General Election 2015: Lib Dems' Jo Swinson 'Unconscious Bias Is The Silent Glass Ceiling'

Yahoo's exclusive interview with the East Dunbartonshire candidate explores the real reasons behind gender inequality in the workplace

Nine million women didn’t vote in the last General Election. With just a few days until Britain chooses the next Prime Minister, Yahoo is sitting down with female candidates from each of the main parties to talk about why women in the UK are feeling so disillusioned with politics and what their party plans to do about it. This week, Liberal Democrat candidate for East Dunbartonshire, Jo Swinson.

Being elected at the ripe old age of 25, Jo Swinson probably isn’t the candidate to ask about disillusioned young British voters.

Jo Swinson claims confidence is the main reason behind the lack of female voters in the UK [Rex]
Jo Swinson claims confidence is the main reason behind the lack of female voters in the UK [Rex]

The incumbent Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire in the Glasgow suburbs has held her seat for the last 10 years, taking her to Westminster after 2010’s coalition where she rose quickly from being Nick Clegg’s private secretary to the junior minister for employment relations and equality.

However, ask the now 35-year-old why British women are shying away from the world of politics and Swinson has a few strong theories.

“Politics looks very male,” she told us. “If you look at the televised debates during the last election we had all male candidates and they were all moderated by men. This time around we’ve had female leaders and even female moderators, which goes some way to help.”

This lack of female role models in politics for women to relate and look up to has roots in how we raise our daughters, claims Swinson.

“One of the biggest barriers that I come across time and time again with women is confidence,” she says.

“It’s not just in politics. I see it when I talk to a group of 10-year-olds in a primary school. I talk about my job and ask if they have any questions. Nine times out of 10 the first one to put their hand up will be one of the boys.”

'If girls are less likely than boys to put themselves forward at school that stays with them' [Rex]
'If girls are less likely than boys to put themselves forward at school that stays with them' [Rex]

“More so than other careers, in politics you have to put yourself forwards – you’re literally asking the public to vote for you. If girls are less likely than boys to put themselves forward at school then that stays with them as they get older and we’re left with fewer female candidates. It has nothing to do with women being innately less interested in politics.”

This is a familiar scenario for any woman who was ever called bossy as a girl, but if this silencing through derision is the reason why we’ve only had one female prime minister in 294 years then surely it can also gone some way to explaining why nine million women failed to vote in 2010.

Each of parties have tried to engage these apathetic women, with varying degrees of success. Labour’s pink bus was deemed ‘patronising’ while the Conservatives decided a shopping trip was the best use of Home Secretary Theresa May’s time at a recent charity auction.

The idea of ‘women’s issues’ has become a familiar rhetoric as MPs desperately try to think of ways to get their female constituents into the polling booths come May 7. Childcare, domestic violence and the NHS are often presented as uniquely female areas of interest but Swinson claims gendering issues is actually part of the problem.

“There are some issues that tend to be of interest to one gender more than the other, like domestic violence, but that is also to do with the wider issues surrounding power in society.”

Jo has spent the coalition working as the junior minister for employment relations and equality [Rex]
Jo has spent the coalition working as the junior minister for employment relations and equality [Rex]

“Childcare is a perfect example – it should be an issue for both men and women but because of the way our society is constructed it does end up being more of a women’s issue.”

“If we continue to pigeon-hole it as a women’s issue, then we’re never going to break out of that cycle.”

At the end of 2013 the Lib Dems announced the new Shared Parental Leave law that came into effect last month, which enables new parents to share time off (up to 50 weeks) after the birth of their child with a view to challenging restrictive gender roles that keep women out of the workforce.

“Previously, we had a legal system that entrenched this view that maternity leave was just something for mums while Dad went out and brought home the bacon,” explains Swinson.

Giving fathers the opportunity to share childcare responsibilities in that first year doesn’t just help women get back into the workplace, it also has the potential to change the entire working landscape for men and women.

“When you have men taking time out of work for childcare responsibilities it starts to change the culture of the workplace itself – it’s no longer a gendered leave.”

Sharing those 50 weeks along with extending flexible working rights to all workers not just parents are key steps to take to make the working world more accessible for mothers wanting to get back into the labour market.

Swinson on the campaign trail with Miriam González Durántez, Nick Clegg's wife [Getty]
Swinson on the campaign trail with Miriam González Durántez, Nick Clegg's wife [Getty]

“Parents already had the right to ask for flexible working,” explains Swinson, “The idea of extending it to everyone is that it stops the practice being something that is stigmatized. Instead of flexible workers being seen as a ‘special case’, we’re changing how businesses operate to become more agile.

“Obviously it still has to work for the employer but if the flexible way of working becomes the default model, that will help women coming back into the workplace.”

Along with the Shared Parental Leave law, Swinson’s proudest achievement during the coalition was the passing of the Equal Pay Transparency law, which states that companies employing more than 250 people must publish their salaries in an effort to highlight the gender pay gap that exists in 2015.

“We called for this back in 2010 when the Equality Act passed but the Conservatives were against it”.

“Then right at the end of Government, I saw the opportunity to make it happen. I went to Nick Clegg and asked him: ‘Are you up for a fight with the Tories?’ and he said yes.”

But while the law, due to come into effect in April 2016, goes some way to closing that pay gap we’re far from gender equality in the work place.

“The causes of the pay gap are quite complex but can be broken down into three main components,” explains Swinson.

“About a third of it is to do with time out of the labour market to have children then returning to work in a less senior role or part-time, both of which are seen as less valuable.”

Jo campaigning alongside Charles Kennedy [Getty]
Jo campaigning alongside Charles Kennedy [Getty]

“There’s also occupational segregation. More women work in catering, retail and caring professions while more men are scientists, engineers and architects. This needs to be addressed at school level by getting girls to look at a wider range of subjects like Maths, IT, Physics and seeing these as exciting subjects and possible future careers. That’s not going to be solved overnight.”

“Finally, there is discrimination. Sometimes it is outright but more often it’s unconscious bias.”

Whether it’s senior men promoting junior male employees that remind them of themselves or men being able to negotiate higher salaries thanks to that inherent confidence that comes with being in a male dominated environment, unconscious bias is the silent glass ceiling that is keeping talented, ambitious women from getting those top jobs and the worst thing is that most companies don’t even know they’re doing it.

“There are businesses that are leading the way in terms of gender equality in the workplace but when they stop and look at what they’re paying their male and female employees they’re shocked to find this wage gap.”

“The introduction of Pay Transparency means the difficult questions will start getting asked and these companies will have to start answering them.”

Swinson won’t be drawn on making any predictions on the outcome of Thursday’s vote. But whether or not she is returning to Westminster, it’s clear that she and the Lib Dems still feel there is a way to go to achieve real gender equality here in the UK.

What do you think about gender inequality in the UK? Will it affect how you vote on Thursday? Let us know in the comments below.

[General Election 2015: Green's Amelia Womack Asks 'Why Should Women Earn Less But Pay More?']