Jo Swinson: "As a nation, we've regressed"

Jo Swinson brought us shared parental leave and gender pay gap reporting. The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats shares her views on Brexit, battles and breaking the mould.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 31 May 2019

Photography: Julian Dodd

On her childhood:

My parents encouraged me to think I could do anything: "The world is your oyster. Just get out there and ask questions." My childhood was a mix of ballet classes and debating society. I liked arguing. As a teenager, I wanted to be an author. Later on, inspired by Young Enterprise and the Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, I decided I wanted to go into business. Throughout my 1980s childhood, it didn’t cross my mind that it was unusual for a woman to be a prime minister – the very act of being the first woman to lead the UK government is one of Margaret Thatcher’s most powerful legacies.

On going into politics:

I joined the Lib Dem party at the Freshers’ Fair at the London School of Economics. The summer after my first year, having just been dumped by my boyfriend, I signed up to Activate, a residential weekend in the Peak District to learn all about political campaigning. I loved it and my participation snowballed from there. I was elected to Westminster when I was 25; I was Britain’s youngest MP. When I was out and about in Parliament, people would ask me who I worked for. I’d say: "The 70,000 people in East Dunbartonshire." They’d look at me in surprise – they had automatically assumed I was a private secretary. People underestimate young women.

On fighting battles:

As Minister for Women and Equalities, I introduced shared parental leave, extended flexible working rights and won government support to bring in gender pay gap reporting. I’m not going to lie: it was a constant battle. The Department for Business had a budget of £26bn and 800 civil servants in one building alone, with thousands more across partner organisations. The Government Equalities Office, meanwhile, had less than £20m, and its 100 staff were cut to 50. My Conservative coalition partners viewed gender pay gap reporting like some toxic chemical to be avoided at all costs. When we finally secured government agreement in February 2015 – after years of stalemate – I actually jumped for joy.

On gender inequality:

Gender inequality is hard to tackle because it’s often invisible. In the workplace, the playing field is still far from level. American author Catherine Nichols decided to test gender biases. She sent the opening pages of her new novel to 50 publishing agents: only two wrote back to request a manuscript. She sent the same pages to another 50 publishing agents, this time using the pseudonym George Leyer, and received 17 manuscript requests. If you’re a man (particularly a white, middle-class man) there is an assumed competence. You see that all the time in politics. Remember Diane Abbott’s error-strewn interview about Labour’s policing policy last year? She got hauled over the coals for that. Jeremy Corbyn had an excruciating interview with Woman’s Hour just a few weeks later where he struggled to say how much his flagship childcare policy would cost – but he didn’t receive anywhere near the same level of criticism.

On challenging the status quo:

Whatever our age or status, we all have the power to create change. Look at Dame Helena Morrissey, who used her time to start the 30% Club to get more women on boards. Or 17-year-old student Jessy McCabe, who launched an online campaign calling for better female representation on her A-level music course – and got one of Britain’s biggest exam boards to change the syllabus to include female composers.

On her worst day at work:

I lost my seat in May 2015. I’d been an MP for 10 years. My husband [Duncan Hames, former MP for Chippenham] lost his seat at the same time; that was a grim day in our house but at least we could provide mutual support! I set up my own consulting business, which was a steep learning curve, then returned to Westminster last year. I’m probably a better MP for it. If you learn from a setback, dust yourself off and get back on the horse, you’ll gallop out stronger.  

On Brexit:

I’m worried about Brexit and what caused it. There’s a real division in our society. Values I took for granted in the 1990s – anti-racism, anti-sexism – are all up for grabs again. As a nation, we’ve regressed. At the moment, we have access to the single market, we’re part of the customs union and we don’t have tariff or regulatory barriers. That’s good for business. That’s good for jobs. That’s what’s at risk.

On staying sane:

I stay sane by reading and running. Going out for a jog isn’t easy when you have two small kids and a big job, but it gives my mind a chance to wander and work through any knotty problems that are worrying me. And, without fail, I write a to-do list every evening before bed.

Jo Swinson was interviewed by Kate Bassett at Management Today’s Inspiring Women in Business conference in November.

"Good leaders need to be passionate about winning and not afraid of losing." Dame Cilla Snowball @WomenEqualitieswill be sharing her career journey, her tips on "kind leadership" and how she’s paving the way for more women in positions of power. Book your tickets to #IWIBEdinburgh https://bit.ly/2DDQa2Q  @AccentureUK  @EdinChamber  @WEScotland

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