Mother and child: Catherine Atkinson, Labour PPC for the Erewash speaks at the Labour Party Conference, 24 September. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How do we get questions of care up the political agenda, when carers are too knackered to complain?

The toll exerted by caring – and how little a capitalist society values such a vital activity – should be one of the key issues for feminism. 

Sometimes a sentence has to leave your mouth before you realise how true it is. The scene: a cramped seminar room in Manchester, where I was talking at a Labour Women’s Network event on participation in public life. We’d heard from at least a dozen female councillors about some of the challenges they faced, from flagrant sexism to subtle assumptions about their priorities and abilities. But one contribution stood out: a single mum who had become a councillor not long before. “Without my mum – and planning everything months in advance – I’d never cope,” she told me.

I sympathised, and found myself saying: “Of course, if I had kids, I wouldn’t be here.” It hit me with the force that only something truly obvious, something crushingly banal, can do. I can swan off to Television Centre on Sundays to give the hungover nation the dubious benefit of my wisdom because I don’t have a second job as a carer. I can say yes to that panel discussion or freelance piece because I arrive home from work and don’t immediately plunge into a maelstrom of story, bath and bedtime.

You might think it’s pretty embarrassing that this hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind before. I certainly do – it’s only now, past 30, staring into the nappy-filled abyss, that I have truly accepted into my heart that the oppression of women is based on the fact that they have the babies. Eliminate all the gropers, banish the pink plastic tat that passes for girls’ toys to the back of the cupboard, fill our screens with heroines . . . and none of this will solve the problem that bums need to be wiped, and it’s mostly women who do the wiping.

The toll exerted by caring – and how little a capitalist society values such a vital activity – should be one of the key issues for feminism. We know that caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, and not only when it comes to looking after children: three-quarters of those claiming a carer’s allowance (meaning they care 35-plus hours a week) are female. But the effect on men is not negligible: although they are less likely to have to give up work to do so, one in six men aged 50 to 64 is now a carer. (Among female baby boomers, it’s one in four.)

The vast amount of unpaid labour involved in raising children was a critical issue during the Second Wave of feminism – the wave whose activists many of today’s young radicals now deride as hopelessly bourgeois and dilettante. They wanted wages for housework, too, because women’s entry into the job market was restricted by all the unpaid work they were already doing at home. The Fourth (or is it Fifth?) Wave just isn’t that bolshie: we’ve swallowed the line that it’s your choice to have children, and therefore every negative consequence is your own fault, love.

Then again, maybe making this a “women’s issue” isn’t the right way to get it taken seriously. In a recent debate about the future of feminism in the New Republic – a kind of American sister magazine to the NS – its senior editor Judith Shulevitz argued that the whole movement needed a rebrand as “caregiverism”. We will not achieve the social and economic equality of the sexes “just by telling girls they, too, can be ambitious”, she said. “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.” I have particular sympathy with my American sisters in this: their country has no requirement for all employers to offer paid maternity leave; a quarter of all workers don’t get any paid holiday time, either.

How do we drive the issue of care to the top of the political agenda? Here’s the rub: the people most likely to speak eloquently about it are just too bloody busy to take part in public life. On 30 September, I spoke to Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Carlisle, a 42-year-old single mother called Lee Sherriff. Fighting a Conservative candidate with a majority of 853, she is likely to end up in parliament next year – even though, as a former shopworker, she always thought that “people like me don’t do this”.

Sherriff joined the Labour Party in May 2010, after a visit to the gym where she got into an argument with two men who supported the Conservatives. “I was like, ‘Are you mad?’ I argued with them for an hour, on the cross-trainer, going faster and faster. I thought: This is it, I have to do something . . . I couldn’t shout at the TV any more.” Like the councillor in Manchester, Sherriff manages with the help of her mum – and by emailing at 2am and sleeping only five hours a night. (In a rare display of tact, I don’t say: “Ooh, like Maggie!”)

The issue that brought Sherriff into politics was tax credits, introduced by Labour between 1999 and 2003. “When my marriage ended, it was a destructive thing for my kids, their dad going. But I could continue working. It just meant I knew that me and my kids wouldn’t live in poverty, that we could survive.” Because she could afford childcare, she could stay in work, and because she had an income, she managed to buy out her ex-husband’s share of the family home: “My kids didn’t have to leave the only house they’ve ever known.” And because the benefit was universal, Sherriff did not feel marked out and treated like a child (one of the unintended consequences of free school meals, and now Iain Duncan Smith’s wheeze of giving benefit claimants pre-paid cards). “It gave me dignity,” she says. “There’s stigma coming back about single mums – but you were getting the same as your neighbours who were a couple.”

For me, this is politics. Don’t you find it more engaging than macho willy-waving over deficit reduction targets or who landed the most sizzling zingers at Prime Minister’s Questions? We need to hear more from carers, and we need policies that give them a chance to speak and be heard. As Lee Sherriff put it to me: “Politics shouldn’t be about you, it should be with you.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA