As part of our ongoing feature, Women leading the way, we spoke to Stella Creasy MP to discuss what can be done to encourage more women to seek leadership positions.
I’m the MP for Walthamstow, I was elected in 2010. Previous to that I was a local councillor in Walthamstow. I got involved in local government because I was always passionate about my local community.
Very involved in a lot of social activism when I was a teenager and saw the link between social and community activism and the things that political parties and political movements could do. And it was a no brainer for me then eventually to try to serve my community but also serve all those causes. 15, 16 years on, I’m still doing it!
So what sort of challenges did you face when you began your career?
I was actually the mayor of my local authority and I would always get asked if I was there with my dad or if I was there to represent young people rather than actually being the mayor themselves. Even now as an MP, I’ve just been stopped on my way over here. It’s funny, all the young women MPs, it’s only us who get stopped and still asked after three or four years if we’re meant to be where we’re meant to be as MPs so you face a lot of people’s expectations about what a politician looks like, what you’re interested in, how you might talk to people and what you might be wanting to do. You have to push on through those things but it is quite frustrating.
Look, across all fields of public life, women are often judged by their relationship to men so whether they’re the daughter of somebody or the wife of somebody or then perhaps the mum of somebody or the aunt of somebody, you never necessarily get seen in your own right. That’s one of the things that we have to change, the idea that women of all ages from all different backgrounds can be there in there in their own right, with a voice, wanting to speak up.
What barriers do women face in seeking leadership roles?
I think there’s a range of things, both internal and external, so soft and hard factors. Hard factors are good old fashioned prejudice and discrimination about what women are capable of and women are interested in. I think we live in now what we call the 80/20 society where we’ve made some progress in getting women’s representation so we’ve hit 20 per cent; four out of five people in the place where I work are men.
We’ve seen it in academia, we’ve seen it in leadership in the student movement, in trade unions, but also in the media, in the judiciary and in the army and in women on boards. A lot of that for me speaks of an old fashioned sexism of what women are capable of and an idea that we might have one or two women who hit that bar but actually the idea that there are lots of us there who can do those roles is still something we have to challenge. I think there is also an internal thing about, we’re all part of that society so, if we don’t see those role models and we don’t see people coming forward, we think maybe it isn’t for us and we have to overcome that too.
I think we also have to change the job. I mean, I hate meetings. I call them arm-chewers and I don’t want anybody, male or female, to sit through something that they don’t like. I think particularly for women if you haven't been part of that culture, if you don’t necessarily see the values in some of those ways of working, it can be doubly hard to think why would I spend my time with a bunch of people I don’t particularly like, talking for hours about the same thing and saying the same thing over and over again so we have to change that too. And we have to give people the confidence and encouragement to come forward because actually, it’s not just good for women, it’s good for everyone.
I think one of the problems with these debates is that we sometimes talk about the women who aren’t in the room rather than the difference that it makes to have a range of people from a different background together, thinking about challenges and coming up with ideas about how to solve them. Men and women debating come up with new ideas as opposed to men just debating with men or women just debating with women. So it’s what we’re missing out on we’ve got to talk about.
How important do you think it is for students to have strong female role models, particularly in politics?
I think it’s important for women to have role models across the board. One of the things that really worries me is that we’re still trying to pigeonhole women into particular roles and into particular places in a range of places in society especially in education context. We’re still trying to say that there are certain things women can and can’t do, even if we don’t say that consciously, by the lack of role models and the lack of diversity in the roles that they can do.
Women can lead student movement as Toni Pearce has shown. They can also contribute to policy, organisation and outreach, there’s a whole range of things that we can do, and oddly enough when we do them, we can do them well. So actually, it’s what we’re missing out on when we don’t have those role models.
Female student union presidents and officers are often underrepresented although last year around a third were women. Is it encouraging that more young women are seeking and gaining positions of responsibility?
I’m pleased to see that women are taking on more responsibility in the student union movement. For me that’s not just a job for women, it’s a job for all of us who care about having a more diverse student body because of the difference it will make to the way in which the student body works with higher education.
