Women’s day 2010: The situation facing women in Britain

Women in education, trade unions, public sector and as parents

Women in education

As a student at Sussex University, I am currently involved in a campaign to combat sexism on our campus and in the wider community as a whole. The campaign aims to challenge sexist attitudes, and to fight for women’s rights to live, work and study without facing discrimination or attack.

Claire Laker-Mansfield, Sussex Socialist Students

The campaign was launched in response to an appalling incident in which a female student was accosted by members of the men’s rugby team, while walking through campus at night. The woman was reportedly surrounded by around 20 men, many of whom were naked, who shouted abusive comments and engaged in other forms of intimidating behaviour.

Despite sparking anger among much of the campus community, disgracefully, there have been some who have expressed the attitude that we are ‘overreacting’. These people, some of whom hold student union positions, have argued that, although the rugby team behaved inappropriately, “boys will be boys” and the student’s union should not take any meaningful disciplinary action.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is a problem at universities around the UK. A recent survey showed that three quarters of female students did not feel safe walking around their campuses at night. The objectification of women, in material such as so-called ‘lads’ mags’, which are often still sold in union shops, as well as the way in which women’s bodies are frequently portrayed in advertisements for campus nights out, often goes unchallenged. In some cases it is even encouraged by some student unions. This contributes to the negative attitudes towards women which can lead to attacks such as the one described above.

Students at Sussex organised a ‘reclaim the night’ march calling for an end to violence against women and demanding our right to use our campus and other public spaces without fear. The campaign is also demanding that the student union take a stand against the objectification of women in material on campus that contributes to the idea that women’s bodies are more important than their minds.

Another area in which women are facing attacks is in the provision of health care. Government cuts to the public sector and university funding are threatening vital sexual health services. At Sussex University the campus sexual health and drug advice service is under threat of closure by management in an attempt to save money. There is currently a good service providing students with free contraception, pregnancy testing, infection screening and advice. The loss of this service will have a hugely detrimental effect on the health of students, both male and female. Opposition to the planned closure is directed through the ‘Stop the Cuts’ campaign which opposes all cuts at the university.

Also women leaving university can face the prospect of potentially long-term unemployment, or a job which pays barely enough to get by. Women may well be disadvantaged in applying for what few jobs are available, due to the unwillingness of some employers to take on women who are of an age where they may wish to take time off for maternity leave or for childcare responsibilities.

The Youth Fight for Jobs campaign has gained support from young people and students across the country, and calls for decent jobs for all people leaving university, college or training. It is really important that women get involved in the campaign and fight for a better future.

It is a sore indictment of the system we live under that women still have to fight for such basics as the right to walk the streets at night without fear of being attacked. We need to change this system, but in the meantime, if ordinary women and men build strong campaigns fighting for women’s rights, it is possible to win huge improvements in the lives of women up and down the country.

Women in the trade unions

On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day it is useful to take stock and see how far we have come in terms of rights for women workers but also how much we still have to do.

Katrine Williams, PCS DWP Group Vice President (pc)

I represent PCS union members in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) where the overwhelming majority of workers are women. So it is vital for women to have a strong voice in the union but also to be visible to encourage more women to get active in the union. I was inspired by the women we have had leading the DWP Group, to take on more responsibility.

It is very rewarding to be involved in organising events and training for women members. Frequently when women get together at these events they find that the problems they face like violence at home, discrimination and harassment in the workplace, low pay and lack of access to flexible working are not just an individual’s problems. These are issues that affect many women – linked to our treatment as second class citizens in this society.

By women getting together in the workplace and in the union it is positive to be able to show that we can challenge the problems women face by organising collectively. It is inspiring to see the way the aspirations of these women grow as they are not prepared to put up with discrimination any more and start to challenge the system that wants to keep workers divided.

I spend a lot of time encouraging and developing new women reps. The main hurdle for women getting more actively involved is often their own self-confidence. Women, who show enormous flair in surviving on a shoestring and juggling their time and many family responsibilities, are often racked with self doubt and wonder whether they have the necessary skills when it is suggested they could take on a union role. This is in contrast with the frequent response of some men in the union who jump at the chance and worry about whether they have skills afterwards!

When we build PCS we have to be very conscious about the issue of women’s confidence and make even more effort to encourage women to get involved. We have been working to develop a mentoring programme and training for new women reps in Wales. This has really borne dividends in developing a layer of women who are now confident in taking a lead and being mentors, as well as new reps who are taking more active roles within their branches and beyond.

Most to gain

When we are campaigning on issues such as low pay and the offensive by employers who increasingly want the flexibility of the workforce to fit the business and not the workers, it is vital to involve women workers, who often have the most to gain. Women workers make up the majority of workers in the lower grades as well as part time workers so pay is an important issue.

The DWP is one of the lowest paying departments in the civil service – despite the key role our members play in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society. Women often opt to work in the public sector because of the better access to flexible working and part time hours. But these are increasingly under attack as cuts are made to staffing and services.

We are facing a challenging year of attacks on the public sector regardless of who wins the general election and women workers will be at the forefront of the battles to defend jobs, pay and services. We will not pay for the crisis that is none of our making and when our members have been at the frontline to support those people that capitalism has thrown on the scrapheap.

Women in the public sector

On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day I am certain I am not alone in noticing that a woman’s lot has not dramatically improved in 21st century Britain.

