Set up by comedian Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer, the Women’s Equality Party is pushing mainstream political parties to start acting on gender equality. Mickey Noonan caught up with its leader, Sophie Walker.
Founded in March, the Women’s Equality Party has already proven itself a non-partisan political force to be reckoned with. ‘Women’ might be the first word in the name, but it’s the word ‘equality’ that’s key. Because they’re intrinsic: equality for women isn’t a women’s issue. As Sandi Toksvig told Standard Issue back in February, ahead of the Women of the World Festival, “If we put women’s issues first, everybody would do better: the children would do better; the men would do better, it would be a better system for everybody.”
Former Reuters journalist Sophie Walker was elected the party’s leader in July.
What made you want to get involved with the WEP and how did it come about?
In the run-in to 2015’s general election I felt completely detached from all of the other political parties. I felt as though no one was speaking to me, or for me, and that they were all addressing “women’s issues” – i.e. the experiences and concerns of half of the population – as though they were the last priority.
Labour and the Conservatives were worried about losing voters over immigration, over Europe and over Scotland’s independence referendum, but they weren’t worried about losing voters who were sick of living with gender inequality. That infuriated me.
“We know from the thousands of women and men we’ve spoken to while crowdsourcing ideas for our policies that they’re fed up of living with gender inequality, and the mainstream parties are just not focused on these issues.”
I had become increasingly active as a campaigner and a lobbyist in the years previous to that, after my elder daughter was diagnosed with autism. It took us a long time to get a diagnosis despite the fact that she was really struggling to cope – I think because doctors still only really recognise and often only look for autism in boys – and as hers and my distress grew over the lack of support and understanding for us both I came to see how really rubbish we are in Britain at embracing and accepting diversity.
So when Catherine Mayer – who I knew from covering politics alongside her (I worked for Reuters, she worked for Time) – posted on her Facebook page that she was setting up a Women’s Equality Party, I answered immediately that I was in.
I thought I might end up putting out seats at the first meeting but Catherine asked me to give a speech about equal parenting, which she knew I felt very strongly about. So I sat on stage and delivered what was effectively a very well-honed pub rant (inequality of parenting and expectation that women will just do it all, all the time, has frustrated me for years).
Halfway through I realised people were nodding and applauding and I thought: finally I’m somewhere people understand that this is important.
The response to the WEP has been pretty phenomenal. Why do you think there was a need for you?
Where to start?! Many people felt that their life experiences and needs were simply not addressed in the last general election campaign or indeed over the one before that, or the one before that.
It’s 40 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed and the Equal Pay Act is 45 years old, but 54,000 new mothers are pushed out of their jobs each year; women earn 81 pence to every pound earned by men; 1.1 million women experience domestic violence every year and two are killed every week by a partner or former partner. And men outnumber women two to one in the House of Commons, which has a lot to do with why none of those other statistics are seen as an urgent priority to fix.
What does the WEP offer that other political parties don’t?
It’s the only political party that has a laser focus on fighting for women’s rights and achieving equality. We know from the thousands of women and men we’ve spoken to while crowdsourcing ideas for our policies that they’re fed up of living with gender inequality, and the mainstream parties are just not focused on these issues.
Next time you vote, if you want to do something about the fact that 54,000 pregnant women are pushed out of work every year; that men outnumber women by two to one in Parliament; that women earn 85 pence for every pound earned by men; that two women a week are killed by a partner or a former partner – then there is a party you can vote whose primary aim is to address all of those issues.
Please could you tell us a bit more about the party’s main objectives.
We are committed to deliver change in six key areas. They are:
Equal pay. We want all women who want to work to be able to do so, and be paid fairly for it. We have policies to tackle workplace sexism, employers’ transparency around earnings and the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ that means women are often forced to take low-paid, part-time jobs in order to be able to juggle the burden of childcare responsibilities.
Equal parenting. We want both parents to have the same parental leave rights and the same level of parental leave pay – six weeks at 90 per cent of salary – in order to spend time with their children and make true choices about how they balance work and family, rather than having those choices made for them by societal and financial pressures. We will revolutionise childcare to provide free, government-funded childcare from the end of parental leave at nine months to all children.
Equal education for boys and girls, and an understanding of why this is important. We will introduce gender equality as a standalone criterion for Ofsted inspections and a gender audit of the national curriculum so that women’s achievements are celebrated in equal measure as men’s and girls have role models to look up to.
“We will be working with all of the other political parties to persuade them to take on our policies. If they want to achieve them first, and faster, we’d be delighted: we are the only political party that aims to push ourselves out of business.”
Equal representation in politics, business and throughout working life. We would put Parliament into ‘special measures’ and achieve gender parity in the House of Commons in just two elections, by the introduction of short-term quotas. We would insist that all of Britain’s listed companies have 50:50 representation on both their board and their executive committee, with a 10-year deadline.
