Why Gender Matters

It’s a funny one, being a woman who – for several decades – has publicly, rather noisily, campaigned for women’s rights. Having a loud voice and being willing (in fact enthusiastic!) to use it for the cause of the girls, and women and even mature women everywhere, means I have had to get quite angry, berating all the suited and booted men in parliament, or heckling the male-run media world where I’ve come to find my home as a journalist. Its fair to say I earned my husky voice the hard way! but, it can be tiring being angry… even in a world still rife with injustice – where gender inequality is the still the greatest humans right abuse on the planet – where anger is a powerful force for the change we all want to see, it’s certainly nice to be at an event where the organisation hosting me is doing things we can raise up and multiply, rather than things we have to rage against. This room is – I’m happy to say – full of change-makers and better still, full of women power.

You might think I have little experience of the law with my showbiz background but after 12 years of ongoing marriage to a solicitor Jason McCue, who I met on a Himalayan trek-the attraction to whom I still blame on altitude sickness – I can assure you I know more than I ever hope I’ll need. The same is true of my daughter, 11 year old daughter Molly, who informed me that by making her leave last nights Bonfire Party at 8.30pm – an hour before her friends – I was impinging on her basic human rights. She certainly got that line from her dad. Indeed with Jason’s credentials as a Human Rights lawyer and my employment at the BBC, we didn’t need costumes for Theresa May’s Halloween Party, we just went as ourselves!

Now I have a friend with a fifteen year-old daughter and I spent a Sunday lunch with the family a few weekends ago. The daughter got chatting to me over roast potatoes and red wine (ok so I drank the wine) about a project she’s doing at school, based on Gandhi’s now infamous command that we ‘be the change we want to see in the world.’ In this challenge, she has to make one change a month for a year. Six of them have to be personal changes, whether taking something up, reducing something, or going about something in a different way. The other six have to be world changes, things she changes in her community or a community elsewhere that she cares about.

She was asking my advice about things she could consider for the project, and I told her about the change I’d made at fifteen, although not one I’d mapped out, when I upped and left my family home in Ireland, with no plan, no money, and only the address of a squat where I’d been told there’d be a mattress to sleep on. I quite literally ran away to London….some would say like master Whittington but in this room I can say like Miss Whittington. Now – as you can imagine – as I told this story to this impressionable teenager, my friends’ (her parents’) faces were quite the picture. And it was a pretty enormous life change, but one which – despite having its struggles – I have never regretted. But, looking at this young girl now, fifteen years into what I hope will be a glorious, adventurous, fulfilling life, it strikes me how young I was when I made that decision, and how I would not recommend to her that she do the same.  Back then having a brain and being blonde were seen as two opposing elements, the one cancelling out the other and my struggle was not just to get a job that paid the bills but to do it on my terms without succumbing to the bosses unwanted attention, or the many other male ‘mentors’ offering a step up the ladder for a roll in the hay or deciding my mental skills were lesser because of my hair colour. Those were the heady seventies and early eighties when hirsute Radio One DJs thought it perfectly permissible to walk up, grab your breasts and make car horn noises as they squeezed them. Alone, with no back up either financial or emotional, in a huge city, fighting off misogyny and prejudice while trying to make something of my life was quite a feat but like most of our achievements in life, has only seemed something to be proud of in retrospect.

My academic skills were minimal but by fifteen I’d had my fair share of life experience already. I was born in Norway and I grew up in Ireland. My parents’ move there was motivated by a desire to save their struggling marriage, but instead it destroyed them, my father having found the perfect culture in which to indulge his alcoholic tendencies and my mother finding solace in a dangerous, playboy whose favoured activity was taking us into the Wicklow mountains and training us to shoot, with his array of IRA weaponry. I’m actually pretty good with a 22 rifle to this day!

Aside from his terrorist training abilities, to use a euphemism, my stepfather and I didn’t get on, and meanwhile my father, working at the Irish Times, found in his fellow journalists the perfect pub companions and drank himself to death at 44. It’s small wonder that at 15, convinced I could do a better job of raising myself and – desperate to escape – I took the ferry from Dun Laoghire to Holyhead and came on down to London town.

