A woman Prime Minister. So what?

Sam Smethers
Theresa May Succeeds David Cameron As The UK's New Prime Minister
What does it really mean to have a woman in Number 10? (Source: Getty)

Much has been made of the fact that we have our second women Prime Minister. But the question remains, what difference does it really make?

In my view her appointment has multiple significance and presents us with a major opportunity.

Firstly, it still has a huge symbolic value to see a woman running the country. The message that sends to women and girls that there should be no ceiling, no limits on your ambition is incredibly important and powerful. The photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon together was designed to send that strong message.

Secondly, look at the difference in style, tone and content that we are already seeing. May’s open, respectful engagement with the First Minister and then with Angela Merkel was refreshing to see.There is a clear sense of grown up politics. Women who, despite their differences, can do business together. And there were no egos in the room to get in the way.

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Theresa May’s first Prime Minister’s Questions was a major test for her. It’s the gladiatorial style of our politics which makes PMQs such a focal point. If she had failed then the commentators’ sharpened pencils would have been ready to question whether she was up to the job.

But the fact is she didn’t. She owned it and looked as if she had been in post for some time, not a mere week or so.

Another test of her premiership is the team she has assembled. On this we were disappointed that we didn’t see a significant increase in women in government at either cabinet or ministerial level.

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Instead it was basically a standstill line up in terms of numbers. That may in part be a function of the fact that just one in five Conservative MPs are women, so with 26 per cent of ministers and 34 per cent of cabinet ministers now women their representation in government is better than that on the back benches.

But there were a number of able women who, for whatever reason, were overlooked.

But the true test will be what a May government delivers for women. We recently launched our #FaceHerFuture campaign, supported by 15 other women’s organisations (and rising) to highlight the need to focus on the women’s agenda as we move forward and to ensure women’s voices are represented at the heart of the process.

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As a first step we need some reassurances that there will be no weakening of women’s rights either directly or indirectly as a result of Brexit. We must see a progressive agenda not one that seeks to turn the clock back. This includes a strategic focus on ending violence against women and girls (something that May herself championed at the Home Office); ensuring women are not hardest hit but any downturn (as we saw last time); tackling hate crime, particularly gender based hate crime against Muslim women and ensuring that migrant women already here can stay in the country.

We also need to see the gender pay gap reporting regulations implemented as planned. Closing the gender pay gap is key to using women’s skills and strengthening our economy. We mustn’t delay this important next step.

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Also long overdue is the introduction of age appropriate sex and relationships education in our schools to tackle the tide of gender-based bullying and sexual harassment to protect young women and address the casualization of violence that is increasingly normalised.

Early progress on these issues combined with a guarantee on women’s rights and we’re in business.