To ask what are the barriers and to not place all the onus on young women themselves to come forward. It’s a bit like my place of work. We’ll fight as hard as we can to represent but at some point if you’re facing a barrier which is external, which is people’s attitudes and expectations then they need to change rather than us.
What do you think the student movement in general can do to change this trend?
First and foremost, I think the student union movement needs to get angry because you can get angry on who you’re missing out on by not having a more diverse student body. The women whose potential, whose contribution is going untapped to what you’re doing because actually you just haven’t dealt with some of those attitudes, some of those cultures and it will take too long to wait and to ask nicely. Sometimes you have to say to people, this is going to change.
We’re going to set a deadline for when this change is going to happen and if it doesn’t happen, then we’ll look at more intervention. Now actually, I think women and men in the movement actually are up for that challenge. We’ve just got to say it matters and that’s the first thing you’ve got to do. Say, we’re not going to wait another ten, twenty years to maybe get to 30 per cent or 40 per cent. We need to get to 50/50 because that’s the kind of society we are and that’s the kind of progress we need to make.
NUS is working on tackling lad culture and making sure students unions don’t have an onus on that. Do you think things like Page 3 and lads mags can hold women back?
Absolutely, the culture in which we live in, the way in which women are objectified, the way in which women are not pictured is just as important as the way in which they are pictured. So if the only way in which you see women is Page 3 or lad mags or if you see a very narrow vision of what women are capable of and they’re judged solely by their looks rather than a whole range of things they can contribute, then oddly enough, that’s all people think that women are worth for.
So of course, we have to change that culture. I’m very strong that actually it’s sometimes the little things that add up to the big things. I was very involved in the campaign around making sure that women are represented on our currency. Really, that shouldn’t be a big deal. We represent people on our currency to commemorate the contribution they’ve made to our history and to say in the future, other people can make that contribution too, isn’t that great? And the idea that we wouldn’t even have one woman on that currency is such a small thing; you might have then seen it caused a huge furore when we actually won that campaign.
That’s just a little thing, but the little things help make the big things more palatable. So if we don’t see women pictured in our history, if we don’t celebrate the Rosalind Franklins or Mary Seacoles of our world, then it’s kind of ok to say, well they don’t play a full role so violence is ok, inequality is ok. So absolutely, we have to tackle both of those structural challenges and that is where the law comes in and where intervention comes in and also that culture.
I’m really proud to be a part of Everyday Sexism and projects like No More Page 3 and things like that because what they’re doing is giving a voice to that alternative perspective and saying, see it from our side, see what we see when you look at those things and then tell us if that’s really the kind of society you want to live in. I keep saying that a lot of men who do support and do fight back say, well, welcome to the 21st century because you know what? When we do work in a different way, it’s better for both of us.
Do you think that there are still a lot of myths and misinformation about feminism that need to be busted? Is there maybe a preconception that it is something they don’t identify with?
First and foremost, the biggest myth we need to bust about feminism is that it’s about women. It’s not, it’s about power. It’s about the fact that power is unequally distributed in our society and all too often it’s women that miss out as a result. This isn’t about women. This isn’t about if you have one or two women in a room. It’s a really powerful study that shows if you have a room with 20 per cent of it women, men think it’s fifty per cent.
Feminism is about that imbalance in power. It’s about what happens when you don’t have that other 30 per cent there, when you don’t have an equal society, what you miss out on. So we absolutely have to bust that myth that it’s about a tick box culture of having one or two women in a room or that somehow you’re being indulged as a woman to be there, rather than it recognising that actually we miss out if you’re not being there. I was selected on an all-woman shortlist.
I was so proud to be selected on an all-woman shortlist. If you’d have met the other women I was standing against, they were really powerful, really difficult people to beat in a contest. The idea that somehow that was an easy ride is the kind of myth we have to bust and it’s the same across society, in the way that we have to bust the myth that it’s kind of ok for people to have these images about women that it’s somehow we’ve just got to put up with it and we’ve got to cope with it.
We might feel uncomfortable. You know, I’ve got Page 3 in my workplace canteen, it’s awkward, it makes you feel uncomfortable. I don’t see why we should have to put up with that. We’re making law here, we’re not trying to make men laugh.