It’s strange thinking of myself then… how naive I was, how full of hope and a sense of possibility and no sense of the dangers that lurked, the world that didn’t see me as I saw myself. I was also determined, resilient, slightly gobby … and thank goodness for that, because slowly, bit by bit, I’ve tried to use those traits to make the world I wanted to live in, not just for myself, but for young women like my friends’ daughter, and my own daughter too. And when this fifteen year old sat there talking to me about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, it suddenly struck me how reciprocal that remark is. We are the world we live in, and we can and must use the structures, relationships, characteristics, and struggles we inherit, to redirect not just our own paths, but to create possibilities for everyone.

Now, I have been lucky enough to meet a lot of inspiring women in my time, all committed and impactful change-makers. I’m also founding trustee of a small foundation – the GREAT Initiative – on whose behalf I recently travelled to Liberia to meet a group of women who were not only survivors of all kinds of suffering – forty per cent of the women I met had been raped during their terrible civil war – but were also funny, kind, generous, and undeniably themselves.

It was these uneducated market women, who’d ended Liberia’s brutal war, simply by sitting in Monrovia’s main square, protesting with dignity and grace, until their presence became so embarrassing to the then president Charles Taylor that he agreed to peace talks. These simple market women, empowered by their ability to end a war, then voted in Africa’s first ever female leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. They proved to me beyond doubt that rather than be defeated by what the world throws at us, we all have the power to use what we have to push it into something far better. These women were far more than survivors, they were creators of change.

We all have different challenges that need facing in our lives. As a fifteen year old with no skills in a big city it was pretty daunting but my travels since then have put my own minor traumas into perspective. I started the GREAT Initiative in a fit of the aforementioned fury, after a visit to an IDP camp in Chad, where a beautiful young woman with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen, nestling a baby girl on her knee, told us how she’d arrived at this desolate, over crowded refuge. The Jangaweed had ridden into her village, killed her husband, decapitated the baby she had been holding in her arms and taken her to their camp as a sexual recreational tool, throwing her out three weeks later when she was all used up and close to death. There was utter silence in the Nissan hut in which we were gathered, with my companions, powerful strong women like Mary Robinson and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, lost for words and barely able to disguise their tears. It seemed there was little we could ever do to repair such damage but she became animated, actually raised her voice, when she when she told us that all she wanted in life, was an education for her daughter, the father of whom was one of the many men who’d raped her. To her, the future was only viable if her daughter had better chances than she had had.

There may – of course – be those of you in this room who have lived through civil war, and I have no doubt that there will be those among us who have survived domestic or sexual violence. Each year in the UK, 1.4 million women experience domestic abuse, and 2 women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner.  And regardless of the fact that we are not all survivors of the extremes of civil conflict … and lets not forget that over 50% of the casualties of war are non combatants, innocent women and children, we are all of us here – in our different ways, with our different privileges and struggles – survivors of the institutional human rights violation of gender inequality, and the continued silencing, hyper-sexualisation, and under-representation of womanhood of all colours creeds, sexuality and ability.

In this room, however, we are not just survivors, we are change-makers. The Davies report told us this year, that the FTSE 100 number of women on boards has doubled in the last four years. The women in this network, united by being in an unjust minority, are shaping and pushing a legal landscape where woman are not at a disadvantage to men. Yes, change is needed, and that need has created here a wonderful thing: a drive and determination for something better.

I will also say that despite positive advancement, that drive for change is still essential. Despite progress being made, The Davies Report also tells us that the FTSE 100 have not yet met the target of 25% women on boards, a target that was set for this year, 2015. Looking around at all the talented and ambitious women today, just here in this one room, it seems ludicrous that in other rooms we can’t be one woman in every four board members. Frankly, the corporate world is just not meeting the requirements of an equal society, and if it is genuinely committed to making change, the only way that will happen is if radical moves are undertaken.

I have always been in favour of quotas, and I know it’s always a bit of a controversial one to bring up. However, looking at Parliament as an example, women have only been allowed to be MPs since 1918. That means that for roughly the 700 years previous, there was a 100% quota privileging men. In business too, the advantages given to men for centuries didn’t seem to be a cause for complaint. And as for the worry that mediocre women might be shoehorned into power, can we seriously be expected to believe that in all that millennia there have only been gifted men ruling the roost? Puleese!