A Hampshire nurse

Indeed it could be argued that women’s working, living and general conditions regarding poverty, safety and of course the delusion of choice which we all supposedly have under capitalism, have meant more of the same exploitation and hardship as endured by our sisters in the past.

I’m sure my personal experience mirrors that of many of my fellow female workers, not just in this country but across the world.

For a start I now work as a staff nurse in a hospital and so work 12 hour shifts. Ok, this is only three days a week most of the time (four days once a month), but 12 hours on your feet all day with only half an hour break in a responsible high-pressured job means you end up recovering on your days off.

Like many other working women, I am also a mother (three boys, one girl). Two of my children have a learning disability and they require more support. My multi-tasking skills are taken to a new level, as is the case for so many of us. Naively I thought that my exhaustion was more unique, but even colleagues without children need ‘recovery days’, so no wonder I struggle, and all for approximately £20,000 a year.


Joining a union is the obvious way to improve conditions at work, a long fought for legacy from our sisters and brothers of the past. The figures indicate that there is plenty of female solidarity which could be tapped into as 70% of workers in the public sector are women and 70% of those organised in Unison are women. Unfortunately in many workplaces the unions are noticeable by their absence. Where are they when my breaks disappear because of lack of staff etc?

Indeed I predict that this lack of a campaigning leadership in many unions will come back to haunt them in the not too distant future. Faced with cuts in public services, women workers in particular will want to defend their jobs and fight back against this unnecessary onslaught against ordinary workers because profits are put before people.

Of course my general living conditions and lack of support with, for example, good quality free childcare, limits my activities, not to mention all the domestic pressures which are still seen as ‘women’s work’ to this day.

But I feel the tide will turn this year. The ruling class is going to find it has bitten off more than it can chew. Cutting public services, which, for example, already struggle to provide respite care for everyone with disabled children who needs it, may seem an obvious conclusion for the capitalists.

But women as workers, carers, parents etc will be to the fore and will push their organisations and representatives such as the unions to defend the rights of working class people. They will join up in the struggle to maintain at the very least our current services but also, given the right support and leadership, will start to feel their strength.

We will start to organise for and believe in our own ability to change the status quo and fight for a new society where everybody shares the responsibilities of care for the young, elderly, sick and disabled. A socialist society would mean women can have real choices about how to live their lives, free of economic and domestic constraints, fear of violence and free to fulfil their true potential as individual members of a socially cohesive society.

Women as parents

Equality for working class women under capitalism in 2010 means being subjected to the same workplace exploitation as our male counterparts, an equal need to hold down two or three low-paid part-time jobs in order to make ends meet and, at the same time, caring for children and elderly relatives and running a home.

Vicky Perrin, Halifax Socialist Party

Rather than ensure we are paid decent wages, the government uses tax credits to prop up poverty pay. Working parents are made to feel that they need handouts and are unable to support themselves or ‘stand on their own two feet’ to support their families.

Affordable, publicly-funded childcare places are virtually non-existent. Before- and after-school clubs in my area are only viable for those earning professional salaries and are usually full to capacity, with waiting lists. This means that grandparents, once they are finally able to retire and look forward to a long awaited rest, are finding themselves the unpaid child carers of grandchildren. Families depend on this childcare provision to be able to go to work.

Families are fragmented and separated by the need to find work, relationships crack under the pressures of struggling to get by and lone parenting becomes a battle to survive in a lonely world without support or advice readily to hand.

As parents it is harder than ever to hope for and promise a life for our children with better prospects than we have for ourselves. The bosses, with their capitalist system in crisis, clearly plan to try to make us pay the price of recovery. We face the prospect of savage cuts to public services, the like of which have never been seen, whichever government we get at the next election. Our jobs are threatened, our pay frozen, our pensions are under attack. The vital public services, upon which we and our families will increasingly depend as the recession continues, face brutal attack.

As parents we want to be able to raise the expectations of our children, to encourage them to continue in training and education, to set their sights above and beyond a breadline existence and all the stresses that come with it. But we are faced with an increasingly elitist education system, with more opportunities for those with the ‘right’ background from the ‘right’ schools or those prepared to saddle themselves with a lifetime of debt as the price of a university education.

Our children are in danger of becoming the next ‘lost generation’, being exploited on a so-called ‘apprenticeship’ that throws them back onto the dole at the end of it, being the best they can hope for in place of a decent job with decent pay.

If young people stand too long in a group on the wrong streets in the absence of youth facilities or other places to go, they can face police harassment and ASBOs. As parents we are blamed for not having brought them up ‘properly’ and failing to control them.

If we or they are found to be claiming a single pound of benefit above what we are entitled to we feel the full weight of the law on us, while MPs get away with the daylight robbery of our money through fraudulent expenses claims.

Politicians tell us that absent fathers produce delinquent children and single mothers are blamed and demonised for not being able to hold their partnerships together, despite the pressures that poverty and social isolation bring. In the recession, with unemployment and underemployment increasing, figures for alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence are rising.

In the Socialist Party we see the struggle for equality for women as the struggle for socialism. We recognise the barriers that women, particularly mothers, face in order to get together, share and discuss ideas and organise to fight for a better future for themselves and their children.

Many women face burdens and stress. For some getting to the shops is a military operation, let alone to meetings. But it is our role to help to give women the confidence and support to become politically active to make their hopes of a different future become a reality.

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March 2010