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Jo Swinson is guest speaker at the second Ditchley businesswomen briefing, hosted by Lady Judge

Published: Tuesday, 3rd February 2015

Tuesday 28 January 2015

Striking a healthy work-life balance in the 21st century

The second edition of this outreach to a community where Ditchley is not so well-known seemed to be a notable success. An audience of 23 senior women gathered at Eversheds solicitors, in the heart of the City, to hear about the uniqueness of Ditchley, but mainly to engage in discussion with Jo Swinson MP, Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs, Women and Equalities Minister, and a Governor and member of the Ditchley Programme Committee. We were once again grateful to Lady Judge for her generous support of the Foundation in hosting and chairing this event.

Ms Swinson’s opening remarks were mainly devoted to women in the workplace, starting with an admission that her own work-life balance was out of kilter for the moment, with a tough constituency battle to fight, a husband, also an MP, whose constituency was 350 miles away and a small baby at home!  She commented that many workplaces were still structured in ways reminiscent of the 1950s. Physical ‘presenteeism’ and a macho culture of long hours were still common, ignoring the possibilities of technology to create genuine flexibility, and disadvantaging not only women but also carers in general, disabled people, and older workers. This was bad for individuals, companies and the economy as a whole, since it reduced the talent pool available. That was why the government had insisted on the right for workers to request flexible working, while not making acceptance of it mandatory.

In order for there to be genuine equality in the workplace, more women needed to be in positions of power, and stereotypes of what kind of work was suitable for men or women needed to be broken down. But this was not just a problem for women to solve. Men had a role too, not least in accepting that there should be more equality in the rest of life outside the workplace. Women were not naturally better carers than men – traditional patterns of behaviour simply shaped a culture where they tended to get a lot more practice. That could change, with benefits all round, including for family relationships, but this was again for families to decide for themselves, though legislation like that on shared parental leave could help. This had been a significant milestone, not least because men were now questioning what impact a break would have on their own careers, a question with which women had been and would continue to grapple.

Questions and discussion covered a wide range of issues:

-    The prospects for the Lib Dems in the forthcoming general election: Ms Swinson was confident that they would do much better in retaining MPs than their overall polling suggested, because of their strong local position in many places.

-    The prospects for more women MPs: Ms Swinson commented that any increase was good, but reaching 25% would hardly be a triumph. The culture at Westminster was slowly changing, a development welcomed by an increasing number of men as well as women.

-    The costs of child care: Ms Swinson accepted that this was a particular problem in the UK, but outlined some government measures designed to help both access to child care, and its supply.

-    The increasing extent of low-paid and zero hour contract jobs: Ms Swinson said that the statistics were less alarming than the fears about this. Zero hours suited some workers, but there were undoubtedly abuses which had to be tackled.

-    Feminism: Ms Swinson said she found the current wave attractive and empowering, which had not always been the case in the past.

-    Social care, particularly for the elderly: Ms Swinson agreed that this was a huge issue, which the electorate had perhaps not yet thought through in terms of the need to pay more for it, or risk provision being poor quality. It could not be ignored that society was indicating the value it placed on this work by paying the majority of workers the minimum wage.

-    Jihadist returnees: Ms Swinson said that the best solution was to stop them going out to places like Syria in the first place. Where there were returnees, this obviously created difficult problems but these should be tackled in the context of our normal rules and international law, not for example through making people stateless. Britain had done quite well in integrating its Muslim population but it was still patchy, with segregated lives common in some parts of the country. The media and the government should be very careful about the language they used, because of the risk of greater alienation.