Guest blog from Ed Miliband: we must change how women are portrayed in our culture

(121 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 28-Jun-13 11:33:16

Last night, Ed Miliband gave a keynote speech about gender and equality in which he promised that a Labour government would ensure that children were given relationships education from the age of five - good news for Mumsnetters, who have been pushing for this for a while.

He also argued that our culture needs to change how it portrays women - and in today's guest blog, he expands on why he thinks the representation of women is in crisis - and why it matters.


"Our banknotes are about to change. Not a major political issue, you might think. But it does have one important effect. Winston Churchill is going to replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note. And that means that everyone who will appear on our banknotes - apart from the Queen, our Head of State - will be a man.

I am worried about what kind of signal that sends. I read this week that the people who make these decisions think it is OK that there will be no women on our banknotes, because Jane Austen is "quietly waiting in the wings" to appear on her own note one day. But 100 years on from the great struggle to give women the right to vote, women shouldn't be "waiting quietly in the wings" for anything, should they?

Why don't we have one of our great women scientists, like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and a suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst on our banknotes already?

This is a small but important symbol of the kind of country we are. In fact, I think it reveals a crisis in the representation of women more generally in our society.

Of course, greater prominence is given to fantastic role models for women and girls today than was true in the past. People like Clare Balding, Doreen Lawrence, J.K. Rowling, Jocelyn Bell and Burnell. And it is not just these people who provide role models for the next generation. My kids will grow up with Dora the Explorer as much as my generation did with Dennis the Menace, and that matters. And this week we have been supporting Laura Robson just as much as Andy Murray at Wimbledon.

But we should not be fooling ourselves by denying the problems. It is not just the absence of women from our banknotes or the way men out-number women in the statues on our streets. There are problems in our everyday culture too.

Young people talk a lot today about the problems of a culture that is tolerant of increasingly sexualised images. They are especially worried about a culture that says that girls will only get on in life, if they live up to the crudest of stereotypes. A culture where pornographic images, some violent, are available to children at a click on a smartphone or a laptop.

In discussing this problem, one young woman, 15 years old, wrote in to the Everyday Sexism site recently. She said: "I wish people would think about what pressures they are putting on everyone, not just teenage girls ... I wish the people who had real power and control of the images and messages we get fed all day actually thought about what they did for once."

She was right. There are things that government can do about it, like safer default settings on our computers. But that young woman's point is different. She believes there is a responsibility on all of us to do what we can to counter these images and to provide a better example for the future.

So, for example, schools should offer proper relationship education at all stages to ensure all our children have a proper chance to understand what good loving relationships are about. And they should always encourage the aspirations of girls and boys.

And advertisers and magazines should change the way they act too. We all know there are still too many images in our advertising that reflect outdated ideas about the role of men and women, boys and girls. And it matters how people are seen. About the images we have of each other. It sets an example, especially for the next generation.

Women face all sorts of injustices in our society today, many of which go far beyond our culture. There are still far too few women MPs, too few women in our boardrooms, the Cabinet or in senior management positions. Women have suffered more than men during Britain's recent economic troubles too, with this government's cuts affecting them three times as hard as men.

We need to act on all of these. But as we do so we must not forget the importance of cultural representation too. Many of these issues cannot and should not be decided by parliament or politicians. But it is something we must all talk about, as citizens and, especially, as parents. This is something that a new wave of young women are campaigning on, and talking about. They are right to do so and we should listen to their voices - that means politicians, advertisers, business leaders, and newspaper editors.

We can only be One Nation if we have real equality between men and women."

TheFallenNinja Fri 28-Jun-13 14:26:48

It's not like Ed Balls would have anything smaller than £20's anyway.

"think it's unfair to have a go at Milliband for trying"

really ?

I think it's completely fair to analyse and comment on his words and actions in any way anyone sees fit.

And is he really trying ? And if so how much effort is he putting into that ?

TheFallenNinja Fri 28-Jun-13 14:49:52

Unfair to have a go at Milliband?

Why?

Because of the unmitigated success of the previous government of which he was a part?

Because of the clear message that his opposition party have offered the electorate?

Because he is genuinely and earnestly trying to build a better country for all levels of achievement?

Milliband is a ghost, has nothing to say, nothing to offer. He is the face of a wounded party.

All politicians should be relentlessly scrutinised, challenged and pressurised every moment of every day, their every move should have a spotlight shone on it to ensure that they are out to do their best for us all.

harryhausen Fri 28-Jun-13 14:51:34

I agree with what Ed Milliband is saying. Actually changing anything is harder. Not 'trying' isn't going to help anyone though is it?

My (tom boy) 8 yr old dd broke my heart the other day when she said she wished she actually was a boy. I asked why - women are great! Mummy works hard at something she really wants to and is successful, blah blah. However she just said "boys can be whatever they want" hmm

Something has gone terribly wrong somewhere. I think putting more female figures on the history curriculum at school would help for starters. Also, I know it seems minor and petty bit all the pink gender toys stuff really seeps into little brains early. If girls are taught that when they're older all they can do is change nappies, cook in the kitchen and be a little princess then somewhere it will rub off.

