisingly they have disproportionately affected women, and in particular young women. 

So there we have it. 

Women are still discriminated against. 

Encouraged even now to be clerical workers rather than managers;  nurses rather than doctors; administrators rather than academics;

Carers rather than plumbers; cleaners rather than electricians.

Bank cashiers rather than accountants and secretaries rather than lawyers.

Women, in other words, are still defined by their gender in the workplace.  No matter what the legislation is to protect our pay, no matter how much we are supported in the workplace with maternity rights and all the rest of it, we are still broadly hemmed in, held back by cultural perceptions of our gender.

And our difficulties in the world of politics prove the point.  In a profession which insists on equal pay rates for equivalent representative roles, what happens is that women just don’t get those roles unless they really fight for them.

Indeed, in politics, the gender divide is even more invidious than that, for of course the traditional roles for women in civic society often involve taking on duties such as minute taking, branch secretary, fundraising or even just making the tea at social events.

I suspect, though, that some of the experiences of women, even at senior levels in our respective professions, all share some depressingly familiar characteristics.

The feeling that you get, for instance, when, in a meeting, men’s eyes meet repeatedly round the table, as they talk animatedly to each other.  Occasionally they remember that there are women there and include them briefly in the conversation, making us part of the club for a second or two.

None of this is new, of course.  We have known for some time that breaking through the glass ceiling is made all the more difficult because of cultural perceptions around gender. 

But I think the thesis needs reasserting in public debate, because economic realities have encouraged us in recent years to focus our attention elsewhere.

Childcare, for instance, traditionally a women’s issue related to enabling women’s role in the workplace, has in recent years shot up the political agenda.

I often wonder why.

I’m glad it has. 

But I can’t help wondering whether it’s because increasingly women’s salaries are an essential part of household income, thereby making the provision of childcare an issue of economic survival for men as well as women.

Paternity rights are also now on the agenda.  I’m very glad about that too.  But I’m not convinced that this trend is related to a shift in cultural attitudes towards women. 

Men need time to bond with their babies.  Good.  But is this happening because we are we seeing a societal shift , one in which women are at last seen as bread earners and men as primary carers, especially as far as children are concerned? Or is it a development that leaves perceptions of women and their role in society relatively untouched?

I would suggest the latter. 

You may feel that I am being very hard about all of this, but I don’t apologize for it.

My thesis is exactly that until we see gender roles broken down and made more fluid, women will struggle not just in the workplace, but also to make their voices heard in politics and in society. 

And my thesis is also that Brexit threatens to make things worse, not better.


At this point I should put on the table that I was a remainer and still believe it would be in Britain’s best interests to remain.

I’ve already highlighted that many of our employment protections stem from Europe.

But just as important to this debate is the fact that if the Government secures a hard Brexit, with all that involves by way of leaving the single market, then it will also be free to abandon the regulations that we hold in common with the single market, regulations that guarantee a level playing field on protections and rights for workers. 

Earlier this week we heard from Theresa May that the government will be introducing a great Repeal Bill, which will take off the statute book the 1972 European Communities Act.

And while she tells us that all social and other protections will be written into British Law there is no guarantee they will be at the same level or cover the same areas as they do now.

We have to remember it was a Tory Government in the 1990s who negotiated the ‘opt out’ to the social chapter because they did not want to burden business, so they said.

We also know some businesses see many of the employment and social protections as burdensome, time consuming and costly.

If these protections are weakened, for the sake of securing a low cost business base  which can secure trade deals in a global economy, then if history is anything to go by it will be women who are hit the hardest. 

Maternity rights.  Part time employee rights.  Up for grabs if we  develop a bargain basement approach to world trade, falling back on basic WTO trade rules in a race to the bottom, if you’ll excuse the cliché.  


So, where does this leave us? 

I’ve contended in this lecture that progress for women in our society is primarily dependent on breaking cultural assumptions about gender and remaking beliefs about what it is to be a woman. 

But I’m also claiming that some of those concerns seen as traditional to women, relating to childcare, maternity rights and part time working rights, are at risk because of Brexit and have implied that we have to fight against this threat materializing under the direction of Theresa May’s government.   

I don’t see a contradiction here. 

We have to do both.  We have to defend our hard won rights, in the face of a seemingly relentless focus on using Brexit to curb free movement of labour.   

We have to defend these rights not just for women, however, but for the sake of a better society, a more civilized society.

And we have to combine our efforts with a renewed effort to shape a new understanding of what it is to be a woman. 

Yes, we are carers and mothers, home builders and pillars of strength to our families and the communities we work in.  But we are also intellectuals and skilled workers, ambitious not just for our families but for our communities and our country. 

We believe that we have qualities and values that are all too often missing from the workplace.  We believe that we are as capable as our male counterparts of serving our employers, our communities, our country, with distinction. We may do it in a slightly different way, but for as long as society ignores our potential then it is the poorer for it.

But we will not change our place in society, and in the workplace in particular, unless we fight for it.

So, on the anniversary of Barbara Castle’s birthday, I say remember that we still have to fight, just like she did, to defend not just what we have already achieved but for what we still need to achieve.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you today, and I look forward to our discussion.      

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