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Jo Swinson takes part in International Men’s Day debate

November 16, 2017 12:48 PM
By Caron Lindsay | in Liberal Democrat Voice

Jo Swinson (Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)On Tuesday, MPs debated International Men's Day. Our participant in that debate was Jo Swinson. She would not ever be so shameless as to give a massive plug for her book, Equal Power, which is due out in February, but she used a lot of her speech to talk about how gender equality benefits both men and women. Men face pressures from our unequal world, she said, in mental health, employment, expectations of being the bread winner, of not showing emotion. She talked about the importance of both parents' roles in children's lives.

Here is her speech:

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this important debate, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on introducing it and all Members who supported the subject being heard. It is the first time during which I have been an MP that we have had a debate on International Men's Day. I was not in Parliament for the previous two occasions, so I am delighted to be able to take part. I hope this debate will become a firm annual fixture in the Commons, perhaps even taking place in the main Chamber in future years. These issues are important and deserve to be properly explored.

Inequality is endemic right across society. The stereotypes, assumptions and rigid constraints on behaviour affect both men and women, girls and boys, but our focus is often on how women and girls lose out from gender inequality. It is right that we explore those issues, but as we have already heard and will explore in the debate, it is absolutely the case that men and boys are also negatively affected by gender inequality. That is why gender equality is good for everyone. Sometimes in the media these issues are portrayed as men pitted against women, as if there is some battle of the sexes going on. In fact a world that is more gender equal would be good for everyone, and it is one that we should be able to join forces to create.

Health care, particularly mental health for men and boys, is a huge issue. Such problems can start very early on. In the opening speech, we heard statistics about how men are more likely to commit suicide, and indeed that is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45. That prompts us as a society to take a step back and consider what services we provide for men who find themselves in trouble. There is also an element of stigma, which we are starting to break down. In recent years there has been a welcome move towards talking more openly about mental health, and I know that hon. Members from across the House have spoken movingly in the Chamber about their own battles with mental health problems. That is to be welcomed, but no one would suggest that we are there yet when it comes to breaking down that stigma.

Importantly, we must also ensure that the services are there. For too long, mental health has been the Cinderella of the health service. It should be given parity with physical health problems, but mental health provision for individuals who need that support does not yet exist in our communities. Given that it is more difficult for men to seek help in the first place, if those support services are not there when they do, that is a double whammy.

In my constituency I am aware of an interesting project that has been set up specifically to help men with mental health difficulties. It is called Brothers in Arms, and when I spoke to its founders I was interested to hear their concern that not enough specialist services cater specifically for men and recognise some of the difficulties that men might have in coming forward. Such organisations-I know there are many others, particularly south of the border-and many strong campaigners and advocates are raising these issues and putting them on the agenda, but we must ensure that that is supported and progress accelerated.

It is important that services recognise all the different reasons why that might be and the intersectionality of the different challenges that people face. I am sure that we all have stories from our own constituencies of services that are run by excellent individuals, some of whom might be paid, but many of whom volunteer. That is to be supported, but resource is also vital.

When considering why it is difficult for men to come forward, we need to start early and consider the stereotypes that are placed on boys from the earliest months and years of their lives. We say things like, "Boys will be boys," or "Boys don't cry," and people get told to "man up", as if showing emotion is a sign of weakness. The hon. Member for Stafford spoke about a masculine gold standard and the pressure to be the breadwinner. Obviously, anybody who loses their job will be thinking from a practical perspective about how they will pay the bills, but if layered on top of that is the view that because of their gender it is specifically their job to get the money to pay those bills, that adds a layer of additional pressure. It is 2017 and we should be able to share that responsibility. Different couples will have different ways of working out who might work, or whether both will be working, but we are not in the 1950s and we do not need to cling to the old stereotypes that state that it is always the job of the man in a heterosexual couple to go out and be the breadwinner. Such stereotypes lead to far too many men suffering in silence and are really damaging for boys and young men.

Over the summer there was a fascinating television programme on the BBC that some hon. Members might have seen. It was called, "No More Boys and Girls", and it went into a school and spoke to seven-year-olds. It explored gender issues and how, even at that early age, they were already being embedded. In addition to the stuff about girls lacking confidence and underestimating their abilities, one thing that struck me was a test to understand where boys and girls stood on different issues. They asked them how many words they could use to describe different emotions, and the boys had far fewer words than the girls-there was a really marked difference between the boys and girls-with one exception: the boys had plenty of words to describe the emotion of anger. Consider what that says about seven-year-olds. It shows how such differences are starting early.

We must put in place mental health services, but we must also consider how we are parenting and the messages that young children receive which, I would argue, are even more gendered now than they were when I was growing up in the 1980s. Today it is much more segmented: pink for the girls and dark sludge colours for the boys. As the mother of a young boy, I go to buy clothes and toys, and it is clear what is supposed to be for girls and what is for boys. It is as if liking rainbows and butterflies excludes liking buses and dinosaurs. My nieces love dinosaurs, and my little boy loves butterflies. Why should we say to children, "This is only for one gender or another"? It starts with that stuff, which some people say does not matter, but it means that girls and boys are told what their role is very early on. When they read books they see that more of the characters who go to work and have a job are boys and men, and that is one reason why boys and young men grow up thinking that it is their job to be the breadwinner, and the pressure is piled on.

We should be as worried about the gender gap in education, in schools, as we are about it in the workplace. They are different gender gaps. In education, we should be just as worried about the fact that boys are reading less than girls-not only fewer books, but reading less thoroughly-as we should be about the fact that girls tend to drop out of science or physical education in their teenage years.

The flipside of having roles such as breadwinner and so on is how we value men's role as fathers in our society, because that incredibly important role has often been dismissed and undermined. Look at some of the stereotypes in popular culture, such as the Homer Simpson stereotype of dads being a bit hapless and not up to the job. Men are just as capable as women at being parents. There is a myth that somehow women are naturally better at parenting but-breastfeeding aside-there is nothing that women do as parents that men cannot do. It is not about women being naturally better at it; it is who spends more time doing it. Practice makes-well, perhaps not quite perfect as I do not think perfect parenting exists, but it is about experimenting, practice and learning, and we should recognise the role that men play.

Why is it so important that men are involved as fathers? We know that it is good for children because they do better with social and language skills, and their mental health is better if their fathers are actively involved. Amazingly, the intensive involvement of a father is a better predictor of whether a child will have high academic achievement than their income-it is that important to a child's development. It is also good for men, who are happier, healthier, more productive at work and live longer if they are involved fathers and close to their children.

Finally, we must break down the cultural barriers. When I was a Minister I was delighted to introduce shared parental leave-that is my proudest achievement from my time in government, as it helps parents to choose how to spend time looking after their children. That was a great first step, but it needs to be built on. A review is due next year, and we must consider how shared parental leave can be extended to all parents, such as the self-employed, and at how we can have more dedicated time for fathers. We must also look again at pay, to make it easier for dads to take up that leave. I have been delighted to contribute to this debate, and I am interested to hear what other Members have to say.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings