Good things, in the name of equality, have happened recently in Liverpool. Pride, for example, was a marvellous success, with rainbow confetti raining down, even on the few who tried to counter-protest against equal love. We have the likes of The Women’s Organisation and Liverpool Girl Geeks who are upending traditional roles for women in business and technology. At the women’s football European Championships, England might not have made it to the final, but Birkenhead’s Jodie Taylor won the golden boot and gave a fabulous account of her skill on the ball.
But it was not such a great moment in June this year, when the shiny new Liverpool City Region Combined Authority met for the first time in, with all its members being men, and not a single woman. How did this happen? Well, like much in politics now, it was not intended to be this way. The problem lies with the constitution of the city region authority which states that the voting members of that authority are, by default, the leaders of the constituent councils.
Merseyside boroughs, and the City Council, all happen to be led by men.
So, there you have it: a city region council of men. A bizarre situation, and one that left many wondering how this could have happened in what is otherwise a progressive place.
Yet it doesn’t need to be this way. The current mayor of the city region – Steve Rotheram – has chosen to co-opt women onto the authority. And constitutions can be changed. And what’s more, all that needs to happen is for more local authorities to be run by women, and the problem will be resolved.
The question is, why does it matter?
I accept, in reading this, that there will be people who think ‘I honestly don’t care if our political leaders are men or women’; there may well even be people reading this who think ‘If they do a good job, does it matter?’
And, as a politician myself, fighting all that is being done by our female Prime Minister nationally, on the face of it, I understand why anyone might think that. Having women at the top alone doesn’t change the world for the vast majority, if that woman is only interested in the needs of the few.
This is what is often misunderstood about feminism and the change required in Britain. It is not the person at the top that matters alone. It is the attitude of that person to shifting society as a whole.
After all, from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, Britain has had a range of female leaders. But that is not the mark of victory. It is whether women can rip up the rules – written and unwritten, seen and unseen – that stop them becoming leaders in whatever part of life they wish to.
The fact is, that the all-male city region authority was a problem because it demonstrated that those rules – some unwritten, some we are not even consciously aware of – still exist. It demonstrated that, by default, we have ended up with six male leaders of local authorities and no women. It showed that there is some kind of unconscious bias that has to be consciously dismantled.
Unconscious bias exists against all kinds of people in society. It can be based on perceived class, gender, sexuality, disability, and a whole host of other prejudices. In Merseyside, the inequality caused by misperception, or stereotyping, is a thing we well understand. Travel elsewhere in the UK and people still have opinions about us – good or bad – about where we are from. We know the damage that can do.
We should be well placed, then, to tackle head-on the unconscious bias against women and others within our city region. Because we know the frustration of struggling to be heard over the din of other people’s preconceived ideas, we should be able to stand back and listen to those who have not always had a fair shot at success.
In practice, this means more of two things. Firstly, changing the rules that exist that hold women back. Why shouldn’t the city region authority decide for itself that it will be run by equal numbers of men and women? Change the rules, and demonstrate that the default all-male leadership won’t just be accepted as the norm.
Secondly, more days like Pride are necessary, where we as a city region outwardly, unashamedly, loudly and clearly celebrate equality. These days, where bias and prejudice exist, it’s often not out of a conscious desire to judge others: giving space in the city for challenging the weight of past discrimination is the right thing to do. For those still harbouring thoughtless prejudice, it is reason to think again. For those who have felt the sting of that prejudice, it is a chance to feel valued and loved. Either way, it is a crucial part of how change happens.