Charlotte Vere is the founder of Women On, a new think tank for women.
Despite decades of equalities activism and legislation, women are still not reaching their full potential – there are more women than men in workless households, there are far fewer female entrepreneurs, there is a dearth of women in the boardroom. The list goes on.
But many campaigners for women have done themselvves, and the group they claim to represent, no favours. They cling to the misguided belief that a 50:50 gender split is a viable goal, that parity across all walks of life is achievable and desirable. Of course it isn’t, and by claiming it is, campaigners have alienated both men and women and pushed an important debate to the outer reaches of politics. People aren’t at ease talking about "women".
Is there an alternative? Perhaps. Instead of striving for equality of numbers and promoting women at the expense of men to achieve a baseless target, we need a goal of "true equality". This is certainly a more nebulous and ill-definable concept but one which doesn’t make promises it can’t deliver. True Equality is the state which exists when men and women have equality of opportunity and a breadth of choice, a state in which a natural equilibrium occurs between men and women.
And the Conservatives could play a pivotal role in achieving this. But to do so, they must embrace the "w" word, call a spade a spade, and talk about women.
Women may not be a homogeneous group, some might have children and others not, some might have be on a pension and others might not, the differences go on, but it is right to talk about women as a group.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats understand this and are quite comfortable with it. Women are not a single unit of uniform beings, but are a group of people who, if certain barriers are removed, would play a bigger part in our country than they do now. Isn’t this the real responsibility of government? Creating a landscape for full participation by all?
Some have suggested that talking about women is somehow un-Conservative, that talking about "the family" is safer. This misses the point. A woman is not interchangeable with her family – her family, if she has one, is just one element of who she is. Most men and women probably identify their family as the people with whom they live, and to whom they are related, no more. So, restricting the conversation to the family, whilst appropriate in some policy discussions, ignores vast swathes of women.
In any event, it is too late to retreat to the flim-flammery of "family-friendly" policy in lieu of a debate about women. There is a groundswell of work being done by organisations whose job it is to paint the current government in a bad light when it comes to women. At the moment, there are few doing the same on the other side.
So what might a Conservative female narrative look like:
- Women face a huge number of choices and tough decisions in their lives; on average they have more responsibilities than men.
- We need to continue on the path of improving the lives of women, a path started over a century ago.
- We need to achieve equality of opportunity, not women in equal numbers. We need to remove barriers and let a natural equilibrium establish itself. This is True Equality.
- Only by removing barriers can we harness the full potential of women, economically, socially, politically and culturally. This is the driving force and the call to action.
- Women don’t want or need more than men – they want fair treatment for themselves and for their loved ones. They don’t want to be patronised or treated as victims.
- We need to relate to the everyday lives of women, and their families, who are seeing food bills going up and energy bills soaring. In hard times, women want to see a glimmer of hope for their children and know that their lives will improve.
So the Conservatives must grasp the mettle and talk about the "w" word – women. Without doing so, it is impossible to highlight the achievements of the past 18 months and the plans for the future.