Making space for women, and creating smoother access to positions of power, merely evens out the footing that has put women’s careers at centuries of disadvantage. And – in the name of equality – instead of saying that all boards must have 25% women, why not say that no board should be more than 75% made up of one gender? That way we are always working to redress any inequality, whether it is an industry where men dominate or where – in primary school teaching, for example – women do.

Of course, not all the shifts that need to happen are as quantifiable as the corporate world would perhaps like them to be, or at least change isn’t always measurable; sometimes it is something that we feel. That’s why I was so delighted to hear about the unconscious bias training that is given to your Partners, and about your family programme and work-life balance ideas, allowing men and women to work from home one day a week. Valuing wellbeing and happiness, allowing family to be a priority for men and women who work, and acknowledging that inequality in organisations made up of good people, isn’t always deliberate but is nonetheless present, are three crucial steps in making – not just the workplace – but all aspects of our lives fairer.

As someone who – for a while – early on took on the habits of the men I saw around me, because I thought that was the only way to survive in a men’s world, I understand the damage that turning away from your instinctive characteristics can do. Those power suits in the 1980’s that carried us into the workplace told the world that we could ape men (no pun intended)-when actually what we’ve subsequently discovered is that it’s being ourselves that’s our USP.

And that’s the case not just for women, but for men too. I don’t know if it will come as a surprise to you that the single most common cause of death in men under 35 is suicide, but to me, it’s just another reason why feminism is so important; existing in a traditionally masculine way, without the yin and yang combination of all genders, is to live trapped in a world I don’t want to be part of, a world that irrevocably reduces and inhibits the lives of men and women.

Earlier, I contemplated why it is that as human beings we are so obsessed with change, and for me – as a teenager fighting to find a place in a dangerous, exciting, sexy, and – dare I say it – masculine city – it was a determination to succeed that lent me the courage to make change, that built up my grit and resilience, and kept me afloat during my first few years as a Londoner. Slowly though, I realised that ambition without empathy is useless, not just because you find yourself lonely and isolated from others, but you find yourself isolated from yourself.

As a child in what was certainly a precarious, and at times very difficult home, it was reading stories that gave me an escape: empathising and growing with the people whose fictional lives I read about. Connecting to others fed into hope for myself, and over the years – as I’ve got older, happier, and – I hope – a little wiser, I’ve realised that my determination and ambition have served me well, but that my happiness has come from the moments when they’ve worked side by side with empathy.

Over a long low level showbiz career I’m most proud – not of briefly snaring George Clooney before we both lost our hearts to lawyers- but of the changes I’ve made in my own life, how I managed to create a family, albeit pretty late down the line, how like so many women I’ve negotiated my way in the dark through the menopause, that shaming M word that we’re all afraid to utter and how – how I’ve had a positive impact through advocacy and overseeing grassroots programmes at The GREAT Initiative – in communities I care about. It’s of enormous satisfaction to see younger women finding success and happiness in a world that once felt like my enemy and now it’s personal too as my daughter emerges from childhood into her teenage years… And, I’m proud that – even though there are still awful, difficult, unjust challenges that women face – there are even more of us than ever trying to live the changes we want to see.

Of course, feminism has changed a lot in my lifetime, which itself now spans half a century. The internet, social media, and the enormous potential of the digital world to spread a clear message fast to millions of people, to open conversations between those thousands of miles apart, and to find common ground between people who’ve lived entirely different lives, has pushed those of us who work in gender equality to talk in different ways to a new generation of socially and digitally savvy youngsters.

Campaigns like that of Caroline Criado Perez, to get a woman on an English banknote, gain traction on the internet, and the representation of women is formed more freely as women and girls take to online spaces to reclaim and shape their identities themselves, away from commercial, mainstream media. Groups like Sisters Uncut have reignited suffragette spirit through direct action, like their invasion of the red carpet at the Suffragettes film premiere in October. Gender equality is no longer about bra-burning, but we women are finding ways to be louder, gutsier, more united, and stronger. Simply, we are becoming citizens who represent the world we’d like to live in. A fiesty, free-speaking, freedom-granting, world.

