Dotty Winters talks to Lib Dem MP-turned-consultant Jo Swinson about equality, culture change and why it isn’t enough to just “not discriminate”.
Since leaving Parliament after the 2015 election, Jo Swinson has founded Equal Power Consulting, an organisation which helps businesses identify and deliver organisational change to enable their people to thrive, whether they are women or men.
How did you end up where you are now?
After my degree in management I moved to Yorkshire to work in marketing. Over time I became interested in politics, initially as a hobby. Someone suggested I should stand for Parliament, and I thought, ‘why not?’
I stood against John Prescott and didn’t get in, but I discovered a real interest in politics. I’ve always wanted to change the world. When I was in marketing I was involved in campaigns around body image, Photoshopping and the environmental impact of packaging.
I moved back to East Dunbartonshire, where I’d grown up and worked really hard to get selected. When I was elected at 25 I was the youngest MP in that parliament. These days I’m still pursuing new ways to change the world, through my consultancy and I’m writing a book about equality.
In 2016 you announced you had changed your mind about all-women shortlists. What made you do this?
In 2001 there was a big debate happening in the Lib Dems about whether we needed all-women shortlists. I was instrumental in stopping them. I led the charge against them, I even wore an ‘I’m not a token woman’ T-shirt.
At the time, I didn’t think quotas were the answer; I thought the problem was that we needed to encourage women to put themselves forward and that we could do that without quotas. I set about trying to make that work and initially we made progress. More women were selected in seats where MPs were standing down.
But over time I came to the depressing realisation that it wasn’t going to work without additional measures. Cajoling people wasn’t working – we had created a core of really committed people but it wasn’t enough of a priority for everyone. To create equality you have to do more than just not discriminate – we need to take positive steps to end inequality.
“It’s not OK to just increase representation but allow the old guard to still write the rules. We need to move from how things have always been done, to creating cultures where everyone can thrive.”
We live in a society which has been designed for men. Our institutions have been conditioned to be navigated by people who display certain characteristics and those are the characteristics we encourage in boys and discourage in girls. I really noticed that when I spoke to schools as an MP, nine times out of ten the first person who put their hand up would be a boy. This conditioning is really ingrained.
I’d still prefer if we could do this without quotas. There have been examples of where this has worked. When organisations get really serious about targets and can drive change, sustained by leadership, things happen. There is always a danger of quotas on their own – no amount of quotas will create the culture change we need. But we need to be driven by the evidence. Structural factors, combined with societal factors and voting means that quotas may be a step we need to take.
In the Lib Dems, it wasn’t the case that women couldn’t beat men in selections – they can and they were, but we didn’t have enough women putting themselves forward. We need quotas as a lever to encourage really good talent-spotting of women with great potential.
How did people react when you announced you had changed your mind?
The reaction was pretty positive. This is a very emotive debate. I can still feel the emotions I felt back then when I campaigned against it – I remember that I felt patronised. I was very emotionally engaged with the debate then and I am now.
I wanted to be very clear that I was respectful of the different views on this. To me the important thing is that people are signed up to wanting diversity and that we have an open debate on the best way to do this.
I worry that there maybe is a generational issue. In some ways we give mixed messages to girls. We promote the message that they can do anything and that we want them to succeed and don’t want anything to hold them back. This is a really important message.
But in doing this we sometimes don’t spell out what some of the problems still are. This can mean that it can be a real shock to women when they suddenly understand that they are experiencing sexism. If you don’t know to look for it, it can mean that sometimes we can be slow to recognise it and then are reluctant to tackle it.
In your work now you talk about the need for organisations to move beyond ‘fixing the women’ to changing their organisation; can you tell me what that means to you?
Great work happens in creating networks for women, training in assertiveness, offering mentoring to women etc. Work like this has an important role to play, but if we think the solution is to fix women, we miss a trick.
Part of the picture has to be organisational change – it’s not OK to just increase representation but allow the old guard to still write the rules. We need to move from how things have always been done, to creating cultures where everyone can thrive. That creates the best results.
“To create equality you have to do more than just not discriminate – we need to take positive steps to end inequality.”
Tackling the distribution of home responsibilities is an important part of creating equality. Fixing this allows us to rewrite the rules in the workplace and change cultures. It’s not just about children – elderly care is also an issue.
Organisational culture is still a big issue: default assumptions, visibility, role models, what corporate hospitality looks like, laddish culture, how are women judged on how they look, presenteeism. There are still worrying rates of sexual harassment in the workplace. We need to start properly valuing diversity and valuing different ideas. This will put a stop to homogenous cultures and lazy assumptions.
What advice would you give organisations?
There is no room for complacency. There are a few rogue employers who overtly discriminate against women and they need to be tackled, but sometimes it’s more difficult to tackle the group of employers who are nice and well meaning.
The Government Equalities Office did some research around gender pay-gap transparency. Most organisations hadn’t done any analysis because they didn’t believe they had an issue. This is complacency. We need to be much more analytical.
Look at your data, work out what is going on, and work out how you can improve; organisations need to recognise that this is a journey, there is still more to do. It’s not enough to just cherry-pick a few nice examples of where things are working well and ignore the rest of the data. Honesty about performance is key to driving change.
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Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.