The organisers of Thursday morning’s breakfast seminar ’Advancing Women in Politics & Public Life’ were undoubtedly surprised by the numbers wishing to attend. Had they chosen a venue larger than the Grand Hotel’s 160 places it could have been filled. The key note speaker, Tessa Jowell, former Labour MP, was clearly a draw and did not disappoint.
The Top Quartile
The event was a slightly curious one, and even Senator Sir Philip Bailhache alluded to this in his introduction to Tessa Jowell, observing that the majority of the women present in the room were in the upper quartile of society, or ‘aspiring to get there’.
The atmosphere, with women dressed in their office attire, meant it could easily have been a Finance seminar about the latest developments in funds management. Indeed, the sponsors EY, formerly Ernst & Young accountants, had kindly provided a brochure on each seat entitled “Time for change – recruiting for Europe’s boardrooms”. Surely not, Time4Change?
In fact, the event was to discuss the position of women in Jersey society and the obstacles to their advancement – a far more ticklish subject. Whilst some clearly came because the “glass ceiling” keeps women off Boards of Directors, others had more prosaic issues like expensive child care and the absence of statutory maternity leave and pay. Regardless of class position, all these women shared a common experience in that as women they face discrimination precisely because they are women.
So what was the seminar supposed to achieve? Even at the end, I was left wondering. Here was a government funded trust, the Jersey Community Relations Trust (JCRT), tentatively raising the issue of gender equality in a public meeting. We know that in Jersey the word equality is only ever mentioned in hushed tones.
What have Sir Philip Bailhache and Deputy Kristina Moore ever done for women?
The key note speaker Tessa Jowell called herself a “feminist”, yet the panel could not have been more eminently respectable, with a former Bailiff, Senator Sir Philip Bailhache, a women Deputy, Kristina Moore and an EY partner, another man. Karen Rankin, head of CTV, acted as moderator at question time. It was all terribly bourgeois. What was the hidden agenda?
I asked myself à la Monty Python, what have Sir Philip Bailhache and Deputy Kristina Moore ever done for women? I have never heard either raise issues in the States relating to discrimination or equality. So why were they there?
The excellent JCRT report was merely alluded to by Deputy Moore with her ever grinning Cheshire Cat approach to difficult issues in politics, yet it contains a damning litany of government failure and neglect.
No one on the panel ever mentioned that the Jersey government consistently refuses to sign up to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”), often described as an international bill of rights for women. This was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly and signed up to by the UK in 1982.
The Emperor's New Clothes moment - No political will
The whole meeting never seemed to get round to critiquing government policy on these issues. Not that is until the closing seconds of question time to the panel.
Prior to that, Karen Rankin, from CCTV moderated question time in a way that carefully chose questions from pre-selected individuals in the audience that would not be too controversial. The party line was the advacement of professional women in Jersey society.
Then it happened.
Half sitting and half standing, a woman at the front of the meeting rose and without the aid of the microphone started addressing an issue she felt had been entirely missed.
There was a reason nothing had changed for women in Jersey in the past 11 years she said and the reason was simple – there was no political will in the States of Jersey and in government to bring about change.
There was a stunned silence. Slightly inaudible at the outset, others listened more attentively to what the woman had to say and then applause, muffled initially, became a crescendo of endorsement. Someone had said it; the Emperor had no clothes.
There we are; it was out; government was to blame.
Tessa Jowell had been saying it all along in her speech. Until there was legislation through the UK Parliament, the cajoling of employers over maternity rights and pay had proved very limited. It took the election of a Labour government with a positive agenda to bring about change.
The woman had reminded the meeting that the draft Discrimination Law was one of the items offered up by the Home Affairs Department to the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts. It saved £100,000 and created several years law drafting delay. Did discrimination count for so little? The answer is yes. The government of Jersey does not make women's issues a priority in any sense.
The Discrimination Law has now been debated and approved by the States. Legislation on the issue of Race will become law sometime next year once approved by the Privy Council. It is only proposed to deal with issues of gender in the near future. The Social Security Minister has no firm timetable. Women ought to be angry at this feet dragging.
The meeting neatly illustrates a conundrum in Jersey politics. Much needed social reform, including issues relating to women, has been marginalised. The conservatism of the government and poltical elite is holding back developments.
There will have been those present who probably saw the event as one of how to get more women in the Boardroom. Yet others recognised there are changes, that elsewhere are uncontroversial, are long overdue. False respectability is hindering social advance.
One issue of contention was that of quotas for women in political parties and to Boards. Tessa Jowell told us that even though the Labour Party operated women short lists for candidates, only one third of their MPs were women.
The reaction from the panel and a number of the "selected" speakers from the floor, was adamant that in Jersey there should be no special positive discrimination in favour of women. The best man for the job principle should prevail.
Sir Philip Bailhache considered that women were deterred from standing for election as a consequence of the "aggressive and immodest behaviour by a minority of States Members". In other words, the States Chamber was no place for Ladies. He was of course pandering to a favourite prejudice, blaming the small number of Deputies that actually ask questions and challenge government policy.
The organisers of the seminar were coy about their future ambitions. It was said the JCRT would progress their campaign via their website. Clearly without some organisational outcome the event would be wholly wasted. Would they be forming a political organisation to elect women to the States of Jersey in 2014 elections? There was a hint throughout the meeting that this ought to happen.
Yet, what can we hope for? Will it be “Bailhache’s Babes” standing for election or will it be somewhat more militant?
March, march—many as one/Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.
Ever sensitive to social class I could not help noticing a telling remark from Senator Bailhache in response to a question from the floor from a Jersey College for Girls student named Yasmin. She had been discussing with a boy about the issue of equal pay for women – the gender gap, which we know is some 17% between men and women. This lad said it was the fault of women as they should be asking their employers for a pay rise.
Sir Philip replied by saying that Victoria College boys could be a little trying at times. Victoria College? Why did he assume this JCG student would only be talking to a Vic College boy?