Do you think there’s anything in particular male students can do to support feminism?
Men can be feminist too, because feminism isn’t about women, it’s about power, it’s about recognising that unequal societies don’t do as well as more equal societies. It’s in everyone’s interest to open up society to get all those different backgrounds, so actually for men I say, this is in your self-interest that we get this right and sometimes in our debates in the past we haven’t acknowledged that.
Sometimes we’ve felt that men can’t be part of saying we want to live in a different society, now I welcome men who do that. What I don’t welcome is men who want to tell me what that different society looks like because I’m sick of women being told what to do, it’s about all of us being able to have an equal say.
What would you say to any young women who might be entering the workplace who are told, sexism is just something you have to put up with?
The honest reality is that people are going to say things like that to women. I’ve always been told, nobody likes a clever woman. I always think, one of things we need to do is change that culture, because I meet lots of amazingly clever young women and I really like them. It is important to acknowledge that this is still going on, we are in an 80/20 society, we’ve made some strides and there are huge differences, huge opportunities beginning to open up for women.
But there are also inequalities between women as well and we’re a long way away from an equal society. So part of that is by having a process where if you come forward and you say, look, this is happening to me, it gets treated seriously and people support you.
That’s why the Everyday Sexism project is so important, it’s not just that people are coming forward, their stories about that every day inequalities, every day insults, the hassle you get, the grief that you get, the prejudice you have to deal with, it’s a fact that other people are reaching out and saying ‘that’s rubbish, you shouldn’t have to deal with that, let’s stand up and say we want to live in a different world’. So one of the things for all of us is to say solidarity matters too.
What message might you have for young women starting in university who maybe feel that they’re not that politically active and that doesn’t matter to them?
One of the things I’m in awe of is the new resurgence of young feminist activism because I feel that my generation of feminists kind of dropped the ball. We felt that our mums and our dads and our grandfathers had all kind of fought these battles and that equality was inevitable. It’s not inevitable.
So actually, unless we speak up, some of the rights that we’ve fought for for so long… Why have we suddenly started having debates about what is a legitimate rape or not? That was a debate I thought we’d consigned to history. They come back and some of those new forms of inequality start appearing, so the ways in which women are expected to behave and be seen, only if we keep standing up and speaking out are we actually going to make that difference.
The challenge for all of us is across those generations and across the sexists to say we want a different kind of society, but the idea that we can opt out of it and there won’t be any consequences? I think we’re seeing the problem with that kind of attitude and I blame my generation and I know I’ve got my responsibility to play in that but actually I want to work with the younger and older generation of feminist to get that right too.
Who is your role model?
There are a number of women who I feel really passionate about. There was a fantastic woman in Walthamstow called Vi Smith, sadly she’s now died. She was one of the first women on the council, she was a real dragon and she hated Clem Atlee because Clem Atlee never delivered leaflets, which is a really good testament that if you forgot the basics in your local community, woe betide you.
But there are also some fantastic women, I had the opportunity to meet Barbara Castle before she died as well, she was an amazing woman to meet and you think how much harder it was for them to get through some of the things we’re trying to do now. So you can see there’s progress that’s been made, I just want to say that people like Lucy Holmes, and Laura Bates, Caroline Criado-Perez who started the campaign on banknotes really inspire me too and they remind me that I’m getting old and frightened and actually one of the things about young women campaigners is that they’ve got so much energy that I really am humbled to work with them so they’re for me actually role models about how I need to get back into that frame of mind, they make me feel lazy.
I recognise the challenge of mentoring and leadership and support for young women to come forward, that’s why I’m working with organisations like 50 Foot Woman and Movement for Change to put in place programmes to create what I ‘m calling Circular Firing Up Squads, rather than circular firing squads, of women supporting other women to take on different roles of leadership and those different steps of participation because actually you don’t just jump into a role straight away, my own experience was working with people who encouraged and inspired me and I want to try and do the same so I think it’s fantastic that NUS are doing this work on Women in Leadership and I’d like to get them involved in that project too.