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Shortlists and Privilege

March 15, 2016 2:49 PM
By Helen Belcher in Liberal Democrat Voice

Helen BelcherOn Sunday, Conference voted for all-women shortlists. As part of the debate, I gave a speech outlining how my experience showed that lots of men simply aren't aware of the privilege they have. I was surprised that this speech would immediately precede the rare event of a leader's speech in a debate. Tim - I hope I set them up all right for you!

For the first 40 years of my life I lived as male. Transitioning to female in 2004, and starting my own software company at the same time, showed me what I had anticipated - that I had to work much harder to be treated as worth listening to. It didn't come as a shock to me, as I'd observed this since childhood - in fact, it was one of the reasons I used to delay transition. But I know other trans women who have been surprised by this side-effect.

A few years ago, my sales director and I were discussing my experiences of gender transition. He was genuinely surprised when I explained how I felt I was now perceived in meetings, such as the one we had just left. However, in subsequent meetings, he found he also noticed it. People get used to privilege, and if you've always had it, you won't notice until it's gone.

Having campaigned on equalities issues for a number of years now, I know that success is measured in terms of outcomes, not in terms of inputs. If people need to see over a tall fence, you need to give each person an appropriately sized box to stand on. Giving everyone the same-sized box could mean that some people still won't be able to see over the fence. It's not about tokenism, it's about opportunity. It's exactly the same argument used to support Pupil Premium.

In my speech I also outlined the effect that not having representation has. Basically it means that you rely on allies, and laws can (and do) get passed without informed scrutiny from those with first-hand experience. Government can rest easy because it won't have to look those affected in the eye. Don't get me wrong - I don't want to lose the amazing allies the trans communities have had within Parliament, but it would be even better still to have at least one openly (Lib Dem) trans parliamentarian, as long as we allow them the space to be expert in other areas too. And it should always be recognised that, like most things, gender is a spectrum, not a binary.

I'm relieved we are no longer being out-liberalled by the Church of England, who adopted all-women shortlists for the next few bishops. And I was surprised to see no mention of the all-men shortlists that must undoubtably have existed.

Note: you can view the debate here, about 44 minutes in. The agenda for the conference is here and the Conference Dailies which include the amendments for Sunday are here.

* Helen Belcher joined the Lib Dems after David Cameron's human rights speech in late May 2015. She's already stood in a town council by-election and chopped a large Tory majority to just 21.