I heard Amber Rudd on Woman’s Hour last week, talking about the lack of women in the senior decision-making rooms at the moment, particularly in senior government and medical posts. Her point was partly that women bring different concerns – that issues to do with childcare, or domestic violence, or carers, might have more prominence with women in the room. But also she was raising the risks that a group of people who all think the same way will miss things that a different perspective will call out.
I spoke to a senior woman this week, an eminent specialist in AI and data ethics. She is very busy at the moment advising the government across all areas including security and contact tracing. She noted that she is almost always the only woman in the calls and meetings that take the decisions. When she questions where the women are she’s told that everyone has women in their teams – but it matters that their voices are not heard where they can make most difference.
Our care workers are overwhelmingly women, our retail front-line staff, our nurses – all now heralded as heroes, who were last month seen as not ambitious enough to climb the career ladder, or not committed enough to put in the long shifts in the office or on the trading floor, or too distracted by their children to really cut it. There has been much talk of how things will change, and the society we will be when we emerge from this. Will our priorities change? Will we become the more caring, more balanced, more compassionate society we believe this week that we really are? Or will things go backwards – I’m very conscious as we make endless comparisons to the last war that the women who built aircraft, drove ambulances and took over farming morphed into the heroines of the 50s – all big skirts and aprons baking in their shiny kitchens.
As we struggle through this time and start to reinvent ourselves it’s vital that we hold on to the benefit that the range of voices gives us. The common response - ‘let’s wait till the crisis is out of the way to focus on women, this is just a distraction’ – is just not good enough, and betrays some deeply damaging, and deeply entrenched, attitudes. We need to hold ourselves accountable to ensure that we include everyone, bring all voices to the room, to build the businesses, the charities and the public services we realise right now that we really need. A heroine is for life, not just for a crisis.