For the first time since Harriet Harman took on the role in 1997, there will be no minister responsible specifically for women – with a man becoming Equalities Minister

Despite Liz Truss using her first Prime Minister’s Questions to mock Labour’s lack of a female leader, she has chosen not to appoint a Minister for Women and Equalities and has instead put a man in charge of a broader equalities agenda. 

Nadhim Zahawi has been given the job of Minister for Equalities, alongside his role as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – with the word ‘women’ dropped from the brief.

According to the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, “the equalities brief has not changed”.

“You’ve heard the Prime Minister talk during the campaign about her focus on women’s rights,” they said. “The policy areas related to [the Equalities Minister] still apply to women… The title has changed slightly.”

Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Anneliese Dodds observed that “women are always an afterthought for the Conservatives” and that “erasing the role for women in Cabinet confirms this”.

Her Labour colleague, Karin Smyth, expressed her concern, saying that she remembered “meeting Jo Richardson in the 1980s campaigning for Cabinet level post for women” and this was a “very worrying development… to row back”.

Tony Blair created the role of Minister for Women in 1997 to ensure that women’s interests were served by the government, with Harriet Harman the first woman to hold the brief. It evolved into the position of Minister for Women and Equality under Gordon Brown, with Harman again at the helm, before being given the name Minster for Women and Equalities by David Cameron.

Up until becoming Prime Minister, Liz Truss herself held the role alongside her duties as Foreign Secretary.

“The decision to remove explicit reference to ‘women’ from the equalities portfolio is an alarming indication that Liz Truss will not prioritise women in her plans to address the cost of living crisis,” Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, told Byline Times. “I urge the new Prime Minister to prove me wrong.”

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said “we have a long way to go before this Government really addresses deep-seated gender inequalities that harm and hold back women” and “now not is not the time to be de-prioritising our needs”.

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Women in Crisis

The decision not to have a Minister for Women and Equalities comes at a time when women’s equality is under pressure. 

While symbolically, women’s representation is on the rise – the UK now has its third female Prime Minister, fourth female Health and Social Care Secretary, and fifth female Home Secretary – substantive change for women’s equality has been declining. 

This is evidenced across three major policy areas: economy, crime, and health. 

More than a decade of austerity has disproportionately impacted women’s economic security. Early analysis of austerity measures by Labour found that more than 80% of the cost of the policies came from women’s purses, not least because women are disproportionately likely to use or work in public services, or be in receipts of benefits – all in the Coalition and Conservative Government’s firing line. 

Now, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis has further impacted women’s incomes. While women were less likely to lose their jobs or be furloughed during the pandemic than men, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that this was reversed for parents: by May 2020, mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since lockdowns began, and were more likely to have been furloughed.

Women are more likely to be in poverty than men, meaning that they are hit first and hardest by the cost of living crisis, with rising energy bills set to push more than three million additional households into poverty. Half of all single-parent households are already in relative poverty – and 90% of those households are headed by mothers. Meanwhile, rising costs of childcare, and the collapse of social care, has led to increasing numbers of women exiting the workforce.

“We urgently need an approach to the cost of living crisis that recognises its gendered impacts, which includes addressing staggering childcare costs, rising rates of violence against women, and increasing poverty – for example amongst single mums,” said Reid. 

When it comes to crime, rape prosecutions continue to be at an all-time low, with only 1,557 rape-flagged cases going to prosecution in 2021/2022. An average of 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales. Those who do see their case prosecuted can face long waits of three years before going to court. The failure to prosecute rapes has led to experts saying sexual violence is de facto decriminalised in this country. 

As for health, Byline Times has reported on the new Health and Social Care Secretary’s anti-abortion views, but concerns for women’s healthcare goes beyond access to terminations. Half a million women are currently waiting for gynaecological care, while data from 2021 found that, during the pandemic, only 66.7% patients with breast cancer symptoms were seen within two weeks – the target is 93%. The recent scandals in obstetric care is also caused for concern, as is the racial disparity when it comes to deaths in childbirth. The women’s health strategy had many positive signs, but there is work to be done. 

“Women make up over half of the population; we are still paid less than men, face horrific levels of gender based violence, do the bulk of unpaid care, and have been hit hardest by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis,” said Olchawski. “It’s simply unacceptable that with this backdrop of disadvantage women’s representation is being downgraded within Truss’s Cabinet.”

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Who Are Equalities For?

While it is clear that women have specific needs in the ongoing crises our country faces, a decision to roll-back the focus on women’s rights is in keeping with Liz Truss’ attitude to equality. 

During her time as Minister for Women and Equalities, she gave a speech that set forward an equalities agenda which would be “based on the core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity, and individual humanity and dignity” and move away from “the narrow focus of protected characteristics” as a basis for tackling inequality. 

Sex is a protected characteristic and women face discrimination and violence due to their sex. Protected characteristics exist for the reason that women and minority groups face oppression and discrimination on a systemic level.

Truss’ expressed desire, then, to move away from recognising that women experience oppression as a sex-class and focus instead on individual character could help to explain the decision to erase women from the ministerial brief.

A similar issue was expressed by the Sewell Report, which examined racial and ethnic disparities and concluded that the country did not have an issue with systemic racism – instead the issue was localised to individuals and families. Doing so erased how black and ethnic minority people experience oppression as a class, due to the way society is structured. 

But there is also something deeper going on here. While Truss and her Conservative colleagues appear to believe the solution to inequality does not lie in systemic change, but in “individual character”, they hold one specific exception: white men. 

The ‘Left Behind White Pupils From Disadvantaged Backgrounds‘ report argued that teaching children about racism and white privilege is exacerbating white pupils falling behind. This shows how, when it comes to white men experiencing disadvantage, the causes are no longer individualised but externalised. The external forces identified as causing the crisis in white maleness are anti-racist, anti-sexist movements, rhetoric and policies.

This exposes a deep hypocrisy in the Government’s approach to equalities that blames external factors for white male disadvantage, and individual character for the disadvantages experienced by women and minority populations.

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson told Byline Times: “I believe that the people of the United Kingdom will be focused on the actions the Government takes to protect women, including introducing a national domestic abuse register. I think it will be on our actions that we will be judged.”

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