The defender of feminism who is taking on the City

EVEN before parliament was dissolved last week, there was a strange end-of-an-era feeling hanging over the House of Commons. More than 150 MPs are standing down, many of them discredited by the expenses scandal, while a tired Labour government is limping towards the end of its third term with little in the way of new ideas. The Queen’s Speech that laid out the government’s legislative agenda in November was the shortest on record, taking just seven-and-a-half minutes to read aloud. It’s as though everyone has agreed that it’s time to give up.

But nobody has told Harriet Harman. When we meet in her huge Commons office behind the speaker’s chair, she is full of beans, while her staff seem impossibly busy. As Leader of the House, she was responsible for pushing through the remainder of the government’s legislative programme before Westminster shut up shop. But she will have felt a moment of personal pride when the Equality Bill she masterminded passed into law with few amendments.

By far the government’s most radical bill, it forces businesses and institutions to catch up with what Harman calls a “massive social revolution” in attitudes. Huge and sprawling, it replaces dozens of other bills and aims to address every social ill, from the gender pay gap to homophobic hatred. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted criticism from virtually every quarter: the Pope urged bishops to fight it with “missionary zeal”; Lord Mandelson believes it will burden businesses with unnecessary red tape; and many in the Labour party say it will alienate white, working class men – the very people the party was founded for.

The bill includes laws designed to tackle gender inequality in the City, an issue that has always been close to Harman’s heart. “If you look at the boards of top companies, at the chief executives and so on, it’s still very much women doing all the work and men at the top,” she says, peering over a pair of bright magenta glasses in a headteacher-like way. “I think that it’s a throwback to the days when men were expected to go out to work and women stayed at home. In fact, there’s been a massive social revolution, and the financial services industry along with other sectors just hasn’t yet caught up.”

To illustrate her point, Harman points to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that found women working in financial services receive on average 80 per cent less in annual bonuses than men – £2,875 compared to £14,554 (although this calculation includes low and middle ranking, customer-facing staff). In a bid to counter this, the Equality Bill will force businesses with more than 250 employees to publish a public pay audit that shows any gender divide. And there will be new legislation that makes it legal for firms to use so-called “positive discrimination”. “For the first time, we will allow employers to say, ‘I’ve got an all-male board – I need to have some women. This is unbalanced, so the next person I’m going to put on this board will be a woman’.” Meanwhile, the Financial Reporting Council will ask companies to recruit women to their boards, and force them to provide a written explanation if they fail to do so.

Despite huge hostility to this kind of social engineering, Harman is convinced that the public is behind her. She points to a poll commissioned by the Government Equalities Office which backs up her opinion; it found that 68 per cent of men and 78 per cent of women think both sexes should have an equal say over business decisions. “The public are massively against men-only institutions and men-only decision making – and that includes men. It’s really quite interesting how the City and captains of industry are lagging behind.”

Most chief executives agree that the dearth of women in business is a problem, but they say that Harman’s legislation compounds the problem. One FTSE 100 chief executive that asked not to be named points to America, where there is much less discrimination legislation but a far greater proportion of women in top jobs. There, high-flying women are expected to return to work within weeks of giving birth, while the idea of a female executive being able to work flexible hours to fit in with the school holidays is laughable.

Unsurprisingly, Harman doesn’t concur. “I don’t agree with the American approach,” she says. “Yes, you can compete on equal terms – but you have to do it like a man. I think we take a more European approach: that means giving women time off in the school holidays, it means time off when the baby’s born. We’ve all got an investment in making sure that children are well brought up. And if that means employers have to be flexible about the way they manage the women, the mothers in their workforce, that’s what they’re going to have to do.” It’s a brand of feminism that thinks women shouldn’t have to act like men, that they should be allowed a period as a stay-at-home mother without impeding their access to the most distinguished jobs. Harman thinks businesseses should change for women – not the other way round.

The Tories, desperate to prove their equality credentials, are unlikely to reverse any of the laws in the Equality Bill. But Harman is convinced that they’re heretics that don’t subscribe to her agenda. “They’ve never argued or stood up for women trying to balance work and home,” she says. “Theresa May, the shadow equalities minister, has spent ten years chasing me around TV studios accusing me of political correctness. Now David Cameron is trying to pretend they’ve changed.”

If Cameron becomes Prime Minister after the election, as opinion polls suggest, Harman will remain an important voice in the defeated Labour party. Tellingly, when she won the deputy leadership contest in 2007, it was Labour party members – not MPs or the unions – who gave her the votes she needed. That suggests she still energises the party base. And whatever you think of her policies, you can’t say the same about most of her colleagues. Even if Harman doesn’t run for the leadership (and many think she will), we haven’t heard the last of her.

Age: 59

Marital Status: Married with two sons and one daughter.

Education: Politics degree from York University and qualified as a solicitor.

Work Experience: 1974 solicitor at Brent Law; 1978 legal officer at Liberty; 1982 elected as MP for Peckham; 1984 appointed as shadow minister for social services; 1993 elected to the National Executive Committee; 1997 appointed secretary of state for social security; 2001 solicitor general; 2007 deputy leader of the Labour party. Recently appointed as chair of the Labour party, leader of the House of Commons, secretary of state for equalities, minister for women and Lord Privy Seal.