I grew up in 70's and 80's. The excitement about being able to do any job when older abounded in school and amongst my friends. Girls wanted to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, even politicians (in fact one of them is an MP now). We seemed to have lost this somehow.

And I do care that cuts to public services have hit women three times harder than men.
I've lost my job and livlihood this year, not DH.

It's not something that can be brushed under the carpet as though we won't mind.

MoreBeta Fri 28-Jun-13 15:14:31

Fine words from Ed and who could disagree with them - but look at \nd do something about the mote in the eye of Labour Party and the Union movement.

No Labour woman party leader ever, far fewer front bench women than men, far fewer female MPs, far fewer female union leaders. Worst of all no acknowledgement that union leaders for years and years negotiated pay deals that deliberately paid women less than men in equivalent jobs.

Lets not get blindsided about how Labour supports women and women's rights. It speaks about it but doesn't act.

MoreBeta Fri 28-Jun-13 15:22:18

Two practical things Labour could do is:

1. Immediately force mandatory publication of full details of pay, bonus and other emoluments of every employee in a firm for the last 5 years so everyone can see what their colleagues were/are being paid.

2. Force a quota of at least 35% women on Boards by 2020.

It will not happen because of the business lobby.

OmNom Fri 28-Jun-13 15:24:55

By 'trying', I meant 'trying to change the culture' - which was what that particular tangent was about. i think this speech is evidence of him giving that a go. Whether he carries it through into legislative proposals and action of course remains to be seen.

I think Labour did a lot for women when in government: working tax credits, child tax credits, minimum wage all impacted well for women, especially those who were low paid or part-time. SureStart and childcare help, wraparound care in schools were all encouraged by Labour and (given the reality that women tend to take responsibility for childcare) helped to broaden women's working choices. Equalities Act is massive for women. Domestic violence action under Jacqui Smith was profound in some ways. Visibility of self-declared feminists like Harman (paving the way for women like Teresa May to happily identify as feminists and not take half the flak that Harman has taken).

I take issue with a lot of things Labour did, but I think their record on women is good.

MoreBeta Fri 28-Jun-13 15:28:36

OmNom - "Equalities Act is massive for women."

Yes but the last Labour Government deliberately made it harder for women to bring equal pay and sex discrimination cases before Tribunals. They did that under pressure from the business lobby.

Spiritedwolf Fri 28-Jun-13 15:38:58

I'm not Tony Blair's biggest fan either, but he and Gordon Brown did do a lot to help women and young children (minimum wage, Sure Start, health in pregnancy grant, more maternity leave, Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits etc). Things did change - especially for single mothers, same-sex couples etc.

Labour could have, and should have gone further - helping carers, disabled people and there is more they could have done for women and girls. So I'm glad that Ed Miliband is listening.

And the attacks on his personality, really? You want the Tony Blairs, David Camerons and Margaret Thatchers of this world to be the only types who get in office?

I have heard some good stuff from him on this and other issues. I'm not entirely convinced about the stance Labour is taking at the moment (in danger of looking like not much different to the Tories on economy and welfare) but I am interested to see where he's going, and what he'll do. I think sorting out good quality childcare at an affordable rate will be a big part of things. Affordable (genuinely affordable) housing is another area that needs a lot of work.

Having read "Why Love Matters" after having my son, I was struck by how important Sure Start and good maternity/paternity leave, and other related policies are. If we can make sure parents have good support and are able to either be there for their children, or have good quality childcare when they can't be, it won't just benefit the children at the time, it will be good for the whole of society.

Dawnywoo Fri 28-Jun-13 15:45:05

Yes, it does sound good. I just wonder if his spin people said 'gosh, we could get a massive female audience / votes if we went on mumsnet and made all the right noises'

As always, we have to decide whether to trust what they say if we want to give them a chance to put their money where their mouth is.

Spiritedwolf Fri 28-Jun-13 16:34:35

Labour and the unions can and should do more on female representation, but Labour already has more female representatives than the other parties. It had more women in Cabinet than the current government, it actively selects female candidates in winnable seats and tries hard to get more of its female members to stand as candidates, and supports all female shortlists for selection in winnable seats.

Labour isn't at 50:50 equality yet, but I do think they are doing better than the other parties.

LordChilde Fri 28-Jun-13 16:40:11

How terribly PC of dear Ed. It's just awful that there are so few mugs of wimin on our banknotes... and it's just ghastly the way our female friends are portrayed in the media.

This sycophantic squawking makes me squirm with embarrassment. I suggest Ed (and others of a twee persuasion) get treatment for Obsessive Gender Studies disorder.

Timeforabiscuit Fri 28-Jun-13 17:35:07

I agree with ensuring this is followed through with legislation - and yes it means getting much firmer with the business lobby.

