Struggling to hear women’s voices
Conservatives are reported to be alarmed at their growing unpopularity among women voters. It’s not difficult to imagine why women might be increasingly critical of this Government’s record: spending cuts that disproportionately impact on women; record high levels of unemployment and economic inactivity among women; and policy advisers suggesting maternity rights could be scrapped or that plans to improve family-friendly rights be abandoned.
Today, the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality, Theresa May, in a speech on ‘Women and the Economy’ launched two new initiatives to boost women’s role in the economy: the creation of 5,000 volunteer mentors to help budding women entrepreneurs and the establishment of a Women’s Business Council.
The Women’s Business Council will be a small group of business women who will provide advice to the Home Secretary, the Chancellor and to the Business Secretary “on what we can do to maximise women’s contribution to our future economic growth”. It will give recommendations on “public policy that affects women in business and will seek to improve the business environment for women so as to maximise profit and success”.
It is welcome that the Government has recognised that women’s needs are not always met or adequately represented within the business community or within the corridors of economic power. But the announcement today of the Women’s Business Council just brought home what a tragedy it was to close the Women’s National Commission.
This time last year, the Government Equalities Office announced that the WNC would be closing. For over 40 years it had been the independent, direct voice of women to Government. But without any consultation with the women it represented, the decision was taken to close it as part of the Government’s bonfire of the quangos.
The WNC had over 670 partners from the UK’s women’s sector and from organisations seeking to promote women’s equality. It represented the voices of around 8 million women and addressed issues as diverse as tackling violence against women, supporting women into leadership positions and providing a voice for widows, minority ethnic women and those seeking asylum. It had a proven track record in reaching out to some of the most marginalised groups of women who really struggled to have their voices heard by politicians and policymakers.
The contrast between the WNC and the work it did and the creation of a group of ten or so, no doubt highly successful business women, providing advice on how to improve the environment business women so as to maximise profit and success is stark.
Alongside Theresa May’s announcements today, the GEO did publish the results of its consultation “Strengthening Women’s Voices”. This is the consultation it has carried out so “women’s voices could be brought to the heart of Government” in the absence of the WNC. The response promises the continuation of GEO’s “Women’s Engagement Newsletter”, outreach events for women, and online and digital engagement with women. At first glance, this doesn’t appear to be a near adequate replacement to make up for the loss of a permanent body and independent voice within Government representing the full range of women’s voices, including the most excluded.