An end to violence against women and girls. We would fund legal aid for all women who have experienced domestic violence, and fund counselling and support services for women and girls who have experienced domestic, sexual or other violence, including specialist support for BAME women and girls. We will campaign for safer streets, and for sexual consent to be taught in schools.
Equal representation both by and in the media. Women’s sexual objectification is no longer an acceptable facet of our printed and online press. We will tighten up governance around print and broadcast media so that what we read and see on TV portrays women in diverse, empowered and empowering ways.
The WEP is a non-partisan party: what does this mean for your policies?
It means that anyone from anywhere on the political spectrum can join us. We offer joint membership to everyone who backs our six core objectives, our policy document and our core values of diversity and inclusivity. We are a united, diverse, collaborative force of people who believe all parties should take on our policies and solve gender equality once and for all.
We will be standing our own candidates but we will also be working with all of the other political parties to persuade them to take on our policies. If they want to achieve them first, and faster, we’d be delighted: we are the only political party that aims to push ourselves out of business.
We will only have a party line on issues that directly relate to our goals and policy platform. So we won’t be taking a party line on, say Syria, or fracking. But all of our candidates who sign up to campaign on our core policies will have free rein to express their opinions on these issues – voters realise the mainstream parties aren’t unified on many of these issues either.
How well – or badly – do you think women are represented in the political landscape?
Women’s lives and experiences are not reflected in our country’s political system. Their concerns are not prioritised by our members of parliament. Their experiences are not understood by the male majority that sits in the House of Commons. They are not encouraged and supported to put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates.
Last summer the Labour Party appointed a male leader, deputy leader and mayoral candidate to sit alongside a male general secretary, and then set about appointing all the main offices of state to men. And then were cross at having this pointed out to them!
The fact that 45,000 people have backed the Women’s Equality Party as members or supporters since March; the fact that we have more than 70 branches across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the fact that our members worked long hours to contribute to the crowdsourcing of our policy document and can’t wait for us to open our candidate selection process – all this shows we have tapped into a public mood that says enough is enough. Women, and men who are just as fed up with the limited policy options being put to them, want something new.
And how well – or badly – do you think women are represented in political policy?
Too often, political policy pays lip service to the issues that are a priority for many women, but doesn’t follow up to make real change. Most of the mainstream parties say they are committed to gender equality yet none have committed to make radical changes. Women are more likely to do unpaid work, to head single-parent households, and to live in poverty, especially in old age. Women still take on a huge proportion of domestic work and caring roles, for children, elderly parents and others. Although almost all parties recognise that these problems exist, they are not being resolved fast enough. WE exists to put women’s equality at the top of the political agenda.
“Many men are coming to join the party because they want to organise their work-life balance in new ways and because they want their sons as well as their daughters to be freed from the limitations of what ‘being a man’ currently decrees.”
How do we get more people to see that feminism = equality, and that by getting equal rights for women, we can make life better for all of us?
I think a lot of people already get it and are frustrated that their politicians don’t.
A balanced Parliament would better reflect the needs, ambitions and experiences of the whole country and make better decisions.
Business is starting to get it: barely a week goes by without another report demonstrating how much better companies with diverse workforces and women sharing leadership positions perform.
Major global organisations get it: the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) published a report saying that harnessing the true potential of the female workforce would add 10 per cent, or £180 billion to Britain’s gross domestic product.
And many men are coming to join the party because they want to organise their work-life balance in new ways and because they want their sons as well as their daughters to be freed from the limitations of what ‘being a man’ currently decrees.
Equality for women isn’t a women’s issue. When everyone is equal, when no one need walk down the street in fear of violence, when everyone can participate fully in the democratic process, then society – all of us – will flourish.
What would you like to see in the future for women in politics?
I’d like to see women reflected in all their diversity in our political system. I’d like to see women from all ethnicities and races, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, from the LGBT community, feel that they are truly heard and can truly participate in Britain’s democracy.
I’d also like to see real changes to the way Parliament is run so that we can break down some of the other barriers that have kept women out of political life – the antiquated voting system, for example, that leads to so many very late-night sessions, and the lack of some really basic family-friendly practices.
MPs’ recent debate about the existing ban on breastfeeding in the House of Commons was astonishing for what it revealed about the evident discomfort of many of the men discussing the prospect of sharing a workplace with female colleagues nursing their children. I think many of them were still reeling from the recent bill on tampon tax.
It’s very hard sometimes to shake the impression that many male MPs still see women as a special interest group to be kept out of the serious business of running the country, rather than half of this country’s population.
Do you have any advice for young women who would like to get into politics?
Do it. You have a voice. Use it. We’re just waiting to hear from you!4067 Views
Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.