Now, I thought you were maybe wondering a little bit whether I ended up giving my friend’s daughter any suggestions for things she could change for her project. I told her to floss twice a day, that dental care was way more expensive than she could imagine and teeth continued to be pretty crucial as the years tick by. I told her to come with me one weekend and learn how to sail. That for me, when I am on the sea: away from the internet and mobile phones and city lights, and I can look out across the ocean in the twilight where it’s not quite day or night, and feel that I’m really alive, that is what feels like freedom more than anything else. This is something we should all be allowed to feel, and something we should in the multitasking moras of most women’s lives, all remember to allow ourselves-the space to think .

I told her about how – though many people believe it to be a problem far off in Africa and the Middle East – approximately 137,000 women and girls are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation in England and Wales. I suggested she joined a campaign for awareness. I told her about the current campaign to allow gay men to give blood, a ban that hideously reinforces homophobic notions about gay men, and suggested she got involved in the fight to change that.

I told her how useful it is to be able to change a tire, to cook a meal for twenty people in one pot, to make a playlist of emergency songs that make you want to dance. I told her that time for those things never disappears. That committing to her own happiness was as important as committing to her studies, that you can only change the world if your health – mental and physical – is good.

I also told her that the biggest changes we make in our lives can sometimes start off by accident, and so to never stop being open to chance possibilities. When I wrote an article about three years ago querying why my tax money was being spent in places where my fellow women had no basic human rights, I could never have imagined I’d have found an ally in Bill Cash MP. His initial interest developed a conversation about how he might be able to help. We knew that Private Members Bills only have a 10% chance of becoming law but we also knew they can be an effective way of putting an issue on the agenda. We could never have guessed that what started as an attempt to stimulate debate and get people thinking would indeed end up as legislation that is changing the lives of people all over the world.

It was one of my proudest achievements at GREAT when our conversations last year became a new piece of legislation in the UK: the International Development Gender Equality Act. This mandates our Government to consider gender equality in how it spends every penny of our 11bn overseas aid budget. Gender equality needs to be at the heart of domestic and international policy and we hope it won’t be long before the EU do the same. The fact is though, this was a change I started unintentionally, because I spoke up about something that felt important, and someone with a bit of power I didn’t have heard me.

And lets not forget, my partner in crime on the International development bill was a man, one of my fellow founders of the GREAT Initiative is my husband Jason. The route to gender equality has too often been painted as a battle between men and women, when in reality, equality is something that benefits all, not something that detracts.

At the GREAT Initiative we’ve started a project in schools called Great Men Value Women, which talks to and teaches young boys about the value of the women in their lives and gives them opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings outside of the narrow confines of masculine communication. That’s one of the many skills women bring to the workplace and throughout the rest of our lives, we know how to talk! And you’re probably thinking “she certainly doesn’t shut up”. In a world too often fractured by conflict, the battle for equality for all is one that has to be furthered by men and women, like all the other social movements that have led to tangible change from civil rights to abolishing slavery.

Last weekend I sent my friend’s daughter some dental floss and some information about a training programme for young people interested in advocacy. She wrote back that she’s been reading up on FGM and thinks she might want to be a lawyer. I hope that the visibility of women like you means this dream will never feel impossible, and I thank you for your courage, determination, and strength in fighting for that to be the case.

So congratulations for being the change that you want to see, and happy anniversary to you all. Here’s to many more years of the network, and the continued progression and impact of positive change.

Possible End:

In the legal world, change seems to me to be a complicated word. What’s right and wrong, and what’s legal and illegal, aren’t – as we all know – always up to speed with one another. For example, although far from the world of corporate law, which is obviously your focus, I will often find myself talking to younger feminists about the fact that rape in marriage was criminalised only as recently as 1991. For something that I imagine many young people take for granted to have happened less than a lifetime ago seems astounding, yet when we look at the statistics and figures around sexual violence now, it’s perhaps not surprising.

The structures within which we live haven’t done enough to change the fact that 1 in 5 women in the UK aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16, and only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police. Change is certainly happening, but its impact takes time to settle, and its application needs to be multi-faceted.

It seems that – like journalists – lawyers therefore have to navigate a corrupt world in which their work has the power to rub against injustice, by both changing the legal parameters within which they work, and changing the way they work in order to shift those parameters. It seems to me that this network is one of those instances where the field of law is being reshaped by those within it, and heaps of room is being made for new, more diverse voices to get noisy within this industry. So congratulations for being the change that you want to see, and happy anniversary to you all.  Here’s to many more years of the network, and the continued progression and impact of positive change.