Siân Gwenllian AM
This year’s International Women’s Day takes on a particular significance, arriving as it does in the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the subsequent #MeToo campaign which has changed gender politics forever – and for the better.
What the last months have demonstrated is that women are no longer willing to tolerate sexual harassment, violence, sexism and inequality.
My generation has tried to challenge attitudes and inequalities but with limited success. On the whole, we have been guilty of passively accepting behaviours and established social norms even in the knowledge that they were generating profound inequalities.
We couldn’t sum up enough confidence and courage to challenge the precise problems that were keeping us back. The irony is clear.
But change is happening and the incredible momentum and sense of power created by the #MeToo campaign are set to bring about lasting change.
Young women and young men are challenging previously accepted behaviours. They are challenging stereotypes. They are challenging inequalities.
The core feminist message that each one of us is different and unique, and that each one of us should be allowed to grow to our full potential, freed from irrelevant stereotypical gender constraints is finally being heard.
In Wales, the time is ripe to talk about gender inequality and the behavioural and institutional changes that need to happen.
We need a Welsh Ministry for Women to drive forward a National Women’s Action Plan. To drive forward the change that has to happen – and that has accelerated with #MeToo.
And let’s have a National Conversation about sexual harassment. The tragic death of Carl Sargeant which followed allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women and his subsequent sacking from Government may be making it difficult for Assembly Members to want to broach the topic.
But whatever happened, or didn’t happen in this particular case, should not deter us from having that much needed national discussion.
To inform the debate, I would advocate a National Survey about what constitutes sexual harassment, why it’s unacceptable and how to challenge inappropriate behaviours as individuals and collectively as a society.
To accept sexual harassment as normal behaviour is to perpetuate the gender imbalance that exists throughout Welsh life.
Many of us have campaigned for many years to end violence against women and domestic abuse but regrettably, the incidences are on the increase.
Over one in four women in Wales and England (27%) suffer domestic abuse during their lives compared to 13% of men. Tackling the problem must include creating behavioural change – that is why healthy relationships education is crucial.
So today I call on the Welsh Government to stop dithering and to take firm steps to introduce comprehensive sex and healthy relationships education into our schools as soon as possible – before the changes to the Welsh curriculum come into play.
The gender pay gap is another indication of why change is needed. The pay gap stands at around 15% in Wales, rising to 25% in some parts of the country.
The pay gap is not about individual discrimination but it does indicate an imbalance in the workplace – with men still in the majority when it comes to the high earners and women are the lowest paid at the bottom of the pay pyramid.
Again, large behavioural shifts are needed to create workplace equality.
Leading the way
There are immediate, practical steps that can be taken to redress the balance and to create a more gender equal nation, for the benefit of all.
I believe that we need to take positive action, which is within our gift, to create equal representation between women and men as elected representatives.
How can it be right that half the population is so massively under-represented in public life? Only 27% of councillors are women!
The other changes that are needed would flow more effectively if there was equal gender balance in the decision-making roles in our nation.
In the National Assembly, we have an ideal opportunity to lead the way. The Specialist Panel on Assembly Reform advocates making it mandatory for political parties to choose equal numbers of male and female candidates.
We can discuss which precise mechanisms are needed – be it quotas or pairing for example, but positive discrimination is needed if we are to rid ourselves of generations of gender imbalance.
Having equality of representation would naturally lead to equalities in other areas of life – helping us achieve cultural and behavioural change.
Helping us create a Wales where sexual harassment and domestic abuse is outlawed, where workplace and pay inequalities are not tolerated and where women and men can follow their ambitions and dreams, free of the constraints of the gender straight – jackets imposed on us for far too long.