I would like to see parity in the number part time roles given to men and women - there should be equal access to this.

Also at the moment part time is hours are really at the whim of the company you work for, the only right you have is to ask - which in my opinion isn't good enough.

EdMiliband Fri 28-Jun-13 18:41:08

Thanks to all those who have posted.

On policy, we would take some very specific measures to change things in terms of the depiction of women and men.

It starts with sex and relationship education in schools at all key stages, which actually teaches a truly equal story of women and men, their aspirations and what to expect from relationships.

We need to move to default safe search on the internet and more effective age registration, as advocated by Labour's Helen Goodman. So that we at least try and restrict kids' access to the sometimes violent, often degrading material out there.

And we need to ensure the role of women in our history is not a sideline in the national curriculum but is central to what is taught.

That's just a start. The answer is not simply legislation, it is also about forcing a debate with those who wield huge influence on representation.

Unless we talk about these issues, we won't influence advertisers, newspaper editors and others who have such power in this area.

Thanks to all on mumsnet and thanks also in particular to all of the women in the new wave of the feminist movement who have put these questions centre stage.

twistyfeet Fri 28-Jun-13 19:31:15

meanwhile Ed supports the cuts which will hit women hardest, especially Carers who are mainly women.
Put your money where your mouth is Ed.

Panonabike Fri 28-Jun-13 19:33:18

Ed,
I am greatly heartened by your highlighting of the sexualised imaging of women and children in the media, and how that conveys damaging stereo-types. Really. It's something close to my Equalities and personal heart. I think we all recognise the potential barriers that 'good people' face in trying to effect change. But I'd appeal to you and your party to be a hell of a lot braver in proposing changes. 'Business' folk have little motivation, other than having the nouss to capture the idealism/civility of youth. And frankly young people, in your potential voting demographic (As well as females) would be brought round by some gumption being shown.
I also say this as someone who has the Labour website on my 'bookmark' list, but haven't the confidence yet to actually sign up as a member. That's because I want to see some leadership shown in these areas. I am sure I am not alone in this. This coalition are a bunch of barbarians. I want to see that Ed Milliband as PM would be a real alternative.

Wow, is that really Ed on here ?!
If so, thanks for coming on and joining us.
Liking your follow up post a lot.

Panonabike Fri 28-Jun-13 19:46:34

and by the way Ed, if you or someone is still reading, there is a whole strata of liberal lefts, soft lefts, green lefts, hippy lefts, 'naice' lefts but don't vote, even 'hard' lefts, civilised people, frustrated socialists, Bennites, pro-Eurpeans, old Labour/New Labour, who would give you a majority and who would v happily sink this current shower...if you only appealed to them, and stop worrying about the nonsense of 'middle England' and the Daily Mail.

TippiShagpile Fri 28-Jun-13 20:03:24

Well said Panonabike.

I heart you.

Nikabilla Fri 28-Jun-13 20:05:18

I thought he spoke well, it was almost as if a woman wrote the speech for him hmm.... I certainly felt it was a bit tooooo spot on, almost as though he knew that's exactly what many women wanted to hear, which made me a bit suspicious.

If he truly feels that and wrote his own speech then that's amazing and pat on the back to him grin

Nikabilla Fri 28-Jun-13 20:07:21

Oh just realised he's on here blush, umm, pat on the back to you Ed, you certainly talk the talk grin

LoveBeingUpAt4InTheMorning Fri 28-Jun-13 20:30:53

But what would he actually do?

KaseyM Fri 28-Jun-13 21:04:08

Ed,
If you're still listening, any chance of doing something to combat the hideous sexism in the toy industry which is where the problem begins so early for lots of girls. If you walk into many toy shops toys are clearly separated by gender. Whilst girls get pink toys to do with beauty and domesticity under the blatantly sexist heading "girls' toys" whilst boys get construction and science kits.

It starts early, giving girls the message that they need to groom themselves to be beautiful whilst also diminishing their aspirations to be doctors, scientists, engineers, basically anything highly paid.

It seems crazy that this kind of thing is allowed whilst pricing products on the basis of gender is illegal.

Please stop by the LetToysBeToys campaign to see what's being done to combat this.

QueenoftheHolly Fri 28-Jun-13 21:08:56

Ok, I would describe myself as a lifelong Tory voter & this caught my attention.
Of course ed is a politician so to all those saying he's 'pandering to women' etc etc well, duh.., politicians do pander to voters its their job! & good for him figuring out that women make up at least 50% of the vote - probably more as old people vote more & women live longer!

Something that really annoys me that gets ignored when politicians & the media talk about women having children, & childcare etc is the fact that economically its vital that women do have children, they are tomorrows tax payers! And the more educated women who have children, the more likely that future generations will be paying higher levels of tax.
It's definitely possible to argue that women who have children, and often sacrifice their maximum career potential to do so, are doing their country a good turn, even if its just a by product of a 'selfish' desire to have a child.

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