I was annoyed but, truth be told, not really surprised when reading Harriet Harman's account of the rifeness of sexism within UK politics. The gender disparity statistically which exists at Westminster, Holyrood and at lower levels of politics, is clear to see. Harman’s personal account, however, helped to illuminate the everyday realities of life in a heavily male dominated environment.
She spoke of how a female MP is "still defined by her marital status and reproductive record in a way that would be unthinkable for a man".
Harman struck on a wider issue then gender equality, however, when she spoke of how unrepresentative of society parliament is. She identified that although many in positions of power have adopted the rhetoric of supporting equality, they feel this is enough in itself to bring about change. She said:
"You don't have to openly oppose equality to perpetuate inequality … All it takes is for those in positions of power to do nothing and the status quo prevails.”
The Poverty Truth Commission has learnt all about how this exists and impacts on the daily lives of people living in poverty. We have understood how the language and practices of different organisations - public service bodies, businesses and charities – can make individuals feel as if they are second class citizens, not worthy of equal treatment. One commissioner told us:
‘I’ve seen me fill in application forms and I’ll put down I live in Govan. But I’m then told “No, you don’t put down Govan. Write Glasgow, because if you say Govan, no-one is going to employ you.” They are even saying that at the Job Centre’.
We have heard stories of commissioners being judged and encountering stigma based on what clothes they are wearing or where they live. We as a Commission are appalled at the lack of moral courage of many within public life to stand alongside those who are unfairly caricatured.
Change is possible
As Harman correctly identifies this situation of acute gender inequality has continued because those in positions of power have done very little to address the root causes. The same is true of poverty. People in positions of power need to listen to those with experience of poverty. We challenge everyone to stand up to the stigmatisation of all marginalised groups across society.
- We challenge all of us to see beyond the labels that stereotype people and which diminish our society as a whole.
- We challenge politicians to avoid unfair and prejudicial language against people living in poverty.
- We challenge organisations tackling poverty to engage more effectively with the media to ensure positive stories are heard
To read more about the work of the Commission and our challenges please have a look at our report.